These Black nature lovers are busting stereotypes, one cool bird at a time

Updated 8:58 AM ET, Wed June 3, 2020

(CNN)Everyone has the bird.

Corina Newsome calls it a gateway bird, the one special species that sets an avian enthusiast on a lifetime course of discovery and environmental passion. Hers was the blue jay.
For Tykee James, it was the belted kingfisher.
When asked what his favorite bird is, Alex Troutman paused. "Can I give you a top three?" The northern crested caracara. The white ibis. And, of course, the penguin.
These young Black naturalists -- and the birds they love -- are some of the stars of Black Birders Week, a series of events and activities designed to highlight Black scientists, scholars and everyday nature lovers. While spreading their joy and knowledge, the countless people involved in the movement are also raising visibility of Black achievement at a painfully critical time.

A painful event is turned into potential

The event was conceived by a group of Black STEM professionals and students who share an online space they call #BlackAFinSTEM.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the dozens of people in the group hail from all different kinds of disciplines within that sphere.
But when Christian Cooper, a Black birder in New York City, was threatened by a white woman in Central Park, their focus turned to the avian-minded among them.
Within days, a group of #BlackAFinSTEM organizers had come up with a whole week's worth of ways to support and encourage the Black birding community.
The Audubon Society, the National Park Service and countless other organizations have boosted their work, introducing social media to a whole realm of cool birds and new discoveries -- and new faces that challenge and change science stereotypes.
"The importance is normalizing the fact that Black people exist in the birding and natural sciences community," says Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, one of the organizers of the event. "People don't understand that Black people exist in other contexts other than the ones they're exposed to. It's to ensure other people see the impact of Black birders and naturalists, and gives them a chance to be seen."
This visibility is a master key that can open all kinds of doors for Black scientists to succeed, and for the world to benefit from their success.

Scientists confront the double-edged sword of stereotypes

Wildlife biologist and educator Alex Troutman
Why is there such an internalized stereotype that Black people aren't interested, or are somehow alien to, nature and the studies therein?
Wildlife biologist Alex Troutman says, in his experience, it's a combination of factors: People growing up in urban areas are exposed to less nature. And the persistent idea that outdoor activities -- like camping, hiking and wildlife appreciation -- are white-dominated pursuits.
"People assume just because we're Black, we don't like the outdoors," he says. "People don't talk about the buffalo soldiers who were among the first to care for national parks. They don't talk about Black ranchers."
Troutman has worked with marine endangered species in Corpus Christi, Texas, for the National Park Service and for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, among other roles. All of this experience, and Troutman says people have still occasionally looked at him with doubt.
"When I was working for the Fish and Wildlife Service, even wearing a uniform, guests would question why I was there. I've had to show them my ID."
This idea that Black people somehow don't belong in the outdoors fuels even more fear.
"Most of my friends are afraid of being harassed or assaulted if they were to leave the city to take in nature, because you hardly ever see Black people camping and enjoying outdoors. And look at what happens to someone like Ahmaud Arbery, who couldn't even run outside."
Troutman considers himself one of the lucky ones. He grew up outside of Atlanta searching for salamanders in the stream that ran through his backyard. He and his brothers, father and uncle would go fishing on the weekends.
But even then, it didn't occur to him that the life he would eventually have -- one filled with turtle rescues and birds of prey and a wealth of wildlife knowledge -- was possible.
"I always thought I would be a vet," he said. "Because that was the only Black person I saw working with animals."

Participants explain the importance of role models

Wildlife conservationist Corina Newsome and Tony, a Hyacinth Macaw.
Corina Newsome had a similar experience. She grew up in Philadelphia, loving nature and animals, and assuming that, among the Steve Irwins and Jeff Corwins of the world, the only professional path for someone like her was to become a veterinarian.
She's now a wildlife conservationist, currently working as a field biologist to conserve the MacGillivray's seaside sparrow in coastal Georgia.
Her moment of realization came when a Black woman working at the Philadelphia Zoo invited her to go behind the scenes.
"I had never been to a zoo, and before I saw her in action, it never crossed my mind that I could be a zookeeper," Newsome says. "It's not that I actively thought zookeeping was for white people or that it wasn't for me. It's just where my mind placed it in the understanding of my world."
Before her current work in avian conservation, Newsome did become a zookeeper.
Along the way, she also became a passionate bird enthusiast and advocate for children from underprivileged backgrounds who want to pursue their interests in animals and nature.
"My work brings me so much joy," she says. Seeing nature and wildlife up close still feels brand new and I hope it does for the rest of my life.

The movement hopes for progress -- and job opportunities

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, center, with former Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen
While getting people hooked on birds is definitely a goal of Black Birders Week, there's a lot more at stake.
Black people aren't just excluded from natural spaces, they are also historically excluded from the academic and professional spaces they occupy if and when they get a chance to pursue their scientific passions.
The movement's organizers are hoping this visibility, this skeleton key, leads organizations and leaders in the field to pursue cultural and policy changes that open up these white-dominated disciplines.
They also hope it leads to job opportunities for all of the talented people participating.
"This is something that all of us are passionate about, because we are increasing the visibility of a group of Black and brown professionals and we're starting a dialogue," says Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman."For us, it's quite an honor to have this pick up steam and gain national attention."
Opoku-Agyeman didn't know much about birding before she started organizing Black Birders Week with other #BlackAFinSTEM members. But as an economist, which is considered a STEM profession, she knows all about exclusivity, and the steps communities of color have taken to give new generations of STEM professionals a better chance at success.
Originally from Ghana, Opoku-Agyeman is a co-founder of the Sadie Collective, named after Sadie Alexander, the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D in economics. The Sadie Collective creates mentorship and professional opportunities so Black women at all stages of their career can become more visible in their field.
And in a field where Black people aren't visible or are excluded, mentorship is everything.