Birder Corina Newsome: I want to see a scientist who looks like me.
“The most important thing is getting young people of color to actually see me doing it.”
On Memorial Day of this year, a video was shared on social media of a white woman calling the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park. The woman, Amy Cooper, falsely claimed that the man, Christian Cooper, had tried to assault her when he asked her to put her dog on a leash. The video has been viewed 45 million times.
In response, the internet exploded in outrage; such a blatant and sobering demonstration of racial profiling sparked conversations about white privilege and racial attitudes in today’s America. (A few hours later that same day, George Floyd would be killed by police in Minneapolis.)
In retaliation, a movement was born online, called #BlackBirdersWeek — a weeklong celebration of Black members of the birding and wildlife community.
One of the co-organizers of the movement, Corina Newsome, an avid birder herself, is a graduate student at Georgia Southern University studying the seaside sparrow. Growing up, Newsome always had a love for the natural world but never dreamed of being a scientist; she wasn’t even aware it was a viable career path because she had never seen a Black person doing it.
She wants things to be different for the young Black people that follow her; she envisions a world where Black kids can become whatever they choose to be.
“What I want is that, when you ask a kid to physically describe a scientist, they don't immediately think of an old white man ... that has very tangible impacts on what a person chooses to do with their life and how they see themselves fitting into the world.”
The following interview, edited for clarity and brevity, is part of Inverse’s FUTURE 50 series, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.
“If we value diversity in birds, we should value it in people, too.”
What led you down the path to studying birds?
My love for wildlife and the natural world was fostered pretty young. I grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, far from any natural space, but my family gave me books on wildlife. And just from reading and watching shows about it, I developed a deep passion for it.
But I had never seen Black people doing it. Not until I was about to graduate high school that I could actually act on my love for nature, when a Black zookeeper at my local zoo reached out and invited me to come watch her at work. I was completely unaware that I could have a career in wildlife; I'd never even been to a zoo.
Once I got exposure to the possibilities, I immediately set my course on that path. So, being a zookeeper was the beginning of my career in the realm of natural sciences and wildlife conservation.
At college, one of the courses that I had to take was ornithology: the study of birds. I was dreading it; I expected to fail. One of the first birds I learned about was the blue jay, a very brightly colored bird, full of different shades of blue and white and black. I was like, “Wait, this bird has been here the whole time?”
I immediately fell in love with birds, in particular chasing and stalking birds. But I also fell in love with using them as a vehicle for education for people like me, who had no idea what to look for and what was out there. And now, I study birds in graduate school. So, my love of birds really was born in that class.
How did #BlackBirdersWeek come into being?
In May, a video was posted of Christian Cooper, who was not someone I knew personally, but I had heard of him. That kind of incident, where a Black person's life is potentially on the line — not because Amy Cooper herself was a physical threat to him, but her attempt to weaponize the police in a country where policing is positioned against Black people — is just another demonstration of the fact that, when people say these police interactions only happen to Black people doing something wrong, that is clearly just not true.
The video was shared in a group chat I’m in, called BlackAFInSTEM, made up of Black people in the natural sciences and STEM in general. A member of the group, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, said, “We need to do something to highlight and celebrate the lives and stories of Black birders.”
Immediately, a bunch of people started to pile on ideas, and we decided it should be a weeklong event. Within about 48 hours, the whole week was planned and it started getting attention. People started asking for ways to invest in the movement. It became a lot bigger than we anticipated.
As the week was being put together, what was its overarching goal?
We had three main goals. One, we wanted to celebrate Black birders and to provide a platform for them to share themselves with each other: outdoors in nature, birding. It's crucial for Black people, especially on social media, to see each other and know we’re out there.
Two, we wanted to create a context in which people were actually listening to us now. Hearing Christian’s story, people began to finally realize that Black people can't even enjoy the outdoors without having police called on them — and this was not an isolated incident. Before, in spaces that were almost always all white, when we had brought up these issues of how our ethnicity and race classification has very tangible repercussions on our experience outside, we had been shut down, accused of being political.
Third, we wanted to highlight the importance of diversity. Even from a natural science standpoint, birding is literally a celebration of diversity; people engage in an activity that seeks out diversity. But everyone is white! And there had been no problem with that up until now.
When you're talking about the engagement of people in outdoor exploration, you have to have a diversity of people involved, because the nature of the biodiversity problem we're facing globally means we need all hands on deck, and therefore, as many diverse voices as possible. So, we framed it as, if we value diversity in birds, we should value it in people, too.
The online reaction you guys received was crazy. How did that feel?
I was shocked. I expected pushback from some organizations, but they all quickly began sharing what we were saying. And they were all using the word Black.
More than shock, I was mostly overjoyed at seeing all the Black people who I didn't know were there. I cried, because I never would have thought there were this many Black people doing this stuff. It just was this huge, soul-feeding event.
What practices do you follow as a Black birder to keep safe?
The research I do is in Southern Georgia, a notoriously racist place. When I am out in the salt marsh, I’m immediately looked at with suspicion because I'm a Black woman. I would always have to make sure that my binoculars were very visible on whatever side of my body was facing the road — any kind of gear that made me look official.
There were times when I'd be out in the marsh and a truck would pull off the highway and drive up, the driver just sitting there, staring at me. I would immediately prepare for some sort of horrific outcome; always on edge, always waiting for something to go wrong.
Thankfully, I’ve never been harassed, but I want to make it clear that being a light-skinned Black female has given me a world of difference — privileges that are not afforded to dark-skinned Black men.
These habits were something I didn’t even realize I was doing until these conversations began to come up during #BlackBirdersWeek. It was just something that had become second nature for me.
What kind of future do you dream of for Black naturalists and Black people in STEM?
What I want is that, when you ask a kid to physically describe a scientist, they don't immediately think of an old white man. Because now, even for me, that's the first image that comes to my head. And that has very tangible impacts on what a person chooses to do with their life and how they see themselves fitting into the world.
I didn't even realize that not seeing any Black people doing wildlife stuff growing up meant I had unconsciously silenced that possibility in my mind. But when I met that zookeeper, I thought, “Wow, I could be a zookeeper; holy crap.” I had never even considered it.
We need immediate change in what we display to children. If you’re a teacher or a parent, when showing images of professionals to young kids, you should go out of your way to show Black people doing those jobs. When I open National Geographic, the internet, Netflix, I want to see a scientist that looks like me.
How can other people help to create a more inclusive environment?
Representation is just one very small part of it. There are systemic issues that we need to fix that exclude people from low-income backgrounds, largely Black indigenous people of color, etc.
Social interactions I've had made me think, “Maybe if this person knew better, they wouldn't do this.” If you’re a white person who sees someone who is not Black exploring the outdoors, don’t quiz them on how they got into it; don’t treat them like they’re an anomaly or some sort of unicorn out in nature. Start treating it like it's the norm.
Don’t be afraid of upsetting the white people in the room. Your priority should be to create space for people to share their perspectives, not to protect the feelings of those in power. You need to hold not just yourself accountable but also everyone in your circles, because most of these spaces right now are filled with white people. And if there's only one Black person, it's hard to be the single element of accountability in the room. Black people cannot hold all that weight ourselves.
What’s been a career highlight for you?
When I was a zookeeper, I was always looking for ways to tear down the filters that impede people of all backgrounds from getting into the wildlife field. I started a program that brought in students to visit the zoo and watch me work. And seeing the faces of the young Black kids light up, when they saw that it was me — that’s the substance that keeps me going, that makes me excited to do what I'm doing.
I love birds, I love the outdoors, I love wildlife; studying biology is my favorite thing to do. But the most important thing is getting young people of color to actually see me doing it.
“When I open National Geographic, the internet, Netflix, I want to see a scientist that looks like me.”
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m working as a community engagement manager at Audubon, and a lot of my job is focused on deconstructing the institutions that have systematically excluded Black people from the field of birding, as well as all the natural and wildlife sciences in general. Being actually able to dedicate my time to that — and being paid for it — is crazy to me.
Going into the future, I hope to expose youth of color to conservation professionals who look like them, to provide them with hands-on learning opportunities that are well-paid, and then, finally, to mentor people once they get into the career. It requires very intentional, long-term investment into these communities.
And I also just want to share my love for the natural world and encourage others to pursue it, if they have an interest.
What’s a hopeful prediction you have for the next decade?
A couple of things give me hope. One, the volume of organizations willing to say Black and to acknowledge the existence and realities of Black people in this country — to stare systemic racism in the face — is something I never expected to see in my life. Willingness is the first step, but it’s a step I never thought would happen. But now, we have to get people in power who are going to address the problem.
Two, being a biologist can be very discouraging. When looking closely at the state of biodiversity and the plight of threatened species, it can plant seeds of hopelessness. But the recent increased focus on the importance of both engaging urban audiences and engaging urban space in conservation makes me hopeful.
Okay, one more question: what’s your favorite bird?
Blue jay! Firstly, out of loyalty, because they were my gateway bird. But, they're also just phenomenal. I'm actually going to get a tattoo of a blue jay feather.
Corina Newsome is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.