MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:
Hey, everybody. Maddie Sofia and Emily Kwong here.
EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Like you, we've been following the protests happening all over the world right now, maybe happening in a community where you live. And as we've talked about on this show, discrimination and anti-black racism is persistent in the sciences, too. And it's something we will continue to talk about here on SHORT WAVE.
SOFIA: So for the next few episodes, we'll be having conversations with black scientists and academics about their research, experiences and how they're processing both the protests and the pandemic - and what needs to be done to make science truly inclusive. OK. Here's the show.
You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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SOFIA: It was Memorial Day, and Christian Cooper was doing what he had done so many times before in Central Park...
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SOFIA: ...Birdwatching. He was in a wooded area where dogs are required to be on leashes. Amy Cooper, a white woman, and her dog, who was not leashed, came through. Christian, who is black, asked her to put the dog on a leash. And that's when the woman called 911.
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SOFIA: Christian started recording with his phone. She insisted that he stop and started telling the dispatcher that, quote, "There's an African American man threatening my life." To be clear, Christian Cooper was not threatening her life. He was asking her to leash her dog as park policy required. The recording that Christian Cooper took while being harassed went viral.
Chelsea Connor is a herpetologist, somebody who studies reptiles and amphibians. She's into these awesome little lizards called anoles. She is also a black birder. And she says what happened to Christian Cooper felt really familiar to her.
CHELSEA CONNOR: I wish I could say that I was surprised, but this is not the first time that I've heard a white woman threaten a black person with a call to the police or police violence. I've had somebody do that to me and then try to play it off as a joke.
CONNOR: It's sad that it's so normal. And there is so much hurt that you don't know what to do with. But at the same time, no black person is surprised that that happened.
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SOFIA: So today on the show, we take a look at one way Chelsea and other black birders are changing the narrative around who gets to be in nature - to talk about the challenges black birders face and advocate for more diversity in conservation. It's Black Birders Week, y'all, and I could not be more excited. It's been all over my timeline, Chelsea. I'm like, look at all these nerds out here.
CONNOR: They're living their best lives. Look at them.
SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, NPR's daily science podcast.
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SOFIA: You know, I think a big piece of this is that, you know, Cooper was just outside...
CONNOR: Yeah, he was.
SOFIA: ...Enjoying nature. You know what I mean? And like...
CONNOR: Doing what he loves - birdwatching.
SOFIA: Right. And I think as a white person, I get to think of nature as this refuge - this place to clear my head and connect with nature and be centered. And you know, that's just not the case for black folks lots of times.
CONNOR: So sometimes I'll bike to the lake, and I'll see some birds. Or I'll see, like, a stream, and I'll see that there's, like, some animals in there that I want to check out. And I look up, and they'll be, like, at least one older white man looking at me like I'm up to something and he needs to keep an eye on me. And I just kind of have transitioned out of doing those things alone and waiting till my white friend is with me to do those things.
SOFIA: Ugh - OK. So I mean, does that make you feel, like, nervous to go out birding?
CONNOR: Yes. I do not feel comfortable in the neighborhood that I am in to go out birding. So I usually do it from my window or whatever birds I see while I'm on my bike, I'm like - oh, look at those; they're cool. Like, other people don't have to think about that. And I don't think a lot of people realize that there is a group of people who have to consider - what am I going to look like when I go outside with these binoculars to someone who would want to believe I'm out to do something terrible?
SOFIA: After Christian Cooper was harassed while birding, a group of black folks in STEM fields started messaging each other in a group chat, trying to figure out what they could do to support him. That's when Chelsea says Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman came up with an idea, something similar to how folks went running after Ahmaud Arbery was killed, a 25-year-old black man who was killed while jogging by armed white men in Georgia.
CONNOR: But you know, instead of running, it'd be birding. And we all were like, oh, that's an amazing idea if we do that.
SOFIA: And so #BlackBirdersWeek was born - a week of activities and conversations to support black birders like Christian Cooper. And it's happening right now.
CONNOR: It's very important that we remove any barriers and black people can feel safe doing outdoor activities. We wanted to share that. We wanted everybody black to be a part of that - to know that they're not alone in enjoying nature; they're not alone in wanting to be outdoors and wanting to have safety there.
SOFIA: So each day of the week has a different focus. Right?
SOFIA: Walk me through some of the days.
CONNOR: OK. So Sunday, we had #BlackInNature, which we did to celebrate black nature enthusiasts and outdoor lovers everywhere. We wanted to see pictures from them outside if they had any, just show us that you like nature and tell us what you love about being outside. And the outpouring that we got from that is amazing. I have never seen so many black people outdoors having fun than in that hashtag.
SOFIA: Absolutely. There was so much joy and so much bird-specific joy, which I really liked (ph). It was like a mixture of all types of nature. But man, birders...
SOFIA: ...They got bird joy like nobody else.
CONNOR: Yes, they do (laughter).
SOFIA: Next up, there was a post a bird challenge on Monday. Folks shared their favorite bird pic and a bird fact. On Tuesday, there was a two-hour Instagram live featuring black birders answering questions from anyone and everyone.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This one is nice - if you could see one bird that is now extinct, what would it be? Great auk.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, that's my answer, too. That's a solid answer.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That is a good one. I didn't even think about that.
SOFIA: And today, at both noon and 7 p.m. Eastern Time, a livestreamed conversation with black birders, including Christian Cooper, talking about their own experiences of birding while black.
CONNOR: We're going to be talking about race in birding and experiences that they've had, positive birding experiences, what, you know, this movement means and where we're going forward with that.
SOFIA: Yeah. And then the last day of the week is black women who bird - #BlackWomenWhoBird, #ChelseaConnor.
SOFIA: So Chelsea, is the idea to get, you know, people to follow black women who bird on Twitter? Is that kind of the idea for that day?
CONNOR: Yes, follow all of them. Listen to what they have to say. Give them the space to speak.
CONNOR: We are saying things that people need to hear. We're asking questions that need to be answered - need to be asked and need to be answered. And nobody's hearing us.
SOFIA: Yeah. Well, all I have to say is @chelseaherps, spelled...
SOFIA: ...C-H-E-L-S-E-A-H-E-R-P-S - @chelseaherps, just in case you missed it, y'all.
CONNOR: Follow me right now for some bird content.
SOFIA: For some hot bird content with occasional herpetology touch.
CONNOR: Yes. Not just bird content - tropical bird concept.
SOFIA: That's right. She has got your tropical birds right here, y'all. SHORT WAVE listeners, you know what to do.
SOFIA: Chelsea, how has the response been to Black Birders Week? #BlackBirdersWeek.
CONNOR: #BlackBirdersWeek. I've honestly cried a little bit because there's so many people in my mentions saying, like, I love seeing that you're doing this and it's so inspiring and we needed something like this to happen. Because - we do - we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are out there protesting. And that is a needed protest - like the physical protest, to be out there in the streets holding up signs and asking to be seen in that way. But this is also a form of protest. Here I am like saying, hey, listen to our voice; listen to what we're saying as to what's going on.
And to see so many people saying, you're right - we need to listen to this; we need to pay attention; we need to acknowledge it - like, it is an incredible feeling to know that you've been heard. Sometimes it - like, it doesn't feel real 'cause I think I've been used to not being heard for so long that now I'm like, is this really happening? Is somebody really, like, listening? Are people really listening to what I'm saying?
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it sounds like it, Chelsea. And that's - it's pretty powerful stuff.
CONNOR: Yeah, it is.
SOFIA: On Sunday, as photos of fellow black nature enthusiasts flowed in, Chelsea was inspired to head out, to spend time in the place that she's been fighting to make safe - nature.
CONNOR: It was just like - I got to see grackles, and I got to see the killdeer running around screaming at people when they approached them. Just that and then the sound of the water from the lake, 'cause there's a lake nearby, it was just - I felt at peace. It was a really happy place to be. There's something about being in nature. I've never felt like I don't belong when I'm outside. When I'm catching my anoles or when I'm looking at birds, they've never made me feel like I don't belong.
SOFIA: Chelsea Connor - birder, herpetologist and co-founder of #BlackBirdersWeek? You can find links to today's livestreamed conversation with Christian Cooper and to the rest of the week's events in today's episode notes.
This episode was produced by Brit Hanson and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. Geoff Brumfiel was the editor. And very special thanks to Leah Donnella for her generous editing help. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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