by Bryony Angell
There’s a reason the stereotype of a birder is a white person with binoculars; it’s because the greater environmental movement has been historically slow to engage with communities of color--slow to outreach directly to a community where it exists and slow to extend a warm welcome when a person of color comes to the movement on his or her own. When environmental and social justice movements have much in common, why can’t there be better overlap?
Because inclusion is possible. Izzy Arévalo Wong, a long-time Seattle Audubon member and volunteer, describes a parallel universe she observed one day in Seattle Audubon’s Nature Shop: “I was there with my husband, Kendrick Wong. David (Garcia, the Nature Shop Manager) was there as well, along with one volunteer, a white guy. Then a family of four African Americans came into the shop. And they weren’t just buying supplies, they were browsing; they might have been members. It was the first time I had ever seen a majority of people of color in the Nature Shop! I thought, ‘We’re getting somewhere!’”
And Seattle Audubon has now made inclusion and diversity a part of their mission for the next 100 years. In the Centennial Fund statement, Seattle Audubon Executive Director John Brosnan writes that the work ahead will be “developing more inclusive environmental programs, overcoming barriers to engagement, and aligning our priorities with communities who may have never heard of Seattle Audubon.” Arévalo Wong’s observation in the Nature Shop will someday soon be the norm, if the organization manages these goals effectively and with sensitivity for new audiences.
We spoke to Arévalo Wong at length about her history with the organization, her years of advocacy for diversity in the conservation movement, what she recommends for increasing inclusion, and the upcoming class on nature drawing that she is teaching this March as part of the SAS Spring class series.
How did you come to join Seattle Audubon?
Izzy Arévalo Wong: I’m originally from Texas, of Mexican roots. I call myself Latina. Back in my college days, I’d identify as Chicana--which is Mexican American.
I first joined Seattle Audubon in 1991 because my heart is in environmental causes. I took my first birding trip in January,1992, after seeing it advertised in Earthcare. My husband and I became serious birders soon after, and I started volunteering for SAS around 1993. In fact, the first thing I did as a volunteer was acting as a phone registrar for trips and classes.
I eventually did the Master Birder program in 2000 and 2001. Later, I volunteered with teens because I had been a teacher. The Master Birder class requires you to do 100 hours of volunteer work once the session is complete. A friend talked to me about the Birdwatch program (now Young Birders), and it was a good fit. This particular group of teens was awesome, and the reason I eventually stopped after four years was because most of this group graduated! Many of them have gone on to related fields in conservation and the environment.
How did you observe the lack of diversity at Seattle Audubon, and how did that impact your experience with the organization?
IAW: I didn’t have an objective for promoting diversity awareness in youth. However, after these kids graduated, one of them wrote to me and said she was glad Kendrick and I had been a part of the program; otherwise she would not have stayed in it. We were the only other people of color in the group. That letter really got to me. This is the experience of a person of color. We are not always assured of other people close by who will support us.
I love birding. I love birds and being a part of the movement that is representative of a global community. I’m a two-fer; a woman and a woman of color. I don’t represent all people of color, but I represent myself as a person of color. In the field, people ask my husband and I what country we’re from, instead of what birds we’re seeing. That kind of experience energizes me to challenge assumptions people have about Latinas or other people of color. If someone says something, I will call them on it. I’m very much an activist.
The population naturally changes as more people of color come to Seattle, but will they stay? Will they be comfortable? I am an advocate for diversity and there has to be a commitment. You must commit to it; you can’t just say you value it. I see young people already interested in diversity, and that gives me hope. Young people just expect it.
What can Seattle Audubon and other environmental organizations do that is actionable to increase diversity?
IAW: You have to ask yourself as an organization, Do you want diversity? If you don’t, there’s no point.
If you do, then make the commitment. Make it a project goal. If it’s a real value of the organization, it will show.
- Educate yourselves on cultural sensitivity and white privilege. Without this foundation of understanding, new people coming in will not feel like they belong, and they won’t stay.
- Give the new community a reason to feel like there is something in it for them. Without context, there isn’t a reason to stay engaged.
- Have visible global representation among the staff and board.
- Use direct language to show what you mean. If people don’t see they are represented, they won’t believe it. Put inclusive language out there prominently; don’t bury it in clicks or at the very bottom of communications.
- However you get the education or make the changes, things will not happen overnight. We’re all in this learning experience together.
What direction do you see things moving?
Now that I am older, I think we need to start earlier with kids, not just with birds but habitat protection. I see more diversity in people who are birding now. When I go to Texas, I see kids of color birding. While the hobby might not stick, at least you are getting them out in nature from a young age.
I have a lot of hope in the younger generation. When I met David Garcia, I was so excited to see someone like him in a position of visibility at the Nature Shop.
How did you decide to teach a class? Do you have an art background?
I’m a life coach and a therapist focusing on wellness, and thought of this class as way for people to bring out creativity in themselves. When I pitched the class, I told Seattle Audubon ‘you need more women on this roster!’ Not only that, but I am a woman of color, now on a class roster that is often mostly male names.
I’m learning to draw birds, too. I was really good at art at a young age, and in more recent years, I’ve been attempting to get back into that part of myself. I want people to feel good about how they draw a bird. Whatever you do is OK; if it’s abstract, that’s OK. I have a feeling there will be people in the class who are much better at drawing than I am. While I admire realists like Sibley and Kaufman tremendously, this class is about free expression.
To learn more about Seattle Audubon’s diversity goals read the entire Centennial Fund prospectus on our website, here.
Izzy Arévalo Wong’s class takes place Thursday evening, March 9th, from 7-9 p.m.at the Phinney Neighborhood Center. Click here to learn more and sign up!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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