March 2, 2022

How Can We Best Support Emerging BIPOC Leaders?

By Kathayoon Khalil, PhD

Last week, we discussed the relevance of Black History Month – and the perhaps more apt reframing of Black Futures Month – for the conservation field, focusing on Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) leadership. An audience of over 80 participants joined panelists:

  • Jamal Andrewin-Bohn, Conservation Program Manager, Belize Zoo; Country Manager, MarAlliance

  • Tiffaney McClendon, Guest Services Program Manager, Birmingham Zoo

  • Trevor Mia, Curator of Education, St. Augustine Alligator Farm

  • Natali Rodgers, Director of Learning and Evaluation, Tennessee Aquarium

  • Eric Turner, Volunteer Engagement Supervisor, Jacksonville Zoo

Following are key takeaways from the discussion, organized in a question format:

What is your vision for black futures in our industry?

We discussed the importance of representation and starting our engagement with communities from a young age. Tiffaney talked about opening the doors for young people so that they grow up knowing what their options are. Trevor mentioned the importance of matching the staff with the demographics of the community. Eric said that he would love to see career fairs that highlight the full range of opportunities available to work in conservation, or at a zoo/aquarium.

How do we get there?

Paid internships rose to the top, and also pay equity and applying a living wage to all jobs. Tiffaney added that internships also often require a college degree, which means we need to look at additional approaches that increase accessibility in an equitable way. Natali brought up the idea of multiple touchpoints throughout a person’s life, and also looking at the experience that people have once they have a career in the zoo/aquarium world – do people feel like they belong when they get to our facilities?

Jamal added the importance of including targeted consultation with underrepresented communities to improve their experiences and offer benefits.

How do we tackle the barrier of perception?

Many of our panelists were encouraged into different career paths. Surrounded by Black Excellence, we wondered, is there a stigma to going into conservation?

Three of the panelists mentioned that their families refer to them as “the crocodile hunter” – recognizing that careers in conservation are not common or even well-understood in their communities. Trevor linked this back to our previous conversation on pay equity and re-evaluating what we pay people who work at our facilities. Tiffaney brought back the importance of early education – and parent engagement – so these careers seem more familiar, accessible, and respected. We need to help not only the students, but the parents as well, to help build that familial support.

We also need to prioritize giving special experiences to people with whom we want to cultivate relationships. Often, donors are the ones who get significant animal experiences, which reinforces the idea that these special experiences are only for the wealthy and elite. How can we re-envision these opportunities to be more strategic and equitable?

What are the bright spots?

There was general agreement that it’s been bolstering to see conversations about DEAI become more comfortable and commonplace, as well as jobs centered on diversity being more prevalent in the field.

What does it mean to you to be black in the zoo/aquarium community?

Eric talked about being able to share conservation messages with his social circles and feeling like he could make a positive impact amongst his peers. Natali said that it means being able to show equitable career pathways – “I do belong here, my voice should be heard.” Trevor said it means being a leader within a minority community and making conservation for everyone, even though it hasn’t been, historically. Tiffaney said that to her, it means being part of the representation and being a non-traditional part of the community – representing black female management. Jamal said for him, it’s “recognizing and reconciling” that conservation has historically been a way to extract and exploit – it was never for minority groups or people in rangeland countries. But the narrative has changed, even though the people have stayed the same. We need to change the narrative again to be more inclusive.

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