We are considering a name change!
Why? What does this mean?
This issue has come to the forefront because although the Audubon name was well known to previous generations as representing the conservation of birds, many people are now unfamiliar with what an Audubon Society is or does, which makes it difficult to generate more support for the important work that we do protecting birds and their habitats.
When people do look up the Audubon name to see what we do they unfortunately find out more about the the dark past of John Audubon. He was a slave owner who bought and sold slaves; he was a racist that advocated for white supremacy; he desecrated the burial sites of indigenous people to try and show they were subhuman and he regularly shot over one hundred birds a day. This combination of a name that causes confusion and also creates barriers to our being an inclusive and collaborative organization is a major problem that our board was duty bound to consider.
The board undertook several months of discussion and research on this issue during which our staff and board have spoken to hundreds of people in our local communities about the Audubon name. The vast majority of people either don’t know what we do as an organization or have heard bad things about John Audubon. We have also consulted with other Audubon Societies across the country, over forty of which are currently also considering a name change. We also engaged with the families of our founders and asked for the opinions of our members on a potential name change for the organization. Around 22% of members gave us their views and 78.8% of those responses were in favor of changing our name; 13.6% wanted to retain the Audubon name and 7.6% were not sure or were open to persuasion. The majority in favor of change was 6:1.
The daughters of Helen Engle both supported Seattle Audubon’s recent name change and believed Helen would feel the same. We have also spoken to the daughter and daughter-in-law of our other “founding mother” Thelma Gilmur. They too expressed agreement and that Thelma would also be in favor of the change. They believed that both Helen and Thelma would want to do whatever was in the best interest of furthering the mission, vision and work of the organization, and that the name was secondary.
Taking all these factors into consideration, the Board of Directors of the Tahoma Audubon Society has unanimously voted to move forward with the process of finding a new name for our organization.
The final decision will rest in the hands of the membership and a formal vote will be made at our general annual meeting on February 24, 2024 open to all current members of the Tahoma Audubon Society. This is where the proposed new name for the organization will be put to the membership as well as amending the bylaws.
In the meantime, we will be consulting further with members, partners and other stakeholders on potential new names and while we have already received a number of suggestions on potential new names we would welcome additional suggestions.
Distancing the organization from someone who was a racist slave owner and who shot thousands of birds is just the first transformative step in building a much more inclusive organization that is focused on protecting birds and their habitat and combating environmental injustice. Declaring what we can achieve for birds and conservation through a more direct organizational name will further transform the work we are able to accomplish.
We understand that this is an important issue and that there are many considerations to all that it entails. We have been in close contact with other Audubon chapters around the country that are considering or undergoing a name change as well as those choosing to retain the name. We also realize that our supporters will likely have questions, and hope most of them will be covered within the following FAQ sheet at the end of this letter.
If you have questions or concerns not addressed by the FAQ document, please email email@example.com or write to the President at our office. Many of our board members have been through their own journeys of discovery on this topic in recent months and we appreciate that some people may have mixed views and we will happily answer questions, listen to comments and name suggestions. Please feel free to send name suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We do not want this to be a rushed process and we want to provide reasonable time for people to think through their views and undertake their own research, and we also want to consult with our broader communities so we are looking at putting this proposal to the membership at our general meeting on February 24, 2024.
Everyone who is a member in good standing on January 31, 2024 will be entitled to attend the meeting and vote. We are also contacting members who have lapsed in the last year, but if you are aware of anyone who’s membership might have lapsed please let us know ASAP or ask them to contact us to check the status or to renew their membership.
Gary Geddes, President of the Board • Stuart Earley, Executive Director
Potential Name Change FAQ
1. Why are we considering changing our name?
Although Audubon was well known in previous generations to represent the conservation of birds, many people are now unfamiliar with what an Audubon Society represents which makes it unclear to a lot of potential supporters the important work that we do to protect birds and their habitats.
The Audubon Society came into existence after the death of John James Audubon, but the Audubon name in recent years is now affiliated with the dark past of John Audubon which the Society was originally named after. Audubon was a slave owner who bought and sold slaves; he was a racist that advocated for white supremacy; he desecrated the burial sites of indigenous people to try and show they were subhuman and he regularly shot over one hundred birds a day.
The continued use of the Audubon name could continue the confusion as to what we do and continue to associate our organization with a racist who slaughtered birds.
2. In March 2023, The National Audubon Society announced they had decided to retain the Audubon name. Why aren’t we following their lead?
Just because one organization does one thing doesn’t mean that another should do the same if they believe there are good reasons to have an alternative view. We believe that we should do what is right for our organization, no matter what other people choose to do.
3. Are other Audubon Chapters changing their name?
Yes. As of the time of writing we know that there are over 40 Audubon chapters going through the same process that we are and considering a name change. Only Seattle has decided on a new name but there are three other Washington State chapters that we know of considering this issue and other major Audubon chapters considering a name change including: Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Denver, San Diego, Golden Gate (San Francisco), Portland, Madison, Pasadena, Fresno, Buffalo, Santa Clara and Alabama.
UPDATE 9/26/23: Golden Gate Audubon Society has become Golden Gate Bird Alliance and Madison Audubon Society has become Badgerland Bird Alliance.
4. If a lot of Audubon Chapters are thinking of changing their names shouldn’t we just wait for National Audubon to change their minds?
No. While it would have been useful for National Audubon to lead the way with a name change so that we all had a template to follow, this is not what happened. If many chapters change their names, that may apply pressure on National to reconsider although it is unlikely that the current NAS leadership would change their position so quickly because they would lose credibility.
5. Will we lose the support of National Audubon and Washington Audubon if we change our name and have no access to State legislators through them?
No. Washington Audubon is part of National Audubon and senior executives of both Washington and National Audubon have assured us, and every other Audubon Chapter considering a name change, that they would still be part of the network and would be part of the family. And have confirmed that in writing with the following statement:
‘The Audubon network includes more than 450 chapters and 160 Campus Chapters, which are an essential part of what makes NAS a strong and impactful force for conservation. As independent entities, some chapters have already announced their intention to change their name, while others may elect to keep Audubon in their name. Regardless of their decisions, we plan to work closely with chapter leaders to move forward as one unified community.‘
6. Will we still be able to persuade legislators to support us without the Audubon name?
Yes. As part of our consultation process we will be contacting all legislators seeking their input and we have already received positive support from the City of Tacoma and Pierce County for changing our name. If proposed legislation is sound and is supported by legislators, it will pass. If it is not supported by legislators, it will fail. Having worked with legislators for over fifty years and successfully changed hundreds of regulations to improve animal welfare we can factually state that the name of an organization, while sometimes useful for name recognition, is secondary to the effective arguments for and against changing regulations and legislative decisions and the ability to mobilize voters to write to or call their elected officials. This is a good example of where a large membership counts.
The other side of the coin is that legislators are increasingly looking at legislation and regulation from an inclusive perspective and we may lose the support of legislators if we continue to align ourselves to a toxic brand. Changing our name would be an opportunity to connect with legislators and expand upon existing relationships and as flagged above would probably improve some relationships.
7. Are we going to lose the support of corporations and grant giving foundations if we change our name?
No. Many grant making foundations and corporations now look for evidence that an organization is more inclusive and changing our name could actually open up further opportunities for our organization. Retaining the Audubon name could potentially negatively impact grants and sponsorship and create barriers.
8. Isn’t Audubon our brand rather than a person?
It’s both. Audubon is a brand, but it is difficult to separate a brand from the person after whom the brand is named, especially if that person has undertaken acts deemed despicable even during their own time. At best Audubon would be seen as a weak brand in marketing terms as a high percentage of the population don’t know what the word Audubon means and, in many ways, it is a toxic brand because of the negative connotations attached to the name.
9. Won’t it cost a lot of money to rebrand?
No. There will be a cost, but this is probably going to be in the region of only $5,000 if we were to change because of the in-house expertise available to us. This should also be seen as an investment, like any form of marketing expense, that will generate more revenue.
10. Isn’t changing our name just a symbolic gesture?
No. The movement to change the names of military installations named after Confederate Generals or the names of Museums demonstrates how important symbols are. It is sometimes difficult for the non-BIPOC population to appreciate how alienating or toxic the Audubon name is for many in the BIPOC community. It is true that changing our name, if we go down that route, would not make everything right and we do need to work with all of our communities more and that is a long-term commitment. We believe the first step in the process to remove the barriers that keep people apart would be changing our name.
11. Why is it so important to remove barriers?
Saving our birds and wildlife has never been so important. Scientific studies have indicated that we lost over 3 billion birds in the last 50 years, primarily due to habitat loss, but there are indications that the loss of birds is accelerating with feral cats; window strikes against high-rise glass buildings and other factors also now contributing to a downward trend.
We need to bring together as many people as possible from all of our communities to protect birds and nature.
12. Would our founders, Thelma Gilmur and Helen Engle have approved of a name change?
Yes. Both Melanie and Gretchen, Helen’s daughters, supported Seattle changing their name and felt that Helen would have supported changing the name. Lori Gilmur-Dillman, Thelma’s daughter, and Deanne Gilmur, her daughter-in-law and both have said that their focus is on what the organization does, not what it is called and if changing our name would help us do things better then they support that and believe that Thelma would have too.
13. Is this a done deal or does the membership get any say on this?
Members decide! The board asked members for their opinions on this issue in July 2023 and the responses in favor of change were six times higher than those wanting to retain the name. After considering these views and having undertaken extensive research the board voted unanimously to move forward to the next step of this process which will include further consultation with the membership and other stakeholders.
The final step of the process in agreeing on any potential name change would be subject to a membership vote at the general meeting on February 24, 2024.
14. Who can vote at the general meeting?
Only paid up members of the Tahoma Audubon Society who joined 21 days prior to the general meeting will be eligible to vote. Lapsed members will not be able to vote so everyone should make sure that their membership subscriptions are up to date.
15. How do I check to see whether my membership is up to date or whether my friend’s membership has lapsed?
Please call or email us and we can confirm your membership status. We cannot provide information on someone else's membership, but if you ask your friend to contact us we can check their details and if you pass on their name to us we can follow up and remind them to renew if they are not a current member.
16. When and where will the annual meeting be held?
February 2024, likely in Tacoma. While we don’t have a venue or date yet secured for the annual meeting, in all probability it will be held in or near Tacoma. We will give at least 21 days of notice before the meeting and will advise all members of the venue, date and time once they have been confirmed.
UPDATE 10/2/23: Our annual general meeting will be held Saturday, February 24, 2024 at 2pm at the Washington State History Museum.
17. What can I do? What do I need to do?
We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on a potential new name and if you think this is a good thing.
Whatever your views, we appreciate your opinions and hope to see you at the general meeting to cast your vote one way or another.
18. Are we doing more harm by changing or by retaining the Audubon name?
This was a major consideration for the board. Retaining the name ignores the sensitivities and the upset that many members of our communities feel towards someone who traded in slaves and advocated white supremacy during a time when most US states had banned slavery.
By retaining the name we would also be harming ourselves. We would be retaining barriers that will put off potential donors and we would be potentially reducing our ability to secure grant funding and sponsorship. We would also be going against the views of 79% of our members.
Additional Resources and Articles
Is social justice for the birds? Audubon attempts an answer by Clyde McGrady, New York Times (August 2023)
Why the Audubon name must go: It will save more birds by Christian Cooper, Washington Post (April 2023)
National Audubon announces the decision to keep the Audubon name (March 2023)
Portland Audubon commits to dropping “Audubon” from their name (February 2023)
Audubon Naturalist Society drops controversial “Audubon” from its name: The DC-area nonprofit is among the first to drop the racist ornithologist from its name by Damare Baker, Washingtonian (October 2022).
Audubon’s beautiful birds don’t erase his racist life by the Seattle Times Editorial Board in support of the Seattle chapter’s decision (July 2022).
Seattle Audubon became the first large chapter to signal its intention to change its name (July 2022). Learn more about their process.
What’s In A Bird Name? by Ariana Remmel, Audubon Magazine (Summer 2021).
What’s in a Name? Plenty, if It Belongs to a Slaveholder or White Supremacist, by Glenn Nelson, South Seattle Emerald (August 2021).
How Audubon societies are grappling with a racist past by Philip Marcelo, The Christian Science Monitor (July 2021).
What Do We Do About John James Audubon? by J. Drew Lanham, Audubon Magazine (Spring 2021).
John James Audubon Was Never Good by Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Gizmodo, (September 2020).
The Myth of John James Audubon by Gregory Nobles, Audubon Magazine (July 2020).