Developing a Black-focused birdwatching group for people of color in Michigan took a dogged willingness to bypass those standing “in the way.”
April Campbell remembers always loving birds, even as a child – though she didn’t know what to do about this curiosity until she reached adulthood.
“There were no members of my family that were birders,” Campbell recalls. “All I knew was that I really liked nature and birds and wanted to learn more about them.”
Campbell, who is Black, eventually adopted birding as a hobby after she completed medical school. But she quickly learned that the local Washtenaw Audubon chapter – in liberal, affluent Ann Arbor, where she lived – lacked Black and Brown birdwatchers.
“There were never any people of color, and not just African Americans, but there weren’t any Asians, no Latino – nobody,” Campbell says. “There were…usually older white people; most of them were either retired or were very well-to-do with a lot of vacation time.”
According to a 2019 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report, just 6% of birders are Black. Campbell, now a retired medical doctor, realized that birding events held by her local Audubon chapter were not accessible to Black and low-income folks.
“There was really very limited-to-no outreach to other people besides the immediate group. It made it very difficult if you didn’t have a car,” Campbell says. The meetings were often held in areas that were not on any bus route, requiring a vehicle to get to and from outings.
Campbell says she would mention these concerns to the chapter leadership repeatedly. “I was told well, ‘we’re a welcoming group,’ and ‘we welcome everybody to come,’” she recalls. “I said, well, welcoming someone to come is one thing, but actually doing outreach and going out to them is quite another. It got to the point where I became an irritant. And they accused me of being just an angry Black person.’”
In 2020, the same day as the George Floyd murder, the racism and racial exclusion Black birders endure came under a national spotlight. In New York City, lifelong birder Christian Cooper was birdwatching in Central Park when he requested a white woman to leash her dog per city regulations. The woman’s aggressive response, calling the police to report “an African American man [was] threatening” her life, went viral. Black people’s assertiveness when in spaces that are deemed white is often interpreted as aggression.
It’s a reality encapsulated by birder J. Drew Lanham’s 2013 article “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” No. 1: Expect to be mistaken for the only other black birder at the bird festival. No. 2: Carry three forms of ID at all times. No. 3: Never bird while wearing a hoodie.
Around the U.S., as the Washington Post reported last year, the birding community is undergoing a racial reckoning as it decides how to deal with the names of birds that honor proponents of slavery and white supremacy. The National Audubon Society itself is named after a slaveholding birder who contributed to white supremacist ideology and worked against abolitionists. In July, the Seattle chapter voted to become the organization’s first large chapter to drop its name, and advocated for the national society to do the same.
Back in Michigan, Campbell decided to leave the Washtenaw Audubon group and create her own local group for Black birders – BIPOC Birders of Michigan. “I called it BIPOC Birders of Michigan because I wanted to be acknowledged that the goal was to have this statewide,” Campbell says.
Finding a local Audubon chapter willing to work with her took a while. In Michigan, local chapters operate autonomously and are unaffiliated with each other and with the National Audubon Society. At first, Campbell hoped to work with the state chapter, Michigan Audubon, but found a good fit with Detroit Audubon.
“Detroit Audubon has undergone what I would describe as a sea change in their entire philosophy of birding and outreach,” Campbell says. “And they have a number of young new people who are really dedicated to making this work.” She’s also building partnerships with other metro Detroit chapters and continues working with supportive Washtenaw Audubon members.
“It was really a matter of partnering with people willing to go the distance and bypassing the people in the way,” says Campbell.
Since Campbell’s departure, the Washtenaw Audubon chapter brought on Victor Chen as its education chair to help strengthen diversity efforts. “Washtenaw Audubon is very aware of the lack of diversity in our membership and people participating on our bird walks,” Chen says. As education chair, he is tasked with creating more inclusive programming for Black people and other people of color.
Chen says he’s happy to hear about Campbell’s success with the BIPOC Birders of Michigan. “I hope that we can support her in whatever way possible, especially since much of the work we’re trying to do at Washtenaw Audubon stems from conversations I’ve had with April,” he says.
The Washtenaw chapter placed a DEI statement on its website in 2020; Campbell says she doesn’t recall being asked to participate in creating the statement. (Washtenaw Chapter president Juliet Berger says she did not recall why Campbell left the group. “I’m very sorry that she did not feel supported. That was not our intention here,” she says.)
Brittany Leick, a program coordinator at Detroit Audubon, was thrilled to join forces with Campbell. She had been hoping to diversify Detroit Audubon’s membership, so Campbell’s project offered a potential solution to a problem many chapter members had already identified.
“It’s unfortunate, but the reality is for a large portion of the lifetime of our organization, and even today, most people refer to Detroit Audubon as a primarily white organization,” she says. “It shows in many of our attendees as well, and I don’t like that. I don’t want that to be how it is.”
Other chapters within the Great Lakes region have identified similar concerns, according to Troy Peters, director of engagement for Audubon Great Lakes, a regional chapter of the organization. He sees a primary need to expose communities of color to birding as an opportunity they may not recognize.
“It’s not like [Audubon chapters] are saying, ‘Hey, we have all these people that are interested to come and get involved with what we’re doing and we don’t know how to get them involved. It’s more, ‘We are trying to get people involved,’” he says.
One way Great Lakes Audubon is doing that is through its Wild Indigo Nature Explorations, which is designed to build lasting relationships between urban communities of color and their local natural areas. The program currently exists within cities of the region’s five states, including Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Columbus, and Gary, IN. It’s one example of how to encourage grassroots leadership in Black communities where Audubon has lacked engagement, according to Peters.
“[This] gives us more of an opportunity to develop that pipeline of grassroots leadership, that will change both the complexion of membership and…making it a movement [so] that people are not just joining the things that we’ve always done,” he says.
BIPOC Birders of Michigan held its inaugural event – Blacks, Browns, and Birds – in early June, leading a bird-watching tour through the trails of Detroit’s Palmer Park and ending with a conversation about the joys and challenges Black Birders face. Detroit Audubon helped distribute flyers among Black communities and loaned equipment for the program.
Campbell hoped the event would create a safe haven for Black and Brown people of all birding experience levels. At Campbell’s request, Detroit Audubon decided not to advertise the event widely.
“Everyone was worried that if we did [advertise], we’d have way too many white people,” Leick says. “So we stuck to that commitment.”
Campbell advises Black people who are interested in birding to start right in their own neighborhoods. When visiting a park or natural area, she advises bringing a friend to be safe and to bring a whistle to make noise in case of trouble.
“I don’t want fear to impede people from enjoying what a great resource to us is and what we’re entitled to, what belongs to us every bit as much as to white people,” she says.
She hopes to eventually have local chapters of BIPOC Birders of Michigan throughout the state and to secure funding for binoculars and other equipment. She’d also like to establish BIPOC outdoor birding camps for young people and scholarships for Black youth who want to go into ornithology or wildlife biology or work in conservation.
“So that’s how I like to see it go, so that more people of color, and particularly African Americans can achieve their dreams in this regard,” she says.
For Campbell, birding helps her clear her mind – not just noise from cars and leaf blowers, but the background noise of the news and the tremendous pressure everybody’s under to make a living and care for their families.
“Layered on top of that is the background noise of intergenerational trauma that is always there, as Black people, that we just can’t escape,” she says. “We can’t just wake up one day and have that all disappear. But we certainly can mitigate it. That’s what happens to me when I’m in nature – a calmness and a feeling that the birds…don’t see me as a Black woman.”
“I can be who I am, and it’s just really freeing. It’s very quiet to know that you don’t have to answer questions; you don’t have to justify who you are or justify your existence on the planet to a cardinal or a robin.”
This story is published collaboratively with Grist and Next City as part of the Equitable Cities Reporting Hub for Environmental Justice.