September 30, 2020

The Path Toward More Just and Equitable Communities

In light of the current national conversation around social justice and equity, we were pleased with the discussion on these topics at the recent AZA National Conference. They were woven throughout many sessions—not only those specifically focused on diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. These topics were discussed in the Zoo Veterinarians session, the general session, the Board Transition session, the Navigating Leadership session, the Women in Leadership session, and of course in the Black Voices and Diversity sessions. We learned additional terminology currently in use beyond DEAI: JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) and IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and access). No matter which you prefer, these acronyms make clear that we’re acknowledging the hard work that needs to happen to improve these areas of our culture, community, and profession. Read on to reflect, learn, and take action on how you and your institution can make change happen.     

To start off, we’re still reflecting on this powerful parallel drawn from within our industry by Corina Newsome, Community Engagement Manager at the Georgia Aquarium, during Tuesday’s General Session: We talk a lot about the importance of genetic diversity in terms of animal collections and species preservation. Genetically diverse populations are more likely to overcome threats and thrive because they have the answers in their genes. The same applies to human diversity in organizations. When you’re facing a challenge with a diversity of thought and experience, the answer is more likely to be “in the room.” But at the same time, pay attention to silence to understand whose voice is not being represented—those are the people not at the table.

  • If we value diversity in biology and conservation, why not diversity in our people? Diversity in problem-solving brings better solutions.

  • To quote the AZA statement, Bert Castro, President/CEO of Phoenix Zoo, noted, “we will protect human diversity as much as we do diversity in nature. When a key element is removed from nature, problems ensue. The same is true for the human community.”

By far, the biggest theme was to get comfortable with discomfort. Many of the discussions surrounding social equity are awkward and difficult. Open yourself up to this challenging discussion and do it with a sense of urgency. This is the moment to embrace an opportunity towards a more just and equitable future for all.

  • Especially now, we need to be brave, bold—there’s more pressure on our environment in unseen ways than ever before. These times are scary, require change; some of the conversations this week might have made you uncomfortable, nervous, a little afraid—and that’s good. We need to address that. We need to look for opportunities in this pandemic, especially for women and people of color.

Fully engage your community. Approach it with humility, authenticity, and transparency. Take time to meet people where they are—literally; we need to get outside our own boundaries and LISTEN!

  • Think about your mission and look for the intersection of your mission with your community—where’s the fit?

  • To fully understand your community, get to know the power structure, how they communicate with each other, and what concerns them.

  • Don’t settle for a “one and done.” Think of community programming as a continuum, offering a sequence as kids age to enable them to continue their engagement and build community. The mindset should be “build constellations not stars.”

  • “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Hire/promote people who reflect community.

Speakers shared testimonials to help the audience understand life from their standpoint:

  • Luis Padilla, Vice President of Animal Collections at the Saint Louis Zoo, gave an excellent talk on the lack of diversity in the veterinary community but extended his remarks to the zoo community as a whole. He noted that it’s not always bias, but lack of candidates due to several factors that restrict the diversity of the candidate pool. He was powerful about how having to volunteer to get experience kept many of lesser means—particularly people of color—from getting the experience to “move up the ladder.” He was passionate that he is where he is now because the Smithsonian’s National Zoo gave him a training opportunity that had a small stipend.

  • Bert Castro gave a powerful statement about bias that he has faced as a Spanish-speaking Cuban immigrant and his trials prior to becoming the first Latino AZA Board Chair.

  • Denise Verret, Zoo Director at Los Angeles Zoo, stated, “I know I may be the first black woman director, but that also means I won’t be the last.”

Specific actions were discussed that you can implement now, as either a manager or an employee, to show up and be present. We can’t just talk diversity and have the mindset “if you don’t see it, it’s not a reality”—cultural authenticity is critical to our future.   

  • “Some people say when we bring race into the [environmental/conservation] conversation, we’ve lost our way.” This is not so. We need to have this conversation. Some leaders don’t feel equipped to lead this conversation, but we need to dive in; white people who are afraid they don’t have the right language need to ask for help.

  • It’s important to ask, “what perpetuates this whiteness?” Look for structural issues, racism, unintentional barriers/requirements to employment, etc.

  • As a person of color, be available, but don’t let it all fall on your shoulders; it takes everyone to dismantle systemic racism.

  • We need to chip away at DEAI issues, not tackle everything at once to make change.

  • Engage the younger generation:

    • Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) can be great partners in assisting us with paid internships for people of color. Our organizations can give opportunities that aren’t available elsewhere. We can be part of the pathway to jobs through mentoring.

    • Focus on engaging eager young people/adolescents.

    • Be “2% more honest”. Be intentional. Don’t be a part of the problem, as we have real systemic work to do in our organizations.

 Stay tuned for additional AZA Conference Takeaways on other topic areas.

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