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Stateside Podcast: Building a safe space for BIPOC birders

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Courtesy of April Campbell
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April Campbell, founder of "BIPOC Birders of Michigan", admires nature as she holds her binoculars.

Once again, the time has come for Michigan’s migratory birds to head south, leaving the state’s resident bird population to spend the winter with visitors from the frozen north. Even though the annual avian migration is just one of the many great opportunities for birdwatching in Michigan, Ann Arbor-based birder April Campbell thinks the state doesn’t get all the love it deserves.

“It's really a state that I think is underexplored for a lot of birders around the country. They come here for the Kirtland's warbler and, you know, they fly in, ‘Oh, I want to see the Kirtland’s warbler’, and then they fly out. But they're really missing out on Michigan's flora and fauna and bird life,” Campbell said.

Despite the fact that birdwatching is a relatively common hobby, birding groups are often overwhelmingly white. Campbell, an avid birder and retired physician, found she was often the only person of color in the various birding groups she joined over the years.

“When I retired, I decided, well, now I'll have the time. I want to devote that time to changing this,” she said.

And so, this past year, Campbell formed a group called “BIPOC Birders of Michigan” in partnership with Detroit Audubon. She wanted to create a birding group that felt inclusive and relatable to other people of color.

In recent years, organizations like the Audubon Society have faced scrutiny over past connections to white supremacists–its founder, naturalist John James Audubon, had strong pro-slavery views–as well as a current lack of diversity. As a result, more people of color have been having conversations about their experiences in nature and raising questions about inclusion and accessibility.

After meeting at an event designed for Black people to get out into nature, freelance writer Rukiya Colvin took an interest in Dr. April Campbell’s work. At the event, Colvin recalled hearing other people of color share stories of their own experiences in nature.

“A lot of us spoke about the fear and, you know, not wanting to do activities alone because of the fact that these places are typically more saturated with white people and just that lack of safety that we feel when we're not around people who look like us,” Colvin said.

It is certainly not unheard of for people of color to experience harassment and even violence while simply enjoying nature, and this can be a big deterrent for prospective birdwatchers of color. On the same day George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, a Black birder in Central Park had the cops called on him by a white woman when he asked her to leash her dog to protect the park’s wildlife. According to Campbell, she has found that white birders often brush off the safety concerns of people of color or invalidate their feelings of reluctance.

Well, your experience doesn't include this, but mine does,” Campbell said. “There's no attempt to understand, you know, where a person of color is coming or why they may feel that way.”

Although BIPOC Birders of Michigan is providing a new opportunity for people of color to get outdoors and enjoy Michigan’s wildlife, there is still a long way to go when it comes to breaking down the barriers that exist today. By spreading the message that nature is a space that exists for everyone, Rukiya Colvin hopes that more and more people begin to embrace the outdoors as a place for fun and for healing.

I think a lot of times, even as we are really encouraging more people of color to be outdoors, some people just don't see that as something that is attractive or worth doing,” Colvin said. “So it's a barrier of educating more on why these things are important and why we need to reclaim spaces that other people feel that we aren't entitled to enjoying as much as they are.”

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April Van Buren
April Van Buren is a producer for Stateside. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Anna joined Stateside as an assistant producer in August 2021. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism and previously worked for The State News as an intern and student government reporter.