The Birder Who Wants Black Youth to See Themselves in STEM

Corina Newsome, a graduate student in biology at Georgia Southern University, helped organize #BlackBirdersWeek and is only getting started with her advocacy.
December 15, 2020, 2:00pm
​Image: Michelle Urra
Image: Michelle Urra
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Since 2018, Corina Newsome has spent many of her days wading in and out of southern Georgia’s salt marshes in search of the seaside sparrow’s intricately woven nests. Studying the intimate life of these small birds as a master’s student in biology at Georgia Southern University has been a passion for Newsome, but she told Motherboard it’s the kind of job she didn’t realize she could have until recently.

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Growing up in inner-city Philadelphia, Newsome had few opportunities as a child to explore the natural world in person. Instead, her interest in nature and animals was fueled by encyclopedias collected by her late father and television shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Zoboomafoo. Even in these early childhood introductions to science, Newsome said there was a glaring omission that kept her from ever seriously considering a job as a natural scientist.

“As I grew up, seeing myself as a part of that was really just erased,” recalled Newsome. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that it was because all those incredible biologists and science communicators I was exposed to were all white guys and that, subconsciously, informed what I thought was possible for me.”

It wasn’t until a friend introduced Newsome to a Black female zookeeper during her senior year of high school that she ever actually saw herself represented in the field. From there, it took close to ten years for Newsome to really begin to see and interact with more Black scientists, she said.

On Memorial Day, Christian Cooper, a Black birder, had his life threatened in Central Park when a white woman tried to call the police on him after he asked her to leash her dog (as per the park’s rules), falsely claiming that Cooper had assaulted her. A video shared on social media of the incident has been viewed 45 million times and was met with anger across the internet, especially within a small group Newsome is a part of called BlackAFInSTEM. 

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“I didn’t know [Cooper] personally but there were people in that group who knew him personally,” said Newsome. “It was just sickening.” 

Within 48 hours, the group had planned a whole week of programming—called #BlackBirdersWeek—designed to amplify the voices of Black birders and raise awareness of the continued inequality and racism in the field. Thanks in large part to social media, Newsome said the week—which ran from May 31 to June 5—grew beyond what she ever would’ve expected and soon garnered support from historic institutions like the National Audubon Society.

The success of #BlackBirdersWeek has also spurred the creation of other awareness weeks in STEM for Black scientists, most recently including #BlackinMarineScience. This continued expansion of the Black academic and professional community has been especially rewarding for Newsome.

Regardless of their successes thus far, Newsome thinks it’s crucial to not rest on their laurels when it comes to the continued work of increasing access and diversity in science. Going forward, she sees a few key ways science needs to continue its anti-racism work. 

Priorities include lifting economic barriers to entry (like years of unpaid internships), practicing accountability to the communities you’re working in and not just to your white peers, and realizing that there is not a quick fix to the problem of inequity in science.

“Adopt a long-term perspective for disrupting the systems that have created this long-standing, white-centered field of wildlife conservation in the U.S.,” advised Newsome. “The work has to start much earlier in the lives of future wildlife conservationists if we want the workforce to look like the demographics of this country in 20 or 30 years.”

As for her own future, Newsome hopes to be the role model to aspiring Black wildlife scientists that she lacked growing up. She is committed to creating pathways to help those students navigate a career in STEM.

“They are exposed to the status quo from the moment they slide out of the womb,” said Newsome. “We have to make sure that they are not crystallizing an understanding of themselves that limits their possibilities.”