As NH marks Black Birders Week, organizers aim to educate about lived experiences
Tucked away on a busy Concord thoroughfare dotted with big-box stores, fast food chains, and automotive services is 10 acres of recreational green space.
At Keach Park in the city’s Heights neighborhood, a flat, shaded walking trail loops around a large field, playground, seasonal pool, and basketball courts. Tall trees crowd the dirt path, providing cool cover from the late afternoon sun.
Surrounded by industry and retail, it may not be obvious, but nature is all around. Sounding from the treetops are robins, cardinals, and sparrows – a sweet, trilling symphony against the hum of nearby traffic.
On Saturday, June 3, Keach Park will be the location of a free event held in honor of Black Birders Week. It’s New Hampshire Audubon’s first ever guided nature walk marking the national week of events and educational opportunities that’s become an annual occurrence.
Running from May 28 to June 3, Black Birders Week celebrates Black birders and naturalists, and aims to bring awareness to the challenges they face in equitably enjoying the outdoors.
What is Black Birders Week?
The Black AF in STEM Collective, the group behind the movement, started the campaign after a videotaped incident in New York City’s Central Park went viral, showing a racially charged confrontation in which a white female dog walker called the police on a Black birdwatcher. It occurred on May, 25, 2020, on the same day George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.
The woman, Amy Cooper, was charged with filing a false police report, though the charges were ultimately dropped nearly a year later after she completed an educational course. The birdwatcher, Christian Cooper (no relation to Amy Cooper), is set to host a National Geographic show called “Extraordinary Birder” that’s expected to air this year.
Adé Ben-Salahuddin, co-chair of the national Black Birders Week 2023 planning team, said the “long history of racial injustice in this country” extends to the sciences realm and hobbyists trying to enjoy and study nature.
“These lived experiences are still happening,” he said. “Part of what we are aiming to do is normalize the presence of us in the field, both literally and figuratively. We’ve always been there.”
It’s not uncommon for Black people out in nature to be followed, accosted, or questioned, Ben-Salahuddin said. Many people have experiences when they were stopped by police or had 911 called on them, even if they had identifiable research equipment, a camera, or standard outdoor gear.
The Black birdwatching community is multi-faceted, including avian connoisseurs, general nature lovers, photographers, artists, researchers, data analysts, and many others. Ben-Salahuddin himself is an undergraduate student at Southern Connecticut State University particularly interested in evolution and ecology. He runs a YouTube channel to educate viewers about prehistoric life.
June 3 event in Concord
Anita Fernandez, community outreach coordinator at New Hampshire Audubon, said the event touches upon several goals, “one of them being that we want everybody we interact with or reach to feel safe in nature and to feel safe engaging in activities.”
“We also want people to have an understanding and appreciation and interest in our wildlife,” she said.
While Black Birders Week originated from a negative experience representative of countless others, Fernandez said they hope to also position it as a “celebration” for people to come together and “experience this amazing activity.”
But don’t expect an apolitical conversation if you’re attending events during Black Birders Week, Ben-Salahuddin cautioned. The national campaign’s inherent mission is to highlight inequities in how people participate in the outdoors and related professions.
“We are trying to have fun with it and it’s an enjoyable thing, but we don’t want to overlook the seriousness of what we’re doing,” he said. “Expect these conversations to be had.”
Partnering on the Concord event is Friends Program, a social services nonprofit that does a lot of enrichment work with residents of the Heights – the most commercial district in the city. The organization provides emergency housing, youth mentoring, a foster grandparent program, and volunteer opportunities for people 55 and older.
Laura Miller, development director at Friends Program, said Keach Park is an ideal destination to hold the birding event because many of the residents they serve can walk there.
“Getting kids who don’t have a lot of means to travel and engage in things other than day-to-day life, to go out and look and see there is tons of nature right in your neighborhood,” Miller said. “You just need to look up.”
New Hampshire Audubon is increasingly interested in promoting wildlife and nature to people “where they are,” Fernandez said. Using one of the state’s most famous outdoor destinations as an example, beautiful nature isn’t just in the White Mountains, she said, it’s everywhere.
“I do think there is a great opportunity to put together local birding chapters and local nature communities,” Fernandez said. “I’m definitely a huge advocate of bringing nature everywhere.”
Event attendees are encouraged to bring binoculars if they have them, sunscreen, and appropriate outdoor clothing. Two trained nature guides will be on site from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Pre-registration is requested for the free event.
For more information about Black Birders Week, visit https://www.blackafinstem.com/.