What’s In A Name? The Seattle Audubon Society Intends To Find Out -

What’s In A Name? The Seattle Audubon Society Intends To Find Out

The Seattle Audubon Society has initiated a process to change its name to reflect its commitment to an equitable, just, and antiracist path for all of its members — a path that has been encumbered by its namesake, John James Audubon, a racist who engaged in scientific fraud

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What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

— Juliet Capulet in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2) by William Shakespeare

The Seattle Audubon Society is changing its name, publicly stating it is beginning the process of moving away from “a shameful legacy” by removing “Audubon” from its name.

The Audubon Society, which currently can boast almost 500 independent affiliate chapters throughout the United States, was originally named in honor of artist and naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851), by Forest and Stream magazine editor, John Bird Grinnell, back in 1886. Horrified by the annual mass slaughter of wild birds, Mr Grinnell hoped that invoking this famous artist as namesake would encourage the membership to emulate conservation ideals and the scientific study of birds. This idea quickly caught on: within one year, the fledgling Audubon Society boasted more than 39,000 members, each of whom had signed a pledge to “not molest birds”.


Unfortunately, although Mr Audubon was a reasonably good bird artist, he was a despicable human. He owned, bought and sold enslaved Black people and loudly opposed abolition; he stole the remains of Native Americans to help support his racist ideas using debunked and unscientific methodologies; he made numerous contributions to white supremacist thought and policies; and he stole observations of bird species reported by Black and Indigenous peoples and passed them off as his own.

“The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is antithetical to the mission of this organization and its values,” Claire Catania, Executive Director of the Seattle chapter, said in a statement. “Knowing what we now know and hearing from community members how the Audubon name is harmful to our cause, there is no other choice but to change.”


“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”, Ms Catania said. “The challenges facing humans and birds alike demand that we build a radically inclusive coalition to address them.”

Although the resolution to change its name was unanimously passed by the organization’s Board of Directors on 14 July 2022, making the Seattle ̶A̶u̶d̶u̶b̶o̶n̶ Society the first affiliate chapter to take this important step, no deadlines and no candidate names have yet been identified. The National Audubon Society and several of its local affiliate chapters, who are closely watching what its Seattle affiliate chapter does, are also considering a name change.

“Most people, especially our detractors, are focusing on ‘Audubon’ — the presumed power and ubiquity of the brand, and the contributions vs. racism of our organizational namesake”, Glenn Nelson, community director for the Seattle ̶A̶u̶d̶u̶b̶o̶n̶ Society, told me in email. Mr Nelson is an advocacy journalist and activist reporting on the intersection of race and the outdoors. He also helped administer a program for the National Audubon Society that targeted young people of color, and he served two terms on the state board.


“This move is 100% about being more inclusive in the conservation movement and in our own mission to organize and advocate for cities where all people and birds thrive. [emphasis his] It is well documented that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have been historically excluded from what I call the ‘organized outdoors’ (conservation, environmentalism and recreation) and our organization is no exception”, Mr Nelson noted.

Seattle chapter affiliate surveys have consistently shown that its membership and volunteers are more than 90% white, older, mostly retired, and concentrated in north Seattle, where neighborhoods are primarily white. On the other hand, BIPOC communities are almost nonexistent in local membership surveys. And yet, BIPOC neighborhoods are the first to experience environmental calamities, including the impacts of climate change, which also fall disproportionately upon these communities.


“As racial demographics shift in this country, the representation issue becomes more acute over time, impacting the sustainability not only of organizations like ours, but that of humanity generally since climate change is an existential challenge requiring the attention and resources of everyone”, Mr Nelson said in email.

But is the ̶A̶u̶d̶u̶b̶o̶n̶ name itself a barrier to diversity and inclusion?

“It is my experience and that of my colleagues of color across the nation that ‘Audubon’ is largely unrecognized (especially as a conservation organization) by most people under, say, 50 years old and virtually all BIPOC people of any age”, Mr Nelson explained in email. “This is a problem because when our organization and others engage BIPOC groups and communities, we will be inviting them to learn who we are and where we come from”, Mr Nelson further elaborated in email. “They will investigate — as I did with other organizations when I was in more activist mode — and discover the ugly truth about John James Audubon and solidify their distrust of us and the conservation movement, generally. That outcome is the harm the ‘Audubon’ name inflicts. 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.”


What criteria are being used to identify potential names?

“We want the re-naming process to be as inclusive as the mission that we’ve adopted”, Mr Nelson replied in email. “We want as few criteria as possible going in; we don’t want to impose preconceptions from our primarily white lens on people who don’t recognize that lens.”

Additionally, the Seattle ̶A̶u̶d̶u̶b̶o̶n̶ Society supports the movement to change eponymous names given to birds, animals and places, in an effort to prevent this same situation from arising again in future.

“Many cultures, including mine (Japanese descent), employ names in descriptive terms. So I can confidently say we will not name our organization after another person.”

Further, the Seattle ̶A̶u̶d̶u̶b̶o̶n̶ Society will avoid using words, like ‘Society’, that draw upon the elitism from which conservation and birding evolved.


“A big part of containing initial criteria is the hope that we are surprised by what we hear and are able to incorporate those sources of our ‘surprise’ in our mission”, Mr Nelson said in email. “That’s an essential part of thinking outside of our usual circle and thereby expanding that circle.”

The renaming process is still in its early stages. After a lot of thought and discussion, the renaming process will consist of a series of ‘listening sessions’, beginning with staff, board of directors, members, and volunteers, then moving on to external stakeholders (i.e.; groups and communities with which the Seattle ̶A̶u̶d̶u̶b̶o̶n̶ ̶S̶o̶c̶i̶e̶t̶y̶ would like to engage and partner with but currently do not.)

“We will ask about values associated with ‘Audubon,’ values currently associated with our organization, values we want to project, and names associated with those values”, Mr Nelson explained in email. “We will ask a series of questions about our mission — who we currently serve, who we are not serving but should, and how the latter should look.”


The Seattle ̶A̶u̶d̶u̶b̶o̶n̶ ̶S̶o̶c̶i̶e̶t̶y̶ is still formulating how, in the end, a name will be chosen. Other organizations faced by this process would probably hire outside consultants to guide the process.

“I know this is the case, for example, with the Audubon Naturalist Society, which will announce its name new in October”, Mr Nelson pointed out in email.

“It’s further important to note that this is just a first, humble step toward inclusion. There is much, much more work to be done”, Mr Nelson explained in email. “It took us centuries to get to this point in history; it may take generations to correct.”



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