In an all member vote on Oct. 18 the Washtenaw Audubon Society, Ann Arbor’s local bird conservation organization, voted to drop “Audubon” from its name due to its association with John James Audubon. Audubon, who the national organization was originally named for, owned and sold slaves throughout his lifetime. The change was widely supported by the organization’s membership, as well as other stakeholders and community members who the organization consulted for input.
In March, the national chapter of the Audubon Society announced they would not be removing Audubon from their name. They said they believe the name “Audubon” has come to represent more than one individual and is now symbolic of the mission of the organization. Following the announcement, the national organization said they would donate $25 million to its diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiatives to promote conservation and birding to all communities.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Juliet Berger, Washtenaw Audubon Society president, said the more the organization learned of Audubon’s history, the more they realized their name was not aligned with their mission and values.
“As more information has come out about Audubon, about how he’s done some things we find absolutely reprehensible, we became more aware that having Audubon as part of our name was detrimental to our mission and was discouraging people from joining,” Berger said.
During the process of debating whether they should change their name, Keith Dickey, Washtenaw Audubon Society treasurer, told The Daily that the organization discussed whether Audubon’s actions could be considered a product of his time. Dickey said he believes Audubon’s actions are inexcusable regardless of the time period in which they occurred.
“It’s not so much a question of if John James Audubon was a man of his times or just a bad person,” Dickey said. “I would argue that he was a reprehensible person, even in the context of his own times.”
LSA junior Anita Rao, Michigan Bird Club president, told The Daily she believes this name change will help the organization work toward a more diverse membership. Rao said a wider array of voices in the conversation around bird conservation, biodiversity and climate change will only benefit the organization’s goals.
“I think what a lot of bird watchers can agree on is that … the more people at the table we have working on these problems, the better,” Rao said. “We can’t really afford to be turning people away.”
As an advocate for bird preservation and birding at large, Rao said she has seen firsthand the benefit of bringing new people into the practice and expanding its demographic with Michigan Bird Club.
“When you go out into birdwatching spaces and the general community, that average age is a lot older,” Rao said. “You picture one specific type of person. I love that the birdwatching club is really diverse. It’s bringing a lot of younger people into birdwatching, and a lot of different types of people into birdwatching, and I think that’s been great.”
Ann Arbor’s organization’s members have not yet decided on a new name. Submissions for a new name will go to the board of the Washtenaw chapter before going to an all-member vote. They plan to deliberate and vote on the new name at a future meeting.