Birding

‘Black Birders Week’ Promotes Diversity and Takes on Racism in the Outdoors

Sparked by a racist incident last week in Central Park, the new initiative aims to boost recognition and representation of Black people enjoying and studying the natural world.

Last Friday morning, four days after a video of a racist incident in New York’s Central Park swept across the internet, birder Corina Newsome posted a video to Twitter.

“For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us,” she said, standing before a backdrop of lush spring foliage. “Whether it be the way the media chooses to present who is the ‘outdoorsy’ type, or the racism Black people experience when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park. Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

With this speech, Newsome, a biology graduate student at Georgia Southern University who studies Seaside Sparrows, announced the first ever Black Birders Week. Starting Sunday and running through this Friday, Black Birders Week includes five days of virtual events (none are scheduled for Wednesday), with each day featuring its own theme and Twitter hashtag, allowing participants to connect with one another, post pictures, and ask questions from anywhere in the world. The organizers, a group of Black scientists, nature lovers, and friends, say this event will be the first of many—a springboard to shape a more diverse future for birding, conservation, and the natural sciences. 

The idea for the event grew out of a group chat with more than 100 Black outdoor enthusiasts. Newsome says one of the chat members suggested a social media push to highlight Black birders in response to the Central Park incident, which started when Christian Cooper, an avid birdwatcher who is Black, asked a white woman to put her dog on a leash as required by park rules. When the woman, Amy Cooper, declined, Christian Cooper began filming. The resulting video shows Amy Cooper warning she is going to tell police that “there’s an African American man threatening my life,” then calling 911 and again emphasizing the birder’s race. 

In just a couple of days, more than 30 people organized Black Birders Week via text, Zoom, shared documents, and volunteered time. Newsome announced the event on Twitter on Friday, as well as unveiling a new Twitter account, @BlackAFinSTEM, to unite and build a community of Black scientists. 

The first Black Birders Week started on Sunday amidst ongoing protests over police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on Monday. “We can’t even organize for one Black trauma before another one happens,” the group tweeted on Sunday, explaining that while the Central Park incident inspired Black Birders Week, it’s also a response to the recent killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

Earyn McGee birding. Photo: Zeina Peterson

“We all have this shared experience where we have to worry about going into the field,” says Earyn McGee, a herpetology Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona and Black Birders Week co-organizer. Prejudice might drive police or private property owners to be suspicious of or antagonistic toward Black scientists doing field work in normal clothes, putting them in danger, she says. McGee conducts research near the U.S.-Mexico border and worries about encountering U.S. Border Patrol on her own while searching for lizards. Some members of the group chat conduct field work not far from where Arbery was killed, in Georgia. “That could easily have been any one of us,” she says.

Black Birders Week and the new Twitter group have three main goals, says Newsome. The first is “to counter the narrative that the outdoors are not the place Black people should be,” she says. What happened to Christian Cooper in Central Park could easily deter a young Black person interested in natural science and conservation from pursing those interests, she says. Nature and the outdoors have historically been depicted as majority white spaces. By demonstrating that Black people enjoy these spaces too, Newsome and her collaborators hope to encourage emerging birders and scientists to pursue their passions. 

The second goal is to educate the birding and broader outdoor-loving community about the challenges Black birders specifically face. Black birders encounter overt hatred and racism in the field and are too often the only Black person, or person of color, in a group of bird or nature enthusiasts. There is a huge need for this conversation, she says. Through education and open dialogue, “people in the community who are white can hold each other accountable to make sure these spaces are not hostile to Black people,” Newsome says. 

The third goal is to encourage increased diversity in birding and conservation. Think about the biological importance of diversity at any level, genetic all the way up to whole ecosystems, she explains. Homogeneity sets organisms and systems up for failure. It’s the same for birding and the conservation movement. “Diversity is important for the robustness of any community trying to do anything,” she says. 

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, all of the events are taking place virtually. While it would be wonderful to gather in person, the digital nature of the event allows more people to participate, says Newsome. On Sunday, the #BlackInNature hashtag encouraged Black nature enthusiasts to post pictures and videos of themselves getting outdoors and to talk about their experiences outside. In response, scientists and nature enthusiasts introduced themselves to one another, discussed their research, and shared photos from outdoor adventures. Organizers have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of joy and support online already. 

“From a social media standpoint, it has been absolutely breathtaking and just so remarkable to see the amount of Black faces, to see the regional diversity of Black joy across the world—not just the country even or the continent or hemisphere, but the world,” says Tykee James, government affairs coordinator for the National Audubon Society and a Black Birders Week co-founder.

Monday’s theme is the #PostABird Challenge, with a prompt to share a bird image or fact. On Tuesday is the #AskABlackBirder event, with a two-hour Q&A with Black birders on Twitter from 7pm to 9 pm ET, followed up with the #BirdingWhileBlack livestream discussions on Thursday, from 12pm-1:30pm ET and from 7pm-8:30pm ET. The week ends on Friday with #BlackWomenWhoBird, a final call to build community on Twitter and beyond around birding. 

Tykee James leading a bird walk. Photo: Libby Marking

“I’m probably the most excited about the livestream because it’s not often you get to see this kind of panel discussing this kind of topic,” McGee says. “I feel like it’s going to open a lot of people’s eyes, and I’m really excited about that.” Newsome will be in the field this week and plans to post lots of pictures of sparrows and all the other birds she encounters in Georgia’s marshes. James has already been birding in Long Island and posting along the way, and will also be helping with the live stream later this week.

Birders who aren’t Black can support the initiative by spreading the word, learning from the livestream, and retweeting the shared stories and images. Sharing these images is a major catalyst for young would-be scientists, birders, and conservation leaders, according to Newsome. “The only reason I and countless other people are even in a career in biology or wildlife or interested in it is because [we] saw someone like [us] doing it,” she says. 

As demonstrations escalated on Sunday and images of pain and outrage filled many social media feeds, those following #BlackBirdersWeek also saw expressions of something more hopeful. “We didn’t pick our moment, but we are going to rise to the occasion,” James says. “The Black experience is not one of only trauma; it is one of joy and it is one of pride and it is one of strength.” 

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