Local birder and educator Nicole Jackson on the inherent perils of navigating outdoor spaces while Black

When Nicole Jackson first saw the now-viral video of Amy Cooper calling the police on birder Christian Cooper in New York’s Central Park, she felt a flood of emotions. For one, being a birder and educator herself, she instantly recognized Christian Cooper.

Cooper, who’s on the board of directors for New York City Audubon, is featured in the “Birds of North America” video series hosted by Jason Ward, and Jackson, as the program coordinator for the Environmental Professionals Network at Ohio State’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, brought Ward to town earlier this year. But this video from Christian Cooper’s cellphone, in which Amy Cooper weaponizes the police by feigning assault, was way different. Watching it was jarring and disturbing.

“It was all of these emotions happening at once: panic, fear, confusion, anger, and just feeling tired mentally, like, ‘OK, it's happening again,’” Jackson said. “Having this event happen in relation to the protesting with George Floyd and being a Black man and what that means — connecting it to our day-to-day experiences — can be a lot. It can be a heavy weight, because there's so many layers to it. It's not just one thing that you're thinking about.”

In response, on Friday, biology graduate student Corina Newsome took to Twitter to announce a new initiative: Black Birders Week, which kicked off on Sunday. “For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us, whether it be the way the media chooses to present who is the outdoorsy type, or the racism Black people experience when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park,” Newsome said in a video. “Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

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Through Friday, birders are participating in daily virtual events while using the #BlackBirdersWeek hashtag on social media. Today’s event, for instance, is #AskaBlackBirder, featuring a Q&A session with Black birders on Twitter from 7 to 9 p.m. “Being a part of this group has given me motivation to continue to express myself — being OK with my interests and knowing that there's other people out there that look like me that have a passion for nature and the outdoors and birding,” Jackson said.

Growing up in Cleveland, Jackson always loved nature and wildlife, and when she came to Columbus to attend Ohio State, she initially thought she wanted to pursue veterinary medicine. But a research experience during the summer of 2009 led her down a different path. “We went around different locations throughout Columbus and did field research on Acadian Flycatchers and Northern Cardinals. That was my first experience doing field research, and it turned into this love of learning more about the birds we have in our urban environments, but also connecting people to the research and education around it,” said Jackson, who found that she most enjoyed answering questions from curious onlookers, eventually leading her to pursue an environmental education degree.

Since graduating from OSU in 2011, Jackson has worked for the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, the Franklin Park Conservatory and more. Currently, in addition to her role with the Environmental Professionals Network, Jackson is a program coordinator for the Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist Program.

As a Black female birder and hiker, Jackson said her experience outdoors is different from her white counterparts. She has to think about what time of day she’s birding, what she’s wearing, what people might infer about her binoculars and more. “Especially if you're by yourself, you're going to get looks or a kind of missed interpretation: ‘Why do you have binoculars in the first place? You don't look like a birder,’” she said. “But what does that really mean? If I'm birding, I’m birding. It shouldn't be this second glance or taking-a-step-back-to-process-it thing. It should just be, 'That person is birding. I will leave them to it.' And if they want to engage with me, that's great. That's a wonderful opportunity to ask me questions about what I'm doing.”

Jackson has experienced various forms of racism in her role as an environmental educator, from the subtle to the blatant. “I've been in birding groups where I've been questioned, 'How do you know these things? You're really knowledgeable.' That doesn't add up to people,” she said. “But I'm learning just like everybody else. I'm reading books, studying field guides. I went to school for this. … It puts me in a really weird headspace, because then sometimes I'm doubting myself as an educator and how I'm presenting information to people, when that shouldn't be the case.”

One instance, in particular, stands out. Jackson went hiking with family one winter, and as they headed back to the parking lot, they said hello to a white family they passed on the trail. “My family members were behind me, and they came up to me and asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ And I said, ‘No. Did I hear what?’” said Jackson, who was told by her family that someone in the group they passed mumbled, “Make America great again.”

“I'm not sure why that needed to be said. We literally just said hi to them and kept walking,” Jackson said. “I'm still trying to understand why it needed to be said if it wasn't presented as something discriminatory or racist. … We were just there to hike, and that was it. It's so very unexpected, and it stays with you.”

To make matters worse, incidents like these are often questioned by Jackson’s non-Black friends and coworkers. “They twist it, like I'm overreacting, or saying, ‘What they meant was...' when they weren't part of the experience,” she said. “I don't even feel comfortable telling people about these experiences. I just know it's going to be taken out of context or I'm going to be blamed for doing something for that to happen, like it was my fault.”

It’s Jackson’s hope that Black Birders Week can help to “create more experiences where we can be seen [in nature] on a regular basis, and it's normalized and not seen as this unique thing that Black people are birdwatching. It's part of our everyday lives,” she said. “But also, speaking to our white counterparts, your voice doesn't necessarily have to be dimmed in order for us to shine. We can all shine. … You can amplify those voices and not feel like you are being stepped on or disregarded. We've been stepped on and disregarded for long enough, and we just want to be seen and want to be heard.”