Last week, the Seneca Park Zoo Society hosted Dr. Drew Lanham–conservationist, professor, author, and activist–for several days of talks and activities about nature and race in Rochester.
Dr. Lanham has delivered talks on this subject internationally and advocates for a more democratic and artistic approach to environmentalism, especially in activities such as bird watching.
In his video manifesto Rules for the Black Birdwatcher Lanham laments the dearth of black birdwatchers: “When I meet another black birder, it’s like encountering an ivory-billed wood-pecker—an endangered species. Extinction looms.”
His advocacy work, research, and writing are about finding solutions to this inequity through open conversation. His new memoir The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature is an affecting exploration of what it means to be a person of color in love with nature.
Lanham holds a BA and MS in Zoology and a PhD in Forest Resources and is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University.
On Monday, Dr. Lanham first met with staff from the Seneca Park Zoo Society for an informal lunch discussion, considering topics like the challenges modern Zoos face in drawing young and urban audiences.
Later in the afternoon, he met with undergraduate students from Rochester Institute of Technology and talked with them about pursuing careers about which they are passionate. Thanks to the RIT Office of Diversity and Inclusion for making the conversation possible.
Before heading to a dinner with several Rochester community activists and influencers, Dr. Lanham made a stop at the City of Rochester Humbolt Recreation Center. There, he talked with a group of after-school program students about his experiences around the world as an academic and nature lover. He also encouraged the students to pick a dream and fly towards it–even if they had uncertainties. “We all have that special place that we can travel in our minds,” he pointed out to them. “Go there for inspiration.”
On Tuesday, Dr. Lanham traveled to several schools in the area, including World of Inquiry, School Without Walls, and Nathaniel Rochester Community School. At Nathaniel Rochester Community School, he offered a large group of students simple advice on how to become scientists at heart: make observations. Noticing interesting things and thinking about why they interest you, he said, are great ways to discover what you want to do with your life. Comparing potential obstacles in the course of students’ education to the perseverance of the birds he studies, he told them: “If you were a warbler you’d still be flying. You’ve got somewhere to be.”
Later that afternoon, Dr. Lanham and Zoo Society Executive Director Pamela Reed Sanchez were guests on the radio program Connections with Evan Dawson on WXXI. They discussed the memoir, finding nature in the inner city, and more.
Listen to their conversation: WXXI Connections: Bringing Diversity Into Conservation and Nature
On Tuesday evening, Dr. Lanham traveled back to RIT to deliver a lecture titled The Uncomfortable Elephant Bird of Color in the Room: Addressing the Coming Changes in Conservation, cosponsored by RIT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
The talk focused on “range mapping” for both people and birds. Dr. Lanham compared the ways in which environmental factors–weather conditions for birds or political climate for humans, for example–can open up or limit the expansiveness of individual range maps.
On Wednesday, Rochester Birding Association member Greg Lawrence led Dr. Lanham and Zoo staff on a bird watching expedition at Ontario Beach Park and Braddock Bay.
The Zoo Society thanks Dr. Lanham for bringing his unique perspective to Rochester for a few days, and looks forward to continuing the conversation. We look forward to partnering with Dr. Lanham in the future and know he’ll be back in Rochester soon!
Top image courtesy of Clemson University