From birdwatching to walking around our local parks and neighborhoods, outdoor spaces inspire us and provide us with connection to our natural world. However, people of color often encounter hostile barriers when trying to enjoy outdoor natural spaces. The dangers of birding for people of color were on full display when last year, writer and comic book creator Christian Cooper’s experienced a racist confrontation in New York’s Central Park.
Audubon’s network of chapters, volunteers, community scientists, conservationists, and birders are demonstrating their commitment to building a more equitable and inclusive world where birding truly is for everyone.
Across the Great Lakes region, more than 50 Audubon chapters regularly gather over their shared passion for birds and work year round to create a culture of conservation and advocacy in their local communities. Many of these Audubon members are now meeting monthly for conversations on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EDIB). Together they are working within Audubon’s EDIB structure, which addresses how to engage different groups, differences in experience, and the structural barriers that hinder access or agency among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
This past year the Northwest Illinois Audubon Society (NIAS) went above and beyond to mobilize its commitment to this critical EDIB work.
Chapter Leader Spotlight: Juliet Moderow, Northwest Illinois Audubon Society
As a Biology Professor at Highland Community College, an active Freeport community member, and former president of NIAS, Juliet Moderow has long advocated for the accessibility of outdoor recreation for all.
With Moderow at the helm, NIAS launched a new program series to serve Freeport’s Black community in partnership with the Freeport Art Museum (FAM) and Boys and Girls Club of Stephenson County. The program series engages local youth, families, and chapter members in birding and encourages the public to donate binoculars.
When first learning about her local Audubon chapter, Moderow admits that she was hesitant to join. But as a mother of a young child, she felt a draw to encourage her chapter to promote family-friendly events.
Moderow began her involvement with NIAS as a volunteer at field days, where she worked to restore two biodiversity preserves, which are now home to an abundance of local species.
After becoming a board member in 2014 and shortly after Education Chair, Moderow rose to the ranks of President of NWIAS in 2018. It was there that she decided to make it her mission to appeal to families. She has continued this work in her current role as President Emeritus.
“One of the ways that Northwest Illinois Audubon has been so successful in community events, is that we have an education chairperson, which is not something that every chapter has,” said Moderow. “For the most part, our education efforts have been directed at younger individuals, which has often included family activities or outings.”
One of her early projects included a partnership with the Freeport Public Library that offers families the option to check out a STEM kit, which includes a pair of binoculars, a bird guide, and an audio bird identifier.
Moderow believes that while there is still a way to go in terms of EDIB efforts, NIAS is heading in the right direction. When asked about the role accessibility plays in limiting who becomes involved in her local chapter, she reflected on one successful way the chapter has branched out: switching up monthly meeting locations and times has attracted members who previously were not able to attend meetings.
Christian Cooper in Conversation: Celebrating Diversity in Birding and People
This past spring, NIAS collaborated again with the Freeport Art Museum and the Boys and Girls Club of Freeport on an event that welcomed Christian Cooper to Freeport for a virtual conversation on his experience with birding and a reflection on social justice and anti-racism efforts within the conservation community.
Cooper is a writer and board member of New York City Audubon. After the video of the racist confrontation while he was birding in Central Park went viral, he drew on that experience to author the Black Lives Matter comic “It’s a Bird” for DC Comics, a continuation of his decades-long activism on behalf of racial justice, LGBTQ equality, and expanding democratic access in American society.
The virtual program, Christian Cooper in Conversation: Celebrating Diversity in Birding and People, was moderated by Jennifer Johnson, Wild Indigo Associate for Audubon Great Lakes. Cooper spoke about his journey as a birder, and how he has channeled his racist experience into a platform to address social inequities that exist within nature-based activities. He provided suggestions for how birders can provide a more welcoming environment to those who are looking to begin their birding journey. Cooper encouraged attendees to enjoy the outdoors and embrace nature, and left the audience with an empowering message that birding is an activity for everyone.
Prior to the virtual event, Cooper visited Freeport to lead a bird walk and binocular tutorial with members of the Boys and Girls Club and community members. During his bird walk, Cooper shared his personal experience as a black birder and acknowledged the changes that the birding community needs to make to be more inclusive.
Eighteen pairs of binoculars and 30 bird identification pocket guides were donated to the Boys and Girls Club of Freeport for the event, which will be used for guided outdoor activities. All members of the Boys & Girls Club received a “Celebrate Diversity” t-shirt, with three underrepresented bird species: the Red-Winged Blackbird (one of Cooper’s favorites), a colorful Painted Bunting, and a female Northern Cardinal.
NIAS received a $4,000 Audubon in Action Award from National Audubon Society to partner with Audubon Great Lakes to bring the event to life. Audubon in Action Awards support Audubon chapters as they grow their conservation, activism, volunteerism and leadership development work in communities across the flyways.
A recording of the virtual program is available to watch online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4hSru75BUw&t=3997s
- Sofia Caracci, Engagement Intern, Audubon Great Lakes