Painting by John James Audubon (Public Domain).
We have received a lot of attention, including in local and national news media, because we are removing “Audubon” from our organizational name. This is not a helpful place for the spotlight to remain trained. If we allow the focus of everyone – even our supporters – to remain on “Audubon,” they all will be missing the point.
More than anything, removing “Audubon” from our 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 our name change, but it’s not alone. I am offering this guide to talking to family and friends about our re-naming process because you, our volunteers, members, supporters, and advocates, can help set the tone for our critical messaging.
And that starts with shifting the focus off “Audubon.” Staying there, for one thing, is a rhetorical trap. It allows our detractors to claim that we’re 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 us, “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 our organization engages BIPOC and other marginalized groups and communities, we will be inviting them to learn who we are and where we come from. If we don’t change our name, we will be inviting them to discover the ugly truth about John James Audubon and therefore congeal their distrust of us and the conservation movement, generally.
That’s the harm that the “Audubon” name inflicts. If you agree that “Audubon” is harmful to people, then every second that we bear it is harming people. We want to end that harm in a way that we can control.
Here’s more to consider:
The namesakes of our state (Washington) and our city (Seattle) were slaveholders. Are they next?
Maybe, but we are working on our own organization, what is within our ability to change, and how our organizational name can support our mission.
Are you leaving the Audubon network? Won’t Audubon kick you out?
We have no plans to leave the network. We still share 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.
We don’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 you 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 Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (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, we believe, 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.
We believe 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 our 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 our 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, we support the 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?
We believe it is important to be as inclusive in our re-naming process as we strive to be in our mission and work. In August and September, we conducted in-person and Zoom focus-group discussions about values and mission with internal stakeholders, including members, volunteers, and its board (staff already had completed this discussion). We then conducted a series of discussions with external stakeholders, including communities and groups with which we want to strengthen or begin relationships and partnerships.
We also conducted two online surveys, one for our 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 a 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, is scheduled to be presented to chapter membership in June 2023.
Can we please get back to conservation and loving birds?
Changing our name is all about conservation and loving birds. We cannot fulfill our 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. We cannot effectively do our work until we follow 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.
We have accumulated a lot of experience and expertise during the 106 years of our existence. We have not also acquired the privilege of keeping such assets to ourselves, nor do those assets belong to a name or even a certain group of people. We cannot truly do the work of protecting birds and the people who love them if we do not commit every drop of our resources to all of conservation – and help ensure every other organization in this slice of society does the same.
Seattle Audubon Community Director
A national-award-winning writer, photographer, and web publisher, Glenn founded The Trail Posse to explore the intersection of race and the outdoors. A longtime journalist, he started his career at The Seattle Times and co-founded or founded several digital media companies, including HoopGurlz, a girl’s and women’s basketball website that he sold to ESPN. Glenn earned his B.A.s in journalism and political science from Seattle University and his Masters in American Government from Columbia University.