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Our progress on making diversity more of a priority

By Julie Castle

Like so many organizations, Best Friends got a wake-up call last spring. It was not one that we could ignore, nor did we want to.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, the murder of George Floyd and the events that followed made us look at our world and our work through a different lens, and to truly focus on what diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mean to us, both as an organization and to be successful in achieving our mission.

As an organization, we know that creating an environment within Best Friends that’s more representative of America is the right thing to do, both for our staff and for our mission. Study after study show that companies that prioritize a diverse work culture, including nonprofits, are more successful by every metric. And in our business, greater success means more lives saved.

We also knew that, to reach no-kill in every shelter and every community by 2025, we need to reach all communities across the country, especially those that typically have been less engaged by animal welfare. And there’s no question that diversity is a critical component of our being able to do that.

Bottom line: Although these issues were on our radar already, when viewed through the lens of last summer, it moved from something we knew we needed to do to something we needed to do now.

So, right then and there, we made a commitment to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion across the organization and recognize them as three separate but connected areas of work. As a leader in the no-kill movement, Best Friends also committed to sharing our learnings with other animal welfare organizations, and beyond. As we find ourselves in Black History Month, now seems like a good time to report on the progress we’re making.

I’m excited to talk about it, but first I have to talk about our staff. From the moment we started to discuss DEI and asked who wanted to participate, the response was overwhelming. I don’t mean just people who thought it was a good idea, I mean people who, in the middle of a pandemic, when we were all burning the candle at both ends trying to save lives and stay safe and healthy, volunteered to commit real time to address our issues and develop processes to ensure ongoing inclusion across everything we do. While this is no small task, the number of hands that shot up when I asked who wanted to be involved confirmed everything I’ve ever known about the kindness and empathy of the people I’m thrilled to work with every day.

In fact, those voices turned out to be the first real step in our process. And while there’s no question that our goal is greater diversity, equity and inclusion, who better to get us started than the diverse voices already within our organization?

We listened to those voices. Right off the bat, we did panels, workshops and organizational Zoom meetings with our Black, Indigenous American and LGBTQ+ staff, and our staff across various generations. The takeaways from these conversations were enormous, including new perspectives and insights and shared personal stories and struggles that connected our staff to one another on a deeper level. Needless to say, more panels are on the horizon.

And that’s hardly the end of the deep staff involvement in our DEI programming.

We decided to form six culture councils, with each council focusing on a particular group of topics that affect our work. In fact, they focus on pretty much every significant aspect of our work from the perspective of how to make them more compatible with our cultural goals. Each council makes recommendations directly to me and the other senior leaders of Best Friends. Here again, so many people raised their hands to participate that each council held hugely popular, organization-wide brainstorming sessions.

One thing that’s critical to growth and learning, though, is that you need to know what you don’t know, and to bring in the right people who can help you. So, among other things, we’re working with subject-matter experts to train our managers and hiring staff on more intentionally inclusive hiring practices. We’re identifying existing biases and examining how we can better market our open positions to more diverse communities. We’re looking beyond the Catch-22 of “needing experience to get a job but needing a job to get experience,” which is so often a barrier to having a more diverse staff. We’re initiating organization-wide anti-bias trainings, with participation right up to our board. We’re also creating additional retention and mentorship programs and a strategy to increase diversity through the growth and advancement of individuals within Best Friends.

Finally, our approach to this is no different than our approach to lifesaving: Collaboration rules the day. We want to know what’s working in other organizations and we want everyone to know what’s working for us. So, from the outset we’ve been sharing our work and findings throughout the movement in our town hall meetings, podcasts, direct relationships, inter-organizational committees and more.

Best Friends is, first and foremost, about kindness to all living things. It is our North Star. It is both something we do every day and something we’re always looking for ways to do better. Kindness means providing an open and welcoming work environment, an environment where everyone is not just safe to be who they are, but celebrated for it. And an environment where everyone is afforded equal treatment and equal opportunities.

Beyond that, I’m optimistic that the greater empathy and understanding growing out of Best Friends and the animal welfare movement will drive even broader change. I’m hoping that approaching every situation from a place of kindness, which has truly transformed the animal welfare movement, will transform other businesses, other communities and even society at large.

Of course, it starts with us, and we’re off to a great start. I’m so proud of Best Friends and our amazing staff for their kindness, commitment and openness, and for others throughout the movement who have seized this moment and dedicated themselves not just to saving lives but to saving lives justly.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Follow Julie on Twitter.

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Julie Castle with dog
Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society