Society features

The Special Bird Service Society promotes diversity in the outdoor community

The goal of the group, based in Victoria and Vancouver, is to create an outdoor community for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as 2SLGBTQIA+ people.

On one of the last sunny days of 2021, Zoe-Blue Coates was climbing a rocky hill in East Sooke Park, binoculars around her neck, hoping to get a closer look at a falcon circling overhead. head.

It was her first time joining an excursion of the Special Bird Service Society, a group formed earlier that year to create a welcoming space for people to come together and enjoy nature during the pandemic.

However, society is not just about going out. The goal of the group, based in Victoria and Vancouver, is to create an outdoor community for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as 2SLGBTQIA+ people.

Founder Trenton Franco, 26, who was born and raised in Victoria, was inspired by a birdwatching group he joined while attending law school in Berkshire, England. Around this time, a confrontation in New York’s Central Park between black bird watcher Christian Cooper and a white woman named Amy Cooper (no relation) had gone viral.

The incident sparked conversations about racism in the wild and reinforced Franco’s desire to start an outdoor group for people of color in his hometown.

“[Bird watching] was such an activity that has been described as inaccessible to people who look like me, or people in my age group or demographic,” said Franco, a recent law school graduate and first-generation Canadian. South Indian and European. “I like to lean into these things and really challenge them and examine why.”

Franco was also inspired by Color the trailsan outdoor adventure group advocating for more inclusive representation in outdoor spaces.

The band’s name is a cheeky tribute to British Special Forces and UK Special Air and Boat Service units.

Coates, who describes herself as a queer black woman with a passion for ecology and herbal medicine, heard about the organization through friends and quickly found a sense of belonging.

“One thing that really drew me to the band was the community with non-whites,” she said. “Especially having this community with people who wanted to learn more about local ecologies.”

Coates said when you’re the only person of color in outdoor spaces that are “white dominated, your racial difference is so important. And that’s something that people bring up.

“When I was rowing in high school, people were like, ‘You’re going to be really good at rowing because black people are really good at rowing.’

The first meeting of the Victoria Special Bird Service was held at Rithet’s Bog in February 2021. About eight people showed up at Saanich Bog that day, but just over a year later the group has grown to nearly 400 Instagram followers and sees up to 40 attendees at her events.

Participants range from infants to the elderly, many of whom are in their 20s, 40s and 60s. The initiative attracts students, doctors, politicians, artists, painters and more.

At first, SBS encounters were primarily birdwatching walks and hikes. But soon the group began offering educational opportunities, such as an urban eco-walk, plant identification sessions, a Goldstream hatchery event and most recently a bat session with the Royal BC Museum and Habitat Acquisition Trust. Events take place almost monthly, with a few breaks throughout the year.

When possible, they end with a campfire and food.

“It’s about taking pictures, telling jokes and stories, sharing knowledge and cool anecdotes,” said Franco, who pointed to a US study showing that people of color are three times less likely than whites to live in a place with immediate access to nature.

The study, published by the Center for American Progress, notes that the United States has systematically segregated and excluded people of color from public lands and parks, denying people of color entry to the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park. System, which found in its most recent survey that 70% of visitors to the national park in 2018 were white. In Canada, some indigenous communities have been banished from their lands to make way for national parks.

Marketing of outdoor activities has also typically excluded people of color, Franco notes.

Mountain Equipment Company, a Canadian outdoor gear retailer, only made the decision to depict communities of color in its imagery in 2018.

The previous year, the Leisure Research Journal analyzed more than 4,000 outdoor magazine advertisements published between 1984 and 2000, concluding that advertisements set outdoors black models rarely included.

“When you don’t see representation in media and advertising of people who look like you, it’s pretty hard to feel comfortable,” Franco said.

Coates writes zines for the Compost Education Centerwith stories focused on historical and contemporary Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and people of color who were or are ecological stewards.

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman, for example, relied on ecological wisdom to keep people alive as she helped them escape slavery through the Underground Railroad.

Tubman used plants to feed the group and heal the injured, Coates said. She sailed with the stars and used the barred owl’s call to communicate with the hidden fugitives.

SBS is the perfect place to share that kind of knowledge, Coates said. “It gives our community the opportunity to have these conversations together, before we go to MEC, before we go to [outdoor clothing brand] Arc’teryx. We first want to strengthen our communities so that they are not exploited.

The group plans events that include snowshoeing, survival skills, seabird counts, food security sessions and more.

“I go to a Special Bird Service event and I feel rejuvenated, I feel energized, and I get that real sense of community,” Franco said. “It’s the takeaway I wish others had, and I think we’ve been successful so far.”

Bird Service Society special events are free and open to people of all ages and backgrounds. Events are published on the band’s Instagram page, newsletter and website.

ngrossman@timescolonist.com