As a woman bird-watcher, I’ve occasionally found myself in places where I didn’t feel comfortable when out birding alone. It might be because the spot is remote and no one’s around, or it could be that too many people are sharing the space.

But I’ve come to realize that people of color feel this way nearly all the time when they’re out in nature. A park or natural area that to me is an escape from everyday stresses can feel unsafe, even threatening, to a Black, brown or LGBTQ person.

These kinds of concerns were amplified recently by a now-famous video, showing an encounter between a white woman walking her dog in New York’s Central Park and a Black bird-watcher. She called the police to falsely claim that an African American man was threatening her, essentially “weaponizing” his skin color. In a horrific coincidence, this occurred on the very same day in May that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.

These events have led to intense discussions in the birding community, focusing on how to make the outdoors more welcoming and safer for other-than-white people.

Because, let’s face it, bird-watching has been a predominantly white activity, and organizations dedicated to birds and nature are also overwhelmingly white. Nature and outdoors organizations have bemoaned the lack of diversity in their membership for a very long time, but not much has happened to move the needle on this issue.

‘No go’ places

But maybe the moment has arrived to start really working for change, so people of color see other people who look like them doing what they like to do.

Black and other communities are now speaking up about their reality of being outdoors. The issues emerged pointedly in a recent series of podcasts featuring some of the young scientists and bird-watchers who created Black Birders Week in June in the wake of the Central Park incident and George Floyd’s death.

Christian Cooper was the Black Central Park birder who encountered the toxic dog walker. During the podcast he noted, “There are so many places where we are vulnerable and perhaps feel unwelcome. There are so many swaths of this country where I won’t go, as a Black, gay man.”

Many on the panel agreed, noting that as graduate students in biology and other sciences, they’d had the experience of being outdoors, conducting field research, only to be challenged by police, questioning what they’re doing.

As Corina Newsome, a graduate student in ornithology at Georgia Southern University, noted, “Outdoors is not a neutral place” to Blacks.

And a Black naturalist and educator told the panel that when he’s outside, he makes sure his binoculars are visible so it doesn’t look as if he’s “up to no good.”

White people simply don’t have to deal with these kinds of issues when we head out the door. We need to recognize the chasm that lies between others’ experiences and our own.

Equity and inclusion

Which brings us to the Urban Bird Collective, founded by St. Paul’s Monica Bryand, a dedicated bird photographer and St. Paul Audubon member. For some years, she’d been posting bird photos on her Facebook page and kept hearing from people who wanted to watch birds but didn’t feel comfortable outdoors.

“So I came up with the idea of training the trainers, people who would then take people of color and the LGBTQ community out birding, to help make the outdoors feel like a safe place,” she says. Now in its third year, the collective has 20 active members and a steady following on its Facebook page. Using a grant provided by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, members have taken field trips locally and to birding hot spots like Duluth’s Sax-Zim Bog and Hawk Ridge.

Bryand, who’s a committee chair for St. Paul Audubon, and whose day job is co-executive director of Voices for Racial Justice, prefers to talk about equity and inclusion, as opposed to diversity. This is exactly the point made by the organizers of Black Birders Week — it’s not about helping existing organizations to diversify their membership. Instead, it’s about getting people out into nature and helping them feel comfortable there.

Like nearly everything in these COVID-19 days, much of the collective’s work has moved online, but the group’s dedication and camaraderie haven’t diminished. And it’s efforts like theirs that are starting to make the outdoors a safe place for us all.

As Urban Bird Collective member Loreen Ann Lee put it, “Like the Baltimore oriole who carefully weaves the fine fibers of its nest to cradle the young, let us intentionally weave new spaces where we hold each other with care, empathy and understanding.”