Birds Of A Feather: Making Science More Inclusive

10:24 minutes

It’s been six months since Black birders took over Twitter in solidarity with New York City birder and science writer Christian Cooper, who posted a video of a white woman threatening to call the police on him the very same day that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. In response, Black naturalists and birders celebrated their communities and told stories about similar harassment in the outdoors for #BlackBirdersWeek. Other Black scientists have held their own visibility campaigns with #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInAstro, and dozens of other disciplines.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to herpetologist Chelsea Connor, a co-founder of Black Birders Week, about her relationship with the outdoors, and what comes next for creating, and maintaining, spaces where Black scientists can thrive.

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Segment Guests

Chelsea Connor

Chelsea Connor is a herpetologist, science communicator, and co-founder of Black Birders Week.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: We have one more chapter in our bird story for you. This one, though, is about birders and who gets to spend time in the great outdoors without being viewed with suspicion, or even put in danger. Producer Christie Taylor has more.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: This Memorial Day, the same day that Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a Black New York City birder named Christian Cooper was birding in Central Park when a white woman threatened to call the police on him. He captured the incident on video. While in the wake of George Floyd’s death Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets in cities nationwide, Black Birders and other scientists were also responding to Christian Cooper’s story.

They organized, and in early June, they took to Twitter with @BlackBirdersWeek. If you followed the hashtag, you saw both sides of being Black in the natural world, smiling faces, on the one hand, of people thrilled to be in the woods staring down a hard-to-spot warbler through gigantic binoculars. But these Black bird lovers also shared stories of being threatened, followed, or just given sideways looks while out birding.

They talked about how they didn’t feel welcome or necessarily safe all the time while pursuing a hobby they loved or data they needed for their jobs. One of those birders was Chelsea Connor, a freshly minted herpetologist in Texas, who also birds in her free time. She’s a Co-Founder of Black Birders Week, and she joins me today.

Welcome to Science Friday, Chelsea.

CHELSEA CONNOR: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: First, tell me more about how Black Birders Week got started in the wake of that incident with Christian Cooper in Central Park.

CHELSEA CONNOR: So after seeing the video, we have a group chat. It’s a bunch of Black biologists, and naturalists, and scientists, and we talked about it. And we talked about the impact of video and how commonplace it was and how sad that is that, as we all know, it shouldn’t have happened to begin with.

So Anna Gifty suggested that we do something in honor of Christian. We were all on board. And then next thing we know, we started planning this week. The whole purpose of it was to highlight the challenges that Black naturalists and biologists face in the field, putting specific emphasis on birders, and also to have these conversations and start some action regarding how we handle them, and listening to Black people, and making sure that things like that never happen again.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And Black Birder Week specifically took place on Twitter. What were the kinds of things that were happening as part of this event?

CHELSEA CONNOR: We had a theme for each day. So first day was “Black in Nature,” and that was just celebrating everybody who enjoys being outdoors. And that includes any kind of outdoors, even in urban environments. And the next day, we had “Post a Bird,” and we shared bird stories. I shared bird folklore from back home. I’m from the Caribbean.

And then we had “Ask a Black Birder.” A lot of people sent in questions about birds for the Black birders. We all answered them. We went live on Instagram, answered some on Twitter. It was a lot of fun.

We had two livestream sessions, one with Dr. Drew Lanham and the other with Christian Cooper. And they talked about positive and negative experiences that they’ve had while birding. So that includes being stopped by people or just their favorite bird and their favorite birding experience. We made sure to highlight both sides of the coin there, because that is really important. It’s a reality, and it needs to be discussed.

And then the last day was “Black Women who Bird.” And as a Black woman, I recognize that I am part of two marginalized communities. I identify as female, and I am also Black. And that serves to make it even more unique experience for Black women who are in the naturalist field. And we wanted to highlight that with the last day just focusing on the Black women in the birding community and their experiences and their joys.

We had some livestreams for that too. One of them was with Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is one of my favorite aquariums, so it was a dream come true to bird with them. We did virtual bird watching. The video is still up on their YouTube if you want to see that.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I remember looking through Twitter that week in June and just seeing so many nerdy birders just looking joyful out in nature. Is that how you feel when you’re out birding?

CHELSEA CONNOR: Yes. It’s so much fun. I’m learning more and more. North American birds, I’m used to the ones that come through my island and the ones that live specifically in the Caribbean. But I’ve been working on my North American IDs. It’s a lot of fun.

And birding is like solving a puzzle. Like with sparrows, a lot of them look alike. They’re all these small brown birds. There’s specific things you have to look for to be able to identify them from one another. And piecing that together is so much fun to do.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Just a quick reminder that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Christie Taylor talking to Chelsea Connor, a Co-Founder of Black Birders Week, about how it started and where it’s going now. I wonder if I can ask what kinds of racism you’ve encountered while trying to just observe nature?

CHELSEA CONNOR: Sometimes it’s pretty subtle. It’s just like if you’re looking at a stream looking for tadpoles or something, sometimes you look up, and there’s one or two older white men looking at you like, what are you doing? You’re up to no good. We need to keep an eye on this one, like that kind of energy.

And sometimes it’s more overt, like just coming up to you and asking you what are you doing here, like you have no right to be at a park. I know that some other birders have had a lot worse experiences than I have. And I think that’s because I generally avoid going outside unless I have a white friend with me, to be perfectly honest. Yeah.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So then when we look at Black Birders Week, this huge push to raise the profile of Black birders and Black scientists, do you feel like people saw you more as a result of this outreach? And did you see things change as a result?

CHELSEA CONNOR: Yeah, I would definitely say that people saw me more. They saw all of us more. A lot of people follow our group Twitter now, and they actively participate. So there’s a lot of people out there who are willing to be part of the conversation, and also, hopefully willing to put into action the things that they’re taking away from the conversations that we’re having in terms of change.

NWF, that’s the National Wildlife Federation, started a scholarship for people of color. And we’ve also recently partnered with them to have these roundtable discussions about making the outdoors inclusive. So recently on our Twitter if you missed it, I live tweeted the whole thing.

That was me. The response is just incredibly positive. People are there, and people are listening. So people are definitely willing to hear the conversations. So we need to go to the next step of putting that into action.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, and I hear the word visibility. I hear you talk about conversations and learning, white people learning. It’s January 1 of 2021, what kind of New Year’s resolutions should institutions and people be setting when it comes to eliminating racism in the outdoors and nurturing Black scientists and nature lovers?

CHELSEA CONNOR: It’s very important that you listen. And when you create these spaces, you don’t just create them and think that the work is done, because there are going to be people within your institution that are going to challenge people that you’ve made those spaces for. So the people in this space need to feel safe. They need to feel like they have your support. They need to actually have your support.

And when something happens and they bring those concerns to you, whether they be microaggressions or a higher level of negative interaction, you take some definitive action to make it clear to everybody that that behavior is not going to be accepted and that everybody is equal at this workplace, at school, wherever it is that you are, wherever it is you’re in charge of. It is vital that you not just say you’re going to listen to the Black people that you’re working with, that are advising you.

And it’s also important that you pay Black people for their labor. It is not an easy thing to constantly open up and talk about racism and talk about how to make it better and how to improve your DEI efforts. And people pay people to advise them on diversity, equity, and inclusion. So there’s no reason why you should just stop your Black co-worker or your Black friend and be like, hey, what do you think about this and get that free labor out of them.

Pay people for their time. It is important, especially the labor. Racism is so often dramatic. To ask somebody to open up that trauma for you and not pay them for their time or provide some other compensation for them having to do that kind of labor for you is unfair.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Chelsea, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

CHELSEA CONNOR: Yeah, no problem. Thank you so much for having me.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Chelsea Connor is a herpetologist and Co-Founder of Black Birders Week. She joined me from Wichita Falls, Texas. For Science Friday, I’m Christie Taylor.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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