The hashtag #BlackInNature was trending on Twitter.
It marked the start of the inaugural Black Birders Week in May 2020, and Black birders and other environmentalists were sharing stories and photos celebrating Black nature enthusiasts everywhere.
What started as a response to an incident in Central Park, N.Y., when a white woman called the police on a Black man while he was birding, united Black shark scientists Jasmin Graham, Carlee Jackson, Amani Webber-Schultz, and Jaida Elcock, inspiring them to start Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS).
“Whenever we saw each other in that space it was the first time any of us had seen other Black women doing shark science and it’s hard to put into words; but there’s this sense of relief, this sense of having a community, not feeling isolated anymore,” said Graham, president and chief executive officer of MISS and project coordinator for the MarSci-LACE project at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla. “We wanted to give that same feeling to other women of color.”
“Our main mission is to highlight diverse voices in shark sciences and also increase diversity in this field by uplifting those voices and being the representation for the next generation—being the representation that we didn’t have ourselves growing up,” said Jackson, director of communications for MISS and sea turtle research associate for the New College of Florida based at The Walt Disney Company. “Our membership program provides a safe space for women of color where they can talk, share resources, and collaborate on research. It is a place made by us and for us that benefits us.”
MISS has more than 300 members, debunking the myth that minorities aren’t interested in shark science.
“Whenever someone tells us ‘there’s no diversity in shark science because black people aren’t interested in shark science,’ we can point to 300 women of color who are interested or are already in shark sciences. That has definitely been really cool,” said Jackson.
MISS has two types of members: those who identify as a woman of color and Friends of MISS—those who do not identify as a woman of color. According to their website, “MISS is a safe space and Friends of MISS will be held to a high standard. Friends of MISS must demonstrate allyship, support the mission of MISS with their words, actions & deeds. Friends of MISS must be willing to work hand-in-hand with MISS to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the field of shark science.”
Meghan Holst, a friend of MISS and AZA aquarium professional, and Jennie Janssen, a member of MISS and AZA aquarium professional, were inspired by MISS to take the next step and bring these same goals to an organization focused on aquarium and zoo science.
“I saw that the aquarium and zoo industry was in dire need. Every time that I go to a conference, I see a single demographic and find that problematic. There are a lot of things in our community that prevent our profession from being diverse,” said Holst, who is white. “For a long time, I was waiting for somebody else to do something. After watching MISS develop, I felt that it was no longer necessary for me to sit around and wait—it was time for me to do something.”
That’s when Holst and Janssen co-founded Minorities in Aquarium and Zoo Science (MIAZS).
“We want to advance these professions by diversifying the people, which then diversifies the perspectives. By having all the points of view, it allows us to be stronger and consider all the factors,” said Janssen, who is Chinese American. “In doing that, we’ve set just two goals, it’s very, very simple: bring more people of color into the community and support and retain the existing minorities in these fields and those that will follow after them.”
Holst and Janssen aim to accomplish their mission by developing financial and social opportunities as MIAZS progresses. Financial opportunities they intend to develop include scholarships for MIAZS member conference attendance and appropriate aquarium and zoo science college programs. Additionally, they aim to partner veteran aquarium and zoo scientists with MIAZS members to advance member networks.
Another organization with the goal to bring more minorities into the zoo and aquarium field is the Association of Minority Zoo and Aquarium Professionals (AMZAP). While the organization formally launched in February this year, the idea for AMZAP came to Craig Saffoe, curator of large carnivores at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, when he was at a Felid Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) meeting in 2018. He has been in this community for more than 25 years and that meeting was the first Felid TAG where he saw another Black man specifically taking care of big cats.
“One of the things we talked about was here is a Black man in Fresno taking care of lions, I’m a Black man in DC taking care of lions, we’ve never met before, we don’t know who each other are. There have to be more people of color in between Fresno and DC taking care of cats,” said Saffoe. “That sparked this idea—how can we get to know each other and see the cool things other people of color are doing?”
AMZAP’s objectives are to build a sense of community among minorities in the field and to promote animal care and conservation careers as viable opportunities for minorities. AMZAP is working towards this through their networking, outreach, mentorship program, and professional development.
The AMZAP leadership is made up of eight steering committee members, including Saffoe and Carolina Powell, an animal keeper with primates at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and a first-generation Colombian American.
Powell is used to being one of the only minorities in her department and not being able to easily relate to coworkers and their experiences. She appreciates the camaraderie that AMZAP and other identity-based organizations provide to minorities. She also hopes these organizations open doors for people of color to be exposed to animals and conservation and have easier access and entry into this community.
In February, MISS launched their Gill Guardians online educational courses to educate people about sharks, skates, and rays; the threats they face; and conservation efforts to protect them. There are lesson videos, activities, quizzes, and action items broken down by grade level, and some lessons for adults.
In March and April, MISS was able to host two weekends of in-person workshops that were fully funded through donations and with help from their partner the Field School, who donated their live-aboard research vessel and staff.
“One of the biggest barriers for women of color, and really for everyone in general, in shark science is getting experience and having to pay for it,” said Jackson. “Shark science is a very pay-to-play world and that is exclusionary. We wanted to provide something that is free of cost—we’ll pay for your travel and we’ll cover your stay on the boat and you’ll be able to get a full weekend experience learning how to tag sharks and all that good stuff.”
MIAZS has resources on their website for mental health, allyship, students and aspiring professionals, and members of MIAZS. They are also creating a career pamphlet to send to Title I schools and beyond to show the professions available in aquarium and zoo science, the diversity of people that can work in those professions, and the MIAZS website, where career path resources and information are accessible to help people on their journey.
“We want to make sure that kids of all backgrounds can see these fields exist as real jobs and are filled by people of all kinds—so that they can see themselves in these professions,” said Janssen. “Trying to centralize that information and do it in a way that people can navigate it and find it in one place, that’s part of what we are trying to do.”
Additionally, they have workshops on different topics, like interviews and resume building, and on how white colleagues can be allies within these organizations.
“I think it is important for people to know that white people do need to be doing the work. I think we need to be very transparent about race and our role within this. I know that, as a white person, a huge part of my role is to listen,” said Holst. “But the other part of that role, in listening, is actually doing something when our Black, Indigenous, and people of Color colleagues, friends, and family are telling us over and over again what they need. We need to be putting those words into action.”
These organizations provide much-needed representation and are helping to put the zoo and aquarium community on track for a more equitable future, but the work isn’t over. One of the biggest issues to tackle is unpaid internships.
“That unpaid work is the primary recipe to get into this community is problematic and disproportionally impacts groups of people that might not come from money. There are problems with asking people to work for free, and it does create a single demographic that we continue to see in this industry,” said Holst. “We’re selecting out a lot of extremely qualified, intellectual people that can’t afford to work for free.”
Still, the future is promising and the support that these organizations have received show that we are moving in the right direction.
"We’re all out here, existing on this planet together, with all of these organisms, with all of this beautiful diversity of plants and animals, this beautiful diversity of people, and just like all different kinds of animals exist for a reason, all different types of people exist for a reason. The beauty of conservation is that we’re trying to preserve biodiversity, and we can apply those same principles of diversity among the conservationists,” said Graham.
Hero photo: Carlee Jackson at a MISS Workshop. Photo Credit: ©Cliff Hawkins