National Audubon Society Sticks With Its Name, Despite Namesake’s Racism
For more than a year, the National Audubon Society—one of the largest bird conservation groups—mulled over a big decision: whether or not they should rename the organization. Its namesake, John James Audubon, is known as the founding father of American birding. But Audubon and his family were anti-abolition and they enslaved nine people in their home. He also actively harmed and looted from Indigenous people.
Earlier this month, the National Audubon Society announced its decision to keep “Audubon” in its name, saying that it’s important in allowing the organization to keep protecting birds. The open letter also says the organization represents “much more than the work of one person.”
The decision to stick with the Audubon name has been met with intense backlash, from birders, local branches, and even its own employees. A handful of locally-run Audubon branches, from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin, plan to change their names to nix the word Audubon. Seattle’s branch is renaming itself “Birds Connect Seattle,” and Washington D.C.’s Audubon Naturalist Society is now “Nature Forward.”
Guest host Kathleen Davis speaks with Stuart Wells, executive director of Portland Audubon and conservation scientist Corina Newsome about their reactions to the National Audubon Society keeping its name, and how changes are happening locally, including in places like Portland.
Corina Newsome is a conservation scientist based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Stuart Wells is executive director of Portland Audubon in Portland, Oregon.
SHAHLA FARZAN: This is Science Friday, I’m Shahla Farzan.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: And I’m Kathleen Davis. For more than a year the National Audubon Society, one of the largest bird conservation groups, mulled over a big decision whether or not they should rename the organization. Its namesake, John James Audubon is known as the founding father of American birding. And he was an enslaver. He and his family enslaved nine people in the 1800s. Earlier this month, the National Audubon society announced its decision to keep Audubon in its name, saying that it’s important in allowing them to keep protecting birds and that the organization represents quote, “much more than the work of one person.”
This decision has been met with intense backlash, and a handful of local Audubon chapters have even changed their name or they plan to do so, from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin, to Portland, Oregon. Here to discuss this decision and what it means for birding are my guests Stuart Wells executive director of Portland Audubon, based in Portland, Oregon, and Corina Newsome conservation scientist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome Stuart and welcome back Corina.
STUART WELLS: Thank you, pleasure to be here.
CORINA NEWSOME: Thank you for having me. So happy to be back.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So let’s start with the basics here. Why is it so important to get rid of this Audubon Name we can start with you, Stuart.
STUART WELLS: As you mentioned in your introduction, John James Audubon was a slaveholder, he desecrated Native American gravesites. But as an organization, once you recognize or understand that this man was staunchly against abolition of slaves and spoke out against it, and owned and sold slaves, once you have that information, as an organization that is dedicated to inclusion and equity, we really just can’t carry that name forward. It represents a barrier.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So earlier this month when the National Audubon Society decided to keep Audubon in its name, Corina, what was your reaction to that?
CORINA NEWSOME: Thanks for that question. So when they made that announcement, I actually was mentally transported back. I used to work at Georgia Audubon in Atlanta, Georgia, in community engagement, so engaging diverse communities who had not typically been engaged by Audubon chapters in the region. And I remember it was days before I was supposed to start at Georgia Audubon. And prior to that I knew that Audubon was a bird person. I knew very little about him. A few days before I started National Audubon Society, they published information. That’s when I found out that John James Audubon was an enslaver and I learned all that Stuart was just describing.
And I remember being sick to my stomach and running out to my roommate and being like, I cannot work here. You know it’s one thing to have like maybe a statue that is honoring a person who has violated human rights, like that’s horrible in itself, or you know other honorific forms of naming things after people who violated human rights. But for Audubon, it’s on everything. It’s on my shirts, it’s on my hat, it’s on my gear. It’s what I’m giving out to communities. It’s how I’m introducing myself is being a part of the team called Audubon. And I remember genuinely feeling like, how can I engage communities who have not been engaged by this organization before or this network of people before and introducing this person who I now know enslaved our ancestors?
It brought me back to that moment. I no longer work in the Audubon network, but I then thought of the people who do work for Audubon or Audubon chapters across the country, and my heart broke for them. Because it actually does create a weight. When you know what he stood for, what he did, and how he was actively opposed to your ancestors’ freedom and violated their human rights there is a constant struggle for me personally, and I know this is the case for others who work for Audubon, to carry that name in a way that honors him. And I was just transported back to that moment and it broke my heart for the people who still have to carry this enslaver’s name into Black communities and indigenous communities in particular. And so that was my initial reaction.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Stuart, from a branch perspective, as someone who heads up the Portland branch of the Audubon Society, what’s your reaction to that? I mean, what message does it send that the national organization did not change its name?
STUART WELLS: Well, first of disappointment. National Audubon has been writing about John James Audubon for the last couple of years. And if you read some of those early articles, they were very much opposed to carrying his name forward. So it’s a big shock and a disappointment that they didn’t do the name change. From my point of view as executive director of an Audubon chapter, although we are all independent chapters, we’re part of the Audubon network.
It’s a challenge for me, just as Corina mentioned, to wear that name and try and reach out to communities of color and talk about increasing their access to nature and learning about birds, having that knowledge. Whether they know it or not there’s implicit concern for me to be able to talk to them about our mission and knowing that we’re walking around with this clarion call name that represents so much of how people felt historically but the impacts of those thoughts are still affecting people of color today.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So National Audubon did release a letter and they defended why they chose to keep the name. There is a lot to unpack in that letter. Corina, is there any part of it that really jumped out at you?
CORINA NEWSOME: Yeah, so several things jumped out but I think the piece that comes to mind first is when they made the comment that they chose to keep the name in order to remain a nonpartisan force for conservation, for bird conservation. And I was perplexed by that comment, firstly, because to pretend that that is a somewhat neutral choice or helps you to remain neutral in the realm of conservation is choosing to say that the voices of the people for whom this is a painful and hurtful decision doesn’t matter because it is not a neutral decision.
I wouldn’t even say it’s a nonpartisan choice, because now you’ve made a choice. There are constituencies of yours who are harmed by carrying that name around and there are those who want to keep it and you made a choice between those two camps of people. And then also as though Audubon’s name is doing birds a favor. And the interesting thing to me was that I would say prior to me becoming a bird biologist I should say I had no idea that John James Audubon– who he was or his affiliation with birds. So if someone were to come into my neighborhood and say, oh, we’re from the Audubon Society, I would have no idea what that meant. That wouldn’t tell me birds. That would give me no information about what they did.
And so if you’re actually trying to expand the reach of the organization, that you are engaging, as they have professed, to be a priority for many years now, why not have a name that actually describes what you do to people who do not know who that man is and who, frankly, we don’t want to keep celebrating and in propping up as this hero. Particularly when he has the history that he has. And so that comment to me was both hurtful and a little bit detached from reality in my opinion, given their professed priority around expanding the people who are engaged in the work of that organization.
STUART WELLS: No, I agree with that completely, Corina. And one thing about systemic racism and white supremacy– I don’t know how to say this exactly, but I describe it as a constant drizzle for people of color, Black people in particular. It’s something that we feel and it’s always there.
And carrying that Audubon name, having that knowledge, is just another– an example of that. I think as an organization we’ve embraced the fact that it is an impediment, a barrier to our mission of being inclusive.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, let’s talk about that a little bit because Portland Audubon is one of these branches that has decided that it will change the name. You haven’t chosen a new name yet, but it is coming at some point. Can you talk me through a little bit about this process? I mean, how long has Portland Audubon been mulling this over?
STUART WELLS: I started here in this role in May of 2022. And Portland Audubon has been discussing this since 2020 at least. So quite some time. And we did that– we started that discussion here because we recognize as an organization– and our mission is to be inclusive– we recognize that people of color historically have been sidelined from being involved in nature and wilderness.
You know, I was very fortunate growing up to grow up in a rural city, and I had the nature and the river in my hometown. And I was able to fall in love really with nature as a child. But that’s not always available for urban youth.
The communities are not developed in a way that they’re close access to nature. Trees are not something that are considered in some of these areas. Seeing a wild animal might be a shock to somebody if they haven’t really grown up with understanding that animals are all around us.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: So one thing that having that name Audubon did was people knew that all of these Audubon branches were connected. Seattle’s Audubon branch is renaming itself– Birds Connect Seattle. Washington DC’s Audubon Naturalist Society is now Nature Forward. I’m wondering if there could be a disconnect here if all the branches that do change their names elect for different names that are not connected.
STUART WELLS: Well, I mean that’s always a possibility. The brand is a promise of what you will do and how you will carry that out. And that’s also one of the more disappointing aspects of why National Audubon chose to keep the name. As an organization here in Portland, we’ve been here for 121 years. We actually preceded the formation of National Audubon by a couple of years.
It is unfortunate. We know that rebranding is going to be a challenge. So in that regard, we’ll find a name that talks about all of the things that we’ve accomplished in our legacy of conservation here in Oregon. Yes, it makes it more challenging. It certainly makes it more challenging for the smaller of the 450 chapters across the country that may not have the capacity to rebrand. They’re actually put in a position where they have to rely on that name in order to continue.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Corina, looking more broadly at this topic, a lot of US conservation is rooted in white supremacy. It directly stems from colonization. So looking forward, how can conservation reckon with these origins?
CORINA NEWSOME: So I think a lot has to happen, but it’s really rooted in power dynamics. Who has decision making power and who has resources? That essentially is what has directed the priorities of conservation since its inception on this continent in response, of course, to overexploitation by colonizers.
But I think the really central element will be, number one, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley made this comment that the people who are closest to the pain should be closest to the power. So the people who are those who are closest to the issues that are facing birds and people should be the ones making decisions about conservation of birds and how we engage people in that work.
I think that Black communities, indigenous communities, other communities of color need to be overrepresented in positions of power. And by that I mean a lot of organizations set their diversity goals around, well, what is the diversity of the people who live in the United States and we want that reflected here. I believe that Black and Brown communities should be overrepresented by those standards in positions of power.
And I think that that will have a cascading impact. It will impact how we approach conservation to begin with, right? Ideas about one health are becoming mainstream now. But Black and Brown and indigenous biologists have been approaching science from a one health perspective, meaning we’re thinking about people, wildlife, and the whole of the ecosystems we share in our conservation work in the way that we invest in it.
And so I think that unrooting ourselves, unattaching ourselves from colonialism and doing conservation in a way that is reaching into other people’s resources and telling them what they can and can’t do with it in a way that disenfranchises certain people, we have to move away from that– that kind of fortress conservation or protectionist conservation. It needs to be a conservation that is encouraging the health of all people in connection and in health with their environment.
And so to me, that’s what I really want to see. And so if that means that the way we understand bird conservation and who are the leaders changes, I celebrate that and I welcome that. We are starting to see those kinds of shifts happen. And I’m excited to see those shifts continue to happen in the future.
And I also just want to celebrate the people who are leading that change in organizations, big and small, including within the National Audubon Society. There are lots of incredible employees, Black and indigenous, and employees of color who are really doing this work even from the inside.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: I’m Kathleen Davis, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m speaking with Stuart Wells and Corina Newsome about the National Audubon Society deciding to not change its name and what impact that could have for the inclusivity of birding.
I want to end our conversation with some bird joy, because at the end of the day, birding is just such a wonderful activity. Stuart, what does birding mean to you?
STUART WELLS: Freedom. Man, I wish I could fly some days. So that’s what birds bring. And the fascination with them and once you understand the complexity of their social structures and what guides them to come back to the same place every year for hundreds, thousands of years, and then go back to that other place that they hang out, it’s just a fascinating ecology that birds have.
The various adaptations– I used to work with ostriches, emus, and these incredibly large birds. And I’m a fan of raptors and did a lot of work with the California condor recovery years back.
And so I’m constantly fascinated with birds. And I think because they’re such an important indicative species as to how the habitat is doing, especially in our days of understanding that we’re at a precipice of climate change and how that’s going to really impact how we live on this planet in years to come.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Corina, what about you? What does birding mean to you?
CORINA NEWSOME: Birding to me– I think the word that sums it up is connection. Similar to what Stuart was just saying, birds connect places. So the same bird that I’ll see stopping over in a literal half-acre city park in the middle of Atlanta is the same bird that requires these maybe large expansive forest habitats for breeding. So they need both of those spaces to survive.
And just thinking about the act of migration, this bird that just showed up in my bush outside of my window was maybe not too long ago in the Caribbean or somewhere in South America. And to look at a bird and to know that, I feel very privileged to know that about birds. It just– you see so much almost of the Earth just looking into the eyes of a bird. To me, I just– it’s very miraculous.
And then they connect people. Whenever I go looking at birds with people, whether they’re birders, people who have gone birding, who have binoculars, or it’s my cousins who just happen to be outside with me in the backyard and we see a bird, the moment that we share together, both admiring that bird and sharing our stories about those birds, it draws us together.
And so the ways that birds connect our places and our community members, it’s just such a unique and beautiful benefit to paying attention to those little creatures outside.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: That’s about all the time we have for now. I would like to thank my guests. Stuart Wells is the executive director of Portland Audubon, based in Portland, Oregon. And Corina Newsome is a conservation scientist based in Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you both so much for joining me.
CORINA NEWSOME: Thank you, Kathleen.
STUART WELLS: Thank you so much, Kathleen.