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Take Note: Tykee James on how the birding community is working for racial and environmental justice

WPSU: Tykee James
Tykee James

Tykee James is an upcoming virtual speaker for the Sustainability Showcase Series at the Sustainability Institute at Penn State on February 25, at noon. Free public registration for the showcase is available at the Sustainability Institute's website.

He recently spoke with WPSU's John Weber on his work lobbying for birds on Capitol Hill, the success of Black Birders Week, and the important role birders play in intersectional change.

Here's the conversation:

John Weber 
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber. Today we are talking with podcaster community organizer, conservationist and environmental educator Tykee James. James is the National Audubon Society Government Affairs Coordinator in Washington, D.C. which involves lobbying for birds and taking congressional members on educational bird walks. He was also the co-organizer of the first Black Birders Week and continues to advocate for more accessible and equitable outdoor spaces. Tykee James, thank you for talking with us today.

Tykee James 
I'm happy to be here. Great to talk to you, John.

John Weber 
I understand that you became interested in birding as a high schooler working in Philadelphia. But what sparked your interest in birds and the outdoors?

Tykee James 
When I realized that it could be a job. When I started in high school, it was at the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center that I was a docent, which is a German or Greek word for teacher. You know, like the same folks that are in the museum's that guide you along. Well, that was kind of my job. And when you're in a museum, they tie-in, like contemporary facts to reflect on the history. So it wasn't just that you were looking at that thing right there, right now. You're understanding how it got there. And that was my understanding too of birds. So it was not just appreciating, "oh, look at that cool looking bird." But it was also thinking about how did it get here. It's migration journey and what it means when we see that bird in this habitat. And for me, the belted kingfisher was the bird that sparked my interest, more generally, in birds and wildlife. Coincidentally, that was given to me as like an assignment to study the bird. And then my next week at work, I got to see it live. And that was the first time I was ever given an assignment of any sort that was brought to life (laugh). You know, I was just looking at this thing in the book, and all of a sudden, I see it in real life. And I'm like, "wait a minute!" That is just that is beyond what I thought I've could have understood about it. And I've done you know, everybody does a book report before...that was something that really brought me to a presence in it. And I like the idea of sharing that. Sharing that type of excitement and experience.

John Weber 
What about the belted kingfisher really attracted you? Other than it being the first bird that you kind of, you know, noticed or took kind of attention to?

Tykee James 
You know, it's a favorite bird of mine. It's also a really good tattoo bird. I don't have any tattoos, but if I were to get a tattoo... number one on the list is belted kingfisher. Second, so birds typically exhibit sexual de morphia, where the male looks different than the female. And in in the female for the belted kingfisher, they actually have the rusted belt, not the male. Typically people associate that with the male. And it was the female that I saw with the rusted boat at Cobbs Creek. I saw it jump off a cat tail and do its call right as it crossed the creek, and I was just mesmerized. And I'm like, "wow, that's a really good tattoo bird." And also Yeah, it looks like a punk bird too like if you're really into punk culture and punk music...

John Weber 
(laugh) A the little Mohawk?

Tykee James 
Yeah, there's a mohawk. There's like I can feel like there's a nose ring. There's an implied nose ring. I don't know. But like the belted kingfisher is just a bird that looking at it, you know, is really special for me. And then I think about how I feel. And I'm like, "Man, I want other people to feel this way. Maybe about the belted kingfisher, but I'm also open to other birds."

John Weber 
On the subject of your job with the Audubon, what is a bird walk with a congressional member or their staff like generally?

Tykee James 
it's pretty much like the walks I would do when I was at Cobbs Creek. You know, we're admitting to the to the reality that it is a little strange to just go outside and look around for things that are hard to see. We're intentionally looking at things that for the most part, don't drop right in front of you. There is a strange, common thread that I find that everybody has a story about birds. Everybody has a story. Whether it's like talking about their weird uncle doing you know, this count where he counts all the birds, he can see in one day sometime in December and January, and it's really really cold. Why does he do it? It's just done every year. You know, or the robin that you see when you're at your garden in the spring. Or the cardinal that you hear when you're at your bus stop. And you know, particularly Cardinals can mean a lot of spiritual things and it can have spiritual meanings behind it when certain events happen in your life. And these are stories that I've been hearing from a lot of people about birds and then the idea of birding the idea of just, "okay, well, let's go see some more." Like you already have your story, you kind of already have your start. Let's have some fun. Let's look at what we can find and tell some stories along the way. Now, specifically, the walks I do on Capitol Hill happen as a larger strategy for relationship building. You know, we're an advocacy group just like other advocacy groups and, you know, some folks have different ways of getting to know people. And for Audubon, this is one of our ways...just doing these boardwalks. They happen monthly on the hill, but they also happen across the country where we've had members of Congress and then state legislative members join on walks, because they understand that also, you know, these boundaries may be politically defined, but birds don't share that definition. Birding is just a way to remind folks of that. That we can find common ground and we can point at the thing that we're trying to protect. And we can share stories about what it means.

John Weber 
On the subject of the bird story, making these memorable connections with birds. And it's particularly like maybe the moment that you saw a bird or maybe it had some emotional connection long before you saw it on a birding walk, maybe as a child. Has that influenced other policy for elected officials, kind of having those moments on those sorts of boardwalks?

Tykee James 
Yeah, yeah, I think that what I've heard is it bringing folks to their home, and how they define their home. When they think about how our mission is to protect birds, but also the places they need. Their homes. Because we know that important places for birds are also important places for people. And I think people find a familiarity, especially elected officials in defining what home means to them. And what does it mean to support the homes of other folks that share that community. So one is with Senator Mike Braun, he has purple martin boxes on his property. And to get a purple martin is pretty special. Purple martins are the biggest swallow that we can see here in North America. But you know, for him, that's something that could be an indicator of his habitat. That could be, you know, a reminder of the cycles of life. You know, the lifecycle of the bird. You know, finding time to nest during the same time of year or finding the time to migrate during that same time of year. Feeling that harmony of this with the cycles of nature, I think is something that people come to when they think about, "well, what does it mean to, you know, specifically look at wildlife conservation, what does it mean to me?" And I often find that people look at those sources of inspiration, when they think about their support. And of course, what they hear from their constituents. It is so pivotal that they hear from their voters, who are birders, who are folks that care about the outdoors like me, that say "hey, this is an important issue, you know, and I don't want any partisan (laugh) bouts about it." There's an incredible role birders can especially play in this important advocacy. Our approach right now is building a philosophy around what it means to bird. And we have this neat little definition of bird B-I-R-D, the you know, as an acronym that kind of begins this idea of what it means to bird free. And "B" is for beginner minded, "I" is for inclusive and intersectional. "R" for reflective and recognizing and "D" is for deliberate. And you know, those letters kind of break down four different philosophical tracks of what it means to bird. What it can mean to bird free. And being beginner minded, being the first of that is something that I am constantly reminded how important it is to think with a beginner mind and be humbled with an empty cup. There's so much more you can learn. So many more things can be rewarding.

John Weber 
Given the exposure to pollution and climate injustices that the black and other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities tend to face in America. You mentioned a lot of different ways that these organizations that you work with are helping these communities to become more inclusive as far as environmental advocacy goes, but how are you seeing that shift overall in the community of environmental advocacy?

Tykee James 
I see the change happening towards inclusivity with equity through the labor movements. The union campaigns that we've been seeing. I'm on the bargaining committee for Audubon for All and we are waiting to get our contract for better workplace so we can keep doing the good work for the birds and people that we love doing. I think that we are starting to see that it is hard to argue and motivate people around the exploitation of natural resources, when you are also exploiting the human resources that are advocating against that exploitation. But one of the extra hats that I wear is president of the DC Audubon Society. And there I'm President and I'm looking to answer the question how can birding make a meaningful difference in communities? And I think some of what that's going to take is listening. Some of what that's going to take is unlearning a couple things about how nonprofits work and how they look. There's also a lot that can happen when we have a better reflection of Washingtonians in the membership and the leadership of that organization. And that's something that's, that's incoming. On a different track. I've also co-founded my own nonprofit organization Amplify the Future, where we have a program called Birders Fund that offers scholarships for historically excluded communities. Our first scholarship is for the Black and Latin X birders and undergraduate that are looking at science, technology, engineering, art and math as a career. Whereas the current discipline that they're studying. Even our application process, we try to put forth you know, as much as we can, because you know, it's the internet, how much the birding community can support you. Maybe you don't win the scholarship. But we do have an opt in, we have an option on our website, you can opt in to stay a part of the applicant community. And with the partnerships that we are seeking to secure, we can find extra opportunities for all expense paid birding excursions for paid internships, for supportive mentorships, for smaller scholarships, to go to conferences, or to help cover expenses in your research. And that was informed by my own experience in poverty, where I also worked in a state representatives office, and saw that if you were eligible for one program, because of your income, then you are also eligible for multiple other programs. So let me save you time and you filling out all of this paperwork. Well one, I can do all of the paperwork. And that model kind of went into the thinking of how we take in folks who are looking for support from the birding community. They have this great application that they just gave us, let's take that really great application that you worked on and share it with trusted partners so that these opportunities can start to open up for you. Because, again, everything's happening on the internet now. So it's just harder to go into a room full of opportunities. You know, it's hard to walk into a room with the networking and the school fair, it's hard to find that serendipity. And so we try to do everything we can to make a funnel to make a meaningful impact. And, you know, working with the assistance of gravity and the idea of, you know, applicant anxiety also frames the way that we do these applications. Where there's a lot of transparency in the process of how we can support them and you know, how we can make sure that their application feels strong. And again, even after win, lose or draw the scholarship, you are still going to be part of the community that we're finding opportunities for.

John Weber 
If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber and today we are talking with birder and National Audubon Society Government Affairs Coordinator Tykee James about access to the outdoors and racial justice. Black Birders Week began as a response to the racial injustice felt in the Birding community after Christian Cooper, a black man, was confronted in Central Park by a white woman while birdwatching. This confrontation and the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor brought the black experience into the national conversation in 2020. How has Black Birders Week, as a movement, become a source of pride, strength and resistance for the black community?

Tykee James 
One thing that I really, really appreciated was how many more black birders I was meeting. I, you know, being...seeing myself as an environmental educator, and now as a bird lobbyist, in some ways. You know, birding has been like my job 99,98 maybe percent of the bird walks I've done has been for my job. But because of Black Birders Week, now I feel a deeper connection to birding with my community. And birding in a way that can make history and make a meaningful difference in people's lives. And that it was local to so many people. You know, like there was an overall, you know, planned dates, and, you know, things happening on the internet through the week, but so many folks found opportunities to go outside perhaps for the first time since the pandemic started. And, you know, I thought that was really special and meaningful that there was that reality of where we find differences, we can recognize them while we're birding. It showed that in a lot of ways, Black Birders Week was not about trauma. And it wasn't about highlighting the traumatic highlights and lowlights, if you will, of the black experience over and over to guilt or to motivate change. It was a collaborative and collective response to affirm ourselves. And to affirm our identity and our heritage in the outdoors. Because from that week we saw the inspiration of so many other black led weeks. Botany, astronomy, neuroscience, marine science, mammalogy, chemistry, physics, math, like it just kept going on. Yeah, and it just felt...it showed that like that affirmation, that validation could be achieved collectively. And it can mean different things to different people and still be very special.

John Weber 
I know one of the aspects of kind of equality for birding overall, is safe spaces. How has the black birding community tried to find safe spaces outdoors when it's clearly not equitable in every place in America?

Tykee James 
There are two black women that are working on an update to the Green Book. The Negro Motorist Green Book was something used right during and maybe right preceding the civil rights movement. But during a time that there was racial violence against black people, there was white violence against black people, in traveling. You know, and having access to the outdoors today is an effect of the direct violence and direct exclusion of black and brown folks from two or three generations ago. Because the green book was a collection of places that were run by, you know, businesses from other black people, businesses, especially black women businesses, very specific, this is where you can go for gas places, this is the direction to find a place to sleep. And also, these are sundown towns, these are places you want to avoid. These are places that we know, because of evidence, because of people's stories, that you wouldn't be safe here if somebody sees you driving, I would like to think that we're further away from publicly and very openly telling folks that, you know, there is a physical danger to existing black and brown in the outdoors, and something needs to be done. You can scream that as you know, to the top of your lungs, it seems, and it's only getting attention when it's recorded on a video. Seeing that the Green Book is going to be remade. One of the things I want to look into is how we define those safe spaces. Maybe they're you know, tactical brave spaces. You know, spaces where even if they can't guarantee safety, they can guarantee solidarity. Places that will support, that are part of, that can in their own way demonstrate solidarity for the movement for black lives and our collective liberation, especially when it comes down to enjoying the outdoors. And having that agency to feel like you can without thinking about if, then, this?

John Weber 
Absolutely. I know you've mentioned in the past a connection between the movement of people and birds and the similarities between nonnative birds and slaves taken from their homeland to America. Like there's parallels between slavery and birds. But how are these connections tied to your Freedom Birders educational project, and how do you see, you know, the communities of color and black birders particularly kind of finding those sort of similarities that are unique to them...you know, in that regard?

Tykee James 
There's a lot we can learn and there's a lot that we can celebrate when we look at the history of the civil rights movement. And there's a lot that we can learn and celebrate and have fun with when we think about some bird education. Part of that intersection looks like kind of what you hit on. The reality that European starlings, like black people were brought across the Atlantic in ships against their will. And they're still here and thriving. You know, I think that it is tremendously important that I highlight where we get the inspiration of our name from. So Freedom Birders come from the Freedom Riders who, starting in May 1961, drove a bus down the interstate. This was black people and white people getting on a bus, perhaps for some of them for the first time, to break the law to change the law. And they knew that they would have to embrace and interact with racial violence. Violence against them because of what they're trying to create. And it was, you know, the plan that they would ride down, hit up, I think about 13 stops and finish in New Orleans. They didn't make it to New Orleans because again, the bus burned down...violence. But they were able to make a difference in changing the law of the interstate to integrate the interstate terminal bus stations, as well as support the lunch counter movements. But the only way that those folks were able to get on that bus was because before they got there, they met each other where they were. You know, they built a common ground with one another. They were coming to this with very different perspectives. And even if they shared similar values, they had to build a relationship and thus a movement around those values. And what to do when those values were challenged. Because those values were definitely going to be challenged. And that way that they came together is a really impressive story. Some of the ways that that story is told is through the graphic novel series March. That was, you know, very much inspired and written by John Lewis. The story of his involvement in the freedom riots, also as depicted there. But some of the things that I'm inspired by was how they built a philosophy together. And so I'm thinking, "well, birders we can do the same thing." You know, birders are going to some of the most special and unique places, to them and to other people. And often those places are where history has occurred. People aren't seeing the history that have taken place where they're seeing their birds. Where they can see the bird and think about how did that bird get here? Okay, where's that bird? It's perched in the tree. How did that tree get here? How did this park get here? How did this community next to the park get here, and you start to take this back, and you start to think about, and I think, appreciate more deeply, what that moment meant. Because how we got here can be a very interesting story. To be open to that story, to think about the starling sharing the same fate as the enslaved person. To think about the birds today, and the people today that migrate north and south across the hemisphere. That, you know, that that's been the reality of life, since before political borders, to you know, be open to that I find a lot more enjoyment in birding and then a propensity to organize around meaningful issues. Because now I'm thinking, okay, if I'm looking at the park that I'm in, and I'm seeing that there are less, or if any, park benches, streetlights or trash cans. But on another side of a park or at another park and a different, richer community, richer whiter community, there are park benches, streetlights and trash cans. Well, yeah, I would go to that park. Yeah, of course, I wouldn't. I wouldn't go to the other one. In asking myself, how did that occur? I'm seeing the effect of disinvestment from a community. And I think that it is something that people are recognizing now that yes, there have been city, state and federal mismanagement of programs or direct management of programs that have taken resources one way. Or never put resources in some places. I think birders recognizing this is extra special, because again, they're seeing that connection between special places for birds and people that can use specifically unprecedented conservation funding, meaning funding for our parks. Funding for green spaces and finding ways that we can support migratory bird density and addressing urban heat island effect. I think birder can have a role in all of this. I think where it starts, though, is meeting each other where we are, before we get on that bus. It's figuring out how do we bird free how do we bird in a way that achieves collective liberation? I think it starts with thinking like a freedom birder and thinking like an organizer in the same steps and standing on the inspiring shoulders of John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer, the, you know, Mississippi Black Freedom Party, the Congress of Racial Equity and those leaders before us.

John Weber 
I know redlining without a doubt, kind of the things you're mentioning are systemic and been going for many, many, many years in America. In an interview last year, you said, quote, "generosity will never be a substitute for justice", end quote. How can individuals take a more active role in social and climate advocacy beyond financial donations?

Tykee James 
Thinking like and acting like an organizer. One of the most helpful things I have ever undertaken in my employment at Audubon for my professional development was taking a Midwest Academy Manual for Activists training for organizing for social change. And thinking like a campaign organizer, you don't have to be the campaign organizer. You can think like one and find your place in the campaign, in the movement that's most meaningful to you, to figure out where you can be most helpful. Knowing the difference between a tactic and a goal and a milestone is very, very key. And that training, broke it down for me. And that training also finds inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement. Finds inspiration from issue-based organizing. Finds inspiration from labor organizing, as well. And the...that training made it very clear to me if more folks thought like organizers, well, they can better answer for themselves the question what they can do because they'll be thinking, "This is where we are and this is what I can do right now." And of course that's going to look very different. But ultimately, I find that even if it's not part of some official stamped campaign of some sort, you can still work with your neighbors, work in a group chat, work, you know, with people of like mind and organize around something meaningful. Though in my three, you know, answers to the question, what can I do to help? I always try to answer it in three ways. I say, normalize, rationalize and organize. I say normalize the way you demonstrate your values. No one should be surprised to hear you say, "black lives matter" and act like it. You know, we shouldn't just be hearing it and not seeing it. Like normalize what that looks like. Rationalize your rules, your code of conduct, your constitution, your bylaws, your policy book. Whatever it is, comb through it and say, "rationally, do these rules make sense with our values? Do they reflect what we truly believe in? Does this reflect our vision that we want to see in the world.”? And where those things don't line up, you change them. And I would implore that change to occur in a co-creative model, where you have the diverse stakeholder group of those stakeholders, at least, having a role in co-creating what those new rules look like. Co-creation is not me propose this and you provide feedback. Co creation is a Google Doc, and we're sharing. That's, that's, you know, the Co authorship level

John Weber 
Right, the collaboration aspect. Yeah.

Tykee James 
Exactly. And then the last thing, so the first thing is interpersonal the second level, you know, rationalize that's on the institutional level, you know, that's in your organization or group. Now, when I say organize, that's on the structural level, we're looking at how groups of institutions work together to maintain the status quo. We know that the status quo is unsustainable. The way that we address these, we work against the structures disorganizing and building collective power. And again, that can look in a lot of different ways. For me, I'm participating in a union campaign, because if we can build collective power in the workplace at Audubon, we believe that we can get better outcomes for birds, because we're also supporting the workers that are doing that work. Good work deserves a good workplace. The common thread is looking for, organizing around, a complete change of the world order. Saying that the way we move forward is not by leaving people behind. And we have to change what it means to move forward. And I think that the folks that are organizing around climate, the folks that are organizing around racial justice, you know, those are just the titles that were saying. I mean, I can again, just put it all under the umbrella of collective liberation and self-determination. because at the end of the day, we just want to be able to live.

John Weber 
Tykee James, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Tykee James 
Happy to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

John Weber 
Tykee James is the National Audubon Society Government Affairs Coordinator. He was also one of the cofounders of Black Birders Week, the movement. He's part of the Sustainability Institute at Penn State Sustainability Showcase series. His online talk is free and open to the public on February 25 at noon. For more information on Tykee James and his work, visit wpsu.org/takenote. I'm John Weber, WPSU.

More information on Tykee James and the non-profit Amplify The Future can be found at https://amplifythefuture.org/.

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