The first ever Black Birders Week was organized by the grassroots group Black AF in STEM, and has united Black professionals working across science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. The core message of the viral online movement has been to amplify and encourage more participation and diversity within the outdoor and environmental spaces, but it has also raised awareness about the hazards Black people face when working in, or simply enjoying the great outdoors.
“If you’re wondering why many of us are talking about being a naturalist right now: Our safety during fieldwork and hobbies is endangered by whiteness and police violence. No matter the setting Black people are targeted in America,” tweeted Alexander Grousis-Henderson, a co-organizer of Black Birders Week.
To Grousis-Henderson, his experiences as a Black man in America and as a STEM professional are interlinked. “When people say that talking about our experiences as Black folks racializes our science, it doesn’t. It doesn’t politicize our science because that would be like saying data on climate change politicizes climate change. If we have these experiences, it’s not scientific to ignore the fact that we have a shorter lifespan as a result.” Through the safe space created by Black Birders Week, Grousis-Henderson seeks to foster important discussions and normalize being Black in nature.
During our interview, which has been edited and condensed, Grousis-Henderson touched on his passion for wildlife conservation, the unity Black Birders Week has fostered, and how Black AF in STEM is continuing to build momentum during one of the world’s biggest civil rights movements.
Q: What experiences sparked your passion for the natural world?
Alexander Grousis-Henderson (AGH): For me, it was always that I felt this comfort just being outside. As a kid I liked to run around, I always had grass in my hair. I used to have this big fro as a kid. I would go under the bushes playing hide and seek and I would always be climbing trees or looking for bugs. In fact, there’s this one story my mom used to like to tell. I was in the middle of a soccer game, I was maybe five years old, and I’m out there running around and I see this butterfly. I stop in the middle of the game and get down on the ground, and I catch it. I’m sitting there on the ground kind of curled up just holding this butterfly getting a look at it for the first time. Normally they would fly away if I got too close so this one might have been in its final days. I’m staring at this butterfly, the scales on its wings are all over my fingers, and the referee stops the game and runs over to ask if I’m okay.
I think that experience says a lot about me and my interests and how drawn I was to animals and wild spaces. I could be walking with a friend on a trail and it’s hard for me to make eye contact. I want to see everything else around me. I want to be aware of all of the cool stuff around me. So there was never one specific moment that sparked my passion for the natural world, but I’ve always felt this underlying pull towards nature. I wouldn’t mind being some old hermit in a cabin living out in Yosemite or a wild area. I’d never be bored. Part of my study for a little while was around herptiles, specifically snakes. I hated snakes for years and years of my life until I got hired to be an educator. The first moment I held a snake, it changed everything. They were no longer this slimy, gross creature, but they’re actually very soft and oftentimes super timid, especially ball pythons. They are also iridescent, they throw off rainbows, and to see snakes in that completely different light was amazing. As I’ve learned more about animals, I’ve fallen in love with each different one.
Q: Could you tell me more about your path to specialize in wildlife conservation?
AGH: When I was in college at the University of Missouri, I was lucky enough to be part of a two year grant program set aside for students of underrepresented minorities who were interested in either lab or science positions. Basically you would learn how to be an undergraduate researcher. So this program would pay your wages and you just had to find a lab that would accept you. Through the program you had this entire directory of labs to apply to. This program gave me my first look into what being in a lab was like, and also you were working with all these different people. Black, Southeast Asian, Latino, there were a handful of other minorities in this cohort you could call it. We would all see each other. The biggest thing for me was to see other folks like me in these fields, it was all about that visibility. It made me realize I’m not alone trying to do this. I’m not the only one struggling with these really weird interactions that didn’t have to be so weird.
We all had a number of experiences that overlapped and we could share, and it makes you feel less crazy. Sometimes when you have experienced something that is racial or just straight up racist, a lot of folks will tell you that you’re misinterpreting it, and it kind of makes you feel like you’re going crazy. You’re like, am I misinterpreting it? Or is this actually what I’m processing it as? Or is it something else completely? What were they trying to say? Over time it really, really affects people’s mental health. To have a room full of people who can help you process it and say, yeah, maybe you weren’t misinterpreting it. Or maybe it was racist in this way. Or maybe even that it isn’t racist itself, but it echoes some experiences you’ve had in the past. So all those experiences in college really helped me, and also being able to volunteer with different types of labs and different scientific outfits really helped me. I worked in a bovine genomics lab briefly and I also got to work with the research center for human animal interaction. That was really cool to see how domestic animals, and companion animals affect our mental health and wellbeing, sometimes even our physicality. That one was a really cool experience, it showed me that science can either be rigid lab work, or it could be something much more in the social sciences. The thing that I ended up taking away from all of it is that I didn’t want to work in a lab, but I wanted to work with my hands and potentially doing something physical. I want to contribute to the sciences in a much more physical way. That’s one of the ways that I’ve learned to engage in the world around me, through physical contact a lot. So I ended up working as a zookeeper and in zoos, because that’s where I’ve found myself really being able to put my passion into the world, and I was an educator for years. That told me exactly what I wanted to do.
Q: How did you get involved with Black AF in STEM? Are you a birder?
AGH: A lot of us were on Twitter, or on various social media platforms, just living our lives, trying to share experiences. On Twitter there’s so many different groups, there’s bird Twitter and they have a rivalry with fish Twitter and its hilarious, they just roast each other. Jason Ward, who has had a number of these positive, sometimes really goofy interactions with all of us said, “You know what? We have got to stop being so apart and get together in one spot, let’s pull our collective resources, and make something happen.” So Jason and his brother Jeremy Ward created a GroupMe chat. We started having conversations about what we wanted our impact to be. If one of us had an issue, we would talk about it as a group. Then other people would help you spread that message. We tackled a conversation about feral cats and the damage they can do ecologically. A couple of us really coordinated our efforts to start a conversation about that. It gave us a sense that we can create conversations, guide them and also have the capacity to do so. Christian Cooper’s experience echoed a lot of our collective experiences. After that horrific interaction in Central Park, we all wanted to say something about this, this is our lane to speak, and we just jumped into it.
In terms of birding, there was a time I worked with raptors, particularly owls, and then they became my favorite. They’re not the smartest animals that exist, but they’re just incredible to watch. They are virtually silent, they have amazing vision, their eyes are so big, and they can rotate their heads almost 270 degrees. As I’m learning more about them, I’m just blown away. I’ll probably learn about another animal and then fall in love with that one. So it’s a constant rotating thing that I’m just trying to keep up with, but for the sake of Black Birders Week, it actually got me into birding a little bit. I went on my first birding trip as a result of our preparations for the week. Instead of looking at the ground and trying to find frogs and lizards, I decided I’m going to look up, I’m going to do the exact opposite of my impulse. I saw a few birds. I think a downy woodpecker. So I got to experience this new perspective of the outdoors and look at a canopy instead of the root systems.
Q: What impact has Black Birders Week had on you?
AGH: During Black Birders Week our world got so much bigger. There are hundreds of millions of Black folks around the world, and tons of us are in the outdoors and the sciences. A lot of the time you just don’t see outside of your circle and you don’t think they exist. That was the biggest thing. I was in quarantine for three weeks in my house. My world became the inside of my house, and the first time I went outside and had the sun on my skin, it was like that feeling of warmth. Or the feeling of taking a drink of water for the first time after you’ve just been outside sweating. Black Birders Week completely quenched my thirst. The thirst I didn’t realize was there, it was amazing. It completely broadened my mindset and on top of that I was able to share my experiences and then promote other folks who have experiences, some way worse than mine. Now we have a place where we can have conversations about identity and promoting LGBTQ+ folks. In our group we can have discussions about identity and how there isn’t just one type of Black guy or one type of girl, one type of person in general. There is massive diversity in the Black community, we’re spread around the world, that’s led to this cultural explosion. In our group we want to be able to show that.
The first day was #BlackInNature. That first day blew everything wide open and it made me realize y’all are everywhere. Then the next one was the live stream event, “Birding while Black,” that was actually two events. One was at noon and featured Christian Cooper, the man whose experience inspired the whole week. It was amazing to have him join us and then we also had Dr. Drew Lanham. He’s the OG Black birder. To have him join us, that was reaffirming right there. Those were two of the really big events for me. On the final day was the promotion of “Black Women Who Bird.” A lot of the times discussions of Black inequity gets focused on Black men, but we can’t be erasing the stories of Black women. Someone said that Black women are fighting a thousand wars. That’s so real, and we have to speak on that. I also want to say that it was Black women who did all the heavy lifting to make Black Birders Week happen, they absolutely deserve their shine. We wouldn’t have had this event at all if it was not for Black women. So shout out to them.
One of the reactions that messed me up in a good way came from the National Wildlife Federation. It happened the day after Black Birders Week ended. They pledged to expand their conservation fellowship and internship programs to create opportunities dedicated specifically for young biologists of color, and to help more students and recent graduates launch careers in conservation. Even if we just impacted one organization, and they said we’re going to do better, that would have been enough for me. To know that we may have made this space even a little bit safer for other Black folks, that is mission accomplished right there.
Q: During Black Birders Week there were a lot of discussions about racism and interactions with the police, have you ever experienced any challenges or dangers when conducting fieldwork?
AGH: During fieldwork, I had one interaction with a police officer that didn’t go nearly as bad as it could have gone. I pulled up to the field site, I had a new volunteer with me who is a younger Black dude and I was showing him the ropes. We were assisting a local researcher and trying to discover what was causing this localized mortality event. We were finding dead snakes all over this road. The question is why are they being killed? So the idea developed that maybe it’s pollution or potentially a pathogen. So we have to go out and look into it. The area that we’re working in is basically an abandoned roadway. Usually we’ll be sitting by our car on the side of the highway, or in the grass for about 15 to 20 minutes as we prepare to go into the site. So I write everything out and throw the permit on the dash and then my assistant is like “Hey, what’s he doing?” It’s a sheriff who is just sitting in his car, watching us. Those moments are so unnerving, because you don’t know what they are about to do. You don’t know if he’s just curious, you don’t know if he is calling back-up because he thinks you’re doing something suspicious. I pick up the permit and I tap on it just to show him that I have all my paperwork to be here. I put it back on the dash and then go back to doing my stuff. Then he does that kind of siren flash. He gestures for me to come over.
I made sure to keep plenty of distance between him and me. He asks what we’re doing out here in this mildly threatening tone. I explained what we’re doing out here and he is basically interrogating me in a way that shows he doesn’t believe me. I give him the permit and he continues to interrogate me. Then someone calls him on the radio and asks if he needs backup, and he just says, ‘standby.’ He’s still asking me a lot of questions that really don’t make any sense for him to be asking. So I ended up just wanting to be done with the conversation. So I elaborate on the fact that there is theoretically a pathogen out here that could get into the community, unless we detected it. That’s obviously worst case scenario. That is also based on only a hypothesis, but my interest was surviving this interaction. After he heard that he decided he didn’t want to be around us because I told him that in this moment we are actually disinfecting ourselves to ensure that we were not carrying a pathogen around, which is true only on a technicality. So he ends up letting me go, but the entire time I’m processing the fact that if anything happens or if I do anything wrong, I could die. Not only that, but if anything bad happens to me, what is my volunteer assistant who’s like 18 or 19 going to do? How’s he going to get home? What’s going to happen with him if he gets arrested too? All of this is based off a mountain of really negative experiences that I’ve had with the police that didn’t have to happen. We are not given the benefit of the doubt a lot of times in our lives. There is no exception even when we have an education or degree, or if we dress nice. None of that can make you immune to white supremacy. There is no shield for it. It makes the world less safe, not just for Black folks, but as a whole. It lets criminal behavior continue while focusing only on Black folks. With Black Birders Week we wanted to share our own personal experiences and say we have got to stop this.
Q: Are there any changes you would like to see within the environmental space to better support Black STEM professionals?
AGH: This is something that drives a lot of us crazy. When people say that talking about our experiences as Black folks racializes our science, it doesn’t. It doesn’t politicize our science because that would be like saying data on climate change, politicizes climate change. If we have these experiences, it’s not scientific to ignore the fact that we have a shorter lifespan as a result. There are a lot of mental health problems that are caused by the societal factors which will affect our work. When a workplace has more diversity, they have been shown to be far more resilient to change, to ignore that is to go against science. We need other scientists and other enthusiasts to recognize the data and the realness of this, and then to move forward with that in mind. We refuse to be ignored.
Additionally, in the greater conservation conversation if we ignore Indigenous people, we will never solve the problems in the Amazon. We cannot save rainforests without their work, without their knowledge, without their input. You can’t have African conservation unless you can work with African folks, that’s super important. We need to recognize that having diverse voices, and hearing diverse voices is imperative to conservation. Y’all can post in journals all you want, but the work can’t get done unless you promote Indigenous groups. There are a lot of voices that still need to be promoted. Southeast Asian, Indian voices, you also have to promote Aborigine folks, Black folks in Australia. You need them, and they need our support. We’ll never get these problems fixed if we approach them from a colonial perspective. Everything is connected, like Black Birders Week is about blackness because we have very specific experiences in America, but it really is a microcosm for a lot of colonialism and white supremacy and western supremacy that exists around the planet and really damages the global south as I’ve heard it referred. This is our way as Black birders and Black naturalists and Black scientists to laser focus on these issues and try to try to fix this, get this blemish out of here. Hopefully it creates ideas for promoting other changes that are positive. We’re trying to keep the momentum building during one of the world’s biggest civil rights movements.