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Understanding Progress in DEAI Efforts

By Alina Tugend
min read

Measuring Success

The racial reckoning that has roiled the country over the past few years means that diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) issues have taken on a greater urgency, as has a desire for a deeper understanding of what such phrases actually mean.

“How do we track progress and provide some transparency and accountability?” asked Amy Rutherford, director of professional development and education at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “When it comes to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, that’s something we consistently hear organizations struggle with.”

As part of the Social Research Agenda published last year by the AZA, aimed at guiding the next ten years of social science research by and about accredited zoos and aquariums, five key questions were posed:

  • How can zoos and aquariums help build a more equitable society through critical reflection on their internal operations, culture, and communications? How can zoo and aquarium diversity, equity, access, and inclusion efforts support this?
  • How can zoos and aquariums help build a more equitable society through critical reflection on their internal operations, culture, and communications? How can zoo and aquarium diversity, equity, access, and inclusion efforts support this?
  • What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to social change toward conservation?
  • What is the role of zoos and aquariums in contributing to the development of a person’s intellectual, social emotional, and physical well-being?
  • How can zoos/aquariums maximize their systemic impact on conservation?

The AZA also issued a revised accreditation standard that requires all facilities to follow a written DEAI program that is transparent and proactive with measurable goals and must have at least one paid staff member or committee responsible for oversight.

A real challenge, which was explored by an AZA panel at the Annual Meeting last month, is how do you actually provide metrics that measure success around DEAI and not just tokenize the effort?

“Some people focus on the tangible—hypothetically example, our staff is 15 percent black and two percent Asian, so our staff is reflective of our community,” said Rutherford. “But can those people show up as their authentic selves? Where do they serve? Is it frontline staff or hospitality?”

There will be similarities among zoos and aquariums in trying to reach those goals, but also differences, said Joy Kubarek, co-founder and partner of Inform Evaluation & Research, an education, research, and evaluation consulting firm.  

“Every zoo and aquarium has to look at their own cultures and how they help address or inhibit diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion,” she said.

Most leadership and staff of AZA facilities are white and middle class, without a lot of diversity.

“So, why is that?” she asked. “Are there certain practices and policies we have in place that contribute to whitewashing of staff? We need to ask—what could we do to be more representative of our communities?” 

Zoos and aquariums are undertaking a variety of initiatives, including instituting mandatory training programs, establishing working groups, and hiring diversity officers. Many are also undertaking baseline surveys to better understand the views of their staff, volunteers, and guests.

The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles, Calif., conducted its first annual inclusion and belonging assessment last July.

Secret Science day at Denver Zoo

“It was designed to help us understand where we are as an organization and how people across our entire Zoo are experiencing this place,” said Jess Kohring, the Zoo’s director of equity programs. The anonymous 22-question survey of all staff was conducted during the pandemic, when most workplaces were in upheaval; nonetheless, they received 212 responses—about 53 percent.

About 85 percent agreed that the organization lived up to the value of being diverse and 84 percent said they would refer a friend or family from an underrepresented group to work there. Some of the areas that needed more work, however, were improving communication within teams and more equal opportunities to grow and succeed.

“One of the things that has been an eye opener for me is all the biases built into our systems,” she said. “Each organization has its own challenges and opportunities. For example, we are part of the City of Los Angeles and operate under the civil service system which has many equity issues. But being a part of the city also provides unique opportunities to leverage its diverse resources. The question is, who is your organization and what is your locus of control? We all have broader systems in which we all have to operate. You can’t wait for the big systems to be changed—so look at how you can build connections and partnerships to increase your locus of control.”

The Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y., which runs the Bronx Zoo, the Central Park Zoo, the New York Aquarium, the Queens Zoo, and Prospect Park Zoo, co-developed logic models with a council, a group of employees charged with advancing DEAI at the institution. 

“Logic models connect how your activities as an organization are advancing your long-term goals,” said Su-Jen Roberts, director of educational research and evaluation at WCS. “What WCS did strategically was to make sure all stakeholders were a part of the logic model. Anyone involved in implementing the process should have their voices included early on.”

Logic models could look very different at different organizations, Roberts said. Those facilities focused on visitor experience may have a single logic model, while others concentrating on employees, employee retention, and visitors may have different models.

“These are intended to be living models,” she said. “As we learn new things and work on implementing new projects, logic models should be updated, such as making goals more specific or adding new activities.”

The Denver Zoo, in Denver, Colo., has focused on both their audience and their staff as part of their strategic plan through 2025. One goal is that by 2025, 40 percent of “all our community conversations and listening activities” are with people who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of Color (BIPOC), ability diverse, direct neighbors, and non-visitors, said Marley Steele-Inama, director of community research and evaluation at the Zoo.

The Zoo’s guest data, she said, indicates that some BIPOC groups do not believe the Zoo provides the same sense of belonging that white guests feel; this sentiment is measured through a daily guest experience survey. In addition, the Zoo conducts a more in-depth biannual demographic survey where guests are randomly surveyed when they enter the Zoo and asked to complete a one-page demographic survey—approximately 7,000 are collected every other year.

Within the staff, the goal by 2025 is to double the percent of staff and volunteers who identify as BIPOC, and the Zoo will measure that goal by conducting annual demographic and diversity, equity, and inclusiveness sentiment surveys of all staff and volunteers. It is not just focused on numbers, Steele-Inama said, but also issues like retention, such as how long do traditionally marginalized staff and volunteers typically stay with the Zoo compared with white staff?

Keeper with a sloth at Denver Zoo

The question of why the guests who visit the Saint Louis Zoo in St. Louis, Mo.—which has free admission, is in a diverse community, and has no known legal history of segregation—does not better reflect the surrounding community shows how complicated it can be to move the needle on diversity and inclusion.

Amy Niedbalski, the Zoo’s director of conservation, audience research, and evaluation, was the Saint Louis Zoo’s first audience researcher, hired in 2006. Although questions of who visits the Zoo have long been a point of study, it took on far more importance seven years ago.

“What I saw happen in 2014—Ferguson changed the narrative in St. Louis, in the country, if not the world—just as we saw George Floyd do this past year,” she said. “To me diversity and inclusion wasn’t just a conversation anymore—it became a priority.”

In 2016, the Zoo started a diversity and inclusion committee and has been working for the past five years with nine teams. Many departments developed individual initiatives.

“But we were not as strategic as we could have been,” Niedbalski said. So, over the past year, they streamlined down to four teams, three focused on the internal areas, such as vendors and staff, while the fourth is focused on community.

“The Zoo is now embracing data-driven decision-making in regard to DEAI goals and measurements,” she said, and under her auspices conducted an extensive survey of 800 people with nine different categories of race and income—Black, Latino and white at three different income levels. 

The survey was kept to under 15 minutes and done online and by phone by a research organization; it included a wide array of questions, such as asking respondents if they typically played indoors or outdoors as children. Research shows that spending time outside as a child helps predict future environmental attitudes and behavior, Niedbalski said.

The result? A mound of data Niedbalski is still digging through.

“We hope to identify strategies to make the audience more diverse, but also, it’s about equity—how to support our community and how to connect with communities we’re not connecting with now.”

Top photo credit: ©Robin Winkelman, Saint Louis Zoo
Middle and bottom photo credit: ©Denver Zoo

Alina Tugend is a writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.


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