December 17, 2020

Social Equity: An Action Plan For Change

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

In our continuing efforts to advance progress on social equity and diversity, Zoo Advisors hosted a New Tomorrow Community Conversation on Social Equity: An Action Plan for Change. Talking with leaders from around the AZA community, we set out to understand:

  • How to integrate social equity and diversity into your organizational mission;

  • What is AZA doing? At the Board level; in the Diversity Committee; and in Conservation; and

  • How aquariums and zoos and we, as individuals, can move forward and take action.

We walked away with these key messages:

  • Listen, listen, and listen some more.

  • Work collaboratively or nothing will get done.

  • Learn from and leverage what others have done; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

  • Be brave enough to step forward even if you don’t know where you’ll end—we need to take the first step.

  • We need to trust and know that our missteps might be due to a lack of knowledge and understanding.

  • We need to learn to be uncomfortable, because we will be.

  • It’s important to understand the WHY, then move forward.

  • Plans are important, but we especially need to include actions.

Our panelists provided great insights as we addressed these topics, including:

On what AZA is doing: “This board of directors [AZA Board] is 100% committed to this space… I’m just really proud to be a part of the board in this moment.” —Brian Davis, CEO, Georgia Aquarium

Speaking of what we need do as AZA: “It has to be more than just words on paper, we have to come up with meaningful actions… I think that we have to be brave enough to step forward, even if we don’t really know where our foot is going to land. … [a] wonderful quote that I think is attributed to Vaclav Havel: ‘it’s not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.’” —Lori Perkins, Deputy Director, Birmingham Zoo & Of Counsel to Zoo Advisors

On the importance of this work as individuals and organizations: “I think what is critical right now is to have a good understanding of the why and help people understand how to slowly venture into that space and feel that it’s okay to be uncomfortable, because what you’re going to gain on the other side is so much more beneficial, organizationally and individually.” —Brian Davis

On what we need to be doing: “It’s a constant learning opportunity and constant learning journey…. you take steps in the right direction each and every day as individuals, and certainly as an institution and as an industry… Sometimes it’s really easy to point the finger at others—well, you know, this department maybe needs to do this better… But let’s look in the mirror. Let’s think about what we can all be doing as individuals in a different way, challenging ourselves to think outside the box, within our spheres of influence.” —Curtis Bennett, Director of Equity and Community Engagement, National Aquarium

On the importance of awareness: “Try to think about what was it like to be that black kid who’s being not so subtly followed around the store by the security guard, and what must it feel like for that woman VP to have her male counterpart get praised for what she just said.” —Lori Perkins

On the work of the Diversity Committee, including development of a new accreditation standard related to diversity: “We know that just creating a standard isn’t enough. We’re working on the resources to support it.” —Dean Watanabe, Chief Conservation Education Officer, Fresno Zoo

Amy Rutherford, M.A.T., Director, Professional Development and Education at AZA, talked about how AZA staff are working to support this effort: “We’re in the middle of developing our work plans so that you’re going to see this showing up not just in an accreditation standard, or not just in, you know, our conference program…but across the board in our conservation and science work, in our government affairs, in our engagement efforts. It is something that all of our teams are thinking about and taking ownership of, which is exciting.”

When asked to list one takeaway from the conversation:

  • “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” —Brian Davis

  • “Listen and learn.” —Curtis Bennett

  • “Don’t be afraid.” —Dean Watanabe

  • “Make a plan. Move forward.” —Amy Rutherford

  • “Quoting Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view; until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” —Lori Perkins

Additional ideas from participants via the webinar chat:

“We developed a survey a couple years ago that addressed people’s perceptions on how they were already integrating DEIJ and access into their work; what they would like to see as priorities as part of our transformational organizational journey; as well as barriers (at both the org and departmental level) to increased intentionality of integrating DEIJ principles into who we are, what we do and how we do it. The results of that survey helped to inform our org DEIJ framework, which as an internal DEIJ steering committee (five of us), we split up those (~50 initial) one on one conversations. And they happened virtually for about an hour each. We’re collecting A LOT of information from staff related to internal (as well as external) DEIJ priorities which has been great!” —Curtis Bennett

One type of diversity I feel is often overlooked in our field is our partners in the field and the different cultures/demographics. One time an AZA leader told me that the Diversity Committee was the one committee in AZA that had nothing to do with conservation, but diversity in that realm is crucial to our impact and mission.” —Grayson Ponti

One of my favorite quotes is ‘To be an effective activator, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.’” —Jess Kohring (she/her)

I agree with Grayson that diversity must first start at our institutions at home, but then also in the field—for example, the Grevy’s Zebra Trust is the leading employer of women in northern Kenya, and many other examples exist.” —Eric Miller, Zoo Advisors

I also think it’s crucial that we go beyond lip service and do not compartmentalize DEAI. We need to do more than require a diversity program—we need to give institutions the resources to build their programs and help them make DEAI quintessential to everything they do.” —Grayson Ponti

I’m working on a framework that demonstrates how DEAI is a part of all of our strategic focus areas which then will allow our staff to see where there are gaps and opportunities.” —Marley Steele-Inama (she/her)

We just had this discussion at our org and thought because it’s such a serious subject that consistency would be a good idea. We changed ours from IDEA to DEAI.” —Wendy Campbell

Diversity and social justice are the same—they are not only the right thing to do on every level.  But in the end, to ignore our diversity is to ignore our institutional futures—socially, financially, and otherwise.” —Eric Miller

We’ve started using JEDAI, prioritizing justice as that is the root of this work.” —Jess Kohring (she/her)

The D often stands for diversity but I know of a school with a JEDI council (hehe) where the D stands for dignity and I love that.” —Alayna Schmidt (she/her)

I would also add: be intentional, authentic, and transparent!” —Curtis Bennett

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