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'Black Birder' says conservation should include all


Nature is relevant in all of our lives. That's the simple idea that J. Drew Lanham, a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University, keeps coming back to.

Lanham is an accomplished ornithologist, an avid recreational birder, a naturalist, a hunter, and a published author and poet. He's also black and says that he sees "very few people who look like me doing what I do, either enjoying birding and nature or working in the field as an ecologist."

Lanham — the self-dubbed "Black Birder" — has made it his mission to bring people of color into conservation and the ecological sciences, and to help conservation and science organizations do the same. He champions what he calls "coloring the conservation conversation."

"It's really, for me and my work, not as much about pulling people into careers as it is having them understand the importance of nature and taking care of it," Lanham says.

The Seneca Park Zoo Society and Rochester Institute of Technology's Office for Diversity and Inclusion will bring Lanham to Rochester for a free talk at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 27. The talk is titled, "The Uncomfortable Elephant Bird of Color in the Room — Addressing the Coming Changes in Conservation," and will focus on how to make conservation and the conservation sciences more accessible and inclusive. It'll be held at RIT's College of Liberal Arts auditorium, and it is open to the public.

Lanham will also meet with RIT students, fifth and sixth graders at School 3, and youth at the Humboldt Recreation Center.

Conservation groups, science organizations, and government agencies have noticed the lack of diversity in conservation work, too. Pamela Reed Sanchez, executive director of the Seneca Park Zoo Society, says that there is a "dearth of applicants of color" for open jobs at her organization. The society is the educational arm of the zoo and its staff should reflect the communities it serves, she says.

Lanham's interest in better connecting people to nature grows out of his scientific interest in the effects of forest management on wildlife. His studies led him to explore how people think about the connection between land and birds, he says.

Conservation should blend science and art, he says. Lanham's writing and talks blend themes of nature, culture, ethnicity, and race; sometimes he uses an introspective, memoir-style approach, while other times his work is illuminating but tongue-in-cheek. His widely circulated essay published in Orion, "9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher" is an example of the latter:

The following is an edited version of a recent conversation with Lanham.

CITY: How did you get into the topic of making conservation more inclusive?

Lanham: I grew up a nature lover and a birder and all of that. With parents who were science teachers, and living in rural South Carolina, I think it was kind of fated to me. Nature has always been important in my life not only for reasons of enjoyment as a birder and as a naturalist, but out of necessity. In part, my family depended on nature for sustenance.

I know that there are issues of land loss and a lack of participation in outdoor-related activities among people of color, and there's also that same lack of participation by people of color in the profession, in the ecological sciences.

Those things make me want to reach out and be an example to people so that they understand that, first of all, it's a profession that's doable, that's enjoyable; that birding is a hobby that can be enjoyed by everyone, but that nature — whether you're studying birds or butterflies — has relevance in all of our lives.

Where is the reason for the disconnect with youth of color?

It's not that people of color don't see nature as important. I think it's context, and nature isn't always necessarily expansive swaths of wilderness with eagles flying overhead. Sometimes, it's the green space in your community. Sometimes, it's the community garden. Maybe it's your back yard. Maybe it's the weed growing through the crack in the sidewalk or the pigeon flying overhead.

One of the things we need to do is redefine these experiences that people have in nature and meet people where they are, and understand that nature is everywhere and not just this far away idea and pattern.

Where do these conversations need to happen?

They need to happen in our curricula. We need to help children understand that nature is a place of exploration and curiosity and that our lives depend on nature: exploiting the natural curiosity that we all have as children. That's critical.

From there, moving from elementary to middle school, and especially in high school, for teachers to embrace not just the natural sciences but the ecological sciences as viable options for curriculum; that states maybe try to incorporate those types of things into the learning schemes.

And then beyond that into high school, as students are matriculating and looking for careers, that guidance counselors understand the true value of students exploring all of the career options and major options that are available to them through work, but also through higher education and college.

Some of those options may not be apparent to many people. What are they?

We all drink water, we breathe air, and we live on land. And so taking care of land, air, water, and wildlife that's connected to it, there are any number of professions that would allow you to do that. So working for local municipalities, working for state agencies, working for federal agencies, teaching, all of those are important careers.

The educational process for me is about having people understand how nature fits into their lives and why they should appreciate it. At the end of the day, it comes down to this idea of relevance: that nature means something in my life and so I need to protect it. And that protection may mean being active as a spokesperson for or against certain things

All of the issues that we have going on in our communities, whether it's development, whether it's infrastructure, or perhaps we move to a huge issue like climate change, we need to understand how that's going to impact us at a community level and then, once we begin to understand that, we can become active and informed participants in this conservation conversation that I talk about.