Storyteller-in-Chief: The Promise of Our New Name

Executive director explains why the Audubon Society of Portland became the Bird Alliance of Oregon.

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I was honored to assume the role of executive director for Bird Alliance of Oregon (formerly Portland Audubon) in May of 2022. It wasn’t lost on me that in the 122-year history of the organization, there had never been a Black executive director. As a Black man working in conservation, I have had “first Black man” experiences throughout my career. However, this role felt different. To our credit, not a single post about my hiring included the phrase “first Black man” — not because they were trying to hide it but because Bird Alliance of Oregon chose to focus on my credentials and work experience.

I was aware of the discussions occurring around John James Audubon’s racist history that emerged after the George Floyd killing, and other social-reckoning discussions occurring in the country. 

I recognized that Bird Alliance of Oregon, being one of the oldest conservation organizations in the country, played an important role in providing access to nature and helping to protect wildlife species and habitats across the state. I was struck by how consistent our history of conservation, education, and wildlife rehabilitation had been throughout our existence, and that our tagline, “Together for Nature,” truly embodied our efforts to reach all communities. But we also recognized that the name Audubon represented a barrier to our mission to provide access to nature to all people, and to foster a deeper understanding of how humans can impact wildlife and wildlife habitats.  

There are many examples of revisiting the naming of places, plants and most recently bird species named for humans who have a problematic past. While the suite of proposed name changes can be dizzying, a metric that I personally embrace is whether the viewpoints and actions embraced by individuals in their time still impact members of groups today. In the case of John James Audubon, the answer is clearly yes, as we still see systemic impacts of those beliefs on BIPOC communities.

Recognizing that our name did represent a barrier to the participation of BIPOC communities regardless, we were committed to dropping the name, and in January of 2023, our board of directors voted to move away from the name Audubon and seek a new name for the organization.

The decision to drop the name set in motion a yearlong journey to find a new name. This was an exciting time, and of course it was not lost on us that rebranding away from the name Audubon might create challenges for us in communicating our work to our members and to the broader community. 

However, I also recognized that in choosing a new name, we were provided an opportunity to tell the story of our organization’s legacy of conservation and communicate more broadly our mission of inclusion for all communities, fulfilling our promise to work together for nature.

We knew that community feedback was going to be the key to finding a name that resonated with more people. We accomplished this through surveys and tabling events, along with internal and external listening sessions, hearing from almost 2,000 people. People wanted a name that was clear and accessible, that referenced birds, that created a sense of unity, and that shared our geographic reach. We listened and found a name that we hope everyone can be proud of: Bird Alliance of Oregon.

William Finley, who founded Portland Audubon Society, photographs a heron. Courtesy of Bird Alliance of Oregon

As a bonus, the new name also better reflects the organization’s geographic reach. The word Portland in the prior name consistently created confusion since the organization’s work has been statewide since its founding in 1902. Our earliest advocacy efforts were essential in establishing Malheur, Klamath and Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuges. More recently, statewide work has been pivotal in helping to establish Oregon’s first marine reserves, increasing protections for forests across the state, and gaining more protections for endangered species like the marbled murrelet. Advocacy and education programs touch every part of Oregon — with staff on the coast, in Portland and in Harney County. And in some instances, our work stretches beyond Oregon borders, following bioregions such as the Klamath Basin, where our work extends into Northern California. I’m excited about the opportunity to talk about our legacy of conservation, education and wildlife rehabilitation that spans the entire state — and now with a name that truly reflects our geographic reach.

With our new name comes our promise to continue our work to expand community involvement and access to nature — something we’ve been committed to for a long time. For five years, we’ve partnered with organizations like People of Color Outdoors, Wild Diversity and others to offer regular walks for their members throughout the year. 

Two years ago, we also launched accessible birding outings led by and made for people with disabilities. We collaborate with Verde to support Club Aves, its bilingual, intergenerational bird club; and we’ve teamed up with the community development corporations Hacienda CDC and Bienestar to provide free camps and after-school programs to hundreds of families for more than 15 years. 

As I reflect upon the journey to our new name, I’m even more excited about leading this amazing organization. We have an incredibly knowledgeable group of team members who work in education, conservation and wildlife rehabilitation. We’re fortunate to have over 600 dedicated volunteers who support every facet of the organization. Our board of directors is engaged and supportive as well. With this incredible foundation, I am confident that our work will resonate with new and existing community members and reintroduce Oregon to the work that we have conducted throughout the state for more than 100 years.    

Stuart A. Wells is executive director of the Bird Alliance of Oregon.