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Last November, I received an email from the American Ornithological Society (AOS) announcing a new development in the birding world. Starting in 2024, they would begin changing all English-language names of birds named after people, and other names “deemed offensive and exclusionary.” The decision was informed by a collaborative process sparked by George Floyd’s murder and Christian Cooper’s harassment, and the changes would roll out through an “open, inclusive, and scientifically rigorous” pilot program.

My heart sank.

I felt confused. I’m a lifelong anti-racist and 30-year veteran of the DEI field — why wasn’t I celebrating? I’m a ten-year birder, raptor rescuer, and field monitor — why wasn’t I pleased?

I appreciated the thoughtfulness and effort the AOS and its partners put into the English Bird Names Project. I recognized that changing the names of plants and animals is a common, ongoing process informed by culture as well as science. And I was on board with the AOS’s dual intention to “address past wrongs and to engage far more people in the study, protection, conservation, and enjoyment of birds.”

But still, I wanted to bury my head in my hands and groan, “Not again!”

Not again: A tremendous amount of time, talent, and energy powered by good intentions that won’t make a meaningful difference in what matters most. Our nation is an empire in decline facing crumbling institutions, widening class inequality, withering democracy, a splintering populace, waning international credibility, and growing right-wing terrorism. Our species faces existential threats from accelerating climate change, unbridled AI and biotech, ecosystem degradation, and the looming end of fossil fuels.

And yet we focus on renaming birds.

Not again: Activity lauded as DEI achievement, which in truth amounts to little more than slapping a coat of fresh paint on “rotting walls…in a poorly-designed building on a cracking foundation in swampy terrain.” “Addressing past wrongs” by renaming birds is the kind of myopic thinking that has contributed to our current predicament. I doubted whether the AOS had grappled with two critical questions: What exactly are the wrongs we want to address? And how best can those wrongs actually be righted?

“Addressing past wrongs” by renaming birds is the kind of myopic thinking that has contributed to our current predicament.

When done effectively, DEI efforts focus on oppression, not feelings. DEI should be about improving and protecting people’s lives and livelihoods, not eliminating all discomfort. The goal of DEI should be ending unfair inequities, not making everyone feel nice.

I get it — bird names matter because language matters. I’m a poet and writer, and I hold a graduate degree in communication; I get that language constructs reality, and creates and reinforces human beliefs and behaviors. And yet changing the names of birds to make some people feel better doesn’t move us towards what makes a meaningful difference for everyone: equitable access to healthy food, affordable housing, relevant education and training, dignified work for living wages, optimal health and wellness, and the ability to go out in public without being murdered. Read the rest on Medium

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[Image: The Cornell Lab, © Matt Brady | The Macaulay Library]

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