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Inscrutable Whiteness


Washington Monument by TLE

The National Association for Interpretation (NAI), the professional organization for park rangers, guides, and educators, not to mention those who help you in museums, zoos, and the like, met in Hampton Roads last week. I presented, met a few friends, and caught up on the coming and goings in my profession. I hunkered with my kind.

I am white. Most of my friends are white. My profession is white. NAI is white. My recreation is white. White, white, white.

Dominican Republic July 2012 186

Nat, Cachote, Dominican Republic by TLE

I am not uncomfortable being white. I have never been otherwise. I spent childhood in the Jim Crow south. I knew separate restrooms and water fountains. As a young boy I entered the library in downtown Houston passing by a fountain installed by the Daughters of the Confederacy. My high school class included one black. We voted him “best dressed” in my senior year.

This election demonstrated, in black and white, that America isn’t. America is white, yellow, brown, black, and gray. We are old, young, Hispanic-American, African-American, Asian-American, gay, straight, male, female, and every blend of the above. America is kaleidoscopic; I am surrounded in my profession and my recreation by monotone white.

My family is white. My grandparents were white. My grandparents were racially insensitive (at best), racist at their worst. Most of my uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends were the same. My parents were not. They walled me and my sisters from the dark side.

I know white. I know hate, racism, ignorance, and indifference. I know that I will be forever grateful for being allowed to live to see this Jacob’s cloak that is becoming America.

Wednesday evening I attended the NAI awards presentation. The agencies honored their own. All had earned the honor, I am certain. All honorees were white; all attendees at the presentation were white. White, white, white.

Hunting is white. Fishing is white. Birding is white. Conservation organizations are white. The American Birding Association is white. Ducks Unlimited is white. Inscrutably white.
The American saga is filmed in Technicolor. Yet we project that story in black-and-white.

After ducking out of the NAI awards, I spent dinner at the bar. The television insisted on nonstop sports. I watched a round-table discussion among experts (Dion Sanders, Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk) dissecting the day’s sporting events. They were passionate. They were knowledgeable. They were black. Black, black, black.

I flew home from the BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport on Friday. From Hampton Roads I passed Petersburg, Richmond, Spotsylvania, and Manassas on my way north. The blood and gore are gone, the traces washed clean, but the ghosts remain.

Washington 112

Lincoln Memorial by TLE

Saturday night I visited another specter – Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Joining us at the theater were blacks, browns, whites, Christians, and Sikhs. I suspect that we each came with a different expectation and for different reasons. Some came to see the man. Some came to see the time. I hope that all came to find out why.

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation granting Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” This grant is considered the foundation upon which national and state parks were later established. On January 31, 1865, the US House of Representatives finally passed the 13th Amendment ending slavery, presenting Lincoln with his last legislative victory. Appomattox would soon follow.

Did Lincoln see a relationship between the freedom from slavery and freedom in nature? I haven’t a clue. I doubt it. But I do know of Lincoln’s profound respect for our Constitution, and for the Declaration of Independence that preceded it.

We all understand the unambiguous declaration that “all men are created equal.” The 13th Amendment began to perfect that promise. But how do we come to understand the “pursuit of happiness?” Is to be in nature a worthy pursuit?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Farm and ranch families now comprise just 2 percent of the U.S. population. But in Lincoln’s time most families were still on the farm. Yet already people such as Muir and Olmsted had recognized the need to set aside lands for the people who did not own it. Theodore Roosevelt would extend that recognition to millions of acres in the early 1900’s. In fact, Roosevelt directly addressed the relationship between nature and happiness in this way;

It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.

Without access to the outdoors, parks, sanctuaries, and recreational lands, this book is closed. Nature is not a commodity that is the exclusive property of a tiny percentage of Americans. Nature is part of the national patrimony. To share in nature is to share in America’s heritage.

If this is so, then how did those who control the gates to nature, who manage nature, who study nature, who interpret nature, who find enjoyment in nature through recreations such as hunting, fishing, and birding, remain so unlike the rest of our country? How did we miss the evolution?

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the legislation that finally ended discriminatory practices that the Civil War and the 13th Amendment had “settled.” Perhaps we have not had enough time to integrate our recreations and our organizations. Perhaps people of color look at birding the way I look at Formula One or polo.

No. I believe that over half a century is sufficient time for progress to have been made. Given the advancements on other social fronts, I am not willing to excuse our failures because of a lack of time. Perhaps we have the will but lack the skill. Perhaps we are addicted, as Martin Luther King once said, to the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Jerry, Holly, and Lisa

Anthony Jeremiah (Grenada Forestry), Holly Robertston and Lisa Sorenson (SCSCB) by TLE

The Focus on Diversity, an annual conference of birders hoping to “open an honest dialogue,” is an admirable and inspired effort. Honest dialogue? How about starting with “we are inscrutably white?” Park interpreters are white. Museum guides are white. Conservation organizations are white. Nature writers are white. Environmental leaders are white. Biologists are white. Game commissions are white.

I do not believe this is intentional. I believe that all are committed to offering equal employment and recreational opportunities. But with a rapidly shifting population, relying on glacial evolutionary processes to fill the gap is now and will continue to be inadequate.

How we attract more minority birders is beyond me. I suspect, though, that the emphasis needs to come from the top. This is not an issue in many of the countries where I work. In countries such as Jamaica and Grenada, the wardens, guides, and interpreters are people of color. In the Dominican Republic, environmental leaders are people of color.
For a young child in one of these countries, these role models are people of color.

Perhaps this is where we should start. We can demand that our appointed game commissioners reflect the population in general. We can insist that the boards of our environmental organizations are similarly constituted. What about the hiring practices at our local nonprofit parks or sanctuaries? Shouldn’t we voice our concerns when year after year, decade after decade, we see no people of color in positions where they can serve their respective communities as role models?

Here is one example – the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. According to the Commission’s website;

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission establishes policy for the management, preservation, and harvest of wildlife, and makes rules and regulations for managing, conserving, and protecting wildlife and fisheries resources…

The US Census Bureau estimates that 50.3% of Arizona’s population is female, with 30.1% Hispanic. Check out the commissioners themselves – five white guys.
The issue is similar in Canada. According to the Vanier Institute in Ottawa;

Canada’s visible minority population has grown steadily, now comprising
16.2% of the Canadian population or over 5 million people – a significant increase from CANADA MAPLE LEAF1.1 million people in 1981. Given current patterns of immigration, by 2017, it is forecast that the visible minority population will reach 7.1 million – or approximately one-fifth of the Canadian population…according to recent projections, by 2031, visible minority groups could comprise 63% of the population of Toronto, 59% in Vancouver and 31% in Montréal.

The Honourable Peter Kent, a Canadian white guy, is the Minister of the Environment. The CEO of the Parks Canada Agency is Mr. Alan Latourelle (another white guy), and the superintendent of Point Pelee is a white woman. The chairman and virtually all of the board of directors of the Canadian Wildlife Service are white. The President and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada is white, as is his staff. White, white, white.

Before I move on from these revelations, I do need to confess that the American Birding Association, American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Land, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, National Wildlife Refuge Association, and the Cornell Lab are led by white guys too. The NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife, I am proud to say, have progressed to being led by white women. For the record, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, and the National Parks Service are led by white guys as well.

In comparison, currently there are 5 black head coaches in the National Football League. Two-thirds of the players are black. In the National Basketball Association, there are 13 head coaches in a league where 80% of the players are black. Exactly who would we expect young people to watch and idolize, particularly African-Americans?

I could argue that there are ways in which these professional sports, not organizations that come to mind when discussing the greening of America, are leading us in that regard as well. Here is an example from this last summer. According to an op-ed in the NY Times,

At Major League Baseball’s 83rd All-Star Game last week, the hosts, the Kansas City Royals, bought carbon offsets certified by the Environmental Protection Agency for emissions from the 120,000 kilowatt-hours of energy used during All-Star Week events and purchased credits to restore depleted watersheds for the 600,000 gallons of water used. The 120 solar panels installed at the stadium earlier this year will produce 36,000 kilowatts hours annually. Recycling containers were placed in offices, suites, concourses and parking lots at the stadium, and environmental awareness was promoted with public service announcements in stadium signage and an ad in the 2012 All-Star Game program.

I Have A Dream

Steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his I Have A Dream Speech by TLE

What did birders do to mitigate for carbon emissions at the most recent birding festivals? Even among the admittedly white crowds in attendance, what example did birding set that would be remotely equivalent to Major League Baseball? Shouldn’t we be expected to lead?

I should also mention that baseball became integrated with Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson in 1947, years before the pinnacle of the nation’s civil rights movement (the Selma to Montgomery marches were in 1965). The Canadian Football League hired black players (1946) and coaches (1980) at a time when there were none in the National Football League. How many of our organizations and agencies, those involved with the conservation of and recreation in either nation’s lands, have been led by anyone other than a white man?

Martin Luther King said;

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Nature matters. People matter. Whether or not nature is relevant to future generations matters.

What also matters is that people of color be visibly and consistently seen as being involved in the outdoors and with nature. We cannot afford another NAI convention or birding festival blinded by our inscrutable whiteness.

To remain relevant, to remain influential, we need to engage our fellow citizens as they are in the here and now. The place to begin, I believe, is the top.

During this same trip I spent a couple of days with family and friends in Washington D.C. On Veterans’ Day I decided to walk over to the Mall. From the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the very steps where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, I thought of the words he spoke that sweltering day in 1963;

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

What can we do? First, support organizations like the ABA that are taking an active role in engaging people of color. The converse, of course, is do not support groups that are making no effort or progress. Do not become addicted to the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Second, attend the annual meeting of your parks, wildlife, and game commissions (every state is different, so you should know which to attend) and ask what the agencies are doing to employ and promote people of color. If your commission lacks diversity (such as Arizona), ask what is being done to rectify this unacceptable situation.

Third, demand that your professional organizations (such as NAI) are similar engaged in recruiting and promoting people of color. Ask what steps are being taken to insure that people of color are able to rise to positions of authority. We need more people of color representing us in the public’s eye.

Fourth, let’s reach out to organizations that are engaged with people of color. For example, I will argue that access to the outdoors is a critical part of environmental justice.

Point Pelee shuttle; Point Pelee, Canada; 3 Sep 2001

Shuttle Buses at Point Pelee by TLE

Fifth, along these same lines support organizations in other countries that are effectively engaging people of color. I have written about the SCSCB (Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds) in the past. There are dozens of examples in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Sixth, why not consider sponsoring a birding festival in an inner city location? What about Newark? Detroit? Philadelphia? Houston? St. Louis? I mean a festival where you bird in the urban area, not just stay there and then venture out into the hinterlands. A good example is the Spring Bird Festival in Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park. I wonder how many people of color attend this urban festival?

Finally, when is the last time that the ABA or NAI met with the Secretary of the Interior, or the President, or the head of the National Parks Service, USDA Forest Service, or the US Fish and Wildlife Service? What about the BLM? The ACOE? Bureau of Reclamation? The Canadian Wildlife Service? Engaging people of color in nature should be a topic of interest for these public officials and agencies. Shouldn’t we take the lead?

I am certain that many of you have great ideas about how to address this challenge. I am assuming, of course, that we agree that this is worthwhile. What are your ideas?

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Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks

Ted Lee Eubanks is president and CEO of Fermata Inc. an Austin-based global leader is sustainable tourism and outdoor recreation. Eubanks and Fermata were responsible for developing the first birding trails, in Texas, in the early 1990s. He has served on the national boards of Audubon and the CLO, and received the first ABA Chan Robbins Award in 2000. Eubanks writes extensively about birds, conservation, and sustainability, and has coauthored two books about birds (The Birdlife of Houston, Galveston, and the Upper Texas Coast, and Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail). To continue his work connecting people to places, birders to birds, Eubanks has formed a new company, Great American Trails, which is using new technologies to attract new constituents to the outdoors.
Ted Lee Eubanks

Latest posts by Ted Lee Eubanks (see all)

  • Thank you Ted! I wish I could offer more useful/concrete suggestions. The only other thing I can think of now, which admittedly is a long-term and not immediate solution, is for birders to work for getting all colors of children and young people excited and educated about birding. We rarely see non-white people at birding events such as bird club meetings even in areas where the population is not just white. Providing opportunities for people of all colors to learn about the wonders of nature (birds) and the need to be concerned about the environment is critical. The young birders in Ohio come to mind. The greater our diversity at the local levels, the more likely we will become diverse at the higher levels. Of course, now that I think of it, having local representation hasn’t worked so well for women yet, who are usually at equal or greater numbers than men at the local level in birding organizations, including as being officers and board members, but are much more rare on national boards (e.g., the ABA). The deciders of such things also need to work harder to bring women on board.

  • Lynn, I completely agree. In my profession women have made great strides. There are frequently more women than men at NAI conventions, and the new head of the NAI board is a woman. But I also agree that the boards of our conservation, environmental, and recreation organizations are still male dominated. According to the web the ABA has a board of 14 members of which only 3 are women. The 2005 ABA member survey reported a membership 60% male and 40% female. I wonder if the percentage of female members has increased since then. In any case, women are underrepresented on the board.

  • Alan Wormington

    A very interesting “American” article from the southern half of the ABA area.

  • I don’t have any brilliant suggestions at the moment, but this is a very good piece on a very important subject, especially to a fellow NAI member like me – thanks.

  • I work for U. S. Forest Service/U. S. Department of Agriculture we face the same issues Ted mentions above. USDA has an initiative called “Cultural Transformation” which started two years ago and will go on for quite some time as we move forward.

    Case for change:
    In an increasingly diverse American society, the agency does not reflect the demographics of the country. In 1995, 16 percent of our employees belonged to ethnic minority groups and in 2010, we improved only slightly to 18 percent, compared with 27 percent in the 2010 U.S. Civilian Labor Force.

    Employees are increasingly distracted by inefficient and often frustrating processes, so have difficulty focusing their skills and talents on carrying out the mission of the agency.

    Employees feel less empowered to make decisions and focus their work on those things that will most effectively carry out the mission of the agency and serve the people who count on us.

    Focus Areas:
    Leadership: to develop leaders at every level of the Forest Service who promote inclusion and who
    facilitate high performance. Senior leadership is responsible for modeling the culture we want to
    become, and providing opportunities and tools to ease burdens on employees.

    Employee development: to develop employees with cultural competence and the maximum potential
    to contribute to the Forest Service mission.

    Talent management: to leverage the Forest Service’s human potential by recognizing the competencies
    and potential of employees; developing their cognitive, behavioral, and strategic skills; and empowering
    them to perform exceptionally well.

    Recruitment and retention: To become an employer of choice by providing a workplace environment
    where employees are respected and valued for their contributions and can expect recognition and
    career advancement opportunities based on job performance alone.

    Customer focus and community outreach: To build a workforce that mirrors the diversity of the
    American people, focuses on meeting their needs, and promotes community relationships to accomplish
    its work.

    Process improvements: To use technology and systems in ways that support our mission in the most
    efficient and cost effective way.

    The foundation for all of these efforts is diversity and inclusion.

    Mission: To build and leverage a diverse and inclusive workforce and workplace by building leadership capability and organizational capacity

    Vision: Leveraging a diverse and inclusive workforce to achieve superior business results

    Diversity – Improve the representation of women and minorities at all levels of the organization and integrate people with disabilities and Veterans by driving talent acquisition and management practices to achieve results

    Inclusion – Create an inclusive work environment that fosters creativity and innovation and promotes employee engagement through awareness and inclusive leadership skills training, promoting Work Life Flexibility, and supporting Employee Groups.

    Communications – Ensure that Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, actions, and results are transparent to all key stakeholders

    External Relations – Engage various external stakeholder groups that support and serve CIO’s values and interests including our diverse customers and partners

    Accountability – Hold leadership accountable for Diversity & Inclusion goals and objectives

  • Uh, Ted? I’m not a big Bible scholar or anything, but if by “Jacob’s cloak” you are referring to the Coat of Many Colors (whihc would make sense in context), it was Joseph who wore that….

  • Alan, would you care to enlighten us with a perspective from the northern half? I for one would be very interested to hear it. The ABA Blog is only as diverse as its volunteer contributors, but there aren’t many Canadian voices stepping up.

  • Ah, but Jacob gave the cloak to his son, Joseph.

  • Thanks for the information. Here is an example of what is needed, I believe. Ralph Brock graduated in the first class of foresters from Penn State – Mont Alto in 1906. Brock is the first African-American forester in our nation’s history. Here is more information about Brock While working with DCNR in that region (South Mountain) I became interested Brock and his relationship with Joseph Rothrock. What an incredible story!

  • Alan Wormington

    Nope! The point here is the endless articles published by ABA that are always “Americanized” rather than articles that reflect North America (ABA Area) as a whole (which, by the way, is supposed to include Canada). For this main reason I have recently failed to renew my membership to ABA. Sad but true.

  • I believe you’re right, Josh. After all, it’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, and the (multicolored) climbing rose cultivar I grow is called “Joseph’s Coat”.

  • Thanks for keeping this topic in our consciousness, Ted. I don’t know what the answer is, but awareness it powerful in itself.

  • I certainly can’t disagree with the main premise of the essay, but I don’t think we can expect a rush of people of color participating in birding/conservation simply because we put some people of color on the governing bodies of birding/conservation organizations. We’ve got to find ways to increase participation at the bottom before we can develop people with the wisdom and experience to serve at the top. I like your suggestion of birding festivals in urban centers, but I’m not sure something like that would make a lasting difference.

    We’ve got about 150 “wildlife” majors in my academic department here in Oklahoma. At the state level, we’re actually not as “inscrutably white” as one might think, but our diversity is not reflected well at all among our students: I think we have 2 African-American students, or about 1%. Both of those students are women, and only one is actually doing well in our curriculum. That’s a lot of pressure on our lone, successful African-American student to be her cohort’s “Jackie Robinson”! So the real problem I see is finding ways to get people of color to notice what we’re doing and care about it enough to major in it. We need to somehow attract a cohort of say 25–30 African-American students before we can really make a dent in this diversity gap.

    If I had any easy solutions I’d be sharing them. I’m afraid that I’m pessimistic about a significant change in our inscrutable whiteness anytime soon, but I very much appreciate your passionate essay on this important topic.

  • (Yep, it was Jacob who got the coat for Joseph!)

  • Dan Cooper

    Ted –

    I have a slightly different take on this issue. By way of background, when I worked for Audubon in the early 2000s, it was an organization obsessed with diversifying its leadership and membership (as were/are many other groups and agencies in California). “Diverse” (racial diversity, not economic) candidates were heavily recruited for national and state board positions, and for a few memorable months, we ended up with a former oil company attorney leading our state organization who apparently had some non-white ancestry but no non-profit or ecological training to speak of.

    That said, I was fortunate to work on developing an inner city nature center that is still running today (Audubon Center at Debs Park) that provides a model of what can (and can’t) be done in a non-white environment. I think the jury is still out on how Debs Park is contributing to conservation in L.A., California, or globally. I don’t have an answer for that.

    One thing that we found, and that probably holds true across the country, is that people who are not like you (or me) have a very different relationship with nature organizations, in that they don’t tend to join nature organizations. This doesn’t mean they’re any less aware of nature, or value nature any less. On the contrary, some of the most ignorant and “nature-deprived” people I’ve come across have been white people of privileged backgrounds here in California. Some elected representatives from the Central Valley come to mind. Is it not imperative that we engage these people, starting at their prep schools, their beach clubs, etc.? After all, they and their friends are still making the decisions around here, last I checked.

    Your post brings up a lot of disparate issues, but just to take a couple – I’m not sure the ethnic makeup of a state game commission is really influencing the career choices of non-whites. I have no idea who the state lands or CDFG commissioners are in my state, and when I started birding (as a little kid), I didn’t look them up to see if they were white like me. I ended up in a conservation career – I think – because I had this innate interest, not because my parents were birders (they were not), or because guidance counselors encouraged me (they did not).

    Second – quilting is mostly white, and so is military battle reconstruction, surfing, and a lot of other hobbies. Some require expensive equipment, some don’t. Moonshining is white. Why is this? Do Hispanics lack access to stills and needed tubing? Different hobbies are popular with different folks; some track whiter, some younger, etc.

    I’m always amazed traveling through rural Latin American how conversant just average kids are about conservation, ecology, even climate change and recycling. One teenager in rural Nicaragua told me I just *had* to see An Inconvenient Truth, that it changed his life (they watched it in school). But, this guy isn’t rushing out to join Audubon, or ABA, most likely.

    Your point about meeting with Cabinet members is very well taken. My friend in Nicaragua isn’t going to be making decisions that affect global conservation, or reducing sprawl, or routing our bullet train to San Francisco to avoid vernal pools any time soon. it’s actually going to be about 10 (white) guys who went to 2 or 3 business schools. Let’s talk to them too.

  • Thanks, Dan. If I remember correctly you worked for Audubon when I served on the national board. We were all white as well. Your point about recreational trends and demographics is excellent, but what about conservation? I can’t see where anyone is well served by a disengaged population in this regard. I view recreation as the most effective tool for engaging people in nature. To my knowledge, none of the wildlife-related recreations (hunting, fishing, viewing) have significant participation from people of color.

  • Ted Floyd

    Two key voices in this discussion, in my opinion, are Rue Mapp and Dudley Edmondson.

    Rue Mapp runs Outdoor Afro:

    The website is excellent. Here’s an overview:

      “Outdoor Afro is a social community that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening, skiing–and more!

      Outdoor Afro disrupts the false perception that black people do not have a relationship with nature.

      We remember our history in nature, leverage social media, and support relevant local leadership to create interest communities, events, and partnerships that support diverse participation in the Great Outdoors.

      During her childhood, founder Rue Mapp…was troubled by the consistently low numbers of African Americans participating in these activities. So for two decades, Rue has used digital media as an important and practical tool to connect with people of color who share her outdoor interests. Outdoor Afro emerged naturally from these experiences.”

    Dudley Edmondson’s contributions are diverse and well known to many in the birding community. Birding has featured his excellent photos, for example. Also, one of our finest and most provocative Birding interviews was with Edmondson. Here’s a snippet that I imagine will elicit some responses:

      Birding: How do people of color see themselves in

      Dudley Edmondson: See, that is the problem. I don’t think we do anymore. The traditions in the outdoors, at least for African Americans, never made it past the Mason-Dixon line once they began to migrate out of the South in the early 20th century in search of work and life with dignity. Once that transformation started to take hold, those ways in the outdoors fell out of the upbringing of African American children. It was a little different from the outdoor skills most kids learn today mostly as recreational activities. Back then, black parents taught their children outdoor skills out of necessity, not for recreation. I don’t think African Americans really ever had much of an outdoor recreational past in this country. So the next generation was taught to hunt, grow crops, tend livestock, and forage for medicinal and edible plants for their survival. That was primarily the extent of African Americans’ connection to nature in this country, even though we come from much deeper connections than that—if you go all the way back to our African
      roots. Today, I think some African Americans see any connection to nature as something beneath their dignity, almost to say, “I am a civilized, educated person and I am too good to go and spend time in nature. That is what poor black folks did way back when in the South to survive—not me, I
      have arrived.”

    The complete interview with Dudley Edmondson can be read here:

  • I actually agree with Alan on this point (about my article, not about his decision to not renew). My mistake. I have now corrected it. I have added a section to the article specifically about Canada. I have marked this section with the maple leaf to make it easier to find. Canada’s situation looks remarkably like the U.S. Thanks for the suggestion, Alan. I do think that it improves the article.

  • All this recent wailing and gnashing of teeth about the “whiteness” of birding seems to blame birders for doing an insufficient job of “recruiting” minorities. But we face a daunting uphill climb in doing so – the deck is stacked against us.

    Much of the problem is cultural. There is a wide swath of European-Americans – both conservative and liberal – who believe in land and wildlife conservation and teach this to their children. Not so for Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans – especially those under 40. Even those who finish college. Sure a few of them “see the light” in their college biology classes, but they are but a teeny tiny fraction. This is true of both “city slickers” and rural minorities.

    Young potential recruits seem infinitely more interested in sports (ugh) or video games than natural history (consumptive or not).

    Again and again, I have seen the ridicule that African-American biology teachers receive from their African-American high school students in trying to interest them in the natural world. Same derision is shown to African American biology club college students and their outreach efforts. Same goes for Hispanic teachers/professors trying to recruit / educate Latin-American students.

    This problem has its origins in young people’s upbringing (or lack thereof), and it is reinforced by their peers, mass media, and other factors. To sum up: naturalists are not “cool” like sports stars, rap stars, or even criminals.

    I claim that there is a cultural “brick wall” in place between modern African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American culture and natural history. It is a shame, but it is the plain, simple truth.

    I have no idea how to fix it – humanity is in a downward spiral of ignorance and self-induldgence. It is true of everyone, but somewhat less true for European-Americans.

  • Alan Wormington

    Nate, IMO a superb analysis of the situation!

  • Dan Cooper

    “I can’t see where anyone is well served by a disengaged population in this regard.”

    I guess that’s probably where we part ways on this debate. I actually see minority communities, at least here in L.A., as very engaged; just not in the way that we ABA/Audubon/organization folks tend to think about it. Recent example: east of downtown, there are several barren-looking hills that are plowed each year (in May, of course) for “weed abatement” by the city. About 10 years ago, a group of locals, led by Elva Yanez (former director of Debs Park Audubon Center) coalesced as a “friends of” group to a) stop this practice and b) try to turn this one hill into a public preserve. Yesterday, we got word that the city approved a down-zoing to “very low density”, which will mean that it won’t be treated as a vacant city lot. The area supports globally-rare walnut woodland and sumac scrub, not great bird habitat but just fine. This was a nearly 100% Hispanic coalition (Hugo Garcia, Barbara Romero, etc.), which enlisted the help of a Hispanic city councilman (Jose Huizar) who’s been a champion of L.A. River conservation and urban wildlife issues, not to mention social justice. My point is that while we were all hand-wringing about whether Jose Huizar was an Audubon member or not (I doubt he is), they’ve been getting the job done, with what is now a pretty engaged population.

    This has actually been happening in the past 10-15 years throughout the city, largely as the social-justice crowd (opposing refineries and diesel facilities in residential areas and the like) as been influenced by ‘old-line’ conservationists yelling about open space and nature deficiency (and probably vice-versa). So maybe what we’re hoping would happen if we could only locate a Hispanic Audubon president has actually been happening, with or without this elusive person in that particular position?

  • Respectfully, Alan, if Canadians such as yourself won’t step up to write them, the ABA can’t publish them.

  • “Through the Birders’ Exchange program the ABA does, in fact, address a multihued pallet of ethnicity, along with constantly striving to increase its influence across borders and cultures.”

  • Great points, Dan. Thanks for sharing.

  • Gabriel Foley

    Interesting enough post, but I think you have missed the real point. You say that involvement by minorities in outdoor sports is low. If involvement is low, then experience and the resulting qualifications in potential executive candidates would also be low. Why then do you promote hiring people based solely on their skin colour, rather than who can best get the job done? If five white guys in Arizona are the best five people for the job, then those five white guys should have the job, irregardless of whether they represent the demographics. I am quite sure everyone will agree that this is not an issue of exclusion. That is, there are no birders (that I know of) who are telling minorities, “Hey, you can’t be birding – it’s a white-man’s sport.” If someone who isn’t white wants to bird, he’s treated just the same as everyone else. However, involvement is still low. Whether this is a result of a lack of interest, lack of means, lack of time, etc., in minorities, I don’t know. Maybe it’s our fault for not trying hard enough to include minorities, maybe it’s not. But advocating hiring persons to influential positions simply to represent a demographic seems like pure foolishness to me. And what’s even worse, is advocating boycotting agencies that do not go out of their way to ensure their staff is not all white. I mean, really, you actually think it is more important to have a demographically accurate staff than to conserve the environment?? I agree just as much as the next guy that it would be great to have a staff that is made up of all sorts of people. Diversity brings a lot to an environment. But if this diversity is created solely for the sake of diversity, then it loses its advantage. It is more important to have people qualified for (and interested in!) the job.
    I think what it boils down to is that you are missing the point. The point isn’t to start at the top, it’s to start at the bottom. I don’t know about you, but most of the birders I know got hooked when they were a kid, when someone took the time to buy them a field guide, or a pair of binoculars, or show them the difference between an american wigeon and a mallard. If you really want to make a difference in attracting minorities to birding and conservation, forget trying to rearrange board members and executives; take a kid out for a walk with you! I know several kindergarten-aged kids who beg me to let them look through my binoculars and excitedly tell me about the latest robin they saw. In my opinion, those are real results. Those are kids enjoying and coming to know nature, and that only happens when you see it face to face. Most minorities are centered around urban centers, and that is where the least interaction with nature can occur. That means it is up to us to create opportunities. It’s not that difficult to schedule a trip with your local birding association to head into a school and talk about birds, or better yet join them on a field trip. What kid doesn’t want to hear about shrikes impaling prey on thorns or ruby-throated hummingbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico without a break??
    Quit trying to hire representative people for the sake of representation. Start where it matters: showing kids why we love the natural world so darn much, and why they should care too. After all, they’re the ones who are going to replace us.

  • Martin Luther King, in his I Have A Dream speech, warned of the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Have another toke.

  • Gabriel Foley

    Hahahaha, okay, invoke Mr. King’s name. Now, reread my post and make a useful comment. Seriously though, it’s influencing kids that is going to cause any lasting change, not ensuring that you are politically correct.

  • Gabriel, let me make a suggestion. Work on civility. There is nothing about this discussion that requires histrionics. I do take kids out birding. Have you read any of my blog posts? You are excusing the absence of people of color in our recreation by saying that it is inconvenient. In any case, have a great Thanksgiving.

  • Gabriel Foley

    My apologies Ted, I will work on my civility. 🙂 I don’t wish to get into petty arguments, but from your comments I am afraid you are misreading me. I am not excusing anything. I do believe that your post, while bringing attention to a very real issue, has an unrealistic solution. Inconvenience isn’t really my concern – in fact, I highlighted ways to address the situation, albeit in a different way than you. While I certainly don’t suggest ignoring adults, by instilling a respect for nature in children (including/especially minorities), the next generation will have a well represented demographic. It’s not an instant solution of course, but neither was Mr. King’s dream.
    Normally, I would have let this go a long time ago; in fact, I never would have even posted in the first place, except for one comment you made. I would like to reiterate my concern for it. You mention boycotting organizations based solely on the racial makeup of their staff. Their are some great organizations doing some fabulous work, and they may fail to see how hiring staff to reflect demographics is a reasonable solution (as I also fail to see). Is it really worth not supporting them and losing out on what I would consider to be the ‘bigger picture’ of environmental conservation? Don’t mistake this for callousness or carelessness for the plight of minorities (not to be all doom and gloom, but without birds it won’t matter whether there are white or coloured birders). This is simply a concern that perhaps we may be a bit hasty in making drastic recommendations.
    Anyways, that’s it for me, I’ve said much more than I intended to. And thank you for the holiday wishes – may yours be met with a memorable holiday bird (pun not intended).

  • It’s the same problem here in California, which is one of the most diverse states in the country.

    As of 10 years ago, up at Humboldt, which is the best natural resources school in the CSU system, there was one black kid, one Latina, and one Native American kid in my program. I remember sitting in classes like intro to biology where there were 100 people in a room and maybe one or two people of color.

    Humboldt State knew there was a problem and they tried to recruit more minority students… by proposing increased sports scholarships, which I thought was racist and cynical.

    I suspect that it’s a problem of critical mass. I’ve been in situations where I was one of two or three white people in a classroom, and it’s uncomfortable. If I was a black person and I was considering applying to a school where I faced a real likelihood of being the only person of my ethnicity in most of my classes, I’m not sure that I would want to go to that school.

    In order to recruit people to leadership positions in the natural resources, we need a large pool of people of color starting out in Biology 101. But in order to get people when they’re 18, you have to get them when they’re 5, and I don’t know how to go about doing that.

  • Paul

    We really need to figure out what we can do to get kids passionate about nature, but appointing those that run environmental organizations by skin color is not going to get kids connected to nature. Do kids even know or care who the president of Audubon is? It’s not a sporting event. We’re not rooting for the president of Audubon. Audubon is a fine organization, but we’re rooting for nature, not Audubon. I like to see kids instilled with a passion for nature, but that comes from being in nature, and does not derive from respect for authority figures or the color of their skin.

  • Despite the notable and laudable exceptions in both birding and wildlife interpretation, this pretty describes the situation in the ‘wilds’ of the UK too. (short pause for American birders to pull themselves togerher after falling on floor laughing at the suggestion we have any wild left!) However it seems to me it is much less true here in our many, and increasing, urban wildlife sites which are accessible and inclusive. Places like the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust ‘s London Wetland Centre and the RSPB’s Sandwell Valley (Birmingham) attract a mixed, racially and otherwise, crowd.
    Some, but by no means all, birders embrace this.

    How strong is the urban wildlife movement on your side of the pond?

  • Thanks to everyone (on this Thanksgiving Day) for sharing your thoughts about this issue. Here is where I differ from many of you, however. I believe that the inscrutable whiteness of our recreation and of our organizations (birding or otherwise) is a symptom of a deeper illness. Perhaps we are on the mend, and this will cure itself over time. But when has racial division cured itself in our history? We sacrificed over 600,000 lives in the American Civil War, yet civil rights were not guaranteed to all until almost a century later. When we leave racial progress to chance we guarantee the status quo (how else can the U.S. Senate be without a single African-American?).

    I also believe that we can’t wait for five-year-olds to solve the problem. I agree that engagement is part of the solution. But let’s assume that we involve every child of color in the country in the outdoors. When they reach adolescence, they will begin to ponder what they want to do with their lives. Let’s assume that they have become enamored with the outdoors, and begin to look for examples of how they can be employed in this passion. What models are there? What examples will we show them?

    However, this is a separate issue from that facing the ABA. The question facing this organization is whether or not it wishes to extend its relevance beyond a decidedly small segment of the population. Paul said that birding is not a sporting event. I suspect that some of our members would challenge this assertion. But let’s assume that birding has a component of sport in it. As a sport we risk being relegated to the ranks of polo and yachting.

    The broader issue, the one that is my agenda, is whether or not nature will be seen by future generations as important. Continued political support for parks, refuges, sanctuaries, and the like depends on how the people, all the people, value them. We witnessed in this most recent election how easily the environment can be sidelined. Except for a brief mention of climate change after Sandy, the silence was deafening. Our issues, I am afraid, can be easily marginalized if the citizenry does not insist on their primacy.

    I do agree with Dan Cooper and David Berg (on another blog) about the importance of the relatively new urban coalitions and approaches. I do see groups working on environmental justice issues in the cities where I work. Cornell’s efforts to link urban children to birds is an example of the possibilities. But whether or not we (by we I mean birders, interpreters, and conservationists) are committed to the effort, I believe, is still open to debate. As I said earlier, the most visible evidence that we are not is our inscrutable whiteness.

  • Alan Wormington

    On this “U.S.” Thanksgiving Day!

  • Of course, Alan. Happy U.S. Thanksgiving from me, not to be confused with the Canadian Thanksgiving Day in October or Boxing Day near Christmas 🙂

  • Tim in Albion

    I think you are making an unexamined assumption: that kids who are interested in the natural environment will only pursue careers there if they see people who look like them in positions of leadership. What evidence is there for such an assumption? I see people of color pursuing careers in many areas formerly dominated by white men; why would this be any different?

    Looking at it from the other end, why do you think kids of color will be more likely to become birders and follow careers in the outdoors just because some of the board members or presidents of national organizations happen to be people of color? My interest in birding was not triggered (or indeed influenced at all) by the racial composition of national organizations (of whom I was largely ignorant).

    I have to agree with Paul: If you really want to see this kind of change, do everything possible to get kids interested, as early as possible. All else will follow. If you don’t get young people (of color) interested in birding, you will never develop the large pool of talented and passionate birders (of color) from whom to draw future leadership.

    (BTW, what about Native American/First Nations involvement? Culturally they should be over-represented in environmental organizations, as they have longer and deeper traditional ties to the outdoor world than any Europeans. What is the nature of their association or involvement with national organizations?)

  • Tom

    There is no money in birding – hence little ethnic interest. Get over it. All People choose what that do for recreation. There are no barriers to birding.

  • Lee and Scott, among others, have been looking at this issue in park and human dimensions research. According to a recent paper by Lee and Scott, “the results showed that race/ethnicity was the best predictor of wildlife watching activities. Elderly White females who live in rural areas and have college degrees and high household incomes had the highest rates of participation in wildlife watching close to home. In contrast, young White males who live in rural areas and possess college degrees and high household incomes had the highest participation rates in wildlife watching away from home.” This doesn’t address the issue of why, but it does raise the question.

  • Jesse Smith, Philadelphia-based writer and curator, guest blogged on Amy Slaton’s STEM blog about this past October’s Focus on Diversity conference. Smith observed that “missing from all of this [discussion] was any reflexivity on the part of the birdwatching community. Indeed, any discussion of “barriers to birding” diverts attention away from the activity itself; such an approach assumes that problems lies not within birding, but outside it, either among the targeted audiences or in some intermediate zone between audience and activity…”

    “…when this connection comes via birding — via an activity in which participants’ success may be limited by factors such as leisure time, mobility, access to natural areas, and financial resources…, the effort risks reinforcing the marginality of those targeted audiences. ”

    “Of course, this would require a reflexivity that is unsurprisingly absent from most realms. Birders at the conference, I’m sure, would find any critique of this event a surprise, laden as it with the good intention of making more inclusive a pursuit that they unquestioningly value for both themselves and the greater world. They’re not actively avoiding reflection. They may even be open to such criticality, should it be presented to them. Pursuits that deal with issues of diversity (and, though unexplored in this post, the environment and conservation), obviously have a place for this kind of thinking; the trick is in getting it in there. ”

    Here is a link to the post:

  • More food for thought, this from research in the UK. The paper is titled Who Benefits from Recreational Use of Protected Areas?, and is written by Josephine E. Booth, Kevin J. Gaston, and Paul R. Armsworth. This quote is from the abstract. Here is the link to the paper itself.

    “Public support for protected areas depends, in part, upon clear demonstrations of the
    importance of the ecosystem services provided by these areas…We found that an unrepresentative subset of society enjoyed this benefit. Site visitor populations were biased towards older people and men, and minority groups were starkly underrepresented, comprising only 1% of overall visitors. When the characteristics of visitors were examined, the more privileged sectors of society were found to have received disproportionate benefits….Conservation goals will only be met if broad public support for the natural environment is engaged and maintained, for example, through nature recreation. However, our results suggest that at present a worrying disconnect exists between public conservation efforts and much of society.”

  • Oldfriend310

    I apologize for commenting so late to this post however, while I agree with your thoughts on this issue. You are failing to see the true cause of the lack of diversity in the ranks of the groups that you mentioned in your post is…wait for it…M.O.N.E.Y.

    Now. I’ll bet you my Biggio rookie card that all of that “whiteness” that surrounds you is in a much different tax bracket than the overwhelming majority of people of color. Not only African Americans but the Latino and Tejano populations as well. Realise that Bird watching is not cheap. Burning gas to get to spots like High Island, South Padre, and Big Bend can get a some familys around town for a week. Those Zeiss binocs that are around your neck 24/7 are NOT cheap. Most of the people that are in the lower to middle class are much more worried about that next pay check than watching wildlife unless of course you can shoot it and eat it.

    The income gap between the have and the have nots is increasing daily. And unfortunatly, A majority of people of color fall into the “have not” catagory and this will not change any time soon. So get used to the “whiteness” because until you start seeing people of color move into neighborhoods like West University, or Beverly hills, or La Jolla. You won’t see any at your Christmas Counts or on the board of the Outdoor Nature Club.

    Urban nature projects in major cities in the US are a joke, at best. Most of them are overrun with crime and homeless encampments and truely, most have or will end up being a burden to the cities. I live in LA and just ask mayor Villaragosa how much of a burden the urban parks have become because of the need to clean up these facilitys everyday.

    So…until public transit goes to the “Great Outdoors.” The “whiteness” will continue.

    Sorry for butchering the grammer but I didn’t expect to write this much.

  • Lance

    Very interesting thought-provoking piece. Having grown up in Hawaii and birded since elementary and middle school, I never thought about color, I simply thought birds were very cool. I admired people at the Hawaii Audubon Society who led monthly field trips and conducted Christmas Bird Counts. Personally, I enjoy sharing my knowledge and passion for birding and natural history to ANYONE who is interested and I enjoy learning from others. It’s true it’s important to engage children and as well as for engaging retirees. Thanks to everyone who makes an effort to share their knowledge to help beginning birders as well as non-birders.

  • Gerry

    This is such a valuable discussion!

    It occurs to me that perhaps some of you would be interested in knowing about this book:

    “Black Nature is the first anthology to focus on nature writing by African American poets, a genre that until now has not commonly been counted as one in which African American poets have participated.”

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