The ABA’s Renaissance?
Should the birding community send Rob Robinson a thank-you card?
For a few months, after it became known that the former head of the American Birding Association seems to have put the ABA in the difficult situation from which it’s currently trying to extricate itself, things looked pretty dire. L’affaire Robinson was only the last and most obvious of a series of apparent mis-steps from an ABA looking to define itself in a birding milieu different in many important ways from the environment in which it was founded nearly 40 years ago. Robinson himself may have applied the punctuation, but the writing had been on the wall for some time. The ABA felt too removed from the birding community as a whole; it felt as though it was an organization for a certain kind of birder, defined by a generation gap as much as a skill level. New birders were finding the information that was once the unique province of the ABA elsewhere, and even though the ABA still very clearly had value, the perception was that it didn’t seem as essential for birders less interested in aging gulls and more interested in getting together to share something special. There were those willing to write its obituary, and maybe rightly so.
But then something extraordinary happened. A conversation.
It started with a few e-mails to the board that were passed around a small group of birders. It wasn’t long before the sentiment was made public, and no less influential birding figures than Kenn Kaufman, Rick Wright, and Ted Eubanks made their eloquent voices heard. But it hardly stopped there. Birdchat hosted one of its longest threads in ages about the ABA’s ongoing search for a new president where more people weighed in. Birdchick said her piece, Birdfreak too. And members of the broader birding community from bird tour leaders to non-profit experts to web designers all made their two cents known and nearly every one offered not only a unique take on the way forward for the ABA, but a jumping off point for further discussion about the ABA specifically, and birding in general. Sure some were a bit more self-serving than others, but every one also sparked great discussion about what birders want in a organization that represents them; a discussion that was, perhaps, a long time coming for this particular organization.
In the early days of the Robinson dismissal there was a lot of frustration expressed, particularly in the direction of the board of directors, for letting the situation get to this point. There were some long time ABA advocates calling for an en masse resignation or, at least, a public reckoning and heartfelt apology. I have to say, for a period there I was probably among them (a resignation supporter rather than a long time attention-payer), but there are indications that there is mea culpa enough if one looks for it. The decision to include Kenn Kaufman on the presidential search committee, knowing that some dirty laundry would inevitably be aired, was a good sign. The creation of an independent committee to take a look at making the ABA by-laws more inclusive for current and potential members, and that this committee includes Rick Wright for whom this has been a particularly adamant cause, is a very good sign. Yours truly has had a post sent around to the ABA staff and board, an action that still leaves my mind fairly boggled, but one I hope leads to the embrace of some more forward thinking ways to communicate with members. Best of all though, especially for those of us screaming into the internet void, it’s clear that the powers that be in the ABA are listening, reading and considering, and that’s the best sign of all. I don’t know about you, but I find that incredibly gratifying.
But beyond that inside baseball stuff, I think that the self-evaluation among birders that has come out of this, especially in thinking about how we all “sell” birding to people of all skills and ages, has been really productive because while it affects all of us, it most directly pertains to the ABA’s future as an advocate for every type of birder. While I’ve always felt that the idea that the ABA is only for a certain species of hotshot glass-slinger was more perception rather than reality, condescension, however inadvertent, to a newer birder is something that we should all try to be aware of. While the ABA could certainly stand to do a better job reaching out to all sorts of bird people, it goes both ways too. I think that the denigration of a certain type of “elite” birder as an uncaring jerk has more to do with projecting insecurities than it does with any particular experience, but the bottom line is that both caricatures are unnecessary. Every group has its… er… characters… there’s no getting around it, but by approaching each other with humility and respect and losing the chips on our shoulders we go a long way towards bridging those gaps. But I really digress (Besides, Laura Kammermeier says it better than I could here).
These days I have to think that, should the ABA find its footing following the Robinson era, the future actually looks pretty bright. Despite the very obvious difficulties the organization faces, I know of at least two excellent candidates for the top job who would be fantastic leaders going forward. There is evidence that even the Board is taking the need for new blood seriously, and there are some exciting things going on there as well. What I’m trying to say in so many words here is that the fact that this discussion took place at all has been a revelation, in that it not only produced a wealth of wonderful discussions about the direction of the ABA, but the medium itself showed a way that the organization can actively include the membership in its decision making processes. This is the crucial point. That in every blog post and listserv message there is a sense of ownership that has been sorely lacking of late. We felt involved in a way that we haven’t for some time, and I honestly think that if it hadn’t been for the criticism and subsequent public brainstorming session from so many different channels, the ABA may well have slipped away with a whimper, or at least, its future would still be very much in doubt.
Six weeks ago I would have put my money on the end of the ABA, but I’m much more optimistic these days. Perhaps we should hold off on that obituary for now.