Q&A With Ndeye Thioubou of the Bronx Documentary Center’s Community Newspaper

By Ndeye Thioubou and Pamela Rozon

Rosyln Rivas at her home in The Bronx on July 21st, 2020, photographed with her plants.

Roslyn Rivas(She/Her) is a 25-year-old Dominican woman who works as a Program Coordinator for the Plants for Birds program at the National Audubon Society’s flagship location in New York City. Roslyn’s love for the environment originated right here in the Bronx through the New York Botanical Garden. Prior to her new job at the National Audubon Society, she worked as an Index Herbariorum Intern at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx from 2017 to 2018, which she described as a natural transition. She studied and graduated at Yale University in 2017 with a major in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. As an environmentalist, she strives to fight against climate change by studying the behaviors of animals, specifically birds, as a method of determining whether or not things are going the way it should. She is also an advocate for more diversity in the environmentalist field, as historically most environmentalists have been white males. Her passion for equity and inclusion in environmentalism stems from her own experience as one of the few women of color in her major.

Pamela Rozon: What led the Audubon society to start the organization?

Roslyn Rivas: Well, this goes back to some centuries ago actually, so the founder, John James Audubon, he was very interested in birds and especially depicting them in illustrations and he has a whole collection of life-sized illustrations that he observed in North America and he was actually born in what is now is known as Haiti but the headquarters of his organization is in New York City, which is where I would usually work downtown in manhattan. But at the time, birds were being- they were very popular to be hunted especially for fashion. So people would constantly be hunting them to make them into elaborate kinds of pets, and that was very big fashion at the time, especially women's fashion. But then there was too much hunting because there were many pets at the time, they would actually see birds to observe. So actually there was a whole group of women who pioneered this effort and — what eventually led to the Migratory Treaty Act, which I can’t get into so much right now but you should lookup. But yeah that helps protect birds and wildlife in this country and it’s the longest standing act of its kind. But yeah, right now we help conserve birds and their habitat which therefore helps people as well.

PR: What is done to help the birds?

RR: I work in the Plants for Birds team, and that is a program that Audubon created to encourage people to plant and use native plants in their green spaces because native plants are super important for the environment as opposed to invasive species, which are non-native plants. They especially help birds because lots of insect species like butterflies and moths have coevolved with these plants for millions of years and birds actually use caterpillars to feed to their young. So these plants are important to maintain because they have a relationship to these insects that help birds thrive in their own habitats. And therefore if they’re thriving the surrounding environment is thriving and therefore that helps people as well. Also, [birds] help with climate change. They do not need so much water or maintenance to keep up with them, because they are already acclimated to this environment, as opposed to lots of invasive species. We also have a policy team that helps with laws and get politicians on our side.

PR: How has climate change affected the organization throughout the years?

RR: Yeah so I mean what hasn’t it affected? But yeah, so like climate change, of course, we are seeing a lot of damage to the environment and also in our own neighborhoods and I’m sure you all know like- climate change especially impacts the most vulnerable of us, like the most minority of us- like black and brown people, especially in the Indigenous community and being in the Bronx like we know that the Bronx is actually one of the leading places with the highest rates of asthma in New York and in the country. But over the years as an organization we’ve seen bird ranges, bird habitats really take a toll because of loss of habitat, deforestation, and urbanization and what not. That has really shifted bird ranges and also has really decimated — we actually have a full team dedicated to seeing that. So we have our climate team and actually part of my work also is to help with climate watch, the community science team. So climate watch is one program we have that people just go out to bird watch and count for 5 minutes at a time for like a few hours during migration periods, so once in the winter once in the summer/spring, to see what types of species they see or they don’t see. So that in turn is a lot of data, if you see a bird that is not supposed to be there that is important because that means it’s out of its normal range, or if you don’t see a bird that is supposed to be there that also gives data too because it’s important that they are not there anymore. So in that- actually it launches last year but we have, I’m not- I don’t know if you’ve all heard of this but remember, it was a few months ago, last year that there was a whole study that came out that North America has lost like 3 billion birds in like the last, however many years, 7 years or something? And that is like pretty alarming because that also-the environment as well- but there is a whole site and a whole project that came out of that called- well Audubon has done climate reports in the past but this one was especially special because of this new find but it’s called Survival By Degrees 389 Species On The Brink, and that represents 389 species of birds that are most at risk right now of listing their habitat, and it’s a really thorough and really cool site. It shows how birds, you can search by your state or by your city, what birds are most vulnerable and how their ranges are shifting. And this is all- all the data that goes in this is based on the fact that we don’t want climate- the global temperature to reach above 1.5 degrees celsius in the future. So if we do- if we don’t do anything to help climate change right now, to lessen it, global temperatures may go up 3.0 degrees celsius and that is like super- that is gonna be super catastrophic for the environment. But if we actually do take steps and really try to mitigate climate change we may only see 1.5 [degrees] Celsius increase and that can save 70% of the birds that are (..) right now. So yeah you can see different scenarios, actually, let me try and link it because it’s super visual and cool.

Desiree Rios: And you contributed to starting this database, right?

RR: Not this specifically but I do help in a community science thing that uses people’s observations around the country to contribute to the kind of data we are seeing. That is not the only data that goes into this but it may help in the future.

Roslyn smiles as brightly as the orange wall behind her.

Ndeye Thioubou: How can some people in the Black and Latinx communities break out of the idea that caring about the environment and biodiversity is a “white thing”?

RR: Yeah, and that’s a big thing that we talk about a lot. There are lots of us in my office or cross-network that we volunteer for lots of ethnic/diversity things (..) One point that I haven’t brought up, which I think is really important, is that it often depends on the language you use when it comes to trying to appeal to people, because it’s not like the Black and Brown community don’t ever interact with nature or that we don’t care about it. Generations of history of being very close to nature and caring about our environment. But I think if you phrase it in more of a western way, like environmental justice or whatever, these sorts of phrases, they may turn people off because some people may view it as, oh I’m taking care of my park or whatever. So I think not using such formal, or kind of western language when it comes to that, which is very much associated with [the] white part of the environmental movement, but we know that the environmental movement was started by minorities, especially Indigenous communities. And also we don’t need to be literally in the forest and all that to care about the environment or to be one with nature. I mean living in a city, we don’t have as much nature as other places, but when you’re outside you are literally being in nature. We still have parks and some other places where we can see it, even in little ways like that we are living with nature and I think that is a good thing to remind people. I think maybe some people may think, oh if I’m not like in a rural place, or in the country or something, in a really mountainous area, I am not really doing anything, you know? And maybe you’ll ask a question about this later- I mean we have a lot of power here in affecting what happens to our city than our country. When you are old enough to vote and actually look at leaders that actually care about this issue and will help make sure our city isn’t as polluted or whatnot, or the airways aren’t as clogged or anything, and we actually take care of our society, we have power in that.

NT: How was your educational experience at Yale studying Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and how do you engage more people to be involved in this field and recognize its importance?

RR: I studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale and I gotta say I really enjoyed it. I could probably count 5 people who looked like me in my classes. It was very white-centered. But, and this is interesting… it was a very comprehensive type of education and my favorite classes were classes like Mammalogy(Study of Mammals) or Ornithology(Study of Birds) that dealt with specific animal groups instead of general biology. Even though that’s great, that’s the basics. I already know that. It was really cool to see invertebrate anatomy and things like that. I think with that experience it really did connect me with many top-notch people in this field, in ecology and these types of studies. I actually worked at a museum that was on campus at the time, in the Invertebrate Paleontology department. It was fun and really enlightening to be up close. And especially in my Mammalogy and Ornithology classes, we studied with skins of animals from the museum and skeletons, so it was really cool to be up close and personal with that. And there are people in that space who really do care about local New Haven conservation efforts, and that, of course, can be applied to the larger country.

NT: How can people in urban areas get into birdwatching? I know in the Bronx I pretty much only see a couple of species, so where would you recommend birdwatching in NYC?

RR: We don’t need to be literally in the forests and all that to care about the environment or to be one with nature. Living in a city we do not have as much green space as other places, but going outside is literally being in nature. We still have parks, we still have some green spaces…Even in little ways like that we still are being part of nature.

RR: Honestly, even though we are a city and an urban space there are so many bird species out there. We know our classics like pigeons, sparrows, and whatnot. I’m not sure if you guys have seen them but [there are also] blue jays and cardinals, and red-winged blackbirds and all these things. I think we’re so used to the common ones that we aren’t even aware that there are so many others out there. But I think birding really does help you focus on that there are 7 million types of birds out here that have been here that I haven’t seen. And in Central Park itself, it’s one of the major hotspots for birds, especially during migration time, because as you know birds migrate thousands and thousands of miles and they need places to rest, to build up their energy and to keep moving. Central Park is a space that lots of birds use. Migration time has passed now, it was from May to June. There is anything from herrings to cranes, and egrets, lots of different songbirds, and whatnot. So, that is definitely one place that’s amazing. Up here, Crotona is great, Van Cortlandt is great, and the Botanical Garden. In my own park, I live in Pelham Parkway and we have a big long park. I found a pool of finches and catbirds and all these things. So anywhere this is a greenspace, you are likely to see a bird. Birds are very adaptable, so even if there isn’t a huge collection of trees, you’re going to see them all over. Pigeons are the classics, they can do anything. And gulls and everything, a lot of them are opportunistic omnivores so you’ve probably seen a pigeon eat sometime, or even gulls. Some birds, not all birds are like I can eat everything, gulls are like that, and some pigeons.

An orange Scientist hat from the Audubon Society.