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Changing the color of our movement

This is a very difficult time for America, but I don’t have to tell you that. After months of social isolation, soaring unemployment, people losing their businesses, friends and family members becoming ill and dying, we were at a tipping point.

And then we tipped.

Some people took to the streets, some to their computers, and some internalized their rage and pain, but it would be impossible not to feel some emotion at this time, and deeply so. For many people, however, the realization of the depth of institutionalized racism within our country is not a new realization. This has been brewing since long before we saw George Floyd brutally murdered on the street in Minneapolis, or heard about Breonna Taylor being shot in her home in Louisville or (months after the actual incident) saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down on a suburban street in Brunswick, Georgia. And who knows how many others have lost their lives but the public doesn’t know about it because it wasn’t caught on video?

Sadly, for many of our fellow citizens, it has been a multigenerational reality going back hundreds of years. Obviously, I can’t really know that, but I can recognize and realize it. The experiences of black and brown people are something that white Americans can never know. The sooner we all understand that, the closer we’ll be to putting aside assumptions and working toward a better America. At the end of the day, it’s about acknowledging that black and brown people need to be seen and heard ― period. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

Let me start by saying that I am white as white can be ― blond hair, green eyes and white skin, born and raised in a very white community just north of Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve spent the last 26 years in a field that bases its entire moral compass on kindness and compassion. I’ve worked for and now lead an organization whose founders rewrote the rules of animal welfare, in significant part by saying forget how they’ve done it before, asking how we can do it better and (once they figured it out) by stepping on the gas. It was a true awakening to a movement steeped in antiquated protocols.

We challenged norms and broke down barriers on an almost daily basis. We view ourselves as leaders, as people with compassion and empathy, as having our door open to everyone.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also been a massive awakening. Black Lives Matter is shining a light on the horrifying frequency of the killing of black men and women in this country, and many people who may have thought that America was approaching race neutrality have been presented with undeniable evidence to the contrary. The fact that black or brown people are the constant targets of racism and disenfranchisement became glaringly obvious and to many of the sincerest believers that things were improving, the status quo became unbearable. But change rarely comes from a position of comfort.

So, this is the question for Best Friends as a national organization with programs and operations across the country: What is our part in making and influencing positive change?

As a national animal welfare organization, we have a mission, a large infrastructure, and we are part of a massive movement. Countless organizations look to us for leadership. This puts us in an even greater position to not only advance our mission, but to engage animal lovers in communities of color as lifesaving partners in our drive to achieve no-kill by 2025.

The fact that animal welfare is a predominantly white movement is not a news flash. At our first national conference in Virginia Beach back in 2001, the assembled audience was asked: “If you’re not white, please raise your hand.” Two hands went up.

A few things have changed since then. People of color are beginning to fill important leadership roles in our movement, but animal welfare does not yet reflect the racial diversity of this country, and that means that tens of millions of animal lovers are not represented and likely are not being reached on a shared commitment to save the lives of homeless pets.

However, while diversifying our movement has seemingly been on everyone’s agenda since at least 2001, it has lived in a box “over there,” rather than being an integrated part of growing our mission and strategy. And that applies to Best Friends as well as the rest of our movement.

On top of that, for minorities the barriers to participating in rescue and lifesaving (even at the entry level of pet adoption) have been substantial. 

Animal welfare is a predominantly white movement rooted in the concept that animals are better off in affluent homes with fenced yards.

Black and brown people, regardless of their financial status, are still sometimes regarded with suspicion when they attempt to run the gauntlet of pet adoption.

Our movement has been in a self-defeating and self-reinforcing cycle that we must change in order to achieve our mission. Our roster, especially in leadership roles, looks nothing like the country we live in. The voices at our table are not the voices of all of America. We need those voices and we need their experiences, skills, wisdom and insight to enable us, collectively, to reach every community in America. And although our doors have always been open to everyone, we need to be better at inviting everyone in.

So, I’m going to ask questions, listen and learn because, clearly, if we already knew how to be inclusive, we would be.

We’re going to hold conversations among our staff and bring in experts in outreach, diversity, inclusion and equity. We’re going to review and adapt our recruiting and hiring practices to make Best Friends more accessible and inviting to all animal lovers, regardless of race or personal circumstance. I want anyone and everyone to be able to see themselves in a role on the Best Friends staff, proudly wearing our logo.

We’re going to be better at listening — really listening — and giving a greater voice to black and brown people, and we’re going to start by recognizing and embracing those diverse voices already within Best Friends, as well as within our network of shelters and rescue groups. We’re going to make sure that our lifesaving strategies include working in under-represented communities and partnering with the people in those communities in order to save the most lives.

Diversity and inclusion are a natural expression of our fundamental guiding principle, the golden rule ― to treat others as we would wish to be treated. We will amplify this in our culture, and we will work to actualize it in the execution of our mission with our partners and through all of our connections inside and outside of animal welfare.

Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.

As an organization whose guiding principle is kindness, we should have done it before now. It will make us a better, richer and stronger organization and movement.

It's time to do a better job of putting the “together” in "Together, we will Save Them All."

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Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society