The Seattle-based conservation nonprofit focusing on birds has received a lot of attention, including in local and national news media, because it is removing “Audubon” from our organizational name. This is not a helpful place for the spotlight to remain trained. If the focus of everyone – even our supporters – remains on “Audubon,” they all will be missing the point.
More than anything, removing “Audubon” from the organization’s name eliminates a significant barrier to engaging with people and communities who have been both systemically and systematically excluded from conservation and activities involving birds.
This might be the most misunderstood aspect of the Seattle bird organization’s name change, but it’s not alone.
The accurate perspective begins with shifting the focus off “Audubon.” Staying there, for one thing, is a rhetorical trap. It allows detractors to claim that the organization is trying to “cancel” another white man who did deeds otherwise acceptable in a bygone era. It allows people to also accuse us of trying to erase John James Audubon’s artistic and observational contributions to ornithology.
As one person emailed the chapter, “shame on you for joining a movement that is so overwhelmingly consumed with reparations and equalization that they have lost sight of the positive.”
It’s simple: When the conservation organization engages BIPOC and other marginalized groups and communities, it will be inviting them to learn the organizational backstory. If the name isn’t moved off “Audubon,” the ugly truth about John James Audubon easily emerges and therefore congeal the trust deficit held by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color toward a country and a conservation movement that historically has marginalized them.
That’s the harm that the “Audubon” name inflicts. If you agree that “Audubon” is harmful to people, then every second that an organization bears it is harming people. The Seattle chapter wants to end that harm in a way that it can control.
Here’s more to consider:
The namesakes of our state (Washington) and our city (Seattle) were slaveholders. Are they next?
Maybe, but the organization is working on itself, what is within its ability to change, and how its organizational name can accurately support its mission.
Is the organization leaving the Audubon network? Won’t Audubon expel it?
The Seattle chapter has no plans to leave the network. It still shares foundational beliefs in protecting birds and (all) the people who love them, and faith in the power of collaboration, which has little to do with what the collaborators call themselves.
The organization doesn’t anticipate being excommunicated by the National Audubon Society. There is a local precedent: The Dungeness River Nature Center dropped “Audubon” from its name last year, though to signal an expansion of its programming and better center the role of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. It maintains its partnership with the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society and National Audubon Society.
How can the Seattle chapter leave behind such a strong brand?
No one has produced data or surveys that show the strength of the brand. The ubiquity of the brand is a presumption by those under the “Audubon” umbrella and others who are adjacent because of age and race. “Audubon,” like the rest of the conservation sector, and certainly mirrored by the Seattle chapter, heavily skews older and white.
It is the experience of BIPOC members of this chapter, chapters around the country, and network staff that “Audubon” has little to no recognition by Americans under 45-50 years old and, especially, those who are not white.
The former group – those who recognize “Audubon” – is shrinking over time, while the latter is growing. For the sustainability of this chapter and, it believes, the entire network, as well as the conservation movement itself, it is imperative to act with urgency to include the perspectives that will reflect U.S. demographics in the not-so-distant future.
The Seattle bird group believes the only way forward is with an organizational name that is not harmful or insulting to BIPOC and other marginalized groups that have been historically denied access to its organization and conservation at large.
Also, according to their last communication, the National Audubon Society won’t have a recommendation on whether to change its name until its February board meeting — and will have a process for making the decision after that. Even if it does decide to remove “Audubon,” the national organization could be an entire year behind its Seattle chapter’s timeline.
How about the Harriet Tubman/Hazel Wolf Society?
Naming things, organizations, and places after people is really a Euro-colonial phenomenon. Many BIPOC cultures, particularly Indigenous, name descriptively. This approach avoids the impacts of changing perspectives about people in the future, even those widely celebrated today. As a chapter, Seattle support sthe movement to remove eponymous names from birds – and would apply that support more globally.
Also, the word “Society” is strongly associated with the elitism that, frankly, is strongly associated with conservation and birding. Internally, we have ceased using the word, except in instances (social media, legal documents) that would require an outright name change.
So what is the new name?
The Seattle chapter believes it is important to be as inclusive in its re-naming process as it strives to be in its mission and work. In August and September, it conducted in-person and Zoom focus-group discussions about values and mission with internal stakeholders, including members, volunteers, and its board (staff already has completed this discussion). The organization then conducted a series of discussions with external stakeholders, including communities and groups with which we want to strengthen or begin relationships and partnerships.
The organization also conducted two online surveys, one for its community and one for its partners and those historically excluded from birding and organizational activities.
The resulting data, including suggested names, was turned over to Name Selection Committee composed of staff, board members, members, volunteers, and community members. That group will come up with a list of finalists they believe best reflect the values and mission prioritized in the discussions. Chapter leadership will choose three finalists to recommend to the board of directors, one of which, if approved, will be presented to chapter membership, it is hoped, in June 2023.
Can we please get back to conservation and loving birds?
Changing the organizational name is all about conservation and loving birds. The conservation organization cannot fulfill its central mission to advocate and organize for cities where people and birds thrive until that mission applies to all. Environmental calamities, including the impacts of climate change, strike BIPOC and other marginalized communities first and disproportionately. The conservation sector cannot effectively do its work until it follows an antiracist path and welcome and embrace everyone.
If birds are our entry point to conservation, that access is blocked by historical and cultural reasons, including the use of a namesake that no longer reflects the values of this organization. Keeping a harmful name also effectively helps block access to conservation and environmental work. And that is unacceptable.
The Seattle bird organization has accumulated a lot of experience and expertise during its 106 years of existence. It has not also acquired the privilege of keeping such assets to itself, nor do those assets belong to a name or even a certain group of people. The organization cannot truly do the work of protecting birds and the people who love them if it does not commit every drop of its resources to all of conservation – and help ensure every other organization in this slice of society does the same.
Note: Glenn Nelson is the Community Director at the Seattle chapter.