Dexter Patterson has found his passion in the birding club he co-founded for people of color

Patterson built a presence online as the “Wisco Birder,” stressing fun and a low-key, “lightly scientific” approach.
Dexter Patterson with birds around him
Photo by Patrick Stutz

The moment Dexter Patterson saw an online video of an osprey swooping down and snatching a large fish out of the water, he knew what he needed to do.

This was in 2018, and Patterson, the social media manager for the Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association, immediately sent the video to his friend Jeff Galligan.

The two had met a decade or so earlier, when Patterson was a student at Madison College, where Galligan directs the TRIO Student Support Services program.

“I knew Jeff was a big birder,” Patterson says. “I was excited to send him the video. It was amazing.”

Patterson had more amazement coming.

“Jeff turned around,” he says, “and sent me all these photos of osprey that he took! I was like, ‘You’ve seen that bird in real life?’ ”

It prompted Patterson to begin, as he says, “paying attention” to birds and the natural world. He built a presence online as the “Wisco Birder,” stressing fun and a low-key, “lightly scientific” approach. Birding needn’t be expensive or complicated.

“All you need to do is look up,” Patterson says.

Dexter walking in a field

Courtesy of Dexter Patterson

Last Juneteenth, Patterson and Galligan met at Lewis Nine Springs E-Way natural area to go birding. They’d just helped the bird-focused conservation nonprofit Madison Audubon celebrate Black Birders Week — a national event inspired by an infamous racist encounter in Central Park — and at Nine Springs they spoke about their shared desire to get more people of color outside and birding.

“We agreed it was time to spread this bird joy,” Patterson says.

A night of excited texts back and forth followed, and they founded the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin. Sixteen people attended the first meeting at Nine Springs in July 2021; a more recent gathering at the UW Arboretum drew 46.

Patterson’s emergence as a passionate birder shouldn’t really be surprising — he’s made a point of reinventing himself in the past.

Now 41, Patterson was born in Rock Island, Illinois. He spent a few childhood years in Memphis, home to his father’s side of the family, and came to Madison at age 9.

“This is definitely home,” he says.

Patterson lettered in three sports at Madison West High School, and he became the first in his family to attend college when he went to the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire to play football.

As proud as the moment was, it didn’t last. His high school girlfriend accompanied Patterson to Eau Claire, gave birth to his child and he dropped out to provide for the family.

They returned to Madison when his daughter was 2. The relationship ended, but Patterson, in his words, “caught a break.” A temporary factory job at Sub-Zero became permanent. Patterson was earning good money. He met and married his wife, Michelle Patterson, and they had two children (they’ve since had another).

“Life was good,” he says.

Dexter Patterson and Jeff Galligan

Dexter Patterson started the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin with Jeff Galligan in summer 2021. (Courtesy of Dexter Patterson)

But during the Great Recession, Patterson lost his job. In hindsight, he realizes he was at a critical crossroads. His mom and grandma sat him down. Not for nothing had he been the first in the family to attend college, they said. He needed to try again.

Patterson enrolled at Madison College as a returning adult student.

“I was so scared,” he says.

When Galligan became his college adviser, it marked the beginning of a close friendship. Patterson took stock of his talents. For years the music business had been an avocation; he’d helped friends with promotions, marketing and social media.

Patterson began rebranding himself as a communications professional. He transferred to UW–Madison, got his bachelor’s degree — and an internship at Madison Magazine — then earned a master’s degree online from Purdue University.

Through this flurry of education — Patterson did it all in seven years — his wife encouraged and supported him. “My rock,” Patterson says.

He’s been at the WFAA for almost seven years now, managing social media and digital advertising, with a hand in fundraising and public relations. This semester, he’s also teaching — two classes a week on “Photography for the Sciences” in the department of life sciences communication.

Patterson is a committed Badger and likes what he’s doing. One component of the job, however, has recently taken an unfortunate turn. Professionals on the front lines of social media — and Patterson is right there, managing accounts with numbers into the six figures — are increasingly confronted with vitriol. Racism and bigotry, too.

“It’s started to take a toll on my mental health,” Patterson says. “Especially as a person of color.”

Anything related to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, will generate at least some ugly pushback. Last November, Patterson posted about UW–Madison’s Raimey-Noland campaign — named for the first known male and female Black UW–Madison graduates — encouraging DEI. It drew the following response: “How about they quit killing white people with their SUVs” — a reference to the tragic events at a Waukesha parade that month.

It is an ongoing challenge, but Patterson is grateful that birding has provided a respite, an escape from screens.

At the start of the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin’s first event at Nine Springs last July, Patterson told the story of when he first saw the osprey video online and sent it to Galligan.

Maybe 10 minutes later, as the group made its way around Nine Springs, they were astonished to see, some 50 feet in front of them, an osprey descend to the water, snatch a large carp and fly away.

Patterson turned to Galligan: “This was meant to be.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.