February 2, 2021

Diversity, Equity, Access & Inclusion: Starting with “Why?”

By Lori Perkins

Last spring, we were just getting comfortable with the strange new routines of life in the midst of pandemic. The safety of our families and our mostly-closed zoos and aquariums had become our singular priorities. Our only wider interest was in the national toilet paper supply.

And then, on May 25th, two incidents jolted us out of that insularity: the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the confrontation between bird-watcher Christian Cooper and dog-walker Amy Cooper in Central Park. Those coincident events were shocking enough to profoundly capture the country’s (and the world’s) attention. Racial injustice has been happening in our culture in one way or another for more than 400 years, but there was something new here. AZA and many individual zoos and aquariums felt moved to step out of their traditional focal areas and issue statements decrying racism and calling for social justice.  

AZA presented the situation as “a logical expansion of our prior efforts to transform how our communities, our nation, and our world view diversity, equity, access, and inclusion” [DEAI], and an opportunity to drive and sustain mission-related change. Beyond issuing a statement, AZA also developed an accreditation standard requiring proactive and transparent DEAI programs.  

What Does DEAI Have to Do with Zoos & Aquariums?

It’s fair to ask: why should these societal issues have anything to do with operating zoos and aquariums? Why is this an accreditation issue? Why is it relevant to our core missions of conservation and population sustainability?  

The Importance of Biodiversity

Our profession’s recognition of the fundamental importance of biodiversity in saving species would seem to give us a head start towards embracing human diversity in all its forms and recognizing its inherent value. We promote to our guests the ideal of living harmoniously with the diversity of species that share our environment—it would seem an easy step to apply those same ideals to human communities.

Business Case

While embracing biodiversity is core to who we are as organizations, the reason social equity has a place in aquarium and zoo accreditation is an economic one. AZA’s 2016 Business Case for Diversity provides the framework: zoos and aquariums are businesses that bring economic benefit to their communities. From a purely economic perspective, we know that as businesses advance DEAI efforts, they enhance the bottom-line benefits that lead to financial success and viability. The economic sustainability of the member organizations has always been part of the accreditation process, and the means by which economic viability is measured continue to evolve over time. The new accreditation standard is a part of that evolution.  

Being seen by our local communities as having awareness of and consideration for DEAI issues has a bottom-line benefit. The country is becoming increasingly racially, ethnically, and socially diverse, and it’s not surprising that the degree to which consumers see businesses as reflective of those cultural changes impacts their regard and affinity for those businesses. Zoos and aquariums are no exceptions. It’s economically beneficial for us to be ready to face community scrutiny.  


Another factor is understanding and accepting the people who make up our workforces. Having relevance to evolving generations of employees is key to recruitment and retention. Even if issues of equity and social justice may feel immaterial, remote, or abstract to leadership, they are undoubtedly very real and immediate to many employees. Demonstrating a sincere interest in addressing those issues is a direct means of supporting employee engagement and retention.   

But zoos and aquariums have a higher calling beyond being economically viable. They are both businesses and mission-driven conservation organizations. This gives answering the why about social equity gravitas beyond bottom-line economics. 

Can aquarium and zoo boards be encouraged to genuinely embrace the natural connection between championing biological diversity and promoting human diversity in staffing, board makeup, and vendor access? Will loftier goals beyond economics gain traction and promote a deeper sincerity for social justice and equity? 

That might be a steep hill, but one we should climb.   

Lori Perkins is Deputy Director at Birmingham Zoo and Of Counsel to Zoo Advisors.

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