The Seattle chapter of the National Audubon Society plans to remove “Audubon” from its name to address the racist and white supremacist actions and views of John James Audubon, the ornithologist the organization is named after.
Glenn Nelson, the Seattle chapter’s community director, told CNN on Wednesday that part of why the local organization took action toward the name change is because the larger national organization has not explicitly acknowledged whether it plans to change its name.
“If you agree that the ‘Audubon’ name is harmful to people, then every second that you bear it is harming people, and we want to stop that in a way that we can control,” Nelson said.
The National Audubon Society is the country’s leading bird conservation organization.
Audubon’s racism is well-documented and acknowledged, even by the National Audubon Society itself. He was a slave owner who opposed abolition and appropriated Black and Indigenous knowledge about bird species.
Last summer, the Seattle Audubon Society sent a letter to the National Audubon Society “to initiate…an inclusive and transparent process toward removing John James Audubon from our shared organizational namesake.”
Claire Catania, the Seattle chapter’s executive director, in a statement said the legacy of who Audubon really was, not an idealized version, conflicts with the organization’s goals.
“Our members, volunteers, and staff are focused on a future where the perspectives and contributions of all people are valued – especially those who have been systemically excluded,” Catania said in the statement.
Within the broader bird conservation and ornithology community, there have also been efforts to rename birds named after historical figures with racist legacies. Last year, the Audubon Naturalist Society, a Washington, D.C. area-based environmental non-profit, said it would remove “Audubon” from its name with the intent of announcing a new name this October in an effort to “do better to address equity and racial justice.”
Nelson said the Seattle chapter plans to hold a series of inclusive discussions with internal and external stakeholders about the group’s name and mission with the hope of settling on a new name by the end of the year.
The name change is only a first step toward real organizational change and the group intends to focus more on environmental justice and urban conservation efforts, Nelson added. He said the name change is also important to welcome more communities of color into conservation spaces given that marginalized groups have historically been excluded from birdwatching and outdoor communities that are predominantly White, older and have a history of being elitist.
“We’re blocking BIPOC communities from being involved in the conservation movement and BIPOC communities are the ones who experience the impact of environmental calamities first, and disproportionately,” Nelson said. “We’re essentially excluding them from their own rescue in a way.”