Fifth-annual Seabird Fly-in Helps Advocates Find Their Voice in Washington

Students from chapters across the U.S. traveled to DC to speak on behalf of birds. What they took back home will serve them for years to come.
People talking at a table

Last fall, for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic began, I joined Audubon members from across the country in Washington, DC to advocate for seabirds. Together with Audubon staff, a group of 27 students and recent graduates from 13 different Audubon on Campus chapters, as well as our partners at Bird Alliance of Oregon, converged on Capitol Hill for Audubon’s 2023 Save the Seabirds Fly-in.

Collectively, we visited 30 congressional offices in just two days, urging our representatives to protect seabirds, fisheries, and people from climate change impacts. For some, it was the first time they’d advocated in the halls of government—an experience that had profound effects on how they saw their work overall.

“I never thought I could go to DC just because I joined this organization to clean up our campus,” said Khadijah Salam, chair of healthy living for Friends of the Earth at Claflin University, when I asked her about her experience at the fly-in. “It kind of put things in a bigger perspective.”

Prior to the pandemic, the annual seabird fly-in was an in-person affair, but for the past few years the event was largely held virtually. Staff remarked that the energy of this in-person event was noticeably different, and I certainly noticed it too. I watched students from opposite sides of the country introducing themselves and swapping stories about their campus environmental clubs back home, their enthusiasm plain to see for everyone at the event.

“I liked the sense of community of birders, and it was cool to meet other people who have alike interests,” said Carissa Pienkowski, founder of the Audubon chapter at Skidmore College, of the in-person nature of the fly-in.

To prepare us for our day of advocacy in the halls of Congress, Audubon’s Coasts team gave an overview of the policies we’d be advocating for, including better fisheries management and stronger protections for coastal habitats. Seabirds, like pelicans and terns, need both to survive the challenges that climate change is throwing at them. These same issues also affect people—we need healthy wetlands, rivers, and coastlines to protect us from increasing floods, storms, and sea-level rise. These ecosystems act as our natural infrastructure, providing critical services to our communities that are just as essential as roads and bridges. When a storm strikes, barrier islands serve as speed bumps to slow down storm surge, and wetlands act as sponges soaking up flood waters.

As we began to prepare for our congressional meetings, I could feel the excitement and anticipation in the room building, but many of us were also experiencing imposter syndrome.

For example, Sonia Stan explained that she founded a birdwatching club called Oviparous at the University of California-San Diego as “a way for me to just do something different for a change.” As a pre-med student, she said, “I felt a little bit unprepared or unfit to be in this crowd, because I expected everyone else to be super into government and legal matters, or really hard conservationists. And I was scared that people would point me out as an imposter, the odd one out there. But I got along really, really well with everyone, all of the Audubon staff and students from different universities. So it was a nice feeling.”

Salam was also worried about whether she belonged, until the group had the unique opportunity to meet with Brenda Mallory, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “At the beginning it felt like everybody else who was there was supposed to be there,” Salam said. “I wasn't originally sure this was a space I was supposed to be in. Everybody felt so qualified for what they were talking about, and I just didn't feel qualified enough. But when we met Brenda Mallory, somebody asked her what was her biggest challenge coming up in her position, and she said—it sounds cliché—but her biggest enemy is herself, because she never saw in herself what her co-workers and other people saw in her.”

Since the fly-in, Reps. Mike Levin, Brian Mast, Suzanne Bonamici, and Jen Kiggans introduced the Resilient Coasts & Estuaries Act, which would address many issues that the fly-in advocates raised in their congressional meetings. If passed, this bill will fund the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, add five new estuaries to the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and provide critical support for Tribal, state, and local governments to protect vulnerable coastal communities and habitats from climate change.

For many of the students I spoke to, the fly-in changed their perspective on government and gave them an opportunity to flex their power as advocates.

“A lot of stuff about government and legislation seemed really far out of my reach,” said Stan. “But after this experience I realized it is surprisingly easy to get involved in advocacy, which can be very impactful. And you don't need to be in law or dedicate yourself to lobbying to still have an impact.”

Pienkowski agreed, adding: “It was really cool to be a part of making change, and especially because that's why I wanted to start the Audubon chapter—to obviously promote conservation of a lot of the birds I care about—but also make actual change in the world. That short trip honestly made me feel really good about starting the chapter and hopeful for a lot of the birds.”