Over the last few years, coinciding with a time of racial reckoning, the birding community has been rethinking its relationship with the John James Audubon name. Many know him as a wildlife artist whose illustrations helped shape the field of ornithology. Some associate the name with fond memories of birding trips, summer camps, and environmental advocacy from organizations like ours. What has been dismissed, ignored, or overlooked until the last few years by both Portland Audubon and the larger Audubon community is the fact that John James Audubon enslaved and sold Black people, opposed the abolition of slavery, and dug up and stole the human remains of Native Americans from their graves.
“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. John James Audubon’s name may mean “birds” to some, but to others it means ignoring a legacy of systemic racism. By moving away from the name, we can reduce harm and find a name that reflects the kind of environmental movement we can be proud to be a part of,” said Stuart Wells, executive director.
After a great deal of discussion within our board, staff, and with other Audubon chapters, Portland Audubon’s board voted in January to move away from the name Audubon. In order to best achieve our mission as an organization committed to racial equity and the environment, we cannot continue to condone bearing a name that celebrates a slaveholder who embraced white supremacist systems.
Portland Audubon isn’t alone in having these discussions. Already Seattle Audubon, Madison Audubon, Chicago Audubon, and the Audubon Naturalist Society have decided to drop the name. In addition, National Audubon Society has spent the last year undergoing a process to examine whether they will continue with the Audubon name. While National Audubon Society hasn’t made a final decision, their board is currently discussing whether National Audubon should embark on a name change. We strongly urge National Audubon Society’s board to do the right thing and move forward with a collaborative renaming process.
There are more than 450 Audubon chapters across the country, including Portland Audubon. National Audubon Society should remove the name Audubon as this would make a strong statement toward the network’s commitment to racial equity. It would allow the Audubon network to stay intact and help chapters move forward together with a unified voice. If National Audubon decides not to remove the Audubon name, Portland Audubon will begin its own collaborative name change process, which will include input from our members, partners, sister chapters around the state, and the larger community.
No matter what our name, our mission remains the same: to inspire people to love and protect birds, wildlife, and the natural environment upon which life depends. While a name change is never easy, we believe that it’s vital to our work if we want to make sure that Portland Audubon is a place of belonging for everyone and every community.