Bald Eagle © Glenn Nelson
Back when my wife Florangela Davila and I were being discovered by others as “bird people” (watchers and feeders), the reaction was overwhelmingly consistent: utter surprise. For a while, I chalked up that response to the fact that we were journalists – as if having hobbies or other pursuits was out of kilter with our profession. I knew even then that the rationale didn’t make much sense, but what made even less sense was the true underpinnings of how we were being regarded: race.
“Messing with birds is a white thing,” I remember one of my friends telling me.
The emergence of such a narrative is a big reason I was prompted to further explore the intersection of race and the outdoors, ostensibly by founding The Trail Posse, a nonprofit journalism project. Another development at about the same time guaranteed that my examination would be heavily winged and feathered. That was the day I went out to photograph Short-Eared Owls with my friend Paul Bannick, one of the premier owl experts and photographers on the continent.
I was smitten.
Now I’m more smitten than ever. As the newly minted Community Director at Seattle Audubon, my “job” is to work on several of my passions: equity and inclusion in the outdoors, conservation, and birds.
Paul Bannick and Glenn Nelson (courtesy Glenn Nelson)
Though it doesn’t sound or feel like work, there certainly is plenty of work to be done to re-couple historically excluded peoples to birds and their precious habitat that we are resolved to protect. After decades of journalism and entrepreneurial media, I spent the past decade taking a deep dive into access to what I call the “organized outdoors” (conservation, environmentalism, recreation). I’ve traveled around the country, visited the White House, the Department of the Interior (under two administrations, including that one), the national headquarters of the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the governor’s office, state and county bureaucracies, and various national and local outdoor groups. One year, I visited 20 national parks, as well as multiple national wildlife refuges and Audubon centers.
Early on, I encountered the pervasive myth that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and individuals like myself were not present outside – and were missing primarily of our own choosing. From my own experiences, my understanding of U.S. history, and my grounding in my Japanese American and other BIPOC cultures, I knew this narrative to be an insidious deceit. Widely unchecked, it has been foundational to an exclusionary system of the great American outdoors hatched by white elites like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir to claim “untrammeled” lands as respites from urban stressors.
Gordon McHenry Jr. and Glenn Nelson © Scott Nelson
My own reality did not jibe with this history. My parents loved fishing and camping and our family vacations were spent in state and national parks. My father was the scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 14 on Beacon Hill, which included my friends Gordon McHenry Jr., now the president and CEO of United Way of King County, and James Rasmussen, a Duwamish tribal leader. The rest of our troop was comprised of other Black, Asian American and Latinx kids.
So, for much of my life, spending time in an extremely diverse outdoors was the norm. And this norm seemed an extension even of the colonially rooted history of this country. All communities of color arrived here – many, of course, against their will – because of our centuries of intimacy with the earth. Our Indigenous peoples were dispossessed of the land used to fuel this country’s economic ascendancy, as well as supply the bulwarks of conservation and recreation.
The assertion that BIPOC and other marginalized people are not outdoors is a myth sustained to rationalize excluding us. It’s easier to justify many of the widely accepted “norms” of the outdoors: why non-whites are not models in catalogues, subjects of advertisements, or on covers of magazines, for example, or why people of color don’t work in national parks (only 17 percent, per the National Park Service), comprise senior staff of environmental and conservation organizations (only 14 percent, per Dr. Dorceta Taylor’s work for Green 2.0), or go bird watching (only 7 percent, per the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). If people of color are not outdoors, the thinking goes, these behaviors are to be expected.
Award-winning shot of Great Blue Heron and Vole © Glenn Nelson
The decoupling narrative is fed by the inclination of recent, “othered” immigrant communities to emphasize extended families and the proclivity to congregate for reasons of safety and support — not to mention being involuntarily segregated, redlined, or otherwise ghettoized. Big groups don’t fit nicely into the mainstream notion of solitary escape into “wilderness.”
Linguistic disconnect – the difference, say, between describing a walk and a hike – is another way communities of color are not accounted for outside. Many immigrant groups speak languages that do not have equivalent terms for words that make up the American outdoor lexicon. Even Spanish, spoken by the second-largest racial group in our state, doesn’t have exact translations for “hiking” and “camping.”
This all stokes an insidiously perpetuating cycle that John C. Robinson, a longtime advocate for diversity in bird watching, calls the “Don’t Loop”: People don’t participate in activities in which they don’t see themselves. Amen to that. It’s time to disrupt that loop.
Birders on Hog Island, Maine © Glenn Nelson
It’s critical to understand and accept how differently others might define and view their participation in conservation, birding, and other outdoor activities. Shortly, this country will be a majority non-white, and it will be in everyone’s best interest that this new majority prioritizes conservation and the fight against the impacts of climate change. BIPOC communities already have a huge stake in environmental maladies because we’re the ones who suffer the consequences first and disproportionately.
There has been some recognition by Big Green and outdoor brands of the need to preserve future relevancy by refreshing participation and leadership to include marginalized communities. However, I have a lot of experience – as do many of my colleagues in the nascent, national movement for equity and access in the organized outdoors – with white-led and predominately white organizations seeking to over-simplify, compress, and hasten equity and access work. The quest for instant (and easy) gratification patently ignores the many centuries of inequity and exclusion that are packed into an abiding colonial framework of the outdoors.
Most forms of the resultant shortcutting – what I like to call taking-inner-city-kids-to-distant-national-parks syndrome – miss the mark badly. Their deployment as a combined starting and stopping point is a way of exonerating individuals and organizations from the difficult, ongoing work of changing culture, perspective, and, eventually, outcomes. They also aim too high and too broadly, ignoring the essential truth that it only requires walking through one’s front door – and not a national park entrance – to be “really” outside.
Short-Eared Owl and photographers © Glenn Nelson
Luring beginner outdoors people to distant landscapes is rather like training a generation of runners by starting them in marathons.
This is why I’m a huge advocate of nearby nature. Convincing someone that they are outside the second they pass through their front door leads them to the beginning of a bridge that can connect them to a tree down the block, a city park, county park, state park, and, yes, even the pinnacles of the American landscape. These are smaller, steadier leaps. Plus, in this quest, birds are the perfect change agents. They fly and they migrate and connect us to other places and other human beings. And to find them, all anyone has to do after passing through their front door is just look up.
I’m in the exact right place at Seattle Audubon. It is a national leader in thinking about and acting for a more inclusive outdoors. It is focused on urban conservation, bringing the work to where our present and future volunteers and members live. It is a regional expert on birds – watching them, educating about them, protecting them – providing connective tissue to share with and inspire marginalized communities that have been historically excluded from the organized outdoors.
Acting locally and inclusively produces global impacts. The birds and the humans who love them make it so.
Seattle Audubon Community Director
A national-award-winning writer, photographer, and web publisher, Glenn founded The Trail Posse to explore the intersection of race and the outdoors. A longtime journalist, he started his career at The Seattle Times and co-founded or founded several digital media companies, including HoopGurlz, a girl’s and women’s basketball website that he sold to ESPN. Glenn earned his B.A.s in journalism and political science from Seattle University and his Masters in American Government from Columbia University.