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Driving for Diversity: John Robinson works to open outdoors to all

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BY PETER VAN HORN
Growing up, John Robinson didn’t like to read. As a sixth-grader in Pittsburgh, Robinson preferred chasing butterflies instead of planting himself in front of a book on an uninteresting subject. When he told his teacher, she smiled and handed him something different: Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.”
Robinson couldn’t put it down.
When he finished he went back for more and with each new London book he read, his vision of his future became more complete— Robinson wanted to be a biologist when he grew up.
Robinson was on his way to becoming a wolf biologist, studying at Iowa State University, when his advisor reminded him a class in ornithology was mandatory. He reluctantly enrolled.
A month later he walked out of the first class with a new realization. He wanted to study birds.
The class exposed him to birds he’d never seen before and ignited a desire to find them. The professor noticed Robinson was unusually talented at recognizing birds and their calls. He fostered Robinson’s interest, even allowing him to teach ornithology labs— a rare opportunity for an undergraduate. Robinson graduated in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife biology.
Over the next few decades he worked as a professional ornithologist and wildlife biologist for agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Robinson realized early in his career that he not only wanted to study birds, but he wanted to involve inner city kids— especially minorities— in hopes of inspiring in them an interest in the outdoors. He tried to involve more young people through writing books and speaking about his work.
Paul Baicich, a birding consultant, editor and writer met Robinson in the early 1990s.
Robinson’s devotion to birding and minority involvement resounded with Baicich.
“He’s outspoken and consistent,” Baicich said. “He’s a persistent advocate for getting minorities in the outdoors in a non-consumptive manner.”
Baicich and Robinson would go onto serve on multiple panels together on birding and Baicich even contributed a chapter in Robinson’s book “Birding for Everyone.”
The book is only one that Robinson would write.
In 1993 Robinson created software to catalogue birds and their calls.
The software was initially for personal use, but after a friend expressed interest, Robinson realized he could create a commercial product. In 1994 he created the first version of the “North American Bird Reference Book” which today contains entries for every bird in North America.
The kid who didn’t want to read became an author, writing one of the definitive books on birding in North America. Yet his work wasn’t—and isn’t — finished. A book publisher and business coach for other writers, Robinson hasn’t forgotten his mission to connect minorities to the outdoors.
“It’s so meaningful and powerful to connect kids to nature,” he said.
In 2011 the National Audubon Society and Toyota awarded Robinson a Together Green Fellowship meant to provide outdoor leaders with tools and funding for their work. Robinson’s fellowship included a grant to help him with his mission to get inner city kids outside.
Later that year Robinson spoke at the Missouri Department of Conservation about using birding to introduce young people to nature. The speech was part of his effort to get 1,000 underprivileged kids involved in the outdoors.
In the audience was Bill Graham, a media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, and at the time, vice president of OWAA. Graham approached Robinson after his talk, and asked if he’d like to speak about his work at the upcoming OWAA conference in Fairbanks, Alaska. Robinson agreed and in September 2012 he spoke on the importance of role models in outdoor communication. He also joined the organization.
Robinson’s wide skill set impressed Graham, who said Robinson’s experience in management, communication and birding made him a valuable addition to OWAA.
“He’s a consummate professional in birding and one of the most accomplished people we have in OWAA in that field,” Graham said.
Robinson viewed his new membership as another tool in his mission to involve minorities in the outdoors.
“We need,” Robinson said, “success stories from diverse members of the organization.” ♦
— Peter Van Horn graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in December 2013. After growing up in the mountains he moved to Iowa to broaden his experience base. He is currently trying to capitalise on his outdoor experience while searching for work in Iowa City. 
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