Early in the coronavirus pandemic, on the same day George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, Christian Cooper, a Black man and avid birder, was birding in Central Park when a white woman called the police on him. Cooper filmed the incident, the video went viral, and it drew national attention against the backdrop of a social uprising and calls for racial equity across the United States and the world.
Incidents like this are one of the reasons the Minnesota-based Urban Bird Collective (UBC) exists. Founded in 2018, the Urban Bird Collective supports birdwatchers of all different skill levels in leading walks in their own neighborhoods. They are working to create safe and welcoming spaces for all communities to come out and explore birding and the outdoors. Their main foci are Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and the LGBT Community, but all are welcome.
“I’ve been using birds to communicate the need to create safe spaces and save our habitats and birds’ habitats for almost 20 years,” Monica Bryand, founder of UBC, said. “About 10 years ago, I started posting a bird of the day, and people in my network, especially my friends of color, became curious about what I was seeing on my walks and what I did to feel safe.”
UBC started to form organically as Bryand started bringing together people she knew to bird together.
“It started with eight leaders who were experts at creating and holding safe space for people, and they were passionate about birding,” Byrand said.
Once word got out about the group, everyone wanted to join.
“To stay true to our mission, we conduct a lot of outreach on social media and through our networks,” Bryand said. “A lot of white folks want to join, and we are constantly balancing how to provide resources for our white allies while centering people of color. It takes a whole community to create a safe space, and our white allies are an important part of that.”
Part of a Collective
UBC includes between 250 and 300 folks who participate in walks and educational opportunities. They are organized on a Facebook page and are committed to changing the birding world to make it more inclusive. UBC currently has about 12 leaders who lead walks and provide various educational opportunities about things like warblers, ducks, birds to spot in the winter, and more.
Over the past year, as birding gained national attention and popularity both because of Christian Cooper and because it is a relatively safe activity to enjoy during the pandemic, UBC gained popularity and interest from groups looking to diversify their programming.
“You can’t change an organization overnight,” Bryand said. “We can’t help you do that, but if you want to be a true partner then allow us to create space for ourselves. I love to introduce people to new locations where a partnership has been formed.”
As an example, the Minnesota River Valley Wildlife Refuge invited UBC to go on birding walks.
“We needed to do things our way, and the staff there respected that,” Bryand said.
Other organizations, like the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, invited UBC to do a walk in June and bought the group food and offered stipends for those who were leading walks.
“With our leaders in charge of the walks, we are in charge of what it means to be safe on that day,” Bryand said. “The organizations who invite us have to do the work and have conversations about safety the other 364 days of the year we aren’t there. We see them doing more board recruitment, trainings, and hosting conversations for staff.”
Additionally, this year, UBC worked with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led organizations to offer walks for their board and staff.
Fiscal Sponsorship and What’s Next
Bryand has been working in the nonprofit sector for almost three decades; she knew when UBC began that they weren’t ready to become an organization on their own.
“We wanted to provide stipends and support for our leaders, so we needed grant dollars, and we know that fiscal sponsorship was the easiest way to go,” Bryand said.
“I knew Propel had the support we needed when it was time for us to grow,” Bryand said. “This organization isn’t about me; it is about our leaders, and I want us to have the skills and tools we need to grow.”
This fall, the group will continue to partner with organizations focused on social justice issues, and host walks for those seeking a safe space to enjoy birds in their community including preparing for a walk to observe sand cranes this fall.