Proven Strategies

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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Efforts Take Rightful Place at Center Stage

When I took on the role of senior director of culture and talent, one of my first goals was to hold staff-wide workshops on the topic of strengthening our culture. Best Friends abides by five guiding principles that include things like authenticity and transparency, and it's important to ask our staff how these principles do and should show up in action.

We held these meetings in the first months of 2020, and I remember noting that one of the top comments across the board was that we were not addressing the lack of diversity at Best Friends. Then COVID hit, knocking us off-kilter for a bit and momentarily pausing the efforts to figure out how to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into our mission

But a month or so later came the news of George Floyd’s murder and public anger over his death galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. I still wasn’t sure how we would correct the lack of diversity at Best Friends, but I knew we had to figure out a way.  

Birth of the culture councils  

Since we first began discussions about taking a structured approach to DEI, we have developed six culture councils comprised of 60 staff who meet at regular intervals to focus on: 

  • strengthening the culture at Best Friends;  
  • attracting and developing more diverse staff and volunteers at all levels;  
  • establishing trainings around internal competencies and accountability; 
  • advancing the animal welfare movement’s approach to DEI;  
  • reaching and representing diverse markets and donors;  
  • and setting standards around sourcing and collecting DEI data to support the work of the councils.  

We are using the council approach because it will allow us to plug staff from all parts and levels of our organization to “leave their titles at the door” and work on sustainable DEI. It’s amazing to see the passion, knowledge and life experiences of our staff inform and drive this work-it's inclusion in action!

The councils are also holding brainstorming sessions where everyone at Best Friends can participate, working with the senior leadership team to implement strategies on an ongoing basis, and partnering with Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE) to support and guide all of our work.  

It has been important at every step of the process to make sure we are not falling into the trap of hyper-focusing on a moment, putting out declarative statements and virtue signals and then abandoning the challenge. DEI is a philosophy that must infuse every aspect of how we do our work from this day on.

Being a more inclusive organizations isn’t the job of one person, whether that’s the CEO or the chief diversity officer or a consultant. It’s about all Best Friends staff members contributing to how we truly institute an organizational philosophy.

It’s also about creating a safe place to hear about someone else’s different life experiences, listening to them from a place of empathy, openness and curiosity. After all, I can read a book about DEI in the context of indigenous people and feel empathy. But what inspires me to be a better human is listening to stories from my indigenous colleagues about their lives going to boarding schools, losing their language and being misunderstood because of their traditions. It makes me want to think and act differently-to walk through this life more thoughtfully and with greater intentions. It’s powerful and important to hear those things from people you know because storytelling is one of the most transformational tools that connects us.

It’s a slippery slope though, because we shouldn’t be asking people of color, or anyone who represents a disenfranchised group, to carry this work for all of us, especially if they are not interested in doing so. However, we should work to elevate those voices by passing the microphone, but we need to make sure that microphone doesn’t weigh a thousand pounds.  

Getting to the heart of the matter 

Back in September, I had the opportunity to revisit the content on the Network partner site addressing how we should pursue DEI and dismantle the deep-rooted systems in place in animal welfare. I’m glad that we’ve created this space on our Network partner website to talk about these issues.

That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with me, or with Best Friends for devoting time and energy to DEI. People just want to understand why we are talking about this now and putting emphasis on it, so I’ve spent a lot of my time slowing down and meeting people where they are. I’ve heard from people both inside and outside of the organization that this is mission creep, that it has nothing to do with animal welfare.

But the reasons why animals end up in shelters are strongly correlated with social issues that stem from institutional racism. Whether we are talking about intergenerational poverty, access to care, housing or other resource disparities-bias against people who don’t make enough money, or who are from a different racial category, or who live differently than “us” keeps animals stuck without homes, or worse.

There is also a tendency for people to get stuck in thinking that DEI is only about making our staff more diverse by hiring more Black or brown people-and while that’s an important component of it, I’ve learned that it needs to start with building a culture that prizes inclusiveness.

Inclusion is about feeling like you have a safe space to express your thoughts and opinions and that doesn’t automatically happen simply because you bring on people with disabilities or from the LGBTQIA+ community into your organization. However, if we can focus first on creating that welcoming, nonjudgmental space of belonging- then we are making it comfortable for people to participate and bring their whole selves to work.

I’m excited about what we have the potential to accomplished with these councils in 2021. As we see the evolution of our work, we will be packaging what we learn to share with Network partners. After all, a small municipal shelter might have the conviction to make change but not the capacity to figure out how to get there. If we are committing our entire organization to doing the legwork of figuring out at least one potential pathway, then we owe it to the movement to make that contribution accessible to all.

Upon reflecting about 2020, despite it all, I still believe that we are more alike than different. I believe in the power of our interconnectedness and that together we can make the impossible, possible.  Each of us has a role and life experiences to contribute in making others know that they matter and belong. As a Latinx gay kid from Barrio Anita who grew up with many adversities, this work is incredibly personal and important to me. My intention and wish for this next year are to approach this work with an open mind and heart; to commit to working on myself and explore my biases; to have the uncomfortable conversations; to listen, I mean truly listen; and above else, to be a bridge to love, belonging and hope.

José Ocaño 
Senior director of people and culture 
Best Friends Animal Society

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