February 9, 2021

Why is Social Justice so Important?

We opened our month of discussions on social justice with a vibrant conversation about the “whys” of engaging in this work. In our “Why is Social Justice So Important?” Community Conversation, led by Lori Perkins, our four panelists shared insights on both the business and mission cases for centering diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) at our institutions. The panelists for this discussion were Jo-Elle Mogerman, Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park Director; Nik Dehejia, Executive Vice President, Oakland Zoo; Dean Watanabe, Chief Conservation Education Officer, Fresno Chaffee Zoo; and Charles Hopper, Senior Manager Business Operations, Seattle Aquarium. 180 colleagues joined us from around the world, sparking a lively and passionate conversation.

Jo-Elle opened our discussion by giving us insight into the history of DEAI efforts within the AZA. From Jo-Elle, we learned that the first business case for diversity was created in 2003; since then, updates have been added as “the chickens have come to roost.” Jo-Elle attributes this increased interest and commitment to diversity to the elevated visibility of racism and inequity in our society. As she shared, no longer are we able to excuse or explain away problematic or tragic episodes; the prevalence of videos and images has created empathy for these issues in a new and more poignant way. Lori joined Jo-Elle in identifying DEAI as an issue of dignity–not outside of our “lane” for zoos and aquariums, but very much a part of our missions.

Nik followed this thread by discussing the business case for DEAI efforts in zoos and aquariums. Nik warned that our customer base might shrink if we’re unable to approach our work in a more equitable and inclusive way, citing the census trends on racial and cultural diversity. Nik also introduced the issue of funder relationships, pointing out that funders now have many more issues to address and more options for how to allot their money. If we don’t address the diversity issues in our institutions and identify outcomes towards success, we risk losing those funding opportunities. Additionally, Nik talked about laws, particularly in California, that seek to change governance and increase the representation of people of color in companies. From Nik, we saw that addressing DEAI is a matter of consequence and sustainability–without it, we risk increased scrutiny and criticism, as well as potential irrelevance in our communities.

Next, we heard from Charles, who gave us perhaps the most resonant phrase of the session by talking about a “soul commitment” that we must make to this work. This soul commitment requires buy-in at all levels of an institution, most notably the institution’s leadership. To internalize this work, we must be committed to DEAI because it’s the right thing to do. Charles compelled us to look across the diversity spectrum and open the pipeline for people throughout the institution to have a voice in the process. Furthermore, Charles asked us to look at the systems in place and ask whether those systems still serve our goals and how they might be overtly or tacitly supporting a racist agenda.

Our last speaker, Dean, focused on the mission case for DEAI. In the simplest terms, Dean told us that we must focus on the largest group of people if we want our missions to be effective. We must use all the resources within our community and approach the work strategically. Dean asked us to engage in work that activates our communities and integrate our diversity programming and strategic planning into one effort.

From these powerful insights, we turned to our audience to synthesize their thoughts and deepen the conversation. Jasmine Williams from the Seattle Aquarium pointed out the unique opportunity that we have right now to create large culture shifts in our institutions.

Jess Niven-Kohring from the Los Angeles Zoo reminded us that we’re all at different points in our journeys, but regardless, we must lean into this work to achieve the change we wish to see. Kimm Fox-Middleton from the Oregon Zoo shared hesitation about being the only voice in the room reminding others to consider the DEAI angles, highlighting the importance of working together across the industry to achieve these goals. And lastly, Caitlin Kemski from North Carolina State University highlighted that we don’t have baseline data to help us understand what we’re trying to achieve. This sparked agreement and a call to action from Jo-Elle, which was matched by Dean’s announcement that the AZA Diversity Committee will be addressing this need in our community.

To all of our speakers and participants, an enthusiastic THANK YOU for your contributions and voices. We look forward to continuing these conversations throughout the rest of the month and far into the future, supporting and amplifying our soul commitment to DEAI work.

Click here to view the full webinar recording.

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