By Ilana DeBare
Over the past several years, Audubon members and leaders throughout the country have been taking a hard look at the name of our organization—in specific, our identification with John James Audubon.
Audubon was a leading naturalist of the early 1800s. His artwork in Birds of North America introduced Europeans to the wildlife of this continent and helped generations of Americans learn about the birds around them.
But Audubon also owned and sold enslaved people. In fact, he financed some of his birding expeditions through the sale of Black people. He opposed the abolition of slavery at a time when there was a growing abolition movement. He robbed Native American graves to collect skulls for himself and his friends.
So a growing number of Audubon chapters are deciding to change their names—feeling that the figurehead of John James Audubon doesn’t represent their values or their aspiration to be a welcoming home for all birders.
Seattle Audubon led the way in July 2022, launching an ambitious name-change process that included months of surveys, focus groups, branding consultation, and pro bono legal help. They plan to announce their new name in June.
Madison Audubon (Wisconsin) followed in Seattle’s steps with a unanimous board vote in December 2022 to drop the Audubon name and start a process to find a new name.
In mid-February, Chicago Audubon announced it would choose a new name within the year if National Audubon doesn’t do so first. And most recently, Portland Audubon (Oregon) announced on February 27 that it too is dropping the Audubon name.
“John James Audubon’s name may mean ‘birds’ to some, but to others it means ignoring a legacy of systemic racism,” said Portland’s Executive Director Stuart Wells. “By changing our name, we get to more fully live our values as an organization committed to racial equity, and create a place where people from all communities can come together for nature.”
Chapters such as Portland hope their decisions will push National Audubon to take action. National Audubon announced in 2022 that it would consider the name issue, and it was expected to issue a decision soon, but as of March 1st, the National board had not yet announced a decision.
The spreading reevaluation of the Audubon name has several roots. One is the heightened national awareness—especially since the Black Lives Matter movement—of the role of slavery and systemic racism in American history. From college campuses to city park departments, organizations are taking a second look at the actions and values of historic figures that they’d chosen to honor.
A second root lies in efforts by the environmental movement to become more racially and socially diverse. Conservation groups including Audubon are trying to expand beyond their traditional base of older white people—a necessity if we are to win political battles on tough issues like climate change and habitat preservation. But the Audubon name is a red flag to many young people and people of color, and undermines efforts to grow this movement.
What does this all mean for Golden Gate Audubon Society? Although we’re affiliated with National Audubon, we’re an independent non-profit organization with the freedom to choose whatever name we want. (Chapters can still belong to the national organization even if they don’t use the Audubon name.) In other words, we have options.
The GGAS board has been carefully watching what National and other chapters are doing. We understand the power of being part of a national “brand,” but we also understand how the association with John James Audubon may be undermining our important outreach, education, and conservation work.
We’ve created a short survey that we will be sending to our membership to gauge the feelings and thoughts of our community. If you’re a Golden Gate Audubon member, you will get an email from us in the next few days.
Over the next couple of months, we’ll share more of our thoughts about this too. What were the facts and context of John James Audubon’s life? How important—or not—is “Audubon” as a brand to people outside the birding world? What happens if local chapters move faster than the national organization on the naming issue?
Thank you for your membership and involvement with Golden Gate Audubon. This is a fascinating moment of change, and we’ll do our best to keep you informed and involved.
Ilana DeBare is a board member and former Communications Director for Golden Gate Audubon. Her novel Shaken Loose will be published by Hypatia Press in July: See ilanadebare.com .