February 22, 2023

Putting the “Culture” in “Cultural Institution”

An Interview with Rory James, Director, DEAI at Saint Louis Zoo

Rory James

Saint Louis Zoo is striving to put the “culture” in “cultural institution.” What does that mean, exactly, and why is a partnership between the Zoo’s DEAI department and Public Relations department integral to this success?

The Saint Louis Zoo not only is a zoo, but it is a community resource, a cultural center, and an educational center. If you go to our website and read our Committed to Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Statement, you will read: “We are a place that stands for the diversity of life and treasures it in all its many forms. We offer our community a safe refuge to reflect and heal through connecting with the natural world.” Those are some poignant words. It speaks to the culture we value and the type of institution we strive to be. I strongly believe cultural institutions have an obligation to make sure community members can “see” themselves reflected in these spaces. For example, the buttons the Saint Louis Zoo have created for Black History Month for staff are not mere buttons or a hollow aesthetic choice—there’s intentionality here. It is one way the Zoo is acknowledging the heritage month and serves as a visual cue to our African American guests and stakeholders that you are welcomed here. We see you.

Partnering with the Zoo Public Relations team also is important because it allows us to amplify that message to the larger St. Louis community—even outside the St. Louis regions since we are a world-class institution. We have many people engaging with our social media accounts; thus, we can approach these cultural and educational moments in an interactive manner. We take pride in letting our employees, volunteers, and guests know the importance of Black Americans’ contributions to society and American history. Looking at the next couple of months, we will do some similar activations for Women’s History Month and Asian American Pacific islander Heritage Month.

What types of internal and external strategies and tactics will help you achieve this goal? What resources have you created or utilized to support this initiative?

For our Saint Louis Zoo employees and volunteers, we have created the aforementioned buttons, but we also created a toolkit available on the Zoo’s intranet site with additional cultural visuals, graphics, and virtual backgrounds for Black History Month and have planned for five other cultural awareness months in 2023. Additionally, we have branded our cultural visuals and items so they are unique to us as an organization. For Black History Month, our Creative Services team designed a visual with the lesser kudu—the animal featured in our Zoo logo—which incorporated the Pan African flag colors of red, black, and green. Also, for Pride Month we plan to have a kudu with the “Progress” Pride Flag colors. The Zoo encourages use of the cultural visuals and buttons; however, it is completely optional.

Secondly, the Zoo Public Relations team and I met to candidly discuss what honoring cultural and heritage months looks like for the Zoo. We asked, what are our peers doing? What would we like to see? We had to acknowledge that this was still very new to us as an organization, and we have not properly celebrated them as an organization in the past. Yet, we saw 2023 as an opportunity to pilot; to just try. This year, the PR team has been posting historical facts on African Americans who have left an imprint in the zoological sciences, conservation, wildlife education, and the zoo and aquarium industry via our social media channels. For example, we highlighted Dr. Roger Arliner Young and Dr. Charles Henry Turner. Additionally, we are spotlighting Black team members and staff from Animal Care to Education and Business Operations on our social media accounts. This way, our followers and external stakeholders receive relevant historical facts and see the African American individuals who currently work at the Zoo and their contributions.

How is this being communicated to the staff? Board? Visitors?

We are communicating these efforts multiple ways. On February 1st, we held our first “State of the Zoo” of 2023 for staff. At that event, Dana Brown President & CEO Dwight Scott shared the Zoo’s 2023 theme: Innovation. I also spoke and discussed our Zoo’s DEAI Committee and our plans for Black History Month and the other heritage months. April will mark my sixth month at the Zoo and at the April Commission meeting I will present to our Board on the restructuring of the DEAI Committee, the new projects we are undertaking, and my vision for DEAI outreach for the remainder of 2023.

With our visitors, we are being a bit more methodical. While we have plenty of special events open to the public, DEAI is working with our Education department and several community stakeholders to do culture-specific events. Our “Latino Family Visit Night” is in the fall, which coincides with Hispanic Heritage Month, and we work with community organizations like the Crisis Nursery to promote our cultural month offerings and outreach. We have learned from our social work partners and exit surveys completed by event participants that being specifically invited and given access to our Zoo as a community—along with the social work organizations—help them feel empowered. It also makes Latina/o/x families feel welcome to come to the Zoo again on their own. In June, we will have a booth at PrideFest and distribute our Pride buttons at that event and advertise open positions at the Zoo.

How have you defined objectives and goals, and how will you measure progress/success?

Prior to my hire, the Zoo hired an outside consultant to perform a DEAI Cultural Assessment where quantitative and qualitative data was collected. The final report identified major themes among zoo employees and several recommendations for the Zoo. Ironically, one of the key recommendations was hiring a full-time DEAI Director; thus, my hire is a further example of the Zoo’s commitment to DEAI. I am using the remaining recommendations as a foundation for my DEAI work.

DEAI work is everyone’s responsibility. The Zoo emphasizes that transformational DEAI change must be prioritized from the CEO down to our volunteers at Saint Louis Zoo. Our DEAI projects not only need but deserve strategic vision and planning. We have intentionally created a DEAI Committee consisting of employees from all departments to give input on our goals. Moreover, I am conducting my own “listening tour” with Zoo employees so I can directly hear the opportunities and areas of improvement for the organization. When I distill all this information, I will work collaboratively with our Conservation and Audience Research & Evaluation team to craft our DEAI “SMART” goals for the next year. One example of this process was me intentionally creating a Cultural Programming sub-committee to our DEAI Committee to address how we celebrate cultural and heritage months.

How will you ensure this theme has an ongoing life? How will it gain relevancy and ongoing traction internally?

We have a wonderful DEAI Committee and Zoo staff members who are adamant about inclusion and belonging. I am ecstatic about being the at the Zoo at this moment. I do not have any concerns with the ongoing traction.

What advice do you have for other institutions looking to employ a similar goal?  

“Do not stand in your own way.” I completely understand institutions want to get their DEAI efforts and outreach right. We want to be mindful of cultural sensitivity, we want to avoid cultural appropriation and tokenization, and we want to ensure we listen to our stakeholders. You will never hear me advocate otherwise. Nevertheless, it will not be perfect. Mistakes will be made. I am a trained DEI practitioner and I have worked in the field for 17 years. I am constantly learning and challenging myself to be more culturally competent. Waiting to be “perfect” will stall your DEI efforts, and often it is used as an excuse for not moving forward. We have a commitment to our community members and staff members to be as inclusive and accessible as possible. Thus, while I would prefer not to be cliché and use a tagline from a well-known shoe brand, it applies here: JUST DO IT.

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