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A Journey, Not a Destination

By Mary Ellen Collins
min read

Growing an Inclusive Culture

It sounds simple and straightforward. An inclusive organization is one in which everyone feels included, welcomed, and respected—staff, volunteers, visitors, and members of the surrounding community. The process of becoming inclusive, however, is complex, layered, and challenging. Think of it as an outcome of having achieved diversity, equity, access and inclusion. 

Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities recognize that being inclusive contributes to their overall success as community-serving conservation organizations, but most realize they still have work to do. And differences among facilities naturally result in different methods, areas of focus, and timelines.

“Every institution is at a different stage of its journey,” said Curtis Bennett, director of equity and community engagement, National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md. “This work requires a lot of self-awareness, transparency and humility—we know we aren’t where we need to be and we know there are areas for growth. We have to understand where we are, where we want to go, and how to get there. It takes many people to move a culture forward.”

There is no formula for the process, but the common denominators are a willingness to learn, a desire to do better, and an understanding that the journey is never really over.

Leadership and Institutional Commitment

The effort to become more inclusive must be an organization-wide priority with the leadership providing support and making an investment in the work.

“The director and the leadership have to have an awareness of need and a commitment to progress,” said Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Ore.  “For example, we were at the end of a $150 million renovation and I had no idea how far behind in accessibility we were. I assumed that because our projects were brand new, we met ADA standards.”

A review by a group of staff and differently-abled members of the community identified hundreds of items that needed to be addressed. Moore’s team is now working their way through a comprehensive Accessibility Plan with the help of the newly created Community Accessibility Work Group (CAWG). One of their first efforts was getting the Zoo certified as a sensory-inclusive facility through KultureCity. 

Three people watch as two males dig holes in the dirt to make a monarch garden

Photo Credit: © National Aquarium 

“Remember—the ADA is a floor, not a ceiling—so we strive to meet the true needs of all people, not just the legal requirements,” said Moore. “The CAWG and other community members have helped us a lot in understanding these needs.”

A critical part of addressing barriers to inclusion is ensuring that everyone within the facility is communicating the same message while employing the same strategies.

Bennett and his colleagues developed a survey for the National Aquarium staff, which was initially deployed at the vice presidential and director levels to start the process of understanding their current baseline.

“We asked, ‘Where have you as an individual and in your department integrated principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice into your work?’ We found that there was variation among the departments, which is to be expected. Again, we’re all at different stages of this journey. There’s a need for organizational consistency … this has to be supported by broader organizational framing and commitment. The organization has to put its stamp on it. In addition to this work having moral value, it is mission critical. It has to be at the forefront of what we do and how we do it.”

Conversation and Learning

Moving from intention to action can be challenging, according to Mara-Lynne Payne, manager of diversity and inclusion, Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn.  “The talk is easier than the walk. It takes resources and investment, and it’s not as easy as it should be. You start with the things you can do, and training is the easiest way to start.”

Whether you address these issues in focus groups and informal conversations or more formal presentations, the most critical component is to ensure that they happen in a safe place. Participants need to be comfortable having difficult conversations, and know they can express themselves without fear of recrimination. This type of work requires a very specific set of skills, leading some facilities to bring in professional trainers or other outside experts. Otherwise, the most effective strategy is to rely on staff members who have direct expertise in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.

Two men in the bushes picking up trash

Photo Credit: © National Aquarium 

Laura Martina, the chief people officer at Fresno Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif., hired Dean Watanabe as chief conservation education officer for just those reasons. He has created the Zoo’s diversity and inclusion committee and is in the process of helping to create the Zoo’s diversity statement and its strategic diversity plan.

“What really sold me was his awareness around DEIA topics,” Martina said. "He has the connections and understanding of why it’s important to have diverse teams because of his prior experience. We had a need in the organization and he fit the need. Dean demonstrates empathy, and has a way of creating a calm and comfortable environment that people respond to. He understood what is needed in a successful program; and he was willing to put the time in to create a plan and execute it. I would say we are in the early stages of aligning our diversity and inclusion program with our culture as an organization, but partnering with a leader like Dean, I am confident in our success.” 

Diversity Across the Board

Moore often reminds his staff of a pivotal statement made by an African American leader in the community: Underrepresented doesn’t mean under resourced.

“I’ve had to tell people this more than once, because when we talk about reaching out to the community, someone automatically says ‘Let’s have a free day.’ You don’t open programs out of pity. It’s about relationships and relationship-building takes time. It needs to start with conversations and it’s harder to have conversations if you don’t have diversity on your staff. Directors need to be very aware of their local diversity, staff diversity, and the diversity of their visitors.”

Charlisa Shelly, director of human resources, Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Mo., recounts one small experience that illustrates the need for diversity within the profession. “I saw a group of young Black kids listening to a white keeper doing a keeper chat, and they were quietly standing and listening, like you would in a museum. Later on I saw them with a young Black keeper doing a chat with a snake and they were all over her. The interaction with her was completely different than it had been with the white keeper. They saw a person they identified with and that that made the experience more enriching. People who come through the gate need to see people who look like them.”

To that end, the Jim Hill Diversity Fellowship Program at the Tennessee Aquarium is one example of trying to create more diversity in the profession. “It’s named for the second president and chief executive office of the Aquarium and it is designed to introduce minority students to the fields of science and conservation,” said Payne. “A lot of students of color can’t afford to take unpaid internships, and this is an 11-week paid internship that includes housing. It’s for college juniors and seniors and they work right alongside the keepers and the staff, which gives them an opportunity to get their foot in the door in the zoo and aquarium profession.”

Focus on Justice

Groups of people looking at sharks in the water at the National Aquarium

Photo Credit: © National Aquarium 

Some organizations, like the National Aquarium, consider justice another integral aspect of inclusion, as it is “inextricably linked to access,” according to Bennett. “For us, access goes far beyond our campus; we also believe it’s essential to ensure our programs and projects are intentionally designed to support our communities in removing barriers that hinder equal opportunities to clean air, water, and neighborhoods. We can’t change the way humanity cares for the planet unless we move barriers.”

Kathayoon Khalil, conservation impact manager at the Oregon Zoo is approaching the issue of justice by creating the Conservation Justice Academy, a one-week, virtual pilot program for middle school students. 

“They are at the age where they’re creating their own moral ethic,” she said. “Conservation is a people problem, and we are not including the right people in our conservation efforts.”

Each day’s three-hour session will include one hour taught by a conservationist of color; and two hours learning about a specific topic, like colonialism or exclusion, along with activities like empathy exercises. Those will be taught by people of color from the Zoo Animal Presenters (ZAP) program.  Khalil is limiting the program to between 10 and 15 participants because she doesn’t want their voices to get lost.

“I want to educate people in an in-depth and intentional way,” she said. “I’m hoping that students come away with a great deal of empathy for people not like them. I hope they feel empowered to have the difficult discussions, and that they see how the Zoo is advancing this work.”

As Khalil and others travel different paths toward inclusion, they are motivated by the same things. “It’s not about finishing the task,” she said. “It’s about continually progressing toward a better future. People understand that conservation is everyone’s job. We want this to be a field in which all people feel valued and worthy of participation.”

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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