Three separate factions of the National Audubon Society in the Midwest have decided to take a stand against the racist ideologies and slavery affiliations of their organization’s namesake, John James Audubon. The respected bird conservation group’s branches in Detroit, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin have publicized their intention to henceforth be recognized under the title of the “Bird Alliance”.
“Uniting our members and ourselves as organizations through a new, collaborative name was a crucial move, particularly between Audubon chapters within our community,” explained Gretchen Abrams, the Detroit branch’s executive director.
John James Audubon, a prominent 19th-century ornithologist, naturalist, and artist, upheld slavery and stifled the voices of Black and Indigenous communities. A scrutinizing look at his legacy in 2020, revealed by the Audubon Society’s magazine, confirmed Audubon’s racial biases and unethical practices.
A correspondence to his wife in 1834 shows Audubon criticizing the British government for prematurely granting freedom to enslaved individuals in their West Indian territories. Moreover, his blatant exploitation of Black and Indigenous individuals through their unpaid contributions to his bird observations and collections went uncredited in his studies.
The Detroit Bird Alliance felt compelled to change their name given Detroit’s large demographic of people of color. Abrams shared, “Our mission could never truly promote inclusivity and actively protect bird species without first addressing this issue.”
In laying out plans for the future, the Detroit chapter shared that it would take up the new title in January 2024. This gives them adequate time to rebrand and make necessary modifications to their website.
Abrams further explained their decision stating, “As a chapter, it was critical that we define who we are, the principles we represent and the title that best encapsulates the work we do. As long as there’s anything inhibiting everyone from joining the fight for bird conservation, it’s a setback for the birds.”
The Chicago Bird Alliance made an official announcement last Friday, reflecting the name change on their website while also revealing their plans to legally change their name in the forthcoming months.
“Audubon’s contributions to ornithology are undeniable but they do not negate his support for institutions such as slavery, systemic racism, and scientific racism,” commented Matt Igleski, executive director of the Chicago Bird Alliance.
Promoting bird conservation through a clear and historically unbiased name was a significant consideration of Igleski’s explanation.
The Badgerland Bird Alliance, previously known as the Madison, Wisconsin branch, concluded a vote to eliminate the “Audubon” name last December and given approval to the new name in late September of the same year.
“We aim to build a deeply rooted brand recognition that genuinely represents the work we undertake,” shared Matt Reetz, Badgerland Bird Alliance’s executive director.
In an earlier example, the San Francisco-area chapter made the move to rebrand itself as the Golden Gate Bird Alliance during August.
This move towards change has faced resistance from the National Audubon Society who declared in a March open letter that they wouldn’t be changing their name despite local chapters’ protests. However, CEO Elizabeth Gray mentioned that the climate crisis required their immediate attention more than rebranding. Still, she highlighted a pledge towards a $25 million diversity initiative over the next five years within the organization and its conservation endeavors.