Making a place for everybody in the Audubon movement

Audubon California is working to make its staff and network more representative of the state's diverse population.

Audubon California staff at a 2016 gathering.

“Diversity is not something you start with, it is something you end up with,” says Chapter Network Manager Desiree Loggins during a recent visit to Audubon California’s San Francisco office. “We need to make sure that we’re not using diversity as a tool to get what we want.”

While Audubon California sees its bird conservation mission as one that should be important to everyone, it has known for some time that the demographics of its membership, staff, and leadership are not reflective of those in California, one of the most diverse states in the country. Any gathering of Audubon members, such as an Audubon chapter meeting, will most likely consist primarily of older white birders. And if you walk down the hallway of Audubon California’s San Francisco office, you will find a distinct lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

Audubon California is certainly not the only conservation or environmental nonprofit confronted with this issue. A report commissioned by The Green Diversity Initiative, aka Green 2.0, emphasized the presence of a “Green Ceiling” throughout the environmental movement. Even though the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States is increasingly diverse (the 2014 report says that people of color make up 36 percent of the U.S. population), environmental organizations surveyed in the report still do not exceed 16 percent people of color in their staffs.

Like many of the organizations in the Green 2.0 report, Audubon California has been aware of its lack of diversity for some time, but has struggled to solve the problem. And while it has taken many steps over the years, Audubon California decided to take a more direct approach two years ago when it formed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee comprised of staff.

The committee extends the definition of diversity to other marginalized groups in addition to racial and ethnic minorities. It wants to expand diversity in terms of age, socioeconomic status, and disability just to name a few. And it aims to make marginalized groups feel included by changing the organizational culture of Audubon California.

“We knew early on that we had to talk with the board, the staff, the chapters, and the members,” says Audubon California Deputy Director Gaylon Parsons. “We have to make progress on all of these levels to take the organization to the place where it is representative of California.”

The feeling is that there is no way that Audubon California can expect people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to become a part of its mission if they don’t feel welcome.

“Diversity is something we can end up with when we change our organization to be inclusive,” says Loggins.

A culture of inclusiveness

One of the biggest successes for Audubon California this past year was the summer programs at the Richardson Bay Center & Sanctuary. Casey Arndt, a member of the DEI Committee and the engagement and operations manager at Richardson Bay created the programs with funding from the National Inclusion Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes the inclusion of children with disabilities.

Arndt built the summer program on three basic principles: Everyone can participate. Everyone can make a friend. Everyone can be successful.

And while the program focuses on including children with disabilities, Arndt says, “By adopting these principles, you’re helping everybody.”

Being inclusive is all in the details. For instance, in games like Simon Says, if you mess up, you’re out, and have to sit out the rest of the game. This can be frustrating for children who are fidgety, so it’s important to find modifications that make it enjoyable for everyone.

Arndt remembers one girl in particular who didn’t want to participate in anything when she first arrived at the camp, but by the end of the camp she had made friends and was engaging with the naturalists.

“We had inclusion at the forefront of our minds when we designed the program,” Arndt says, “and she went from sitting in a corner outside of the group to being integrated into every activity.”

This focus on inclusivity extends into other communities that Audubon California serves. Marcos Trinidad, center director at the Audubon Center at Debs Park, sees that the greater conservation movement needs to find a way to accept different forms of environmentalism in order to become more inclusive.

“When you think of an environmentally conscious person, it’s the one person in the hybrid car or the hipster on the fixie riding their bike to work getting kudos,” Trinidad says. “You never hear praise for the gardeners who pack people into a truck to get to work every morning.”

The Debs Park center was originally built in northeast Los Angeles in 2003 with the belief that nature is nearby for everyone, even those in urban communities.

Trinidad says that for the Latino community surrounding the Debs Park center, even using a term like “citizen science” can quickly make them feel disconnected from the conservation movement. If you’re communicating to a group of immigrants or children of immigrants, they’re not always citizens – making it that much less desirable to want to participate in a citizen science project. 

Chapter leaders

One of Audubon’s strengths is its network of chapters and members. However, that network looks less and less like a cross-section of Californians as years pass. With this in mind, the DEI Committee hopes to shift the culture of Audubon by building a network of people who can listen and empathize.

The team recently held two workshops for chapter leaders in January, with assistance from the Relational Center, a nonprofit that specializes in diversity training. One workshop was held in Northern California, the other in Southern. Both focused on a storytelling activity where people listened to others’ stories and found parts that resonated with them. Listeners expressed understanding and appreciation, and stopped at that, rather than making the situation about themselves by bringing up related stories.

They then developed outreach action plans for the specific communities they are trying to reach. For instance, one chapter came up with a “Birders and Brew” plan to reach younger naturalists. After a birding field trip, participants would gather at a brewery for continued socializing.

Loggins says that it is still too soon to know how these workshops will affect the chapters’ outreach, but adds, “We have a lot of reason to believe the training changed the chapter leaders’ mindsets.”

The internal culture

The DEI Committee wants the Audubon staff to reflect the diversity of the state. Instead of focusing solely on hitting a target number, though, they want to make sure that Audubon is a safe and supportive place for marginalized groups to be a part of, so that people from diverse backgrounds want to work here.  

“It took a while to realize we had to change our culture to attract a more diverse workforce,” says Parsons.

One of the committee’s concerns is that even after they’ve nurtured an inclusive company culture, diversification could be inhibited by the college-career pipeline. Especially within the science-related positions at Audubon, the organization inherits the structural problems of universities and colleges. In simple terms, if the majority of Environmental Science majors are white, from middle-class backgrounds, then those are the people who will apply to Audubon California and get the job.

Even so, “Audubon still has a responsibility to diversify our science teams,” says Parsons, whether that means establishing different recruitment and hiring methods or taking a more hands-on approach.

In terms of hiring methods, the DEI Committee wants to make more formal requirements for hiring managers, which will ensure a diverse pool of candidates to choose from.

As for the hands-on approach, the Audubon Center at Debs Park has been making strides through its community outreach. For instance, by partnering with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, which hires youth and young adults from its northeast Los Angeles community, Trinidad hopes to nurture a different pipeline for conservation jobs. He sees these kinds of actions as one of his main responsibilities on the DEI Committee.

“My job on the DEI Committee is to communicate with these communities around the center and help people of color build their careers in conservation,” he says.

Niki Calderon, 20, is in her seventh year with Audubon. She first connected with the Audubon Center at Debs Park while she was in middle school and joined its Arroyo Green Team, a youth group of conservationists. She followed that up two internships, first in the Wings program, and this summer as a Fund II Fellow.

“It has really changed my life,” Calderon says. “I stayed on a good path with good people.”

The Last Frontier

For the DEI Committee, one of the biggest struggles has been figuring out how to include and diversify the Audubon California Board of Directors. As Parsons says, “The board is kind of the last frontier.”

While the organization has done chapter trainings and gotten most of the staff to agree with DEI standards, they still want to get the board more involved with and accountable for the movement.

Though the board has been supportive of the organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, the board itself is not very diverse. Of the 18 members, only two are people of color.  

Since the Board is one of the most influential parts of the organization, it’s critical that its members have diverse perspectives and experiences. Even with Board members’ support, without these different points of view, DEI efforts can still get filtered out, even if unintentionally.

Into the Future

“This organization has accomplished amazing things,” says Trinidad. “But the face of America is changing. We can no longer move forward without inclusion.”

Change is coming whether aging environmental organizations are prepared for it or not. Audubon California wants to ensure its place in the future, and even incremental progress is helping us get there.

“It’s hard to be truly inclusive,” Arndt says. “The biggest problem is we haven’t had enough time yet. As a staff and organization, we’re not there yet, but we’re trying.” 

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