Making Inclusivity a Main Attraction: Five Lessons Learned From DEI Programs at Cultural Attractions Across the Country


Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. You’ve probably heard these words thrown around a lot lately within your workplace as you make DEI a greater part of your own business. But how can organizations take them from just ideas to actionable change within their cultures and hiring practices? 

We asked cultural attraction leaders across the country how they are working to make diversity & inclusion a priority both within their company culture as well as for the guests who visit their attractions. Their answers were thoughtful, humbling, and useful for those looking to start to build out similar programs within their own organizations. Here’s what we learned. 

1. Diversity and inclusion is a journey, not a destination.

There is a mentality across DEI initiatives that the goal is to ‘achieve’ a certain level of equity and inclusion. You add diversity as part of your mission statement. You open the door to have the space for conversation. And while these actions are a great start, DEI isn’t something that can be just checked off a to-do list. It’s a constant conversation, a careful, steadfast climb. There’s always areas of improvement, always more things to do. And in that, part of the work is also getting into the headspace that even if much has been done, there’s always ways to continue forward. 

“Diversity isn’t a destination, rather it is an outcome of all of our work on equity, access, and inclusion. At the Los Angeles Zoo, our goal is to create an organization where people can belong and be welcomed as their true authentic selves. The work is not easy, but it is necessary to achieve our mission of creating a just and sustainable world where wildlife and people thrive, together” Denise Verret, Chief Executive Officer & Director of the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens said. 

“I want a staff that all have good understanding and knowledge of how to navigate inclusivity moving forward, and that those who are not as eager to tackle it will be nurtured and grown into more inclusive and equitable in their thinking. While our community is viewed as an inclusive and accessible resource by many, we still need to strengthen many of our partnerships and continue to create more opportunities for growth,” Darde Long, President and CEO of the Chattanooga Zoo said.  

2. Conversations can be just as valuable as metrics.

At the same time, it can be hard to know where to start with the sheer amount of work that needs to be done around your own DEI programs. While it is a facet to your business that should be very clearly measured, if your hiring abilities or size of your organization make it hard to push growth into action, conversations where learning takes place still serve as a massive intangible opportunity to start to push those boundaries and shift people’s mindsets. 

“Our work really began with uncomfortable conversations. To us, it was important to start at the basic level. And while we sometimes fumbled through them, ultimately they showed a commitment to learning, understanding, and intentional focus. From there emerged our DICE (Diversity Inclusion Culture Equity) taskforce, programs and initiatives, the creation of a people department, and a non-negotiable stance that the SSA Family is a home for all human beings. Throughout all of this was one constant: talking and listening,” Shannon Fitzgerald, SSA Group Chief People Officer said. 

3. Diversify your thinking around what being inclusive means.

It’s also easy to get pigeon holed in what your thinking around diversity means. Being a diverse organization isn’t just about race or gender or sexual preference. It can also be about being inclusive to those who are hard of hearing, dyslexic, or religiously devout. Just because you can’t see how your employees differ, doesn’t mean those differences aren’t there. Giving your employees and guests both the opportunity to vocalize their differences as well as a reason to embrace them in the organization is an integral consideration when creating your own DEI programming. 

“As you know, there are many aspects of diversity – I think that the Birmingham Zoo has done an excellent job in embracing neurodiversity, and we are proud to have been the first zoo certified as sensory-inclusive, and to have launched that wave of certifications around that inclusivity,” Lori Perkins, Birmingham Zoo Deputy Director said. 

4. Do your research.

When it comes to increasing the diversity of your staff as well as being more accessible to a wide variety of guests, the greatest opportunity for change might come from outside of your organization. With so many industries, companies, and businesses committed to making diversity a bigger part of their culture, one need not look far to find resources and new ideas to help spark that initiative within your own organization. 

“Before beginning the planning process, the DEAI (diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion) staff team reviewed how other associations and some AZA members are working through and talking about their DEAI efforts. This was helpful both in getting ideas for specific practices as well as determining the initial breadth of the work needed, from internal employment practices to scholarship programs to use of inclusive language. It helped make such a big task feel a bit more tangible,” Amy Rutherford, AZA Director of Professional Development and Education said. 

5. Don’t overlook mental health as a part of your programming.

We’ve had a lot thrown at us over the course of the past year and for minorities in particular, 2020 was a reminder of how much work there still is to be done. But while you’re busy looking at hiring needs, hosting webinars, and encouraging company-wide conversations, remember that on an individual level people across your organization may need a space to decompress, recharge, or simply grieve. Making sure all your employees have access to the emotional response to what is happening in the world should be a big part of the inclusion efforts you’re making. 

“When the Central Park bird watching incident happened last year, it really shook up our team. As animal lovers, it made us personally realize that some of us couldn’t enjoy something so peaceful as bird-watching without fear of retaliation. And that was very upsetting. We have worked to launch a focus on African Americans in conservation and racial equality educational series but also are including mental health and wellness within our diversity strategy. It’s not just about moving forward, it’s about healing from within,” Michele Smith, Woodland Park Chief Financial Officer said. 

Building the future of DEI in cultural attractions

In creating a diversity of backgrounds within your organization’s culture and being more equitable and inclusive about what the future of that culture looks like, creating your own DEI program within your cultural attraction is key to its growth and success.  It starts small with being willing to talk about where your organization falls short, and moves into making goals for the future, allowing space for consistent conversation, and continuing to do your research. The most important part is just getting started. 

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