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Elevating the Importance of Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion

By Kate Silver
min read

Finding Strength in Our Differences

“Our people are as important as our animals.”

This message, shared internally among staff at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., speaks volumes. At a time when diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) issues are top of mind at businesses, nonprofits, schools, and governments across the country, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities are also reckoning with difficult questions and challenges to ensure more voices are included and heard. 

“We can’t empower people to make a connection with nature unless we can connect with them first,” said Mara-Lynne Payne, senior manager of inclusion, equity, and diversity at the Tennessee Aquarium.

And while that notion seems straightforward, the transformation it takes to get there isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. It takes time, collaboration, and an ongoing effort to shift an organization’s culture, said Curtis Bennett, director of equity and community engagement at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md.

Keeper with a macaw at Brevard Zoo

Photo Credit: ©Brevard Zoo

“We must be intentional and set aside time for learning and growth, especially as it relates to diversity, equity, inclusion, access, and justice work. Doing this work doesn’t happen haphazardly. It won’t sustain itself that way. There must be dedicated time, energy, and resources,” said Bennett.

In order to succeed in a world where people respect, value, and conserve wildlife and wild places, people from all places and backgrounds must work together, and that demands diversity and inclusion of staff, volunteers, visitors, educators, suppliers, and beyond. To understand how zoos and aquariums are making strides in DEAI, we talked with AZA members around the country about their work in these areas. Read on to see how organizations that have long supported wildlife diversity are now working to foster DEAI amongst their own communities.

Seeking Out Education and Training Staff

In 2020, Lindsay Mathisen, inclusion coordinator at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., and her teammates decided to form a DEAI committee. To her surprise and delight, nearly 20 people from all parts of the Zoo volunteered to join. But when they sat down and got to work to write out the Zoo’s DEAI mission statement, they didn’t even know where to begin.

“We were overwhelmed,” said Mathisen. “So we decided we needed to stop moving forward at a rapid pace and actually take two steps back and get educated.” 

They found a free, online 14-hour course and certificate program offered through the University of South Florida called Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace, and encouraged committee members to sign up.

They then met every other week to discuss the course material and find ways to apply it to the Zoo.

“We talked about diversity, how to have those courageous conversations, why they are so important, and where do we start?” said Mathisen.

Kangaroo enrichment at Brevard Zoo

Photo Credit: ©Brevard Zoo

Those talks led to the Zoo’s first week-long Pride celebration in June, celebrating in unity with the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to creating t-shirts and promoting a different theme each day of the week, the Zoo sent out educational emails on LGBTQ+-related topics, including postings about tragic events, such as the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. Throughout the week, they reiterated Brevard Zoo’s position: “We stand together in unity, diversity, and pride.” 

Building a Diverse Pipeline and Working with Diverse Partners

Drawing students from varied backgrounds to training programs helps build a pipeline of diverse future employees.

Recognizing this, Tennessee Aquarium established a paying fellowship for minority college students called the Jim Hill Diversity Fellowship, which offers opportunities in education, conservation, and husbandry—and includes housing.

“We wanted to attract the top students from all over, not just students who could move to Chattanooga for the summer and afford to not be paid,” said Mara-Lynne Payne, senior manager of inclusion, equity, and diversity at the Aquarium. It’s drawn students to Tennessee from as far away as Oregon, Washington, and California.

For years, the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore., has worked closely with community organizations that serve marginalized communities. One of its initiatives, called the Zoo Animal Presenters program (ZAP) offers paid internships to teens of color and/or from low-income households who teach kids from partner organizations about animals and conservation.

An Oregon Zoo ‘ZAP’ intern talks to students from Vestal Elementary School

An Oregon Zoo ‘ZAP’ intern talks to students from Vestal Elementary School. Photo Credit: ©Oregon Zoo

In the past, the ZAP participants would visit those partner organizations; but when COVID-19 struck, the Oregon Zoo reached out to participating community organizations to invite kids to spend a day at the Zoo—complete with lunch, treats, and credit at the gift shop—and to learn from ZAP participants there.

Instead of community outreach, it became community “in-reach,” said Kimm Fox-Middleton, who is Oregon Zoo’s former interim education manager. “There’s been a lot of demand. The organizations are hungry to provide some relief for their kiddos,” she said. Plus, she adds, when kids learn from ZAP participants, they’re learning from someone who has a similar background, and they’re exposed to internship and employment opportunities at the Zoo they could one day pursue. “The Zoo’s survival depends on connecting with guests,” said Fox-Middleton.

The Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., strives to draw visitors that reflect the diversity of the city. To that end, the Community Partner Connections Program works with nearly 400 partners that support members of marginalized communities, such as immigrants and refugees, low-income seniors, children of incarcerated families, kids in the foster system, and others. In doing so, Community Partner Program Coordinator, Jasmine Williams, said they’re inviting everyone to support the Aquarium’s mission to inspire conservation of our marine environment.

“We cannot achieve our mission if we’re not including all people,” she said.

Diversity and Inclusion Go Hand-in-Hand

In 2016, the Tennessee Aquarium board devised a five-year strategic plan, with diversity, equity, and inclusion as focal points. The first action they took was to diversify the board, itself.

Dream Night at Seattle Aquarium

DreamNight at Seattle Aquarium. Photo Credit: ©Hannah Letinich, Seattle Aquarium

“We’re a community aquarium and our board and our staff should look like the community we serve,” said Payne. From there, the concept of inclusion became a top priority. That was important, said Payne, because they already had a diverse staff, and wanted to impart the message that everyone’s voice and opinion mattered.

“You can have the diversity, but if you don’t have the inclusion aspect of it, I don’t think we are meeting our goals,” said Payne. “We want a place where people are invited to give feedback, can participate, and can be themselves at work—and that’s where the inclusion part came in.”

Through a series of focus groups, employees and volunteers could vent and talk about challenges they encounter, such as conscious and unconscious biases. In addition, the team reevaluated the images it uses in marketing materials and exhibits—including animated characters—to diversify them in age, race, gender, ethnicity, and ability. “We want to make sure that names and images represent all types of guests,” said Payne.

At Oregon Zoo, Fox-Middleton noticed that two groups working on different aspects of education were sticking to themselves and not mixing. One group was the ZAP group—teens from communities of color and/or low-income families—and the volunteers, who are typically older adults that tend to be financially well-off.

“There was sort of a level of uncomfortableness for each side,” she said. So she came up with ways for them to meet one another and learn from each other through workshops, trainings, and events. “We’re all part of the same team,” she said.

At the National Aquarium, Bennett has been working to build and support a culture of learning and growth. In 2019, his external affairs team created community agreements to collectively address how they wanted to interact with one another as team members. That sense of openness, inclusiveness, and transparency has enabled them to examine and improve the way they communicate.

DreamNight at Seattle Aquarium

DreamNight at Seattle Aquarium. Photo Credit: ©Ryan Hawk, Seattle Aquarium

“That really set the tone, set the right environment for us to consistently have tough conversations that at their core are centered on group learning and growth,” said Bennett.

 That foundation was especially important in 2020, when the team started meeting bi-monthly for conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion, access, and justice (DEIAJ). During the meetings, two team members volunteer to work together in selecting articles, podcasts, and other media that focus on DEIAJ topics and principles and formulate discussion questions around how they intersect with conservation work.

“Team members have greatly appreciated the time and space to really dig into topics, to learn, reflect, and have thoughtful and intentional dialogue,” said Bennett.

Establishing a Supportive Network

When Seattle Aquarium formed a DEI Council in 2019, it occurred to Williams, who is co-chair of the council, that she could benefit from some support and camaraderie. So she and a colleague from Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., invited other facilities in the region to join a group they call a “community of practice,” to discuss different aspects of DEI work. They meet virtually every six weeks or so to share challenges, solutions, and resources. Williams said it’s been helpful to feel a part of the community as she tackles issues that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

“By knowing that there are folks in other institutions that are facing similar challenges, it removes that isolation that comes with DEI and the burnout that can happen around DEI,” she said. “Creating that support system and structure is really helpful.”

Hero: Dream night at the Seattle Aquarium. Credit: ©Hannah Letinich, Seattle Aquarium

Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.


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