The ABA’s presidency problem (or from here, where?)
Since writing a post two weeks ago hinting at some of the issues surrounding the American Birding Association’s dismissal of president Rob Robinson I have been in touch with folks who have informed me, perhaps more that I wanted or needed to know, of the sausage making process behind the surprising decision. Needless to say it’s not pretty, and there are a lot of ugly words being thrown around not unjustifiably; words like incompetence and embezzlement and worse*. It appears that Robinson’s time as head of the organization was nothing short of disastrous and will no doubt have repercussions that resonate far beyond his short tenure as the ABA attempts to get out from underneath the mess he’s left behind. I don’t bring this up specifically to air the ABA’s dirty laundry, I’m merely a regular member with a regular member’s interests and it’s not really my place, but to consider the ABA’s future, which at this point sadly appears to be legitimately in doubt, you have to start somewhere.
*A note (7/22/2010): I should be clear that don’t know for certain whether the allegations are accurate, I only know what I’ve heard second-hand from sources I consider reliable. That said, I strongly feel the Board should address some of the more pertinent allegations in the interest of opening up a dialogue with membership and regaining some of the lost trust and, at the very least, assure us that whatever legal avenues the ABA has to rectify those concerns are being explored. It suffices to say that they were serious enough to dismiss the President and that the specifics, whatever they may be, aren’t necessary to address the ABA’s future.
I should preface this by saying that I have a sense of allegiance to the ABA borne of their kindness to me as a young birder. In 1994 I was fortunate enough to attend Camp Chiricahua, a joint venture between the ABA and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, in southeast Arizona. The Camp was a 10 day birding tour of the area specifically for young birders and is a fond memory to this day. But it was expensive, and I wouldn’t have been able to go if not for a generous scholarship from none other than the ABA as well as my local and state Audubon chapters who thought enough of me, and of young birders in general, to make those scholarships available. Back then I often felt like I was the only birder under the age of 40 in Missouri, and to be put in a social situation with others like me, along with expert guides in a famously birdy locale, was a defining moment in my birding career even as I sit here closer now to 40 than I am to the birder I was then.
So as long as the ABA exists I’ll be a member even though I have been, in part, disappointed with the ABA’s apparent acting ignorance of young adult birders, their lack of direct involvement in land use issues that effect bird conservation efforts, their half-hearted and pointless wading into the Ivory-billed Woodpecker fray. Most of that disappointment has been tempered, however, by the general high quality of the magazines (especially of late), the good work they do for birders under the age of 18 and the idea that an organization that brings actual field birders together in some semblance of a community in and of itself is a practical necessity in this day and age. But I guess I’m an idealist. Besides, who else then to compile and manage a list of North American’s avifauna for the birder rather than the professional ornithologist? I still believe the ABA can and should do these things but the question of whether simply filling that void is enough to sustain the organization remains unanswered, especially among birders who are less apt to cut the ABA some slack than I am. What is their reason for keeping on?
I suppose we as birders need to re-evaluate what we want a birding organization to be. The ABA was originally founded as a response to conventional birding organizations’ move away from field birding as sport and the rather serendipitous discovery of large groups of like-minded individuals looking to take advantage of the interest in active birding as a way to enjoy the outdoors. It was a way to enjoy the friendly competition, to share information about how and where to find desirable species, and to constantly push the boundaries of field identification to new and fascinating levels. Flipping though the copy-paper flyers that later became the journal Birding one gets the impression that it was, in short, a real community.
In recent years the role that the ABA played in the 70s and 80s has been increasingly filled by state and interest specific e-mail listserves which offer more obviously relevant subject matters and involve more local birders for whom the participant is more likely to have more personal interaction. This model is expanded upon yet again in the bird blogosphere, an ever expanding group of bird and nature writers from around the world who share field experiences and discuss topics significant and incidental, formally and informally, but always transparently. A group like the Nature Blog Network which, full disclosure, I help administer, offers hundreds of authentic voices at your disposal. It reminds of nothing so much as those original ABA mailers.
And I think it’s that authenticity that’s lacking. There’s a sense of clinical sterility at the ABA. That’s not the fault of the ABA staff, who nearly to an individual are passionate and dedicated to birds, birding, and our larger community, it’s simply the result of a failure of the organization apparently comfortable with remaining insular. This may seem strange to those who have been involved in the national birding community for some time, who know many of the major players personally, but for those of us not coming from that original generation of birders the organization is essentially faceless and what goes on behind the office doors in Colorado Springs is largely foreign to most of us. That’s true regardless of who they put in the top spot. I’m willing to take some of the blame based on a general lack of interest as a voting member in the machinations of the Board, but the pervasive apathy lies as much in the failure of leadership to really connect with members as much as it lies with the general membership.
I keep coming back to the nature blogosphere, where birding luminaries like Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley make themselves available on their own blogs. I can comment and feel confident they’ll read and respond. I, as normal joe birder, can have a conversation with them as an equal, more or less (mostly less). In this interaction there’s transparency. In this community there’s honesty.
And that I think is lacking in the ABA at this point in its history, made clear by this whole Robinson debacle. I wouldn’t know half the ABA board on the street, and I assume most ABA members wouldn’t either, but there’s a real sense of betrayal in the way they’ve handled the presidency problem made worst by the fact that they’re been so unforthcoming about the situation the organization finds itself in. There are allegations of double dealing, of conflicts of interest, of outright fraud, and I certainly don’t know enough to know what’s true and what’s not, but the functional sequestration of the parties involved and the apparent lack of accountability among key members doesn’t help. I certainly don’t think that casting blame is the only thing to do here, but there has to be some acceptance of blame or at least some agreement as to what went so wrong before we can move on to really rebuilding the ABA to be the kind of organization of which we can be proud. Otherwise it’s only a matter of time before we find ourselves in the same situation again.
I don’t know what the ultimate direction of the ABA will be, but it was once a great organization manned by birders that felt like us or so I’ve been told. The golden age of the ABA ended before I came along and perhaps it’s been running downhill for years, I don’t know. I do pick up that there’s a feeling among long time members that the organization is irrecoverably broken, that the good times are past. I definitely don’t abide by that view. I think the golden age of birding is still to come, one that pushes frontiers of field identification and molt and subspecific variation, and understands the importance of birders taking an active role in conversation. The ABA may well have an important role to play in that culture should we weather this storm. I don’t know the precise steps to take to get there, others have put forward ideas that seem very sensible to me, but I do know that pushing the general membership away only exacerbates the problem by removing our stake in the organization.
And we need that stake. We need to feel ownership of the ABA again, and the board needs to find a way to let us do so. Because the ABA’s ultimate fate lies in our hands, not theirs.
Update: Since writing this, I’m pleased and humbled to see that it’s struck a chord among those perhaps with the influence to do something about it and maybe even the general ABA membership, about whom it should be repeated ad nauseum, who are the real strength of the organization. So I encourage those visiting to also check out Kenn Kaufman’s thoughtful take on the situation here and Rick Wright’s call to action here. Both are really good stuff.