Photo courtesy of Dexter Patterson
Umoja: Did you grow up in Madison? 

Dexter Patterson: Yes. I’ve been in Madison since the fourth grade, so this is home for me for sure. 

Umoja: And you’re teaching at UW now, right? 

Dexter Patterson: Yes. I’m full-time faculty in the Department of Life Sciences Communication, and I teach Documentary Photography for the Sciences, Intro to Digital Video Production, and Information Radio and Podcast. 

Umoja: How did you get into birding?   Were you interested in it as a kid? 

Dexter Patterson: When I was a kid, I always liked birds, but I always tell people that I never gave them the attention they deserved I would see them, and I’d think, ‘Oh my God,’ and get excited, but I wasn’t into photography yet. I wasn’t into learning about their habitats. I wasn’t into learning about their migration and nesting patterns and all of their distinctive characteristics. 

In 2010, I was a student at Madison College. At the time my academic advisor, was Dr. Jeff Galligan, and he was a birder. He’s a Black man, too. So this was the moment, where I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I can be a birder!’ 

It was so weird, I liked birds, but I never saw people of color birding or advocating for birds, right? But then I saw this man I looked up to, who was a mentor for me, and guiding me through this scary situation as a returning adult student. I trusted this man. So when I found out that he was a birder and he loved birds, and he was also a bird photographer, it just blew my mind. 

It opened up this whole new world and all of these possibilities that I never knew existed for me. And the rest is history, honestly. 

Umoja: And so now you have an entire club dedicated to this passion. 

Dexter Patterson: Yeah. And it’s so wild, because that same man, Dr. Jeff Galligan, and I started the club together. So you’re talking about over a decade, right? It’s been a decade from when we first met and, and started getting to know each other to now, actually starting a club together. We decided to connect on Juneteenth, of all days. We didn’t plan to go birding on Juneteenth, but it was Juneteenth. We went to Nine Springs, right across the street from South Towne Mall. There’s just this gorgeous habitat where all these absolutely amazing birds come through, migrating through our area, and we decided to go out birding together, and we just went out and had a blast, laughing. It was Black Joy at its finest. 

I remember looking at Jeff and saying, ‘Bro, we have to share this with our people.’ It was one of those ‘a-ha’ moments where we realized this was something special. He told me he had wanted to start a club for more than 20 years, but he felt like he never had the support. He never felt like the traditional birding spaces would give him their support or back him up. He always wanted to run a club for the community, for Black people, and everybody else. He told me, ‘I never see anybody that looks like me. I never see any people who are Latin. I never see Asian people. It’s always just White people, and that has to change, you know?’ And I agreed. And he basically gave us a charge. 

He told me if we didn’t develop a plan within the next twenty-four hours, we probably wouldn’t do it. So he was very adamant that we needed to figure something out. ‘Let’s schedule an event and see what happens.’ 

So throughout that day we were going back and forth, all the way into the next day, just kind of texting back and forth, making phone calls, talking about names and what we wanted this thing to look like. And we settled on the name and doing an event 30 days later at that same place, at the Nine Springs. And we just started rolling. 

I started using all of my skills as social media marketer as a digital marketer to start getting the word out. I scheduled a podcast interview with Angela Russell and Black Oxygen and just started telling people in the community, ‘Hey, we’re starting a birding club. Come hang out.’ I thought, ‘Nobody’s gonna show up,’ but sure enough, I was wrong. We had sixteen people at our first event, and I was kind of blown away. All these people came to go birding with us. It was one of those moments where I could not believe what was happening. 

Umoja: So what was the date that you all founded this?  

Dexter Patterson: We founded it in June of 2020. Juneteenth. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. 

Umoja: How many members do you have now and how often do you meet? 

Dexter Patterson: Our membership has grown tremendously. We’re approaching eight hundred people in our private Facebook group and are  approaching 2,000 people on Instagram. 

We currently do, at minimum, two events a month. We do one in Madison and one in Milwaukee. After kicking off in Madison, we expanded to Milwaukee, within 30 days. We did our first event, and we were getting hit up from people in Milwaukee saying, ‘When are you coming here? We have wonderful places to go. There are a lot of BIPOC folks up here. Y’all should come here.’ 

And Jeff told me, ‘I have the perfect person in Milwaukee.’ Our Milwaukee leader is Rita Flores Wiskowski. And Rita, similar to Jeff, has been a birder for decades. She does amazing work in that community. She sits on the Audubon chapter, on their board there. 

Jeff and I sit on the Madison Audubon board here in Madison. So we reached out to Rita, and she said yes, and we were off and running in Milwaukee within 30 days. So now, at minimum, we do one event in each city and for surrounding areas every month, even throughout the winter. So, twelve months a year we’re birding. And then there are certain times of the year, so Spring and Fall, where we’ll have some specialty events mixed in as well. So we could have some months where we might have three or four events, but at least two — one in Madison, in one in Milwaukee, every month. 

Umoja: What is your long-term goal for your organization? 

Dexter Patterson: Well, right now our goal is to continue building this community for people of color who love birds, who love outdoors and love nature in Wisconsin. We also invite all allies or anybody who just wants to see a more equitable and inclusive outdoor experience in our state. So, when people come to our event, you see all walks of life, but we started our club for people of color. 

We want people of color to understand that they’re safe, no matter where they go. 

When we’re in the woods, we provide that safety in numbers. We’re exploring all these protected natural areas that many people, including myself, did not know about. I didn’t know that we had all these places in Dane County. We have all of these beautiful Nature Conservancies, these wetlands, these beautiful parts. 

And as you get more into birding, you start exploring and finding all these beautiful places, because that’s where the birds are. You discover the wonder of exploring all these fabulous places around you. It’s really changed my outlook on Dane County and the Madison area. I have a lot more appreciation for the city, simply because of my little feather friends that have me out here exploring all of these wondrous places. 

Umoja:That’s excellent. How do people contact the organization? 

Dexter Patterson:

They can find us on our Facebook group – The BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin — and we are also on Instagram. We also have a web site where you can find tons of resources. We have blogs and we have all of our events on our site, along with merchandise, and anything and everything you’d want to know about our club is on the website.  

Umoja: Okay, brother, we appreciate you, Dexter! Keep up the magnificent work! 

Dexter Patterson: All right! I’m about to head out now. I’m actually about to hit the trail!