These Black nature lovers are busting stereotypes, one cool bird at a time
Updated 1258 GMT (2058 HKT) June 3, 2020
(CNN)Everyone has the bird.
Corina Newsome calls it a gateway bird, the one special species that sets an avian enthusiast on a lifetime course of discovery and environmental passion. Hers was the blue jay.
For Tykee James, it was the belted kingfisher.
When asked what his favorite bird is, Alex Troutman paused. "Can I give you a top three?" The northern crested caracara. The white ibis. And, of course, the penguin.
These young Black naturalists -- and the birds they love -- are some of the stars of Black Birders Week, a series of events and activities designed to highlight Black scientists, scholars and everyday nature lovers. While spreading their joy and knowledge, the countless people involved in the movement are also raising visibility of Black achievement at a painfully critical time.
A painful event is turned into potential
The event was conceived by a group of Black STEM professionals and students who share an online space they call #BlackAFinSTEM.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and the dozens of people in the group hail from all different kinds of disciplines within that sphere.
But when Christian Cooper, a Black birder in New York City, was threatened by a white woman in Central Park, their focus turned to the avian-minded among them.
Within days, a group of #BlackAFinSTEM organizers had come up with a whole week's worth of ways to support and encourage the Black birding community.
The Audubon Society, the National Park Service and countless other organizations have boosted their work, introducing social media to a whole realm of cool birds and new discoveries -- and new faces that challenge and change science stereotypes.
"The importance is normalizing the fact that Black people exist in the birding and natural sciences community," says Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, one of the organizers of the event. "People don't understand that Black people exist in other contexts other than the ones they're exposed to. It's to ensure other people see the impact of Black birders and naturalists, and gives them a chance to be seen."
This visibility is a master key that can open all kinds of doors for Black scientists to succeed, and for the world to benefit from their success.
Scientists confront the double-edged sword of stereotypes
Why is there such an internalized stereotype that Black people aren't interested, or are somehow alien to, nature and the studies therein?
Wildlife biologist Alex Troutman says, in his experience, it's a combination of factors: People growing up in urban areas are exposed to less nature. And the persistent idea that outdoor activities -- like camping, hiking and wildlife appreciation -- are white-dominated pursuits.
"People assume just because we're Black, we don't like the outdoors," he says. "People don't talk about the buffalo soldiers who were among the first to care for national parks. They don't talk about Black ranchers."
Troutman has worked with marine endangered species in Corpus Christi, Texas, for the National Park Service and for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, among other roles. All of this experience, and Troutman says people have still occasionally looked at him with doubt.
"When I was working for the Fish and Wildlife Service, even wearing a uniform, guests would question why I was there. I've had to show them my ID."
This idea that Black people somehow don't belong in the outdoors fuels even more fear.
"Most of my friends are afraid of being harassed or assaulted if they were to leave the city to take in nature, because you hardly ever see Black people camping and enjoying outdoors. And look at what happens to someone like Ahmaud Arbery, who couldn't even run outside."
Troutman considers himself one of the lucky ones. He grew up outside of Atlanta searching for salamanders in the stream that ran through his backyard. He and his brothers, father and uncle would go fishing on the weekends.
But even then, it didn't occur to him that the life he would eventually have -- one filled with turtle rescues and birds of prey and a wealth of wildlife knowledge -- was possible.
"I always thought I would be a vet," he said. "Because that was the only Black person I saw working with animals."