Drawing a More Diverse Crowd to the Outdoors

 1526664735 
1569495300

J. Drew Lanham has often said birding is "one of the whitest things you can do." He's leading a group of birders with the Birmingham Audubon Society in hopes of attracting more people of color to outdoor pursuits.

Gigi Douban, WBHM

Early on a humid Saturday morning, more than 100 people strap on binoculars and head to the Joe Farm near Greensboro in the Black Belt. They’re here to see birds – specifically Mississippi Kites. The farm’s owner, Cornelius Joe, is determined to deliver. He hops on his tractor and starts cutting hay. That shakes loose all sorts of big bugs – bugs Mississippi Kites love to eat. And it works. Within seconds, these birders get a prime view of a Kite that swoops down to feast on grasshoppers.

J. Drew Lanham, author and professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, is leading this Birmingham Audubon Society birding trip. And as a black man, he knows it’s not every day you see someone who looks like him leading a group into the outdoors. “Birding has been for a very long time a really homogenized milky-white kind of endeavor, he says. “I’ve always said it’s one of the whitest things that you can do, but here I am a black man doing it.”

Part of the reason there aren’t many like him, he says, comes down to opportunity and exposure.

“Sometimes if you’re shut out, if you are deliberately kept away from from these activities, if it’s promoted as something that’s not for you, then you tend to stay away from it,” he says.

Ornithologist Drew Lanham says this birding trip led by black birders such as himself on black-owned land was significant.  Gigi Douban,  WBHM

Ornithologist J. Drew Lanham says this birding trip led by black birders such as himself on black-owned land was significant. Gigi Douban, WBHM

Lanham says to have black birders lead a trip like this provides the optics that have been missing for a long time from these pursuits. But he says it’s also good role modeling for other people of color who want to dip a toe into the outdoors. Black outdoorsy role models are one thing Jason Ward says he never had. Ward hosts a web series called “Birds of North America.”

“When I was younger, I loved nature. I loved animals,” Ward says, “but when I turned on ‘Animal Planet’ on Nat Geo, no one looked like I did.”

So he kept it to himself. And he says that could’ve killed his dream of a career in conservation.

“Just the simple fact that I had this misconception in my mind that it wasn’t for me,” Ward says.

Even now, he says, from time to time he has to shake off imposter syndrome.

“When I’m out in an unfamiliar environment just with my binoculars and cameras innocently birding,” he says. “I’m wondering ‘Ok, do people think I’m up to something?'”

Ward is another leader on today’s birding trip. He says it’s up to various outdoor recreation groups to do what the Birmingham Audubon Society is trying to do with this trip – attract a more diverse audience to the outdoors.

Jason Ward, host of a web series on birding, says growing up, he never had black outdoorsy role models. Gigi Douban, WBHM

Jason Ward, host of a web series on birding, says growing up, he never had black outdoorsy role models.
Gigi Douban, WBHM

Ansel Payne, executive director of the Birmingham Audubon Society, says tapping two black birders to lead this trip was intentional.

“Our position at Birmingham Audubon is that the makeup of a birding trip should look a lot like the communities in which we live and work, and if it doesn’t then we’re probably doing something wrong,” says Ansel.

 

Smaller groups have popped up around Birmingham: there’s Black People Run, Bike and Swim, and there’s GirlTrek Birmingham, a group to encourage black women to walk every day. Salaam Green started a similar group called Brown Girl Walking.

Green never felt like she belonged in the outdoors. She was a pretty sedentary kid.

“I was an overweight child and no one thought that I could go outside and do anything,” she says.

She struggled with depression. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s that she discovered walking and nature as a way to find the quiet spaces she craved. She says it helped her mental health so much she wanted to share it with others. With Brown Girl Walking, Green and a group of other women of color explore different parks around the city. “And at first it was for weight loss and all these other things. But now it’s just a platform that I built to show that brown girls can just go out and walk whether it’s two minutes or five miles,” she says.

Green says it’s not about weight loss anymore. Her mission is to keep showing other women of color how the outdoors is for them as much as anyone else.

More Environment Coverage

Legislative Wrap-Up: What Died And What Passed On The Final Day

Many bills made it out before Monday's deadline. But the lawmakers also expect a special session later this year.

Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Legislation

Lawmakers had a change of heart after decades of debate on the issue.

UAB Closes Three COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Sites While Alabama’s Vaccination Rate Remains Below 50%

UAB announced this week it's closing the majority of its public COVID-19 vaccination sites because of a decline in participation. Meanwhile, Alabama remains at the bottom nationally for the number of adults that have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

‘When Buses Were A-Comin’: Remembering The Freedom Riders 60 Years On

A group of young civil rights activists began their journey to the South to challenge segregation on interstate buses in May 1961. The riders were taunted and beaten by white mobs – and jailed. Participants of the movement share what their fight means now.

Using Pastors And Pints, Gulf States Try To Boost COVID Vaccination Rates In White Communities

Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama have the lowest vaccination rates nationally, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Health officials are considering creative incentives to get the numbers up from church events to possible beer giveaways.

As Demand Drops, Health Officials Look For Ways To Encourage Vaccinations

Health officials say at first they were focused on vaccinating elderly and at-risk people in Alabama. Now the focus is shifting to people who are skeptical or apathetic about the vaccine.

More Environment Coverage