The Audubon Name: Members Speak

By Ilana DeBare

As part of considering whether to keep the “Audubon” part of our name, Golden Gate Bird Alliance (GGBA) conducted an online survey of our current members earlier this month. Of about 2000 dues-paying members, 354 responded—18 percent. That’s a very high turnout, considering that many surveys garner responses of only two or three percent. It’s a sign of how much GGBA members care about the organization and its future.

Results from the “Audubon” Name Change Preliminary Survey.

The results were:
221 (63 percent) in favor of removing the “Audubon” name.
89 (25 percent) against removing the “Audubon” name.
44 (12 percent) undecided about whether to remove the name.

The responses were uniformly thoughtful and heartfelt, regardless of which position they took. The GGBA Board of Directors is deeply appreciative of everyone who shared their views. The following is a sample of people’s comments, in proportion to the number of pro/con/undecided responses. (Each paragraph is from a different respondent.)

In Favor of Removing the Name

I don’t want to honor someone who enslaved and sold other human beings. I also want to respect the feelings of African Americans who have suffered from the legacy of slavery and act in solidarity with them.

As someone who is mixed race (African American and Caucasian), having one of my favorite organizations have loose ties to the imprisonment of my people has always made me feel icky. A small name change to remove the word Audubon would open up the doors to more minorities across San Francisco.

Emphasize the mission, not the man.

He was a product of his time, but there were people in his time who were anti-slavery, and he certainly wasn’t. Names are symbols. We need a racist-free name now… We can rebrand ourselves and still be a forceful presence for birds.

Aside from the character of Audubon, younger people have no idea what/who “Audubon” is. It’s opaque that Golden Gate Bird Alliance is a bird conservation organization.

Let’s keep naming free from individual personages, living or dead, righteous or not. For example, National Airport in DC was a perfectly good name and should have been kept in my view but instead was renamed for a political figure [Ronald Reagan] of dubious distinction.

Audubon was a man of his time—owning people and slaughtering birds were common. We need to move beyond those times. A name change might help us move past the stereotype of a group of white, wealthy, and older people. (Still too true, and I’m one of them, but we’re trying).

[A name change] signals thoughtfulness within the organization and a desire to move into the 21st century while also opening the door to a wider audience of members.

We’re not a historical society preserving Audubon’s historical legacy, we’re an environmental organization concerned with birds and habitat, and inspiring all kinds of people to love and protect birds and the natural world. Our name should reflect that.

What this comes down to is whether or not GGA considers consistent branding more important than ensuring a safe environment for its BIPOC members. As a recipient of GGA’s Birding for Everyone scholarship, I am quite aware of our chapter’s existing DEI [diversity-equity-inclusion] initiatives. That being said, antiracist work must always demand more from us. This name change is truly the bare minimum that GGA can do to show its commitment to its minority members, and failing to do so would send a strong message.

The future belongs to a wide world of brown, Black, white and all in-between and beyond being equally welcome and entitled to a sense of belonging in birding. The legacy of J.J. Audubon, the man, works against this future.

We can still be appreciative of our roots with Audubon’s paintings sharpening awareness of American birds, and the National Audubon Society’s work in creating wildlife refuges, establishing protection areas for waterbirds, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But we can also refocus our name with a reflection of what we know and who we are in the world today, and who we’d like to be in the future.

The name, even if it doesn’t bother everyone, divides the birding community unnecessarily and leaves some people feeling left out, ignored or disrespected.

Change is always hard, but I feel we should no longer celebrate slave owners.

I never liked the name in the first place. “Audubon Society” didn’t have any meaning to me.

Names change. ESPECIALLY in the bird world. If you’re at least as old as I am (50), how many bird species names have you seen change in your lifetime? How many ornithological journals, organizations, institutions, birding hotspots, etc. have changed their names?

Against Removing the Name

The word Audubon is synonymous with birds and their care.

His name really is honored for his lovely drawings of birds—and that part is valid. It’s too cumbersome to change the name.

I don’t believe in re-writing history, placing our values on people hundreds of years ago.

GGA is one of the premier chapters in the US. You will lose the ease that new bird enthusiasts have to find the organization. I found you and joined recently because I googled “bay area audubon society.” If another name had come up, I might not have followed the link.

Despite his participation in slavery, he contributed so much to the field of ornithology and there is no reason to deny recognition of that part of his legacy.

We cannot rewrite or whitewash Audubon’s history with a name change. Instead, include his racism as part of the organization’s history (and place it in the context that racism was the norm in the society at the time in which he lived) and the duty we have to acknowledge it AND our responsibility to address the wrongs it perpetrated. Make it a teaching moment….

Unsure of Whether to Remove the Name

I’m concerned about rebranding, given how well known the organization is throughout the world. How might it affect our ability to compete for funding? Encourage education? Seek assistance in protecting habitat?

I can see both sides to this. I don’t think we can completely hold historical individuals to the standards of the present. On the other hand, we can hold ourselves to the standards of the present. Rather than substitute the name of another more ‘enlightened’ person, I think we can move beyond the ‘great man’ approach to history.

I have been uncomfortable with the movement to change established names, however there is much to recommend an effort to “set things right” with name changes. In the end, I suspect a change here for the GG Chapter will not be excessively painful—maybe not much noticed. Our birding passions will certainly survive. I’m ok with a change.

Read our previous posts about the Audubon name issue:

The Audubon Name Issue Heats Up

Audubon: The Man and the Meaning