Leading environmental organization Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) will change its name, citing the racist reputation of 19th-century naturalist John James Audubon. The American ornithologist has become an increasingly controversial figure amidst a renewed focus on his role as an enslaver and anti-abolitionist.
“It’s very exciting here at ANS. We’ve been working over a decade to think very carefully about the region we serve—one of the most diverse in the nation,” says executive director Lisa Alexander. “As we began to dig into serving all people in the DC region, we also started to get a fair amount of publicity about who Audubon was—an enslaver of Black people, a published white supremacist. He just didn’t seem like a suitable namesake for us.”
The name change is just the most recent evolution towards inclusivity at the 124-year-old nonprofit, the oldest independent environmental organization in the DC area. ANS operates two nature sanctuaries in Maryland and Virginia, and hosts myriad activities, events, and classes related to nature and conservation for adults and over 9,000 schoolchildren annually. In the past decade, the nonprofit has updated its strategic plan to include a focus on inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility for the first time in over a century. The group also created two annual conferences to highlight environmentalists of color, Taking Nature Black and Naturally Latinos, which drew around 1,300 participants this year. ANS also recently unveiled a wheelchair-accessible trail at its 40-acre headquarters at the Woodend Sanctuary in Chevy Chase.
Alexander says the organization will take a year to carefully select a new name, consulting a branding agency as well as ANS members, partner organizations, and conservationists. In the interim, the organization will likely go by its acronym. Alexander says ANS has been entertaining the idea of a name change for some time amidst larger national conversations about racism and diversity—particularly as it affects the environmental movement, from racist bird names to the lack of diversity in conservation organizations.
ANS is the first major Audubon-affiliated organization to scrub the naturalist from its name. The National Audubon Society, which claims 500 local chapters around the country, condemned Audubon’s role in slavery and acknowledged its troubled roots. No plans have been announced to change the name.
Alexander says there’s no better time for a more inclusive approach than now.
“With temperatures climbing, fires raging, and storms becoming more deadly, it’s clear we cannot address the substantive challenges to nature conservation without engaging with all communities,” says says. “It’s time for us to signal that we’re about all people connecting with nature, because let’s be honest, nature needs all of us.”