On top of being a father of four, Dexter Patterson ’14 owns a music studio, works full-time as the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association’s social media manager, teaches part-time at the UW, and runs his newly founded BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin. How does he manage it all? “It’s gotten to the point now where I’m only doing what I love,” Patterson explains. “When you’re doing things that you truly love, that really speak to your heart, it doesn’t really feel like work.”
These roles that Patterson loves have resulted in a string of snappy nicknames — including Digital Dex, Tefman, the Wisco Birder, and Professor Patterson — all of which tell his story and culminate in his alter ego: the Radical Osprey.
In 2008, Patterson was laid off from his job in a Madison factory. This hardship set him on a path back to school as a nontraditional student, first at Madison College and then at the UW. Patterson had already developed some experience in the early stages of social media by helping musician friends build followings through platforms like Myspace. He decided to pursue professional communications and digital marketing just as social media was becoming an integral part of everyday life and business. “If I’m going to do this,” Patterson explains, “why not be on the forefront of something?” Patterson graduated from the UW with a bachelor’s degree in life science communications in 2014. He began working for the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association in 2015 and earned his master’s degree in communications and media studies online through Purdue University in 2017. By then, it was clear Patterson’s intuition about social media and digital communications paid off and that his moniker, “Digital Dex,” was well-earned.
Patterson has always had a creative side. When he was younger, music was his main artistic outlet. Patterson developed “Tefman,” his rapper persona, as a young adult to channel toughness. In 2017, he and his hip-hop band, Dogs of War, opened a Madison recording studio together called Warm Glow Studios. Patterson has since stepped away from making his own music in favor of guiding other local musicians to success in the industry. Social media expertise paired with music industry experience has made Patterson a valuable resource for new artists. “That’s what I really like — the strategy of it — being able to peel back the layers for people and reveal to them what they can do to be successful, and giving them the best practices to help themselves.”
The Wisco Birder
Although Patterson grew up enjoying the outdoors and seeing different types of wildlife, he admits that he didn’t always give birds the attention he now believes they deserve. A few factors changed Patterson’s outlook on birding, beginning with his friend and adviser at Madison College, Jeff Galligan ’07. Galligan, a longtime birder and a member of the Madison Audubon’s board of directors, was the first Black male birder that Patterson had met. Whenever Patterson came across neat images of birds, he’d share it with Galligan to find out more, and Galligan would share some of his own stunning pictures from birding expeditions.
Around 2010, one of these interactions with Galligan sent Patterson into a birding tailspin. He sent a dramatic video of an osprey swooping in to catch a fish out of the water to Galligan. “You know that emoji where your head explodes? I remember feeling that.” Galligan wasn’t quite as impressed by the video, having witnessed the phenomenon in person many times. He replied to Patterson with his own excellent action shots of hunting ospreys. When Patterson realized he could also be outside watching such amazing feats of nature firsthand, birding and photography became a more active pastime for him. “It’s amazing what you see when you start to pay attention,” Patterson explains, “And when you start to pay attention, you want to see more.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was another great push for Patterson to fully embrace birding as a hobby. In the height of the shutdowns, Patterson took to hiking around the neighborhood and nearby parks to get fresh air, exercise, and, of course, find new birds. He decided to use his social media experience to share the joy of birding through his Instagram account, @wiscobirder. Patterson quickly gained a following by bridging his creative interests and showing a new side of birding. “When people come to my page, they’ll see me singing and rapping and dancing in the woods and having fun. And I’m semi-young. My daughters won’t tell you that — but I’m this young Black man in the woods having fun birding.”
More than 10 years after they met, Patterson and Galligan were out birding together. It was Juneteenth of 2021, and Black Birders Week to boot. Patterson turned to Galligan and said “Jeff, we need to share this with more people in our community.” Within 24 hours, Patterson and Galligan developed a mission statement for the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin and set a date for its first event. Less than a month later, they were leading a group of 16 people through the Nine Springs Natural Area in Madison.
As they walked, Patterson explained the story of the osprey video and how he first became interested in birding. Not five minutes later, an osprey swooped down 200 feet from the group to swipe a large carp out of the water. Patterson took it as a sign he was on the right track, thinking, “Oh, man, this is it. We are doing this thing. There’s no looking back.” The BIPOC Birding Club continues to host events every month to grow its diverse community of birders and allow them to feel safe in the outdoors. Patterson summarized the club’s mission, saying that “ultimately, we want to make the outdoor experiences, especially in the birding community, more inclusive and welcoming for everybody.”
In January of 2022, Patterson took on the additional title of “professor” when he began teaching within the UW’s Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC). He’s currently teaching Documentary Photography for the Sciences, a course that he took while a student at the UW. In fact, Patterson’s office is the very room he visited for office hours with his professor back in 2014. This new position has brought Patterson full circle in his career and interests. As a social media manager, in his studies, and with his birding, Patterson developed strong photography skills that he now gets to teach to students who sit where he once did. “It really blends my love. I graduated from LSC, so I’ve always had a passion for science. I’ve always had this passion for photography. It’s always been a part of what I do.”
The Radical Osprey
In all of Patterson’s roles and names, he’s learned to set clear priorities and be resilient in his pursuits. Patterson explains that he now says no to anything that’s not about his family, birding and photography, the Wisconsin Alumni Association, or teaching. “I’ve never been more liberated. Yes, I’m super busy, but I’m busy doing the things that I feel like I’m born to do.” When Patterson struggles, he centers himself with a reading of his personal manifesto, which he wrote through the lens of the “radical osprey”:
The radical osprey soars above the world like he owns every blade of grass, every drop of water below him. And he never waits in line for a fresh catch. He breaks the norms and is willing to go against the grain, but never loses focus on what he wants. Of course, run-ins with bigger apex predators like the bald eagle could be humbling, but you know what? The osprey is fearless. He never gives up, and he’s willing to fight for what is his, and bald eagle respects him for that. In my past, my real self used to be too meek. So that’s why my alter ego is someone who doesn’t take crap from anyone or anything that gets in his way. It’s my time to soar. Godspeed, the radical osprey.
Click though to see some of Patterson’s favorite finds while out birding in Madison. Photos courtesy of Dexter Patterson.
This story was originally published in the March 2022 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.