In 2020, the National Audubon Society found itself embroiled in a conflict over race and their own handling of the issue within the organization. This conflict arose in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests against racial injustice. The society’s previous CEO, David Yarnold, recognized the need for the organization to address systemic racism and pledged to make the society “antiracist in everything we do.”
However, three years later, the organization continues to struggle with addressing these issues. Complaints regarding workplace conditions, treatment of minority employees, and the question of whether the society should dissociate itself from its namesake, John James Audubon, who owned slaves, have become major points of contention. Several board members have resigned, local chapters have distanced themselves, and employees are expressing their dissatisfaction. Donors and members are also questioning the organization’s integrity and mission.
The Audubon Society’s experiences reflect the broader debates that have unfolded in organizations across the country since 2020. Many organizations have grappled with reconciling the desire to appeal to a younger and more diverse generation with the objections of others who feel the proposed changes go too far. The Audubon Society faces similar challenges, particularly when it comes to the question of the society’s traditional mission and its relation to social justice.
The debate over the society’s namesake, John James Audubon, is at the center of these discussions. While Audubon made significant contributions to ornithological study, he was also a slave owner with racist beliefs. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, members of the birding community called for the society to consider a name change. Those in favor argue that a name change would not only break ties with a shameful history but also create a more inclusive environment that would benefit the organization as a whole.
However, the transition has not been smooth. The society’s workplace conditions were exposed in a 2020 report, which substantiated claims of a hostile environment for racial minorities and women. Changes were promised, but former CEO David Yarnold resigned before the report’s release. Employees formed a union called the “Bird Union,” distancing themselves from the Audubon name. Staffers felt that the organization was more interested in preserving the status quo than pursuing social justice initiatives.
Diversity within the birding community has also been an issue. Birding has traditionally been seen as a hobby for affluent white individuals, and Black birders have often felt excluded. Efforts to diversify the birding community were met with resistance from some conservative individuals who viewed the changes as unnecessary.
Amidst these debates, the Audubon Society conducted an internal survey that revealed a deeply divided organization. Some felt that changing the name would alienate those who provided generous funding, while others believed it was necessary for inclusivity. This division highlights the challenge organizations face when trying to navigate societal changes and address longstanding issues.
The society’s new CEO, Elizabeth Gray, acknowledges the importance of diversity and equity in the organization’s work. However, finding a balance between tradition and progress remains a significant challenge. As the Audubon Society continues to grapple with these issues, the outcome will serve as a case study for other organizations facing similar challenges.