A Conversation About DEIA
Recent years saw racial and social injustices that sparked outrage and action across the nation—and ushered in renewed commitment from organizations to take a closer look at their DEIA practices. As community places of respite, learning, and care, many zoo and aquarium organizations already have a long history of expansive diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) practices in place, yet this heightened awareness is a catalyst for organizations to continually apply new insights and enact real change to do even better.
Retailer Event Network, drawing inspiration from their philosophy that all lives on earth share a ‘common thread’ and are connected by our shared planet and humanity, talked to AZA members representing diverse geo-locations, venue sizes, and guest demographics to find out the different ways they are putting DEIA values into practice.
From the choices that are visible to guests, to behind-the-scenes operational decisions, read on to hear the steps they are taking, and how these choices demonstrate their commitment to creating a welcoming place for all.
A Blueprint for Building a Culture of ‘DEIA’
During our conversation, a common thread emerged: Intersectionality and incorporating the diverse experiences and backgrounds of all staff across operations is key to building a culture of DEIA. Newly created positions and internal DEIA-focused councils are now part of the framework.
“DEIA goes well beyond creating policies, having ERG’s, creating fliers, or programs,” said Greg Charbeneau, president at OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We believe a culture built on DEIA is the framework and driving force for our success. We leverage the fact that each team member brings varied thoughts and ideas from their personal life experiences and cultural backgrounds by cultivating an environment where the team can be authentic, feel empowered, and be solution-driven.”
Elkin Alfred, director of equity and culture at the Denver Zoo in Denver, Colo., said that DEIA is an intentional journey.
“I think it is important to note that we are in this journey, fully acknowledge we will not always get it right, but we will continue to ask questions that will lead to better answers.”
A key aspect of Denver Zoo’s DEIA work is to ensure that all staff are part of the process. The Zoo is currently working with The Equity Project and a diverse group of staff across the organization who will help develop the organizational Blueprint for their DEIA work.
One area of focus is to increase diversity in their animal care team. Internships can be a barrier to access, and the Zoo’s paid internship and apprenticeship program helps increase access.
“We are also revamping our employee experience journey, focusing currently on the interview and onboarding process. We are launching a series of trainings and interview guide tools on how to mitigate bias in the hiring process. Another aspect of this is relooking at our job descriptions and removing coded language and unnecessary educational requirements,” said Alfred.
This year, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., enhanced a five-year strategic and operational plan from 2018 that included a Zoo-wide DEAI action plan, adding a role of a DEAI executive advisor in January 2022.
“This advisor is available to support staff across all teams and levels. He will also serve as a member of the senior leadership team, reporting directly to the CEO, and liaise with the executive leadership team and the Zoo board of directors in his advisory capacity,” said Michele Smith, chief financial officer at the Zoo. Additionally, a recently launched D and I Council will work with DEAI advocates to assist with initiatives, events, and programs as they are created and launched, as well as offer individuals opportunities to develop their leadership skills.
When asked if any positive surprises have been uncovered in their teams work to bring DEIA to the forefront, OdySea Aquariums Charbeneau shared that looking inward revealed some wonderful data -- namely that 63 percent of their workforce is women and 24 percent of their female workforce is in leadership. Proudly, women make up 50 percent of their leadership team. This point of intersectionality has inspired them to engage in ongoing education about DEIA.
“We want to ensure each team member understands how they can be an active crusader in allowing each person to wear their diversity as a badge of honor, so everyone feels a sense of belonging,” said Charbeneau.
Translating DEIA into Extraordinary Experiences
The ‘behind the scenes’ work of re-evaluating hiring and training practices, developing tailored programming, and creating equal access creates a tangible impact for guests.
“The research is clear, that when your staff is diverse and engaged, the results lead to better service and enriches the overall guest experience. Our guests benefit from interacting with staff who are diverse, engaged, and feel part of the mission to save wildlife for future generations,” said Alfred. Further, providing a ‘Welcoming’ experience is one of Denver Zoo’s core values. The Zoo conducts workshops on promoting the behaviors that help all feel welcomed.
OdySea Aquarium’s employee promise sets the stage for every guest (external visitors and internal staff alike), to have a welcoming experience.
“We are onstage at all times regardless of location. Authenticity of good behaviors must be throughout the entire operation otherwise guests will see right through it,” said Charbeneau.
The OdySea Aquarium Employee Promise
- I am empowered to take ownership of any opportunity to exceed expectations.
- I anticipate guest needs and pay attention to the details.
- I treat all internal and external customers with respect.
- I am on stage! (Smile)
- I have an attitude of gratitude.
- I get it right the first time.
- I display actions that are moral and ethical.
- I always provide alternative solutions.
- I am committed to learning every aspect of our product and services.
- I use the 10/5 rule, 10 feet I acknowledge my guest’s presence with a smile and at 5 feet, I greet them with a courteous word.
- I use name recognition at every opportunity
- I take personal responsibility for our surroundings.
- I am accountable for my tools and resources.
- I value the contribution of every team member.
The Aquarium’s commitment to guest experience drives the institution to look deeper into its practices across every department to uncover opportunities. From updating uniform and grooming standards, to offering tailored experience programming for demographics such as the LBGTQ+ community, to ongoing training to serve guests with disabilities, the holistic approach has sparked meaningful changes.
At Woodland Park Zoo, Smith described a key pillar entitled “Extraordinary Experiences” which propels the Zoo to inspire wonder, curiosity, and a sense of possibility in people of every age and from every background.
“We want to make sure that the Zoo experience will inspire valuable and relevant events while also being equitable, accessible, and affordable to all members of our community.”
Toward that goal, the Zoo expanded its Explorer Pass membership program in 2021 to include households benefitting from temporary pandemic relief in the form of Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT). Explorer Pass is a $35 membership for foster and kinship families as well as recipients of EBT/Washington Quest, P-EBT, or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) assistance, which provides full benefits and unlimited access to the Zoo year around. By the end of 2021 the Zoo had sold more than 1,400 Explorer Pass memberships, nearly doubling the amount sold in 2019. The Zoo also offers a $5 Discover Ticket to these same groups.
Woodland Park Zoo has grown its access program to the largest public benefits program of its kind for cultural institutions in Washington State.
A Connection with the Local Community
A shared philosophy is that organizations are an extension of the communities they serve.
Located on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community reservation, OdySea Aquarium’s building architecture celebrates Native American culture. Community members and schools gain free admission. Guest experience programming is evaluated prior to execution to ensure content does not offend any cultural customs practiced within the community.
The not-for-profit OdySea Aquarium Foundation, Inc., provides scholarships for Title One school children, local community college scholarships, and professional development for team members.
“We do not see ourselves as separate, but a key cultural institution in the Denver Metro area that is here to inspire all to save wildlife,” said Alfred. “Part of our efforts include making sure the perspectives of our community are considered when making decisions and integrating them into our work. Are we inviting diverse community members to the Zoo? This translates to hosting cultural events, such as our Asian American and Pacific Islander Festival, a Black Birders event, and participating in Juneteenth and PRIDE festivals.”
In 2021, Woodland Park Zoo envisioned a new kind of oasis that reinvests in the local community that supported the nonprofit Zoo through reopening and rebuilding after the pandemic. In tribute, the Zoo shored up a season of special events. Families that couldn’t gather at home for the holidays could come together to make new memories at the Zoo’s Wild Lanterns festival.
Uplifting Marginalized Businesses and Underrepresented Groups
In 2018, Woodland Park Zoo updated their procurement policy, including goals to support minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned, and LGBTQ+ business enterprises as part of the RFP and proposal review process. This policy prioritizes transparency, ensuring fair and equitable treatment of all suppliers, fostering broad-based competition, and ensuring that procurement operations may be conducted efficiently.
“An example of this is our retail partnership with Event Network, whose diverse vendor network demonstrates a measurable commitment to these values and is directly aligned with our mission,” said Smith.
Another aspect to uplifting underserved groups is demonstrated by OdySea Aquarium, who regularly hires, coaches, and mentors team members with disabilities, helping them learn to do jobs that put them up close with guests, and helping them build on life skills.
Leading by example is a massive responsibility for any organization, but it is clear that these AZA members understand the influence that they have on the attitudes and behaviors of guests—and are doing the work to help today’s guests and future generations.
©Photos Credit: Event Network
Back to All Stories