NYC Audubon's Commitment to Fighting Racism

A letter from Executive Director Kathryn Heintz
June 8, 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

The news over the past few weeks has been extraordinarily difficult to process. As our community planned its emergence from the pandemic, we were stunned by the racist attack on our board member Christian Cooper in Central Park. It was a shocking example of racism right in our midst, and we were thankful that Chris came to no harm. We learned later that same day about the horrifying death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has prompted spontaneous protests across the world demanding justice and equality for Black people in this country. It is clear that we have reached a crucial point of reckoning and self-reflection as a nation, and as a city. This moment is so much bigger than us. And yet we take our responsibility to rise to meet it as fundamental, and as central to NYC Audubon’s mission.

In the opening of the summer Urban Audubon, recently published online, I mused about a possible silver lining from this time of crisis—a time that, during unfathomable tragedy, has seen so many people notice birds and discover the transcendence of nature in our city’s green spaces. I felt sure, then, of NYC Audubon’s readiness to help these burgeoning birders make the leap from discovery and enjoyment to engagement and conservation. But current events shed a different light: Many of these new birders are Black. If such opportunistic, weaponized racism as that encountered by Chris Cooper is the reception a Black person can expect when advocating for or even just watching birds, how do we encourage birdwatching and conservation advocacy as safe activities for all New Yorkers? And how do we responsibly continue to strive towards our vision: an NYC Audubon community that better reflects the face of our diverse city, one that engages the entire city in our fight for bird conservation?

We listen. We challenge ourselves. We act. And we change.

We must invite and heed the perspectives of our members and neighbors who are Black and people of color. We must organize forums and programs around the topics of race and equity. We must advocate for safe and equitable access to our city’s green spaces. We must support and partner with our city’s environmental equity and justice organizations. We must provide educational programming that reaches people of all backgrounds and that brings us together to enjoy birds and nature. And we must examine how deep-seated racial inequalities have created barriers and work to tear down those walls. This means confronting these matters head on, and openly challenging racist attitudes and remarks whenever and wherever we encounter them.

Change is under way, within. NYC Audubon’s board of directors established its Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee two years ago, and its work is only just beginning: though we are making progress, we are still far from our goals. We are now half way to achieving our goal of a board comprising 50 percent people of color; only two of our staff of twelve are people of color. We are fully committed to continuing to diversify our organization at all levels. We will also further expand our programming in underserved communities in all five boroughs. (See our new Strategic Plan to learn more.)

Among our inspirations in this long-term effort is J. Drew Lanham, PhD, a member of the National Audubon Society board of directors and a Fellow of the Clemson University Institute for Parks. The author of Birding While Black, Dr. Lanham delivered a rousing keynote address at the Audubon national conference in 2017, and he has shared his perspective on the incident involving Chris Cooper. This is essential viewing and reading.

Last weeek, an ardent group of Black birders, scientists, and nature enthusiasts launched #BlackBirdersWeek. Follow #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter and Instagram. I hope you will all watch two profound and moving livestreamed sessions of "Birding While Black: a Candid Conversation," recorded last week with National Audubon. Session 1 includes six panelists including Chris Cooper and NYC Audubon guide Jeffrey Ward; Session 2 panelists include J. Drew Lanham and Jeffrey's brother Jason Ward. Join NYC Audubon in proudly sharing in this effort and striving to be sure that its impact goes well beyond the week at hand. 

Kathryn Heintz
Executive Director

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