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Dr. J. Drew Lanham to give 2024 Commencement keynote address

Dr. J. Drew Lanham will give the keynote address at Warren Wilson College’s 2024 Commencement on Saturday, May 11, 2024. Lanham is an ornithologist, naturalist, poet, writer, MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient and professor of wildlife at Clemson University.

Lanham studies songbird ecology and the confluences of race, place and nature. He is a strong advocate for the Black role in conservation, and he studies how culture influences perceptions of nature and its care.

His poetry focuses on gone, or extinct, birds, with the goal of mourning the past in order to save what we still have. He said he thinks of himself as a social activist conservationist who “leverages words for birds.” 

“When people understand the context of a forever gone bird’s existence, and what that existence must have been like, it helps us understand the sins of the past that may have driven them to extinction,” he said. “Focusing on those birds, their lives, and how those lives related to my ancestors’ lives, to Black lives especially, wraps the message in a different package that maybe people don’t expect, it leverages head to heart, and ultimately, to some action to do better by birds and by human beings.”

His commencement speech will be about coloring the conservation movement. It’s a topic he has written on extensively, including in ongoing debates and essays with the National Audubon Society.

“I’m frequently asked how we can get more people of color involved in environmentalism and conservation.” Lanham said. “My answer increasingly has become, well first you have to look around and see how people are involved, to understand that Black folks have been intimately associated with nature, by choice but also by force. That amalgam of free will and bondage creates a complex message that the majority of the conservation and environmental community has not taken the time to understand.”

A South Carolina native, Lanham received his B.A. and M.S. in zoology, and his Ph.D. in forest resources, from Clemson University. He now works there as an Alumni Distinguished Professor, Provost’s Professor and Master Teacher of Wildlife Ecology. 

Lanham was awarded the Rosa Parks and Grace Lee Bogg Award for Diversity by the North American Association of Environmental Education in 2015 and the Dan W. Lufkin Leadership in Conservation award by the National Audubon Society in 2019. He is a 2020 recipient of the Center for Biological Diversity’s E.O. Wilson Award for Outstanding Science in Biodiversity Conservation and a 2022 MacArthur Fellow. Dr. Lanham was named among the Roots 100 Most Influential Black Americans in 2022 and among the 12 Black South Carolina Leaders to know in that same year.

Lanham is also an author and award-nominated poet. His solo books include “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” “Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts” and this year’s “Joy Is the Justice We Give Ourselves.”

Dr. Damián Fernández, president of Warren Wilson College, said the college is honored to have Lanham speak at Commencement.

“Drew’s research and life’s work speak to philosophies that are embedded into the fabric of Warren Wilson — how the natural world can teach us to build a more just, equitable and sustainable society,” Fernández said. “We look forward to hearing his address at Commencement.”

Lanham said he is honored to have been invited to Warren Wilson College. He was introduced to the school through his first graduate student at Clemson who had attended Warren Wilson as an undergraduate. That student conveyed the unique nature of the school and its association with nature, environmentalism and conservation in the arts.

“Warren Wilson College’s reputation precedes it,” he said. “It’s always been a place that’s generated, for me, heartfelt sentiments about how we learn, and that the environment that we learn in — that we can be nurtured into nature in different ways.”

For more information about Commencement at Warren Wilson College, visit


Photo credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation