Amid controversy, Seattle Audubon changes its name

At odds with the national society’s decision to keep its contested name, the local birding group is rebranding to support inclusivity.

a small bird sits on a tree branch

Washington’s state bird, the American goldfinch, has benefited from the advocacy work of the group formerly known as Seattle Audubon. (Courtesy of Frank Leung/iStock)

The birding and conservation advocacy group formerly known as Seattle Audubon has renamed itself as Birds Connect Seattle.

Like the National Audubon Society, the 107-year-old independent local chapter had taken its name from wildlife painter John James Audubon, revered for helping people appreciate the birds around us. But in recent years, more people have learned the organization’s namesake was also an enslaver and vocal racist who, the National Audubon Society says, “did despicable things even by the standards of his day.” 

“If my job is to build relationships with BIPOC affinity groups and communities, I can't have this name hanging over me … because historically excluded groups are not going to work with us,” says Glenn Nelson, a 20-year member of the Seattle group and its community director since March 2022. “And you can't effectively, genuinely practice conservation until you do this work first, because environmental calamities strike communities of color first and disproportionately.” 

The group announced its new name March 28 at an online event hosted by Nelson and featuring wildlife ecologist, professor and poet Dr. J. Drew Lanham, who has written about the impact of the Audubon name and joined the event to talk about identity.

The Seattle contingent had publicly urged the National Audubon Society to reconsider its use of the name in August 2021. “We were out by ourselves for a long time,” Nelson said. But national momentum grew into a call for action. “It’s a small move in the grand scheme of things, but it was hard,” Nelson added at the announcement event.

The Seattle group’s leadership agreed on ground rules for a new name: It should be short, memorable and fit their mission statement. The URL had to be available. They didn’t want to include someone’s name, or perceived elitist connotations like “society,” and they wanted a name that focuses on birds. They also wanted to devise a name that could serve as a naming convention for other groups and wasn’t too Seattle-specific; and they wanted something that spoke to the idea of connection. 

“This new name represents an open door for communities to join us in our mission to advocate and organize for cities where people and birds thrive,” says Claire Catania, executive director of the Seattle group. 

After announcing the upcoming change in July 2022 and inviting feedback, more than 1,000 people weighed in, and the selection committee, half of whom are members of BIPOC communities, fielded 263 possible names. The vast majority of community feedback on the process was supportive, but there was some friction. 

As a lifelong birder and outdoor recreation enthusiast who is also Japanese American, Nelson knew not everyone in the group would be ready to pursue inclusion at the cost of their namesake. While the roughly 4,200-member Seattle group is diverse, it exists in a city that is 65% white, according to the U.S. Census.

“I tried to prepare [staff] and told them, you have to be steeled for it and you have to not let it stop you,” said Nelson, who has received death threats in the process of promoting more inclusive outdoor experiences. He gives his colleagues credit for keeping with the process despite those challenges. 

Catania maintains that conservation will be best served by having a more diverse coalition behind its advocacy work. 

“We hear a lot of, ‘When are you gonna get back to the birds? Stop messing around with all this nonsense, we're here for the birds.’ What we really need to communicate to our community is that this is for the birds,” Catania said. 

Catania said that the scale of the negative feedback surprised her. They received phone calls, emails and written letters that could be called hate mail from all over the country. “We were not naive to the fact that this would be considered a political statement in a way, and so we knew at the outset that we were going to lose some people. But we also believe that we are making this choice to bring in more people,” Catania said. 

One of the most common complaints the group received is that the name Audubon is synonymous with birds and consequently is responsible for the strength of the bird-related organization’s brands and advocacy work. Nelson hasn’t seen any data to support that, and says that for younger birders and birders of color, “Audubon” isn’t inextricable from bird work. 

“There’s a lot of people who don’t know what [Audubon] is, and the people who do, it’s a little white bubble,” he said, noting most of the group’s membership is white and retired. “If you’re looking toward the future, what makes more sense: tying yourself to a small group that’s growing smaller, or [to] the rest of the world?” 

The selection committee members whittled the field to three contenders, but the winning choice received unanimous support. 

Catania has been heartened by how most of the membership have responded. “We actually got quite a bit of vocal support from our members who understood this change. If you’ve been paying attention to what we’ve been doing and saying over the last several years, it shouldn't have surprised you,” Catania said. 

There is precedent for outdoors-oriented groups changing their names in pursuit of serving more people. Outdoorsman and racist John Muir lent his name to many organizations, but in the past few years, university departments and the Sierra Club have distanced themselves from him. Multiple local birding groups also named for Audubon have announced intentions to change their name, starting with a Maryland group in November 2021. The Portland Audubon Society, Chicago Audubon Society and NYC Audubon are choosing new names, and a union representing employees of the National Audubon Society renamed itself The Bird Union in February. 

While selecting a new name, the group pursued activities and made choices that its leaders felt supported environmental justice and inclusiveness in the outdoors, like returning land to the Snoqualmie Tribe earlier this year. 

When the National Audubon Society elected to keep its name earlier this month, the Seattle group published an impassioned blog post denouncing the decision, and Catania reached out to the group’s membership letting them know a new name for the local chapter had been selected. 

Catania and her colleagues had intended to reveal their organization’s new name in June, as there is legal work to do before they can do business under it. But the leadership felt it was important to show that a chapter could change its name even though the national group decided not to. “Every minute you stay with the Audubon name is a minute of unnecessary harm that you're inflicting on people,” Nelson says. 

Asked for comment about the Seattle chapter’s name change, the National Audubon Society’s Diana Lee wrote in an email, “Chapters are an essential part of what makes the National Audubon Society a strong and impactful force for conservation. Each chapter is an independently incorporated entity and has the autonomy and authority to determine their name. We know that this is an issue that evokes strong feelings, and we respect that each chapter will make decisions to best serve their needs. Whatever their decisions, we will continue to support and work closely with the over 400 chapters across the nation and move forward as one unified community.”

Nelson says the Seattle group’s new name will better indicate to the public the organization’s commitment to antiracism and inclusion.

“Changing the name isn't doing the work, period. It's not,” he says. “It's just a public symbol, or a touch point, of the work that we're already doing.”

As guest speaker Lanham said, “Names changing without hearts and minds doing the same is just lip service. … It seems here in Seattle there are brave hearts and brilliant minds making hard decisions for the long haul.”

But reaching a new name, Nelson says, represents the willingness of its membership to do the work. “I'm not excited about the name per se, but I'm excited about what it represents, the work that we've done and the work that we're doing.”

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