In some ways, Nicole Jackson does not fit the stereotype of a birdwatcher. She is a millennial, and she is African American.
She knows there are many, many more African Americans who, like her, are youngish and thrive on birding or just being outdoors. And she wants to change any perception that people of color aren’t interested in the outdoors, as well as the reality that they don’t always feel welcome there.
On Memorial Day, a white woman walking her dog off-leash illegally in New York’s Central Park was involved in a confrontation with an African American birdwatcher. The man asked her to leash her dog, and when she didn’t, he videotaped her as she told him she was going to call the police and say that “an African American man” had threatened her life. Then she dialed 911.
Within days of the incident and in response to it, Jackson helped organize and promote the first Black Birders Week, a national social media campaign to increase the visibility of Black birders and Black nature enthusiasts.
“There was a time when I didn’t think I belonged in these outdoor spaces,” Jackson said.
As program coordinator for CFAES’ Environmental Professionals Network, Jackson aims to get more students, particularly African American students, involved in the environment. She also holds a part-time job running a CFAES program that trains people for volunteer naturalist positions.
A longtime nature-lover, Jackson first connected with the outdoors as a child growing up in Cleveland. Around the age of 5, Jackson spent time in foster care, and there, she was abused. She turned to nature for therapy.
“It was definitely a distraction from what I was going through daily,” Jackson said. “Smelling a flower, watching a caterpillar, those all put me at ease.”
And that’s what inspires her passion to attract more people of color, of all ages, into the great outdoors, teaching them that they too can heal through their time in nature, and that they too have a place in it.
As a member of an advisory council for an organization that supports the national parks, Jackson helps recommend ways to attract more funding and more visitors, including people of color, to those parks.
“Nature’s beauty is diverse,” Jackson said, “so the people living in it should be as well.”