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Celebrating Black History Month with National Geographic Explorers Christine Wilkinson and Kendall Calhoun

Explorers Christine and Kendall “sit down” virtually with the Society to share why they helped co-found Black Mammalogists Week, discuss their interest in conservation, and what Black History Month means to them.

In celebration of Black History Month, we are highlighting two of our incredible Black National Geographic Explorers, Christine Wilkinson and Kendall Calhoun. These talented scientists and co-founding members of #BlackMammologists Week answered a few of our burning questions about their experiences as Explorers and embracing their identity in Black History Month and beyond.

What is resonating with you this Black History Month?

Christine: With all of the “Black in X” months and social media momentum, Black scientists have been able to come together, connect with one another, and be visible to the world in ways that we never have before. This Black History Month, I am feeling so inspired by the work and encouragement of all of my fellow scientists across the Diaspora, both in the USA and around the world. In many ways, this past year has felt like a continuous celebration of our multifaceted identities as Black scientists, and I am honestly feeling so jazzed. All I want to do is keep boosting and celebrating more and more of my peers. 

Kendall: This Black History Month, I’m really motivated and inspired to continue to bring my entire personal identity into the work I do. I unapologetically get to define the kind of scientist I want to be and do not need to fit a pre-defined, and often racist, mold. I’m inspired to be tenacious in pursuing what I love by the resilience of Black people and family members across generations who pushed to give me the chance to do the things I’m doing today. And I want to use this month to remember and recognize that shared dream and continue to push it even further for future generations.  

What are some of the unique and vital perspectives Black mammalogists bring to the field?

Christine: Black mammalogists and wildlife ecologists have always been here doing important work, but have historically been relegated to the shadows. Our unique experiences, histories, and resilience add rich perspectives to fields such as mammalogy and conservation biology. Research demonstrates that building a more diverse, representative, and inclusive body of scientists not only addresses systemic equity issues, but is also critical for producing excellent research across all sectors of STEM. Our goal is to address systemic racism by tangibly supporting and connecting Black scholars, leading to more inclusive science and sustainable long-term conservation outcomes for mammals and the ecosystems they rely on.   

What is Black Mammalogists Week?

Christine: Black Mammalogists Week was created to help current and aspiring Black mammalogists to form lasting and fruitful connections with one another, to provide tangible opportunities to boost and mentor Black mammalogists and wildlife ecologists, and to illuminate historical and present-day Black contributions to mammalogy. Also, we are fundraising for our endowment to fund Black and Indigenous Scholars—check it all out at blackmammalogists.com!

What inspired you to get into conservation? 

Kendall: I’ve always felt a strong interest in animals since I was young, but I grew up in the suburbs and my exposure to nature and wildlife was somewhat limited. I never realized that working with wildlife could be a full career until I got to college. But once I did, I really followed that initial spark and just fell completely in love with wildlife, ecology, and science. This blossoming love made it so much more alarming to learn about the many ways global change threatens biodiversity around the world and how many of the current injustices to the environment also have disproportionate negative effects on people of color. So I think my drive towards conservation comes from a feeling of obligation to help protect the biodiversity and species I’ve come to care about but also a sense of justice for the environment and people.

When are you going out on your next adventure?

Christine: I’m aiming to get back to the field in the summer or later this year to remove collars from spotted hyenas, do some workshops and presentations for/with communities, and do follow-up camera trap surveys on wildlife movement near and through the national park fence. In the meantime, I’ll also be adventuring with my puppy on hikes all over the Bay Area!

Kendall: I have two adventures coming up that I’m excited for, one short and one a bit longer. Firstly, our lab group is working together to put GPS collars on a couple of coyotes at our field site in Northern California and that’s been super exciting! In a few weeks I’ll be spending some time there to help with that process and hopefully deploy another collar. After that, I’ll be out in the field for an extended trip to start spring surveys with our bird and bat recorders!

Thank you so much for sharing your stories and celebrating Black History Month with us, Christine and Kendall! If you want to hear more from these exceptional Explorers, check out this Twitter thread. 

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