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Friday, June 9, 2023
June 9, 2023

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Seattle Audubon unveils new name after severing tie to slave owner

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SEATTLE — Birds Connect Seattle.

That is the new name unveiled Tuesday of the organization formerly known as the Seattle chapter of the National Audubon Society, as it severs ties from its namesake, slave owner John James Audubon.

Birds Connect Seattle was the first major chapter in the national network to announce last year it would drop the Audubon name. The new name comes nearly two weeks after the National Audubon Society, the country’s leading bird conservation group, announced it would retain the name despite pressure to end its association with the enslaver whose racist legacy is well documented.

Conversations about changing the organization’s moniker were ongoing for two years across chapters. The new name for Seattle was chosen from over 250 suggestions, Executive Director Claire Catania said at a Tuesday virtual event.

Connection was something that repeatedly bubbled up from focus groups and surveys, according to Catania, who said it is fitting as “birds connect people to one another and to the world around us in virtually limitless ways.”

Glenn Nelson, the chapter’s community director, said the local chapter will also don a new logo, among other changes in its rebranding effort. They are still in the process of registering the group as Birds Connect Seattle.

But that is “just a start,” said Nelson, who added that changing a name cannot heal slavery, dispossession or the countless ways people have been othered or faced violence.

The organization said its mission is to be inclusive, with active efforts to reach out to diverse communities and to promote more inclusive programming, hiring and recruiting practices, as well as within its advocacy work.

The Seattle chapter drafted a letter in 2021 asking the National Audubon Society to reexamine their namesake’s legacy. In the past year, Birds Connect Seattle staff has faced push back from people who don’t want to discuss race and inclusivity, but staff kept pushing forward with changing the name, Nelson said.

“It’s hard to go against the grain,” he said. “And that is so resonant to those of us who have had to live our entire lives against the grain.”

Audubon was a talented artist and hyper-observant person who shaped how many see birds, nature and wilderness, but he also was a racist, a slave owner and someone who desecrated graves and remains of Indigenous people, said J. Drew Lanham, a former board member of the National Audubon Society and a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University.

“ … should talent and fame whitewash racism and hate?” Lanham asked, saying people cannot ignore the legacy of harm and oppression a person, place or name carries.

Lanham, an early advocate for a name change, said he, himself, had to melt down and recast the old ideal he held about Audubon.

People will claim “history” to fight name changes, but fail to realize the privilege of being able to cherry pick what they remember and what they celebrate, he said.

“Losing the name of someone who would have demanded someone who looks like me be treated as nothing more than livestock seems a pretty decent, righteous and brave attempt at being better,” Lanham said.

Lanham criticized the hypocrisy in spaces and organizations that claim to care for people or birds or conservation but namesakes and actions contradict those mission statements.

While memberships may dwindle and big donors may retreat, it’s essential, he said, to address the reality and consequences of namesakes. More critical, he added, is the commitment to substantive mission and action change, applauding the Seattle group for making the hard but necessary decisions “for the long haul.”

“Branding isn’t just a billboard others might see; it’s a heartbeat,” Lanham said. “I think we’re tested not just by the names that others call us but what we will actually answer to and what we’ll ultimately answer for.”

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