A Conversation with Derrick Jackson for #BlackBirdersWeek

The Hog Island instructor, photographer, and journalist shares his experience as a Black birder working with puffins.

This week is #BlackBirdersWeek, a new initiative sparked by a racist incident last week in New York’s Central Park, with the aim to boost recognition and representation of Black people enjoying and studying the natural world.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Derrick Jackson, who is one of the pillars of Audubon’s Seabird Institute (formerly known as Project Puffin). As an instructor at Hog Island Audubon Camp’s Arts & Birding week, Derrick teaches photography, and has documented the Seabird Institute’s work with birds like Atlantic Puffins and Roseate Terns on a number of seabird islands.

Together with former Seabird Institute director Steve Kress, Derrick is the co-author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock, a former columnist at the Boston Globe, and currently a Fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists writing on energy, environmental justice and current governmental attacks on science.

In our conversation, Derrick talked not only about his passion for seabirds, but also the challenges he faces as a Black birder, including the micro-aggressions that he’s experienced in the birding community.

“When I give my puffin talks by myself without Steve, everybody applauds and say the puffins are cute,” Derrick said. “But there’s always a question that comes from the audience in the Q&A that’s like, ‘How did you get involved?’ And I know where that question is coming from. ‘How did a Black guy get involved in puffins?’”

Derrick connects the issues we’re facing in this moment of our country’s history, from the racist threat aimed at Christian Cooper in Central Park, to the Black Lives Matter protests going on around the country, as well as the disproportional impact of COVID-19 on people of color.

“Among the precipitating factors in the rage of people of color are the conditions that one is forced to live in. African-Americans and Latinos are much more likely to live near toxic facilities that contribute to comorbidities of asthma, heart disease, and lung ailments that makes folks more susceptible to COVID-19. If we’re really going to come to grips with this moment that we’re in—coronavirus, police injustice—we have to come to grips with the kind of conditions our nation allows—or forces—millions and millions of people to live in.”

Derrick calls on conservation organizations to make nature spaces more inclusive of people of color. To help achieve this goal, Derrick has set up a scholarship for educators of color to attend Hog Island programs.

“For any people who have power in conservation organizations, I really want to urge people to think about the long game. Many organizations have a week-long camp, or a day or weekend of taking ‘inner-city kids’ out and exposing them [to the outdoors]. I really want people to think about programs that […] expose not just one person [to the outdoors], but expose many people so that it grows and grows. The long game of really making sure that these are not momentary exposures, but that these are sustained exposures.”

To watch the full conversation, click on the video below.