How movements like #BlackBirdersWeek can help students see themselves as environmentalists

This post was written by educator Lauren Niemann.

I have a passion for sharing the path towards justice with my students by providing a wealth of opportunities for students to analyze community data. Opportunities like these help lay the groundwork for critical equity conversations by illuminating barriers to Black nature enthusiasts to safely access nature.

This past school year we focused our attention on how birding is an activity that can help city-dwellers experience urban forests as places for practicing stillness in nature, while also allowing an opportunity to appreciate urban biodiversity we may not typically notice. 

Students were asked to consider the following questions:

☀️So, who are birders? 

☀️What draws someone to watch (or even study) birds? 

☀️Are there barriers to birding?

I used the #BlackBirdersWeek phenomenon with students as a way to use birding to celebrate the wildlife & cultural importance of urban forests, while also highlighting that enjoying the outdoors is impacted by racism. 

It was important to share the experiences of Black birders and conservation biologists to not only celebrate the diversity of outdoor enthusiasts, but also bring awareness to, and consider ways of combating, the barriers people face when wanting to enjoy nature. 

I asked myself how students could learn more about Black scientists who study nature, right now, in 2021, in a way that would allow them to see themselves as scientists. To do this, we used Padlet to crowd-source a list of modern conservation biologists, and used Twitter as our research tool to find them. Students were encouraged to use hashtags such as #BlackBirdersWeek and #BlackinNature to narrow their search for Black nature lovers and scientists on the platform. 

On our crowd-sourced Padlet list, students were then encouraged to: 

  • React with a 💜 or make comments about scientists they thought were doing cool things
  • Add interesting tidbits (links, photos, etc) they found about them that they thought others would find it interesting too

Students were then asked to choose a current conservation biologist (one they discovered, or another they saw on our Padlet), learn more about this person using their personal stories and posts, and record what they learned using a graphic organizer. This was all in preparation for creating a poster that could be printed and posted in our school to celebrate Black conservation biologists doing research to address our current environmental challenges. I taught students how to use creative tools like Canva or Google Slides templates from websites like Slides Mania and Slides Carnival to create posters that may be eye catching without being time consuming to create. We then used Jamboard as a collaborative feedback tool for posters, with Art Critique prompts to guide students to give positive, yet constructive, feedback to their peers.

Here are a few things for educators reading this to keep in mind:

Throughout the lesson, I tried to ensure our focus remained on understanding the experiences of Black birders and scientists through their own words, and consciously worked to ensure I did not overshadow their reflections with my own interpretations. I also tried to model empathy for the experiences of others for my students, and what it looks like to believe others even when their experiences do not match our own. I felt this was an important lesson to convey, as compassion and empathy are paramount in designing creative solutions that will overcome our social and environmental challenges. It’s important for students to recognize the human harm, and toll on communities, that’s present within these issues.

While the ultimate goal of this project was to ensure all students could see themselves as naturalists and scientists by learning about the lives, loves, and experiences of Black people enjoying the natural world and doing conservation work, my wish for it was that they are also more aware of the barriers Black people often face in this space. My hope is that they will use this understanding to disrupt the status quo and help move us towards a more inclusive future as a community. After all, nature belongs to everyone. 

Lauren Niemann is an award-winning environmental educator at Fern Creek High School. She uses her background as an ecologist to help students harness their innate creativity to design innovative sustainable solutions to environmental problems in their community. In her classroom, she emphasizes student voice and environmental justice, while consistently igniting her students’ desire to put their ideas in action.

Check out National Geographic Education’s Resource Library for resources that highlight the work and contributions of Black Explorers like Carter Clinton, Rae Wynn-Grant, Tara Roberts, and Dr. John “Planetwalker”Francis.

Feature image by Lori Epstein.

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