Considerations of the Audubon name

At Maine Audubon we believe that nature and conservation are for all. We are committed to embracing human diversity in all the communities where we work as we know that the contributions, experiences, perspectives, and values of diverse individuals and communities make conservation efforts stronger.

In 2020, Maine Audubon recently became aware of troubling facts about the naturalist and bird artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) when Audubon Magazine published The Myth of John James Audubon by historian and biographer Gregory Nobles, bringing to light Audubon’s history as a slave owner. In 2021, Audubon Magazine published J. Drew Lanham’s recent article What Do We Do About John James Audubon. These articles, and others, are thought provoking and we have discussed them across Audubon units, and amongst our board and staff. They recognize the deeply problematic and complex relationship our organization’s namesake had with race and his own racial identity. A slaveholder who harbored abhorrent views on race (regardless of his historical time period), John James Audubon’s contributions to conservation and the study of birds must be viewed alongside his promotion of racist ideas and actions that have contributed to the centuries of institutional racism derived from slavery in America.

The Board of Trustees formed a Namesake Committee for deeper learning about the history of John James Audubon. The committee looked at the historical path toward our own organization’s adoption of the Audubon name, how it affects our organization today, and implications for our work across the Audubon network. Maine Audubon, like most Audubon units in the Northeast, is independent of National Audubon and we work closely with other independent Audubons on a range of topics. The immediate result was greater awareness, a very important internal and external dialogue about our origins and culture, and public honesty about John James Audubon’s personal history.

We are aware that some National Audubon chapters, as well as one independent Audubon, have made the decision to change their name; others are in different stages of consideration across the independent Audubon organizations.

Maine Audubon has embarked on work to explore the namesake issue, and to consider the possibility of a name change. We see this as a five-phase process. Our learning phase is iterative and ongoing. We have begun a listening phase, to hear from our stakeholders and other individuals and organizations. To do this, we have begun engaging with staff, trustees, chapters, members, partners, other independent Audubon organizations, and other groups through a variety of ways, from surveys to town hall style meetings to one-on-one conversations. In Phase 3 we will examine the organizational implications of a name change and consider, among other things, how our name corresponds with the full breadth of our mission, values, and strategic direction. Phase 4 will be active decision-making, and Phase 5 will be implementation and communication as necessary.

In the meantime, we continue to work on addressing our culture and practices.  Our work on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) had begun long before this information came to light, and the facts of Audubon’s history have strengthened our resolve to ensure that the understanding, enjoyment, and protection of wildlife in Maine are available to everyone. Recent steps include:

  • making our EDI commitment one of the cornerstones of our strategic planning
  • elevating and prioritizing this work at the Trustee level (including ongoing work on board diversification efforts, anti-bias training for all, and dedicated funding for board-driven efforts through its EDI committee)
  • undertaking a formal, external review of our employee policies & benefits to focus on equity
  • working to make our centers and programs more welcoming, equitable, and inclusive through physical investments and changes in practices
  • engaging with new policy areas, including securing organization support for tribal sovereignty legislation

In 1886, George Bird Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, and chose the name out of admiration for the bird artist; this would later become National Audubon Society. The organization was not founded by Audubon himself. Maine Audubon’s roots began in 1843 as the Portland Natural History Society. In 1902, an organization named the Maine Audubon Society was formed, and an alliance between Maine Audubon and the Portland Natural History Society began, first informally and then formally when the two voted to merge in 1961.

More than a century and a half after John James Audubon’s death in 1851, the Audubon name has come to symbolize ornithology, conservation, education, and environmental awareness. Maine Audubon may carry this name from historic origins, but our present-day mission is our own. So is our commitment to examine our own prejudices and biases as we strive to connect Maine’s people to wildlife and habitat, and operate as a diverse conservation organization; that is where our energies and actions are focused.