Communities are a cornerstone of zoos and aquariums–and they’re also an important part of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Diversity Committee has helped shape AZA’s mission and in 2020, the Board of Directors added a fifth promise to the AZA Strategic Plan that addressed increasing DEIA.
One of the most important initial steps is to identify the local communities and think about them in a variety of ways. “Community” goes beyond the physical space in a city or town. It can include a particular race, a religion, a lifestyle (single parents, for example), a school, or even special interest groups. Thinking outside the box can help find partnerships in local faith communities, police or fire departments, or sustainable development NGOs and Fish and Wildlife Services.
“Institutions are getting savvy and finding out who’s around them and inviting them in. We’ll have a Latino Day or a Pride Day. But that doesn’t quite get at ‘who is in your community? What’s really important to those communities?’ Not the labels they put on themselves, but what’s actually important to them?” said Gail Lash of Ursa International. Lash is currently an advisor on the Diversity Committee and has been involved since its inception.
“The first question is often, ‘How do we find out?’ Is it a list from the city business council? Is it word of mouth? Is it who’s around as well as who’s not coming in our doors? Who can we influence to talk about the broader natural world that we serve?” asked Lash.
Despite being one of the few remaining free zoos, Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo., still finds it a challenge to increase its diversity–particularly racial diversity. Thanks to data gathering and evaluation, the Zoo has learned that 90 percent of its visitors are white despite the surrounding population being 37 percent non-white. The Zoo continues to study this by conducting randomized exit interviews throughout the year to obtain guest demographics.
“We do general marketing locally, paying attention to where ads are placed and ensuring some advertising is placed in more diverse markets. We also do direct mail for Zoo membership. This past year we experimented with different appeals to more diverse zip codes. These efforts to attract a greater diversity of guests came out of recommendations from our DEIA team,” said Jo-Elle Mogerman, director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park.
Nearly 10,000 East African immigrants live in North Saint Louis County. In order to build a relationship with this community, in 2019 the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Native Pollinator Conservation (CNPC) helped create the Shamba Ya Kijiji community garden after learning that the East African community in that area values native foods. The Zoo provided financial help alongside planting and pollinator education. The Zoo has also hosted several popular events for the area’s Latino and Afghan communities.
It didn’t stop there, however. The Saint Louis Zoo partnered with University Missouri-Saint Louis (UMSL) Community Innovation and Action Center on an 18-month Community Engagement and Participatory Research Initiative (CEPRI), jointly led internally by the Education and Conservation Audience Research and Evaluation departments. Through this process, the Zoo interacted with a variety of community members and stakeholders in North Saint Louis County. They established focus groups, community meetings, listening sessions, community asset mapping, local events, and surveys.
“Through the CEPRI process, we learned both what types of education programs our new neighbors were interested in and what they expected of us as neighbors,” said Mogerman. They held eight focus groups for 72 caregivers, teens, and residents in North Saint Louis County, including two held in foreign languages. The focus groups were asked about extracurricular activities, how families connect to nature, and how they spend their time, among other questions.
In 2018, Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., partnered with three community groups to create listening sessions to better understand the intersection of climate change and local community goals. Two themes emerged: connections between neighbors and safe places for self-expression. Sharing Our Stories, a co-created program in 2019, included materials translated into Khmer, English, and Spanish to reach as many local residents as possible.
“Through the relationships and trust we have built through our cultural festivals, we’re very fortunate to be in a position where we can lean on our diverse communities for their advice or to nominate outstanding members for recognition or put us in touch with leaders, partners, and stakeholders,” said Chelsey Coleman, community relations and events manager at Aquarium of the Pacific. The Aquarium has been working with its local community for over 20 years.
“However, we also know there are parts of our community we’re not engaging. Those will take additional programs and outreach. We know that efforts beyond reduced admissions and events are needed to continue building trust and belonging with some of the ten million learners in our Southern California Area,” she added.
To lower barriers that often limit participation in marine sciences, Aquarium of the Pacific established the African American Scholar Program for students in STEM fields related to aquarium work. Scholars receive financial support for academic endeavors, community connection, and networking opportunities to help further their education in the field. In its first year (2021), there were already ten scholars. In 2022, there are 11.
Also in 2021, the Aquarium recognized that unpaid volunteer and intern positions can present inclusion barriers. Later that year, the Aquarium started offering paid internships for college students interested in exploring aquarium career options.
When institutions are engaging in DEAI work, it’s important to have internal conversations that outline what various concepts mean with regards to the work they’re doing, and what goals they’re trying to achieve. This could be focusing on equity and inclusion in order to increase diversity among visitors. Or it could be creating a welcoming environment that encourages people to bring their best selves to work each day. But don’t focus solely on the goal, suggested Lash.
“It’s a typically human trait to come in with a goal and say, ‘Okay, we need to achieve X.’ And then just plow through and do it.” Instead, facilities should consult the communities they’re working with, she added. “Is that also their goal? Or is that even possible?”
“Focus on mission, but also focus on creating a better human community alongside the animal community,” she suggested. “Until humans are happy and content, the wild world will be at risk from conflicting human needs.”
While nobody likes to get anything wrong, learning what resonates (and what doesn’t) with local communities is an integral part of developing community relations. It’s about having a true discussion, not just an end goal—and a true discussion often involves some trial and error.
“This journey is try, try, and try better,” said Cassandra Ray, chief financial officer at the Saint Louis Zoo.
When the Zoo first started diversity fairs to increase minority and women-owned businesses participation, they had a hard time getting vendors.
“We learned that we had a reputation of sticking with incumbent vendors and being difficult to navigate.” They asked the director of procurement to serve as the lead for supplier diversity efforts. After giving this initiative her personal attention, she increased outreach efforts and engagement, which led to a 64 percent increase in the Zoo’s Vendor Registry Database from 2020 to 2021.
When all voices at the table are heard, there’s a larger impact on conservation. By addressing human needs, zoos and aquariums are ultimately addressing wildlife needs, as well. The AZA Diversity Committee put together resources along with several ELDP classes to help increase DEIA. And as usual, many zoos and aquariums are happy to share what worked (or hasn’t worked) for them. However, most zoos and aquariums will benefit from a highly personalized approach.
Coleman has some suggestions for facilities looking to reach out to new communities. “Start small and stay genuine. Strong community relationships take time to build and people will notice if you’re not reaching out for the right reasons. And I cannot stress the importance of clear and concise communication.”
Communities can be found anywhere and everywhere. One often under-considered community the Saint Louis Zoo identified are visitors with sensory processing disorders or those on the autism spectrum. The Zoo partnered with KultureCity, a nonprofit that provides sensory inclusion trailing for guests with sensory processing disorders. The Zoo now has signage warning about potential sensory challenge areas with noise, temperature, smells, or sounds, plus designated quiet spaces for relaxing. The Zoo also offers a sensory-friendly night each year at U.S. Bank Wild Lights. It mimics the traditional Wild Lights experience but includes sensory maps and specially trained Zoo staff.
“DEIA is a journey,” explained Mogerman. “The work is more important now than ever and it is mission based. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You have to nuance the wheel for your community.”
Photos Credit: © Aquarium of the Pacific
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.