I am not unlike most of you in the sense that I have always loved animals. I grew up fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, exploring the Maryland Zoo and the National Aquarium. There are hundreds of photos of me throughout my life plastered to the glass of an enclosure of some new creature I was entranced by. Imagine my excitement when I finally made it to the point of becoming a Zoo employee. I was fresh faced, bright eyed, and ready to show the world about the incredible experience of seeing animals.
I had no clue that no amount of school could prepare me for the incredibly isolating experience of being the ‘only one’ in my workspace. I didn’t realize that while I felt unity with other animal lovers like me, that there would be disconnect in how we are treated by our guests and peers. I didn’t anticipate the amount of resilience it takes to be in this field, or the extent of composure it takes to appear unbothered to be the ‘only one like you’ consistently.
I knew what it felt like to walk into a restaurant and have everyone stare at you, and it is much easier to deal with when you are with your family or friends. I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to be “grown up” on my own, 900 miles from my family. To still experience that feeling every day, in every meeting, and on every tour I gave. I’m incredibly thankful for the experiences I’ve had with all my coworkers and the amount of time I could maintain in this field. The few experiences that I got to spend with another Black coworker were truly some of my most treasured experiences. I realized because these were the times I felt true community. We may not come from the same place, or receive the same degree. But we create our own sense of community with just a hint of a smile or a nod of the head.
It was with this feeling that I realized my passion. I had a collective amount of experiences that led me to an undefined urge for something more. I remember watching an Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference panel talk with Corina Newsome a few years ago, and something she said helped define that urge. She had spoken about how strange it was that in our field we emphasize the importance of biodiversity in species we care for, but rarely do we emphasize that same importance in the people doing the work of conservation. It was a statement I had felt wholeheartedly but never had the words to explain it. I found myself looking for other minorities in the field and wanting to network. I had a renewed passion to talk to the younger generation and tell them about all the options that conservation had to offer.
I learned that in my unique experience of isolation I could be a platform to encourage the next generation of conservationists that there is a place for them in this field. DEIA is an acronym that has been used a lot in the last few years, and I’m sure a lot of people are tired of hearing it. But to me it’s not just an acronym, it defines a lot of my realities that I live in. To me it’s an acronym for how I have been treated, how I will be treated, and how generations after me will be welcomed in this field.
While my experiences have not always been empowering, I think I still can use them to empower others in this field. I recently told a group of teenagers that the world will not always feel like it’s their oyster, and if it’s not, then to make it their oyster. I encourage whoever reads this to do the same. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, be confident in your capability and experience. Be fearless in bringing who you are to work every day, there is someone out there desperate to see themselves in your line of work, let them see you.
Shannon Farmer is a conservation technician at Disney's Animal Kingdom.