‘I can’t even enjoy this.’ #BlackBirdersWeek organizer shares her struggles as a black scientist

Read the full story in Science.

This week, black scientists and recreational birders flocked to Twitter for #BlackBirdersWeek. “Nature is my favorite place to be, & I’ve been fortunate enough [to] use my PhD to travel & be #BlackInNature across the world,” tweeted a graduate student.

The first-of-its-kind event was organized in response to an incident that transpired in New York’s Central Park last week. Christian Cooper—a black man who works as a writer and editor and is an avid birdwatcher—encountered a white woman who was walking her dog while he was birding. When he asked her to leash her dog, she called the police, telling them that an African American man was threatening her. A video of the encounter went viral—unleashing a torrent of discussion about racism and the dangers black people face when they are simply enjoying, or working in, outdoor spaces.

For black scientists in field disciplines such as ecology and geology, Cooper’s experience was a familiar one. Many are sent to remote places to conduct fieldwork—and that can land them in uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous, situations, says Corina Newsome, a master’s student at Georgia Southern University who studies seaside sparrows in coastal marshes. “I’m in these remote, expansive natural areas, and in the South no less, and so my family is … always scared for my safety.”

She and others organized #BlackBirdersWeek to highlight the stories of black people in the outdoors. Many of the posts have featured scientists who study the natural world, serving as inspiration for the next generation of outdoor researchers. “I’m excited to go to grad school but also nervous,” a soon-to-be grad student wrote on Twitter earlier today. “The lack of diversity in STEM has led me to question my capabilities and my place in biology. #BlackBirdersWeek has truly reinvigorated and reassured me that I’m not alone. I can do this, & I BELONG HERE.”

Science Careers spoke with Newsome to ask her about #BlackBirdersWeek, and to find out about the challenges that she’s experienced as a black scientist who works outdoors. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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