One major goal of any diversity, equity, inclusion and access (DEIA) program is for an organization to be accessible and inclusive to the community it serves. For years, zoos and aquariums have neglected many groups within their greater communities. The reasons for this may include lack of knowledge and awareness, fear of change, and budgetary limitations. In recent times, we as an industry have made great strides to acknowledge and begin to address these disparities with a goal of truly serving everyone in our community.
We must be very intentional in our efforts. Oftentimes, decisions are made by the majority to “fix problems” for minority populations, without including voices from those communities. Acknowledging our ignorance and building and sustaining community partnerships that include community-based organizations serving diverse populations will assure that these voices are heard and that their true needs are recognized. By establishing diverse partnerships with these organizations, we can gain direct access to the community at large because these colleagues are well respected and knowledgeable about the needs and issues of populations they represent.
One example of a long-term collaborative partnership with a community-based organization is the Birmingham Zoo’s work with KultureCity. In 2014, I noticed a number of requests from area families for the Zoo to become more accessible to individuals with different sensory needs. After meeting with the founder of KultureCity, it became very clear that we had a great opportunity to work together to do this. As we started this journey, we had two options: Either we could read a few articles and put a program together to help improve access, or we could reach out to this community and find out what their specific needs were and how we could best serve them.
With the help of KultureCity, we collaborated on a yearlong research project that involved a focus group of more than 200 families with children who have sensory needs. We were able to take advantage of KultureCity’s strong reputation to leverage buy-in to the project from the community. The data collected from this study guided us in the development of the Sensory Inclusive Initiative, which was so well received by the community that it spread to other institutions throughout the city and can now be found in 90 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities and over 600 venues around the world with more being added every day.
“We’ve heard people say they struggle to find places to take their children that are inclusive. We listened to parents and took the steps to make our Zoo inclusive, so adults and children with sensory needs can come and truly enjoy time with us,” said Chris Pfefferkorn, president and chief executive officer of the Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Ala. “The Birmingham Zoo has created a connection to the community that is profoundly unique and impactful to everyone involved.”
Another example of a strong partnership with a community-based organization that assisted us in advancing access and inclusion at the Birmingham Zoo is our ongoing collaboration with the Magic City Acceptance Center (MCAC), a local nonprofit that serves LGBTQIA youth. In 2016 we were contacted by a mom who had registered her first grader for Summer Zoo Camp. She let us know that her child was in the process of gender transition and wanted to know what parameters we had in place to protect this camper. At that time, I can honestly say we were totally unprepared for the question. We were, however, willing to admit that we needed additional knowledge and guidance in order to ensure that this camper had a safe and positive experience. By working with MCAC, the Education Department was able to evaluate our camps program and identify areas that needed attention in order to ensure an inclusive experience for a trans child.
MCAC also provided training for the Education Department staff as well as our seasonal Zoo Camp staff. Since this initial collaboration, the MCAC has worked with us to ensure that our Teen Volunteer Program was also accepting and affirming to LGBTQIA teens in our community as well as providing a series of “LGBTQIA 101” training sessions for the entire Zoo staff.
"We deeply value our ongoing partnership with the Birmingham Zoo! This partnership extends far beyond LGBTQIA training sessions—it includes regular dialogue, mutual growth, accountability, and actionable responses to make the Zoo a consistent go-to space for our community,” said Amanda Keller, director of the Magic City Acceptance Center. “Our interaction with the incredible staff at the Birmingham Zoo has given us the confidence to refer LGBTQIA youth to summer camp and various programs which effectively serve all individuals. We celebrate this relationship because it expands the number of fully-integrated LGBTQIA affirming community spaces."
These are two examples of how the Birmingham Zoo has formed strong partnerships with community-based organizations in order to advance accessibility and inclusion for all members of the community. We still have a long way to go on our DEAI journey, but my main take-away at this point is that we cannot do it alone. We must listen to the voices out in the community and be willing to work with them to create a Zoo that acknowledges and affirms everyone’s unique needs and perspectives.
Roger Torbert is the vice president of education at the Birmingham Zoo.