It's Complicated, OR IS IT?

Except for Vermont, every New England state is home to an “Audubon” organization that is fully independent of the National Audubon Society. Most also pre-date National Audubon.

In addition to these independent organizations, there are also a few state chapters of National Audubon in New England.

The National Audubon Society (1905) is one of the world’s best-known and most respected conservation organizations, protecting birds and habitats throughout the hemisphere. 

All of these storied organizations are widely beloved and respected not just locally, but also nationally and internationally for their leadership in conservation and habitat protection, support for research, and leadership in policy and advocacy locally, nationally, and even internationally.  All offer rich menus of valuable services—from nature experiences and education to special events and exhibitions. They are deeply engaged in their communities and serve as local resources for community events,  school program, scientific research and land owner advisers. They manage hundreds of beloved sanctuaries and wild places. Their programs, nature centers, and partners are beloved in their communities and they engage millions of people each year and inform, inspire, and unite us in conservation action.



All of these organizations are also named in a way to honor John James Audubon—an important naturalist and artist who inspired a nationwide conservation movement at a critical moment in history, who also happened to be a cruel and violent enslaver.

A selection of Audubon paintings

What's In A Name?

John James Audubon’s racism is not controversial. It has been well-documented by historians. Audubon even shared his racism in his 5-volume Ornithological Biography.

He is an example of the difficult and demanding truth that human beings are complex and contradictory beings—and that the brilliant and horrifyingly hateful can exist in anyone simultaneously.

Having spent more than a century celebrating the best of John James Audubon, independent Audubon societies and National Audubon chapters that bear his name can no longer ignore the worst.

Some Audubon chapters have now changed their names and dropped “Audubon” from their brand. Others retain, sometimes uncomfortably, the name and offer assorted changes to their mission and programming—some real, some cosmetic—as a diversion.

Acknowledging the best in a person does not mean that we also excuse or overlook the worst. Nor does it mean we must weigh goodness and evil against each other and see what comes out in the wash. Nothing is so simple. One is forced to decide—what matters?

Practically speaking, honoring a depraved enslaver comes with serious costs, not the least of which is creating real harm. Organizations that hold fast to the Audubon name appear willing to ignore this truth.

To trivialize such a significant cultural realization is to bracket the facts of Audubon’s racism and cruelty, to diminish the work people have done to learn and grow, and to deny the research quality of others. It is, in fact, the very definition of “gaslight.” The Audubon name alienates many people, including those who are members of these organizations. It undermines the organization’s mission and ability to do its work.

Holding on to the name for branding reasons or donor preference or out of stubbornness or fear of change because leaders are not yet ready to accept that the cultural idea of Audubon has shifted—those are no longer tenable positions. Offering mission adjustments or new initiatives is not enough.

In fact, announcing a plan to keep the name while investing simultaneously in equity initiatives feels like a play to buy acquiescence. Diversity investments may be welcomed and needed, but they don’t erase the problem. Retaining the name means you don’t take it seriously. It reveals reflects one’s priorities—not a lack of programming. 

The Pew Research Center reports that BIPOC communities are more concerned about climate change than predominantly white populations—perhaps because BIPOC communities have disproportionately shouldered the impact of environmental disparities as compared to more privileged communities. Preserving Audubon’s name has an additional sting when considered in this context.

Organizations that choose to cling to the Audubon mantle will find that it grows to be a heavy burden.

Audubon enslaved people. He bought and sold humans like horses. That is evidence enough to recast the hero into a different role. The organizations bearing Audubon’s name must press forward in this new light and decide who and what they want to be.

StayinG Engaged

Facts do not go away, and progress does not happen in reverse. One wants to cut and run because the hypocrisy is infuriating. Those of us who grow disappointed may soon seek different leaders or abandon these organizations because it is easier to give up. But we should think twice about stepping away from some of the most effective environmental advocates we currently have. 

So maybe … we don’t. We are facing environmental collapse. What we lose now may be gone forever. We should not be pulled away from the urgency of the moment by this lack of leadership.

The vast Audubon network—formal, independent, informal, imperfect, and frustratingly stubborn—is an asset that must be engaged and it must be changed and re-charged with new energy.

More than ever, Audubon’s everywhere needs our forceful engagement and active participation. By staying engaged we can and should push every Audubon organization to be better. Acknowledge and support their effectiveness as environmental leaders but don’t let it be a hall pass for intransigence. Make them do better by staying in the mix.

Members have a say. Members can speak up. Members can provide the momentum and demand these organizations do better because as public charities that is their obligation. Let’s hold them to it. This is not the time to step away. 

We can work from the inside. Renew our memberships, attend the programs, and confidently express our anger and disappointment—even if we just start with a note in the message box on a membership form or an email.

Being there, being heard, being an engaged and energetic participant in the fight for conservation, habitat, biodiversity, science, a rational response to climate change, and real environmental justice everywhere—this matters. We have to remain present and not modulate our disappointment. Be present, if you can, and not everyone can. If not for yourself, for others.

There is no other option.

CREDITS: Illustration,  BBF. Drawings by JJ Audubon (Public Domain)

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