Now, 125 year after the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society for the Protection of Birds (MASSPB), the organization and the almost 500 Audubon chapters it inspired across the country, we are reassessing another aspect of Audubon’s life. He was also a slave owner and a staunch advocate of abolition.
Audubon chapters across the country have taken a vow to do more in the year since George Floyd's death by Minneapolis police. They are diversifying their staff, and looking for ways to make natural areas more welcoming to people of colour. This is part of a larger reckoning in the wider environmental movement that has been criticized for its lack of diversity and racist origins for many years.
"At this stage, if people don't want to protect what they're trying, that's an issue," stated Debbie Njai, an Illinois resident and founder of the outdoor group BlackPeopleWhoHike.
Mass Audubon published a essay last autumn acknowledging that Audubon's family's fortune was largely due to the operation of a Caribbean sugar plantation. It also promised to make 25% of its board of director members people of color and to create more wildlife sanctuaries within communities of color.
The National Audubon Society is an independent organization based in New York. It has also explored the legacy of its namesake in a series essays.
The Sierra Club also publicly apologized last Jul for the racist views of John Muir, its founder, who dismissed American Indians and called them dirty savages. The Oakland-based organization has also pledged $5 million to improve its environmental justice work. It recently expressed support for Black reparations .
David O'Neill (president of Mass Audubon) stated that environmental groups know that the future of their movement depends on changing their white, elitist image.
"If we don’t get older and we don’t get more varied, we won’t have people to advocate for nature and that's bad for everyone," he stated during a recent visit at the Boston Nature Center. This sanctuary is an urban wildlife sanctuary located in a predominantly Black neighborhood and it hopes to replicate this sanctuary in other Massachusetts communities.
Andres Jimenez, head, Green 2.0, a Washington, D.C. group that publishes an annual report on diversity within the environmental sector, stated that while Green organizations seem to be making progress in improving their staff diversity, their leadership is still predominantly white.
Green 2.0's most recent report found that between 2017-2020, the nation's largest green organizations added six people of color to its staff, two to senior management, and one to its board of directors.
Jimenez stated, "We need that change up top to move it in an accelerated manner."
Bird conservation was the latest racial count for the country and it is where the demands for change are strongest.
A growing movement is underway to eliminate the eponyms for birds that honor slaveholders or white supremacists. Bird Names For Birds.
A dispute between a Black birdwatcher, and a White woman and her dog in New York's Central Park was the catalyst. It went viral last summer and led to #BlackBirdersWeek and similar efforts to spotlight Black nature lovers and the discrimination they face when enjoying the outdoors.
Christian Cooper, the controversial birder, said that organizations such as the Audubon had been working to improve diversity long before his viral moment.
Cooper, a board member of the New York City Audubon Society said that his chapter has tried to attract more diverse members through small events such as last month's Juneteenth birdwatching or potluck picnic.
Cooper stated that organizations that try new things are more likely to succeed. "Removing centuries of ingrained racism in the environment movement is difficult and uncomfortable work.
The National Audubon Society has seen racial discrimination erupt into staff tension.
An outside audit was launched in April to investigate complaints about a toxic workplace. It found that there was a culture of fear, retaliation and antagonism towards women and people of colour at the organization. David Yarnold, the long-serving CEO, quickly resigned.
Tykee James is the Audubon's Washington government affairs officer. He is one of the staff members pushing for a labor union that addresses diversity and other workplace issues. He also believes that the Audubon should be more vocal in advocating for environmental justice causes.
James stated that the culture in this company has not been one for workers from color, women or nonbinary people.
Matt Smelser, spokesperson for the Audubon Society, mentioned a May Statement of the group that stated "bullying" and other unacceptable behavior would not be tolerated moving forward. He said that the Audubon Society continues to look for a permanent CEO, and that it has pledged to remain neutral in unionization efforts.
O'Neill, who is back at Mass Audubon, says that the board has added new members to ensure that 17% are people of color. About 65% of the staff is white, with more than 950.
Scott Edwards, an Harvard ornithologist, stated that the jury is still out about whether these initial steps are sufficient. He said that some green groups will need to rethink their mission and adapt to urban populations.
Edwards, who is Black, said that organizations will need to be creative in how they can connect communities of color with nature. "Let them know that they are valued and needed. Encourage them to feel part of the conservation effort.
Mamie Parker worked for the U.S. for many decades. Fish and Wildlife Service and its first Black regional director, Mamie Parker advised environmental groups to view racial equality as a conservation challenge.
The Dulles-based retired biologist, a Dulles native, stated that "planting a tree to help restore a forest, or to care for bald eagles in order to rebuild their population" can take years.