Listening to what the parrots say (Dr. Joyner with Tezla Gonzalez in Mabita, Honduras)
Many boards have members that parrot (mimic) what others say, perhaps timid to put forth their own opinion that might clash with the ideas of others. Here at One Earth Conservation we have true parrots on our board who do not imitate anyone. They speak for themselves, as long as we never forget to ask, “What does the parrot say?”
To ensure that we don’t get swept away with human "exemptionalism" and exceptionalism, we have 3 parrots on our board. Why is that?
If we only have one bird on the Board, then they would not have allies, remaining a marginalized and often silenced demographic. It is common practice to not “tokenize” or “patronize” minorities by placing them on a board until a board has done their anti-oppression work, candidates have allies on the board in solidarity with them, or they have an ally from their same demographic. We also have three for varied representation, including one whose demographic is from a Neotropical lineage of parrots (wild and rescued Central America scarlet macaw Rosa - Ara macao cyanoptera) and since she has died, her positions invites us to think of all endangered or extinct wildlife. Rosa's inclusion invites us humans to openly mourn and share our grief work together. The other two come from the Afro-Asian lineage of parrots ( homed Myer’s Parrot Pluto - Poicephalus meyeri - whose ancestors are from Africa, and homed cockatiel Dusty - Nymphicus hollandicus - whose ancestors are from Australia).
Okay, that answers the question of why three, but why any at all?
Having parrots on our Board helps us in a ritual and symbolic fashion, serving as a Council of All Beings. We seek more than empowering the voices of despair and worth in other beings; we aim to act upon what they specifically tell us in relation to our work. Boards are charged with having connection and linkage to their constituents, which in the case of One Earth Conservation, includes parrots. By having them present in our hearts and minds when we make decisions, we hopefully cannot stray too far from hearing their voices and remembering their needs.
Boards are also charged with being accountable, especially to marginalized groups that may not serve on a board. Our current Board is mostly made up of white people from the USA, and one person from Honduras. Our partners in Latin America are diverse, and as we work in collaboration with them, we have to be accountable to them as we work on projects. To further increase our accountability we have begun a Conservation Council that helps us link to the lived reality of people from this region. Regions are represented by native Latin Americans who work on our projects, to whom we look for honest feedback and guidance, and for whom we muster all the transparency that we can. This same process needs to happen with other species as well. We deliver our “product” of supporting life and need to know how we are doing, and what we could do differently. By having parrots on the Board we hear their voice, their needs, and their skilled and embodied opinion “on being parrot.”
So how does a different species interact with a human legal entity? It is true that New York State, in which we are incorporated, does not specify what species a board member be, and we assume that “competency” guidelines would not admit that a parrot might contribute anything more than a great ape might. So instead we are enacting our own policy that asks with every new project, vote, or in depth discussion, “What would the parrots say?” The parrots cannot speak for all of life, so we also ask, “What would our partners say? What would the people of the world say? What would life say?”
And in all these cases there is no rote or easy answer. For each time we ask this, we hear about the needs, feelings, sufferings, and lives of other beings. If we are to truly serve life in our nonprofit organization, we must listen to life, and connect to life, which is a messy and painful affair.
You might wonder how a parrot can communicate with us, especially one that is dead, such as Rosa. If a human is speaking for a parrot, aren’t we susceptible to our own ego protections and perceptions? Well of course! However we have mechanisms that ask us to maximize our empathy and bring to awareness that we are also the other.
First we study as much as we can know of a parrot’s life – their behavior, feelings, needs, motivations, physiology, health, and conservation status. When we ask “What would the parrot say” we reflect most directly on their welfare status as affirmed by the “Five Domains.” If we were a parrot, what would our needs be, and what might their subjective experience be? It is far from perfect, but I believe that it gets us closer to those we serve, and also, connects us strongly with life. When we ask, “What does the parrot say,” there is a shift in the room (virtual or otherwise), a lightening of the heart, an alignment of our values, and a deeper connection to life.
We have parrots on our Board because we hope that it is good for them, and we know it is good for us.
A native North American parrot, the Carolina Parakeet, now extinct for over 100 years. Might they still be here if we had listened to them?