The people who occupy the executive positions in an institution are typically seen as its leaders; however, leadership does not have to be defined by title, position, or authority. By reimagining leadership in a broader context, individuals who are involved in DEIA work make a compelling case for how anyone who has an interest can play a leadership role in these important efforts.
“Not every organization has leaders in this space,” said Jess Kohring, director of equity programs, Los Angeles Zoo in Los Angeles, Calif. “I’ve heard a person say that because they are the one person of color in an institution, they have to lead the DEIA effort. This work doesn’t live with one person or one faction in our field. Creating and inviting new leaders and cultivating them in this space will ultimately get us to our mission—which is to have a sustainable world.”
Increasing the number of individuals who can lead the advancement of DEIA initiatives on an institutional level and in the profession requires a two-part approach. We must encourage people to recognize their own potential, hone their skills, and understand what they can bring to the table. And, just as important, we must ensure that institutions provide the support and resources that are necessary for the people who are doing the work to be successful.
Progress in areas doesn’t happen overnight, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums community is making moves in the right direction.
“Many organizations are trying to figure out how to move DEIA forward and some are having a hard time knowing how to start,” said Jasmine Williams, community partner program coordinator, Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash. “We want to empower everyone to be leaders and have the courage to move DEIA forward in their own sphere.”
Williams and her colleagues cite several qualities and strategies that will benefit others who would like to take on a leadership role. These include identifying and leveraging your individual strengths and seeking counsel from those with more experience.
“Leadership doesn’t look the same for everyone," said Curtis Bennet, director of equity and community engagement, National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md. “We all have our own unique skills and traits, and in any position I’ve had, I’ve tried to focus in on what’s helping me be successful. Mentorship is so important. I’ve been fortunate to have many people saying, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing in you that’s really working well; and here are some areas of improvement for you to work on to be the leader you want to be.’ And when I mentor people, I always ask, ‘What are your gifts and strengths?’ We all have a role to play.’”
Making the move from being passionate about DEIA to being a leader who can effect change also requires the ability to inspire and guide the people in your sphere.
“A leader is someone that people can trust; someone they know has their best interests in mind; and someone who creates spaces for people to be who they are,” said Williams. “You don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room, but it’s about finding your voice and developing the ability to have influence, which comes from the trust and relationships that develop over time.”
“Leader” does not have to be synonymous with “supervisor.” An effective influencer can be anyone, at any level, in any department. “A lot of work happens collaboratively,” said Bennett. “There are opportunities to flex your leadership skills with peers in your department, or on cross-departmental projects, or in working with interns or volunteers.”
Mental and emotional health and the willingness to go to uncomfortable places is also a requirement for DEIA work. “It requires a lot of courage and you’re very vulnerable,” said Williams. “We’re talking about things that people don’t talk about … like race and transphobia and lived experiences that can be triggering. People are afraid to say or do the wrong thing, and that can immobilize you … you have to be willing to try and accept that you’ll make mistakes. There’s lots of unlearning that has to happen, and that’s hard.”
There is widespread agreement on the importance of incorporating DEIA into the DNA of every zoo and aquarium and ensuring that all staff members take ownership of that effort. It can’t simply rest with an organized council or committee, or a single person whose title includes the words “equity” or “diversity.” However, making sure DEIA is seen as a priority can present challenges.
“There’s always so much going on that is urgent,” said Grayson Ponti, advisor to the diversity committee. “Making sure a tiger is safe in its habitat will always be more urgent than saying, ‘we need to engage in equity programs.’ We’re making progress, and we need to be able to appreciate incremental changes.”
Kohring agrees that change is happening, and she was encouraged by the fact that DEIA was a part of every session she attended at AZA’s Mid-Year Meeting and the fact that many people are talking about how they can use the DEIA lens in their work.
“Awareness is increasing, and people are realizing there are systemic issues that have to be addressed,” she said. “And that could require an institution-wide culture shift. If DEIA is part of who we are, how do we change the organizational structure and practices to support that? Ideally, everyone can be a leader, but executives tend to think, ‘If people are interested, they just have to do it.’ But, they have to look intentionally at the way their organization is designed. They have to lay the foundation for people to opt-in.”
Kohring offers the example of volunteer service as one activity that could be reworked to create a more equitable playing field.
“Say you have a keeper who’s really passionate about DEIA work, but his job is very focused on animal welfare. We need to look at how he could serve on the diversity council so that’s part of what he does and not an additional burden. … If people are doing DEIA work because it’s the right thing to do, the right thing should be compensated.”
In addition to providing time and payment for that type of activity, Kohring suggests offering mental health resources and training.
“A part-time employee may not have mental health benefits, and this is difficult work … The minute you opt-in, and people know you’ve opted in, you become a space for people to come and share their experiences. It’s a lot of emotional labor. People who do this work come in with a passion but burn out easily. You could offer leadership development opportunities, information about self-care, and training so they have a deeper understanding of all aspects of DEIA.”
Bennett suggests that understanding the context of DEIA within AZA’s mission is necessary for people who want to step into a leadership role. “You have to ensure that people know what the broader plans are supposed to accomplish, and where they see alignment with their interests. They should ask, ‘Are there areas where I can continue to learn and grow and embody the values that our organization, our industry, are seeking to advance?’”
Initiatives that promote diversity, equity, access, and inclusion will be an integral part of achieving the mission of every member institution. As we work with stakeholders on a global scale in a world that is becoming increasingly diverse, our need for more DEIA advocates has never been more important.
“We can’t wait,” said Williams. “We need more people to step up and be leaders. Wildlife conservation needs it. Raise your hand to be involved. You can make a difference. You can lead. If we’re all doing this, we can move the needle.”
Hero Photo Credit: ©National Aquarium
Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.