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Audubon scoping out a diverse membership

The society is recruiting in minority areas in L.A. and across the nation.

December 30, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Facing an uncertain future as its aging, mostly white membership begins to retire, the Audubon Society has launched an initiative to recruit a new generation of environmental stewards in minority neighborhoods in Los Angeles and across the nation.

The 400,000 members of the nonprofit society -- which has protected birds from plume hunters and helped release California condors into the wild -- worry that their group is not connecting with the nation's ethnically diverse urban populations. A strong and diverse membership is key to influencing political decisions and raising funds to support its mission of conservation and environmental education, leaders said.

"Most conservation organizations are run these days by white 50-something guys like me, and I'm hoping the next generation looks different," said John Flicker, president of the society. "I think the future image of the Audubon Society is a Latino family strolling through a wildlife sanctuary."

With that goal in mind, the 4-year-old, $6.5-million Audubon Center at Debs Park -- a 282-acre island of lofty hills, grasslands and black walnut groves along the Pasadena Freeway in northeast Los Angeles -- sponsored its third pajarear en familia, or family bird walk, Saturday for Spanish-speaking visitors.

The group, which included the first Latina president of the Audubon's Los Angeles chapter, Mary Carmona Freeman, and first-time birders Maria Costa and her 12-year-old granddaughter, Natalie Acosta, entered the rolling landscape on a paved path and almost immediately began spotting birds.

At eye-level about 100 feet away, a reyezuelo de corona roja, or ruby-crowned kinglet, meandered through an elderberry bush. A zorzal, or thrush, sang nearby. Natalie raised a pair of binoculars provided by the center and followed the arc of an aguililla cola roja, or red-tailed hawk, soaring overhead.

As part of their recruitment campaign in Los Angeles County, Audubon officials are to soon begin stationing Spanish-speaking members with telescopes, binoculars and informational pamphlets in popular gathering places such as Lincoln Park, the Hansen Dam Recreation Center and the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area.

"It's the right thing to do, and necessary," Flicker said. "If we do not have a presence in Hispanic, Asian and African American communities, we can't win on key issues."

In California, the society helped organize volunteers to clean up last month's oil spill in San Francisco Bay; has endorsed efforts to stop construction of roads through state parklands; and has supported more protection and less development in a portion of the Bolsa Chica Upper Wetlands.

The society plans to measure the success of its new initiative with five-year strategic goals that include increasing the number of visitors to Audubon centers 30%, lowering the median age of members to 45 or younger, and diversifying management.

"My job is to make the magic of nature a permanent event in northeast Los Angeles," said Elva Yanez, who was persuaded 15 months ago to leave a career in public health and take over the Debs Park center. "I can't identify all that many birds. But I'm experienced at outreach, education and advocacy at the grass-roots level."

The excursion Saturday at the intersection of urban habitat and low-income neighborhoods was one example of the kind of outreach that is about more than spotting birds, Yanez said. It was about laying a foundation of inclusiveness with a constituency the society had all but ignored in the past.

The society's investment at Debs Park represents a big part of its commitment to urban Los Angeles.

The center is not without struggles, however, including maintaining its modern headquarters, a showcase of advanced "green" solar technology that has been plagued by costly leaks and breakdowns.

"We admire the Audubon Society's commitment," said Belinda Faustinos, executive director of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy and a member of Audubon California's board of directors. "But the realities of operating these facilities are huge. They might have been better off with a trailer."

The society is also looking at other large cities to diversify its membership.

Five states -- Maryland, Mississippi, Georgia, New York and Arizona -- have minority populations of about 40%. By some estimates, Latinos will become a majority in California by 2050, and recent polls show that Latino voters are among the most devoted environmentalists in the state.

"It's going to take a lot of money and work," said Adan Ortega, one of two Latinos on Audubon's 32-member national board of directors. "Traditional environmental groups believe that if people listen to their rationale, they will fall in love with it. But in a place like Los Angeles it won't be that simple, in part, because many ethnic communities prefer to think things through for themselves."

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