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🎤 Interview: Tenijah Hamilton
Tenijah Hamilton (she/her/hers) is a writer, executive and creative producer with a passion for using the transformative art of storytelling to instigate change. Since earning her Bachelors in Mass Communications, Creative Writing and Film and Media studies in 2015, she has worked at the intersection of media and social impact everywhere from the Tribeca Film Institute to NOVA on PBS, the longest running primetime science documentary series on American television. Since 2021, Tenijah has hosted and produced Bring Birds Back, a podcast about conservation, formal and citizen science, and of course—birds, told through the lenses of intersectionality and environmental justice.
As the host of the show, Tenijah invites listeners to join her in appreciating the beauty and mystery of the birds all around us and to take action on their behalf. As Tenijah speaks with bird enthusiasts from many different backgrounds, identities, and communities, listeners learn about the ways we can all work together to bring birds back. Tenijah is also the Chief Community Officer at Hopebound, an Atlanta-based organization providing free mental health support for youth from marginalized communities.
Follow @BringBirdsBack on Instagram
My interview with Tenijah was unfiltered and light…as a feather. 😉 We talked for over an hour and though not everything was recorded for your consumption. I cackled (sorry, you will have to hear me cackle in audio), I got overexcited about my interests in marine life (yes, we know this was an interview about birds) and most of all, I felt like I made a new friend.
Not everything in the audio is documented below as it would make this interview even longer—but still fun and informative–read. But if you want to hear a lot of laughter, Tenijah talking about a Big Year and whether she’ll do one, me talking about cuttlefish and swimming with sharks, and our shared enthusiasm for underwater maritime archaeology, you’ll have to tune in. And again, we didn’t forget to talk about birds. The written interview is edited for clarity and the audio convo has been condensed.
Your full-time role is not in podcasting, it’s actually at a nonprofit therapy organization for under-resourced youth. How did you get into that work?
Yeah, so I am the chief community officer for an organization called Hope Bound, which is based in Atlanta also, we run our programs in New Jersey as well. Even before I was a professional, I've always had a real heart for young people. And not in– for me–a condescending way, because I feel like a lot of people say that, and I'm not like, “oh, the babies!” I just think they possess so much innate power, and I think it's all of our collective responsibilities to help them harness it.
And so, I have done that. In many iterations throughout my career I have worked for many nonprofits and in many roles that are kind of at the intersection of youth enrichment, youth engagement and social impact. So far, it's only kind of gotten deeper into that field.
So how I ended up at hope bound was I was looking for a role that when I woke up every day, I felt really strongly and convicted that I was just on the right side of things, that I was doing something to make the collective better and stronger.
You know, we all have had a really rough three years, considering the pandemic and so much more. And I found that it just wasn't enough for me to try my hardest to take care of myself and just the ones in my direct community. I knew that there was a higher calling to make sure that I was doing something to make the lived reality better for other folks. And so when it came time to think about a new position that was just really top of mind for me, like, how do I wake up every day with that feeling at the bare minimum?, because I'm very aware that not every day is going to be an easy day, a good day, a relaxing day. And I think you need to find something that you want to do in spite of that.
So that was kind of my thinking, and that's how I kind of landed at Hopebound, which is an organization that I feel really proud of, work I feel really proud of, and a mission that I feel really aligned to.
Let’s talk birdwatching. How did that hobby start for you?
Uh, on accident, by surprise, not intentionally. It started, in the summer of 2020. I lived in Boston at the time and things were bleak. I mean, my direct experience was I was suddenly working from home in a city that I didn't really know with really, even on a good day, a micro community. I just moved up to Boston, maybe a year or so before the pandemic. And when the pandemic hit and the isolation of it all hit, I just was very low. And I lived in a 400 square foot studio apartment with one window and it was just like, I will not be able to survive this under these circumstances.
And so I very mindfully started for honestly the first time in my life, going outside, going for walks, looking at green things. And it was a shock to me because I've always had an adverse relationship with nature; I blame that on being a New Yorker by birth and spirit.
So it took a while, but I had a friend who we would like meet up and socially distance and would go on these walks and this friend was, was a birder, a deep birder. And when she would kind of talk to me about, about birding, it was a way that was so approachable and it stoked the curiosity in me that I just asked a lot of questions. And that really, for me, is a big pillar of the things that really grab my attention when I'm curious. And actually, not to get super science-y, but I was just reading a white paper today that talked about the emotion and the feeling of awe being a pillar to scientific discovery.
So it was interesting that for me, kind of having these moments of being out in nature, feeling that sense of awe, really stoked that in me. So, I got to kind of know my local, my local bird friends, which was a hoot–pun intended. It's funny, I used to think that I had the world's only daytime owl stalking me outside of my window. Not true. Mourning Doves sound very much like owls and over time it just became this like very cool learning process and it was nice.
When in a time in our collective realities and in our collective history, where we were so confined, where our worlds got so insular, I got to learn something new, I got to learn a new skill. There was something else that was interrupting this doom scroll cycle, something to look forward to. So that's how I started.
And my thing now, my thing today is, if you ask me, that's still where I am. I don't really think about the experience of birding or becoming a birder for me as one that's like, three years ago, I was a novice. And now three years later, I know all these things and all these things. For me, that's not what it was about. And it's not what it's about. It's really capturing the joy of that experience and letting that be my guide. And I'm really privileged to be able to speak to folks on my show, Bring Birds Back, who are super knowledgeable, the experts, the people who can really get down to the brass tacks. And I have the good fortune of just being like, okay, that's pretty cool. And that's what stokes me about the birding experience.
What is BirdNote?
BirdNote is an organization that has kind of had different iterations in the past 17 or 18 years since it's existed. They produce programming strictly about birds, initially starting, on public radio.
And now there's more of a pivot to think about podcasts and audio first stories in different forums and long form and in daily shows. So, BirdNote’s been around for a little minute and yeah, they really focus on telling stories that I think highlight many different components of birds. So you're hearing about birds. You're also hearing about I think the human experience there. You're hearing science. You're hearing, kind of a broadened cultural sensitivity to how different people in communities experience birds.
How did you find out about them?
I had a colleague in my last role who hosted a show with Bird Note called Threatened. And his name is Ari Daniel. And Ari is...like my Yoda. I think the world of Ari and he is incredible. And he essentially was just like, look, I know that they are starting up a new podcast.
I know you've literally never done this in your life, but give it a go. And honestly, that's pretty much all she wrote. I was skeptical. He was confident. And when I agreed to have a conversation with them and, you know, I had further conversations with the BirdNote team that was there at the time, it just all felt really aligned.
So you have four seasons of Bring Birds Back and the podcast started in 2021. What was the impetus for it?
Yeah, I think that they wanted to add the show to their slate because as I mentioned, they had this other long form podcast Threatened with host Ari Daniel that had more of a basis grounded in journalism. So it was really investigative and kind of like rich and nutrient dense and all those things.
And then BirdNote also had BirdNote dailies, which has kind of been their calling card for so long, which are these really short and sweet, roughly two minute daily episodic vignettes that they do about birds. And I think they were looking for another piece that was informational, but allowed an audience to get to know a person or at the very least get to know the information through a person. And I think a lot of that is because they know this makes sense when we think about some of the other trends we're seeing, or that we have seen in the general communications world. People and audiences really buy into a person a lot more than they buy into an institution, as of late. And when we think about the rise of, like, the influencers and celebrity ambassadors and things like that, folks day to day really buy into kind of the parasocial relationship paradigm when it comes to getting content and getting information.
So all to say, I think that was something that made sense to them. There was information that they wanted to convey and, you know, season one of Bring Birds Back, it was very much centered on actionable steps we can all take to stop birds from dying and becoming instinct, doing that through the vantage point and a very specific point-of-view of a person who is, you know, not the stereotypical demographic of a birder made big sense.
So I think that's why they did it. At the core of it, they just really have a mission toward education when it comes to birds and the environment and sustainability. So yeah, I think bring words back is a bigger goal to further that and I've gotten to be in a driver's seat.
Have you seen kind of a shift in the landscape over the past couple of years in terms of like who you're seeing has an interest in birding?
Yes. One of the greatest joys for me–as somebody who again, is not an expert–is so many people in my life will message me or send me no context photos of birds they encounter in their day to day life. And I just think about how I couldn't have imagined that five years ago the community of folks in my life, people who look like me, people who come from where I come from–urban environments–people of color, primarily queer folks, all these people who have been historically marginalized, even in the birding space, have this interest now.
So I love getting those photos and texts. And I love being like, “I don't know, girl, we're gonna have to research, I'm gonna have to ask somebody smarter than me.” But I do see that shift happening. I do see this real interest and I have a friend who is in Chicago right now, and she's just started going out on these kind of like these bird walks and she's kind of finding her people, right?
She's like trying to feminist bird club and she's trying this bird walk and that bird walk. And I feel like every time she kind of tells me about it, she's just more excited and grounded in the experience. And that makes me happy and gives me a lot of joy.
What do you think is behind this shift? Like what's driving it? I think we all kind of heard about the whole Christian Cooper incident in Central Park…
Yes, definitely. Shout out to Christian Cooper. Actually he has a new book that is out called, Living through Birding: Notes From a Black Man in the Natural World that I am actually reviewing for the magazine American scientists.
I think we all saw that experience and had deep reactions, visceral reactions. And the way I like to think about it, and the way I kind of process it, is that the shift that has happened in a birding landscape isn't because you know, it's necessarily cool or popular. Nor is it because, you know, we're trying to just take over these spaces and all the boogeyman tales that folks will say.
I saw it as kind of a great reclamation.
Like, I saw it as us coming back to each other, coming back to ourselves. The community that has sprung forward since that incident in Central Park, including the creation of Black Birders Week feels so, so “For us by us” created with all of us in mind. And I think that is what people are seeing, you know, this is not a space where we've seen a lot of Black folks, or people of color, or queer folks. Folks who come from these marginalized communities.
This is not a space that's been created with us in mind. And so I think. When the spaces popped up that were created for us in mind to be able to do these things, people just flocked to it.
Before we wrap, why is the conservation of bird species important for the average person to care about?
There are so many angles. To that question, and I'm like, where where do I go? The thing that always sticks out for me, right? As a normal person. I'm not an ornithologist. I'm not somebody who has a formal training and background.
The thing that always makes it click for me is that birds are an indicator species. So what that means is that first tell you so much about the health and vitality of your environment, just by whether they're there. So, for me, it's like talking to somebody about like, why they should care is because if you don't see birds, that's a problem. And that's probably somewhere that you shouldn't be because it's indicating that something's wrong in the ecosystem.
And I think about this a lot in the obviously my role and roles I've had have this really important social impact component. Right. But I think about it as far as thinking about climate change and global warming and frontline communities. I live here in Atlanta, where it gets so hot, and there's such a disparity between things like tree coverage and canopy. In neighborhoods that are historically Black versus neighborhoods that are white. And what that means is like, if you are in a neighborhood that–generalizing, not every situation–but if you're in a historically Black neighborhood, there's less tree coverage.
The ground, the concrete is degrees hotter. It's literally just an unsafe, it's less safe than the comparable neighborhoods. It's way hotter, it's more the, the issues that we face because of that are more exacerbated versus you might go to a neighborhood with a predominantly white residents and there's lots of trees.
So that means that there's shade. There's coverage. That means that it isn't so hot. That means that there are more birds. And so my big sell, like, why you should care about birds is because they just tell you so much about where you live and if things are okay.
And it's not true, and it's not grounded in reality that you can't bird in urban environments or in cities. You absolutely can. You just have to know who's around and what, and again, by who, I mean, what birds you have to know who's around and what it means. They also signify, like, what time of year it is, what food there is to eat. What other predators you got.
Let me tell you, I have a hawk that dang near lives in my backyard and my hawk friend gets all the little, all the vermin, all the creepy crawlies. My hawk friend is on it. If you can reason that these are not just birds, they're your neighbors. And like what's going on with my neighbors? What are, what are they up to? What are they doing? What are they chewing on? Or why haven't I heard them in a while? I think you can kind of get a deeper connection if you anthropomorphize them.
Do you have any calls-to-action to share when it comes to birding or bird conservation?
When it comes to birding I think about access a lot and there's a couple of things I feel like I want to say there. One, a part of birding is bird watching but it's not the other way around. I feel like colloquially we've come to know bird watching, but not only is that a little ableist, but it also restricts the idea of that you just go outside and you have this really passive experience just seeing bird really restricts what the reality is, which is that you can be anywhere.
I can sit here and look out my window right in front of me right now and observe a bird, and that is birding, right? It's an experience, I think, rooted in observation, and I can observe with it. What I see, I can observe what I hear, I could go outside and get a sense of like what the weather is like what I'm kind of what I'm feeling what I'm noticing and have a stronger sense of what birds are around. So, I guess my point there is that collectively, we can all open our minds to more about what it means to be a birder.
It reminds me, again, as a storyteller and as a creative, what people say about being a writer, which is that if you want to be a writer, just write, and then you are a writer. That's it. You don't need to have done any super special thing. You don't need to have taken any course. You don't need to have told any specific kind of story.
If you write, you are a writer. If you bird, if you open yourself up to the opportunity and the experience, if you observe, if you kind of play in that space, you're a birder, baby. Like, the thing is done. So, that's what I would say about birding. Open our minds.
About birds specifically and a call to action. Keep your cats in the house. Look, I get it, I get it, but your cats are also safer in the house. Cats kill billions of birds. I know that the cats are cute. I know that a lot of them are feisty and independent and they want to be outside. But it can be disastrous for an ecosystem. So, my call to action is just build a catio.
We have an episode in season one, well actually we have two episodes in season one about cats. One talking about a catio, which is like an outdoor patio that you can build for your cat if they still want to be outside. Do that, but keep your cats indoors. That's my call to action there.
What was the last thing you listened to?
What was the last social impact action you took?
I talked to my neighbors about native plants.
If you could pass the mic to someone about a social issue you care about, who would it be and what would they talk about?
Deja Perkins. Deja is one of the co-founders of Black Birders Week, and she is getting her PhD in geospatial analytics. Deja is collecting data points on climate and what's happening in a certain area, a lot of time intersecting with birds. So using birds as an identifier about what's going on.