Change Agent Behind #BlackBirdersWeek

Published: Jul 2, 2020

(Headshot of Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman in gray t-shirt)

Before she graduated from UMBC, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman ’19, M26, mathematics, founded the Sadie Collective. Opoku-Agyeman describes it on her website as, “the first and only organization to date dedicated to addressing the pipeline and pathway problem for Black women in economics and related fields.” Since the Collective’s inception in 2018, membership has expanded to nearly 500 members across 30 states, 120 institutions, and four continents.

This is a woman who is making change.

One of the Collective’s first orders of business was to organize the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Conference for Economics and Related Fields. The conference and the Sadie Collective offer resources, networking, and support to a community—in this case, Black women in economics—that has been historically under-resourced, -networked, and -supported.

As it happens, some members of the Sadie Collective’s leadership team are also birders.

So, when news of a White woman calling 911 on Christian Cooper, a Black birder in Central Park who asked her to follow the rules and leash her dog, made national headlines in May, the Collective leaped into action. Below, Opoku-Agyeman shares how #BlackBirdersWeek (May 31 June 5, 2020) came to be, its extensive impact, and what’s next.

UMBC Magazine: What was your goal in creating #BlackBirdersWeek?

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman: I want to first and foremost share that #BlackBirdersWeek was a joint effort with members of the BlackAFinSTEM Collective. I co-founded the initiative alongside Sheridan Alford, Danielle Belleny, Chelsea Connor, Joseph Saunders, and Tykee James, all wonderful people who, alongside others, stepped up to make the week possible. 

#BlackBirdersWeek was a direct response to Christian Cooper’s unfortunate encounter with a White woman in Central Park. Although I am not a birder, many individuals in the Collective are, and each of them echoed similar experiences to Cooper’s. The conversations sparked an idea in me to amplify and prioritize the voices of Black birders, naturalists, and explorers similar to what I have done alongside my co-founder, Fanta Traore, at the Sadie Collective.

UMBC Magazine: Can you describe some of the components of the week’s programming, and how it came together?

Opoku-Agyeman: I suggested a Black Birders Day, and Tykee James suggested a week, as a way to celebrate Black people in the birding space similar to how running was used to celebrate the late Ahmaud Arbery. I did a little bit of brainstorming and came back with a pitch: a potential week-long digital campaign to amplify the experiences and expertise of Black birders, especially those within the group. The Collective loved the idea and offered suggestions to improve how we could roll out the campaign. We have well-known birders and natural scientists within our group, such as Jason Ward and Corina Newsome, and many of us had a couple thousand followers. So we knew that between all of us, this could be huge. 

We were intentional about ensuring that there was a hashtag for each day, which led the wonderful Danielle Belleny, Sheridan Alford, and Chelsea Connor to create these amazing flyers that reflected our vision.

Every day had a theme and corresponding date. A brief description of what we highlighted includes:

●      #BlackinNature—Showcasing Black people in nature. Black people typically don’t get to be in nature because we are viewed as a threat. This part of the campaign was intentional in that it normalized Black people in nature and also encouraged it.

●      #PostABird Challenge—Posting a fun bird picture/fact/etc. This was really a campaign to get people involved regardless of race so that we could get the world talking about birds!

●      #AskABlackBirder—Twitter and Instagram Q&A with Black birders. Folks submitted questions on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag. It gave Black birders an opportunity to talk more about their own work and research. 

●      #BirdingWhileBlack—Live stream discussions with Christian Cooper (yes, that Christian Cooper) and Drew Laham. I actually co-moderated this session with Tykee James. To date, those streams together drew in over 1 million views. At the time we went live, nearly 60,000 people tuned in. Apparently we broke an average day record or something. 

●      #BlackWomenWhoBird—Amplifying Black women birders and LGBTQ+ birders, who are significantly underrepresented. Many of these individuals had an opportunity to work with national organizations such as the National Aquarium to talk about their work. It was truly awesome.

UMBC Magazine: What was your reaction to the huge response the campaign got?

Opoku-Agyeman: It’s funny, because when I told my mom about this idea, she kept saying we’d go global. It’s actually one of the first things I told the group: “If we do this right, this could go global,” and I am so glad it did. All of the individuals involved with the group have now been featured widely and are still being pursued for opportunities by prominent science organizations such as the National Aquarium and national agencies in the nature space. It was interesting, too, because simultaneously nationwide protests over senseless Black death at the hands of police were happening. 

As a result of the campaign, the National Wildlife Federation launched a fellowship for minorities in the field, specifically with Black people in mind. The movement literally shifted power structures, something that we love to see. 

At the same time, you had Black joy paralleling Black pain, which is oftentimes the experience of Black people in America.We have to balance these incredibly joyous moments with very real and deep-seated pain. While we were celebrating Black birders, our people were also being murdered. It’s a juxtaposition that is our daily lives. 

UMBC Magazine: Do you have any plans to build on the success of #BlackBirdersWeek? Have you organized similar campaigns?

Opoku-Agyeman: We are currently working on building structure around the successful campaign as well as pushing forward our mission to be unapologetically Black in the STEM space. Recent campaigns that have been inspired by us include #BlackinAstro, which highlights Black people in astronomy, and #BlackHikersWeek, which aims to normalize Black people hiking outdoors. The offshoot campaigns are not ones we specifically organized, but we definitely support them!

UMBC Magazine: How does your work on #BlackBirdersWeek relate to your role as co-founder and CEO of the Sadie Collective?

Opoku-Agyeman: Both initiatives uplift Black people who are often among those marginalized in their space. The strikingly similar under-representation between birding and economics with respect to Black people is just more evidence that campaigns like #BlackBirdersWeek and additional advocacy is needed to push institutional change that allows for diverse voices to break through.

What I love about both initiatives is that they’re disruptive, political, and moving. Many people didn’t see the Sadie Collective coming when we officially announced like they didn’t see #BlackBirdersWeek coming. Both initiatives are led by young Black people who are incredibly passionate about this work, whatever it may be, and by existing in our respective spaces, we are protesting our right to be seen, heard, and celebrated. Quite literally embracing the idea of being unapologetically Black and unapologetically ourselves, encompassing our Blackness.


Header image of Opoku-Agyeman on campus by Marlayna Demond ’11.

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