GSU wildlife conservationist helps promote STEM diversity by co-creating Black Birders Week

Local News

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (WSAV) — As a Black woman, Georgia Southern University graduate student Corina Newsome says she’s experienced the lack of diversity in STEM fields firsthand.

“I would say that wildlife sciences is one of the most homogeneous spaces that I’ve been in, meaning that most people are white,” Newsome, a wildlife conservationist who specializes in the study of birds, tells NOW.

She says she’s encountered perhaps one or two other people of color focusing on wildlife during her studies.

“What I realized is that it does take a lot of energy for me to navigate these spaces, oftentimes as the only Black person, and certainly as the only Black woman, and I think every time that I’ve met — usually online — other Black people that are studying wildlife, I see how invigorating and life-giving that is for me,” shared the Philadelphia native, who moved to Georgia in 2018.

“I imagine, ‘Wow, what if this was my every day? What if this was my reality in real life, in my physical spaces?’” the ornithologist said. “That would be so empowering for me and any other Black people or Black women, especially who are in these spaces and tend to be the only one.”

Over the past couple of years, the former zookeeper has made an effort to seek out and connect with fellow Black scientists through Twitter and Instagram, largely with the help of hashtags like #BlackInSTEM.

“I immediately came across images and accounts of Black people in all kinds of different science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, and I started following all of them,” Newsome said.

Wildlife conservationist Corina Newsome poses with a Moluccan cockatoo. (Image courtesy of Amiee Stubbs)

Friend and fellow birder Jason Ward helped gather into a group chat all the scientists who had met via social media, she says.

“We have just been kind of a big massive friend group of people in STEM, especially wildlife, that are just encouraging one another,” Newsome said.

Appreciating Black birders

In May, birdwatcher Christian Cooper video recorded a racially charged incident as a white woman in Central Park called the police on him. The encounter went viral. 

“[Cooper] is a birder that many of us admire and some of us know him, so when we saw that, it was very alarming but it was familiar,” Newsome said.

It prompted the online group of around 30 Black scientists to band together and show their support.

“One of the women in the group, she was like, ‘we need to do something to appreciate Black birders,’ and so within probably 48 hours, we had concocted an entire week of celebration of Black people opening up dialogue about our experiences, and encouraging and voicing the importance of diversity in all of our spaces,” Newsome said.

That’s how the first-ever Black Birders Week, hosted from May 31 to June 5, was born.

Corina Newsome, a lifelong lover of wildlife who’s passionate about birds, smiles at a barn owl. (Image courtesy of Okwa Andrew, Raw Image Solutions)

Naturalists and bird lovers shared experiences and communicated via #AskABlackBirder,  #BirdingWhileBlack, #BlackInNature and similar hashtags during the virtual event — and have continued to do so over a month later. 

Black Birders Week: A ‘mind-blowing’ response

Their goal has been to push for inclusion and safe spaces while spending time appreciating the outdoors. 

Newsome says the overall response she and her fellow scientists received was “mind-blowing.”

“So many individuals, organizations and even government agencies backed our efforts, and I never thought that would happen,” Newsome shared. “The National Audubon Society, people from around the world, different news networks that I never imagined would care about our story, because typically our stories have been ignored.”

She noted that some of those supporters have announced plans to dedicate funding toward inclusion of people of color within their organizations.

“Unfortunately, structural racism falls along racial ethnic lines, and it has socio-economic impacts that have really important hindering effects for Black people and other marginalized and oppressed groups,” Newsome said. 

“To see them not just saying that they support us but doing the work to support us is exactly what we need to see, and I’m so excited by that,” she added.

The ripple effect of Black Birders Week is still felt today, she says, with other academic and STEM groups starting their own special weeks.

“[They] have been able to celebrate Blackness and the Black experience and talk about the reason why having Black people in these careers is so important,” Newsome said. 

(Image courtesy of Katherine Arntzen, Georgia Southern University)

Not all feedback to Black Birders Week was positive, she reveals, but notes that the backlash was to be expected. 

“You have people who say that we’re creating division by celebrating and highlighting specifically the voices of Black people, and they say, ‘it shouldn’t be about color, it should be about birds,’” Newsome said.

“In reality, the fact that they can even hold that opinion is a mark of their privilege,” she continued. “It’s been about color for us the whole time, because our Black skin directly impacts our ability to either survive or just be in peace in these spaces and in these careers.”

She says rather than creating division, the scientists are creating unity and shedding light on the division that had already existed.

Newsome chooses to focus on the positive support. “People have had our backs and have encouraged our efforts, so despite the naysayers, I definitely feel very encouraged,” she said. 

Promoting diversity in STEM to children

Newsome, whose background is in zoo science, says she’s loved wildlife for as long as she can remember.

She was introduced to the field of wildlife conservation by a Black woman who worked as a zookeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo.

“Her name is Michelle Jamison, and I met her through a mutual friend,” Newsome explained.

“He was like, ‘my sister works at the zoo,’ and when he said that, I was like, ‘she probably works in concessions and can’t help me,’” she said.

It’s because until that point, every person Newsome had seen working with wildlife had been white.

“I never thought consciously to myself, ‘I’m Black, so I can’t be a wildlife conservationist,’” she said. “My mind had just been structured that way by what I saw.” 

Corina Newsome holds up a turkey vulture spreading its wings. Image courtesy of Quentin Thompson)

She says her experience demonstrates why it’s crucial for children to be exposed to diversity within the STEM fields.

On Twitter, Newsome is currently seeking out Black scientists or scientists of color to conduct virtual talks for grade-school children.

“It’s so important, both in images and in interactions, for kids to see themselves represented in these spaces and in these careers so that they can then imagine themselves doing the same thing,” Newsome said. 

She and her fellow scientists plan to organize another Black Birders Week event in 2021.

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