When the Tennessee Aquarium’s glass peaks added their iconic silhouette to the Chattanooga, Tenn., skyline in 1992, the facility’s opening sparked a civic revolution in the city. For all its transformative impact, however, one of the most-historic precedents set by the Aquarium early on was its choice of leadership.
The Aquarium’s second president and chief executive officer, Jim Hill, who is African American, was one of the the first people of color to lead an Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facility. A former manager of a DuPont nylon production plant in Chattanooga, Hill succeeded inaugural president and chief executive officer, Bill Flynn, who saw the Aquarium through its lengthy construction period and the early months after its grand opening.
Prior to taking over, Hill participated in a feasibility study to determine the best path to bringing an aquarium to the Chattanooga waterfront. As part of that committee, Hill visited aquariums all over America. What he saw during those visits—or rather didn’t—was striking.
“I didn’t find one person of color,” Hill recalled. “My thought was, ‘This is not an accident. Either people are not recruiting them or young people don’t feel that they have an opportunity to work there.
“I felt that it should be easier to promote and encourage and get representation in zoos and aquariums than it was in places like DuPont. There was no doubt in my mind that I could make it happen if I got into a position that I could call the shots.”
In 1993, he got his chance. Hill was named president and chief executive at a time when the Aquarium was very much in the public eye and experiencing a tremendous boom in popularity. Thanks in part to that attention, the then-unprecedented leadership by a person of color didn’t go unnoticed.
“Good Morning America had a session at the Aquarium, and the host was just shocked to see that the president was black,” Hill said. “We got a lot of response to that from across the nation.”
During his presidency, which continued through 1995, Hill approached staffing with an intentional effort to increase representation. For diversity to be elevated from a temporary novelty to an institutional truth, change must begin at the top, he said.
“It’s all about leadership,” Hill said. “An executive can look at how to come up with programs and how to reach areas to bring in more diverse staff. You can do it from the bottom up, but it takes years to get anywhere that way.
“If people in town can see that the number one person at the Aquarium is a person of color, then they’re more apt to get on staff themselves.”
As President, Hill pushed to seek out at least one candidate of color for any open position. He didn’t accept excuses that no minority applicants existed. Instead, he encouraged a more active approach to recruitment by speaking directly to community groups or at job fairs and to headhunt talented minority applicants, even if they were outside the industry.
That sort of intentional approach is necessary to causing a tidal shift that will increase diversity in the long-term, he said.
“You’re looking at years of not seeing representation that should be there. It takes hard work to overcome that,” Hill said. “It’s not automatic. You have to go out and deliberately do things. You’re breaking down a lot of barriers.”
Hill is now retired, but he continues to serve as a volunteer and board member for a host of other civic organizations.
In 2019, the Tennessee Aquarium cemented the legacy of Hill’s pioneering leadership by renaming its Diversity Fellowship Program in his honor. The Jim Hill Fellowship is open to six conservation-minded students of color, who spend 11 weeks working alongside staff in the husbandry and education department as well as at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.
“The fellowship is a way of giving students opportunities to see how an aquarium runs and what’s in it for them,” he said. “Of all the ways I’ve seen to increase diversity, the fellowship is one of the best approaches we’ve taken.”
For all the progress that has been made to move the needle toward a more diverse zoological industry, achieving better representation is a long-term effort with no short-term solution. Nevertheless, Hill said, it’s a goal worthy of the struggle.
“It’s a never-ending job, but the benefit isn’t just one way,” he said. “It enhances the whole mission of the organization to be seen as one that’s receptive to having a diverse staff.”
Casey Phillips is the communications specialist at the Tennessee Aquarium.