In May 2020, Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher, was strolling through Central Park in New York City when he ran into a white woman walking her dog off-leash. The encounter ended with the woman calling the police on Cooper, claiming falsely that he had threatened her life.
Now known as the “Central Park birdwatching incident,” the event ignited a national discussion about whether Black people, and other people of color, are welcome in natural areas.
It also hit home for Dr. Shaz Zamore (they/them), a neuroscientist and engineer who is a passionate mushroom hunter and “herper,” or someone who searches for reptiles and amphibians.
“I love rattlesnakes,” said Zamore, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach coordinator for the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder. “They’re such great communicators.”
Zamore is also a member of Black AF in STEM. This collective of Black scientists and nature enthusiasts recently organized a national outreach campaign in response to Cooper’s story called Black Birders Week. When it comes to Black nature lovers, they said, following your passion can often mean risking your safety.
Zamore spoke to CU Boulder Today about their experiences as a Black person who grew up with a love for the outdoors—and the challenges facing people of color who are just beginning their careers in nature-centric fields like ecology, zoology and botany.
How long have you been passionate about nature?
I was catching bugs and learning about birds and other animals for as long as I can remember. My parents are from the country parts of the Caribbean. It’s strange because in America, you go to nature. Where my parents came from, you were in nature.
By the time I was in high school, I was getting a lot of pressure from within the Black community. I heard a lot of “Oh, you’re so weird. Why do you want to go out in nature?” I said, “My whole family is like this, so I don’t think it’s that weird.”
Can you tell me about your work in Black AF in STEM, and about Black Birders Week?
Black Birders Week sparked a conversation about who is welcomed in public spaces. Who do we think of as birders? We were trying to counter this idea that there aren’t any Black birders by showing how many of us there are and how common experiences like Christian Cooper’s are.
Have you experienced similar racist encounters while in nature?
I wouldn’t say that I’ve had an experience where I felt my safety was threatened. I know people who have had more traumatic experiences. But I think pretty much every Black birder, every Black nature enthusiast has this reflexive behavior when they see other people, especially white people, in these spaces. You do things like really taking your time to look under a rock for this reptile—just something to show that you’re harmless, in a way.
Why do you think groups like Black AF in STEM are important for people of color, and especially young people of color, who are passionate about science and nature?
We all have these interests that take us away from our racial community, our social community. We leave Black spaces and enter these predominantly white spaces because of our passions. What that means for you as a student, as a growing intellectual, as an academic is a lot of internal doubt. You’re not sure why you don’t see people like you.
It’s a way of saying, ‘you’re not alone’?
You might feel that you are the only person who is interested in the, I don’t know, migratory behavior of tree swallows, but there are actually other people out there who are Black, Latinx, Indigenous and are also interested that same thing. The problem is the system. It’s not you.
What can people in the sciences and academia do to begin to change this system?
I don’t think any solution can come from the Black community because it’s not inherently a Black problem.
Engaging with Black, Latinx and Indigenous people in academia is so important. Who can I invite as a plenary speaker from these underrepresented groups? How can I make sure that I cite these authors when I’m writing my papers? How much do I know about the authors that I’m citing and if I’m perpetuating this voicelessness in how I communicate my research?
What about in the classroom?
It’s also important to teach the fact that this is the reality. Bringing the conversation out into the open as a part of the curriculum, as a part of education can only do good.
But I really want to make this obvious: There isn’t a cure-all. There isn’t a panacea that’s going to fix racism. It has to include everyone across academia, each working to find their solutions.