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In Conversation with Community

Nadya Bennett views the optimization of messaging and communications as essential tools for positive change. A PhD in Environmental Studies candidate working within Antioch University New England’s Conservation Psychology program to provide support for a major co-design project (supervised by Dr. Kayla Cranston at AUNE), which spans three zoos nationwide, Bennett sees her role as the coordinator for the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo as an amazing opportunity to assist the zoo’s efforts to increase reach and further their conservation mission through community collaboration.

Formerly an Audience Research and Interpretive Content Specialist at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (CZA), Bennett helped develop and carry out an audience research program that was able to implement over one hundred institutional projects and gathered feedback from more than one hundred thousand CZA visitors and staff. Now, she is excited to apply her previous experience in her new role with AUNE. As the Co-designing Conservation Fellow for the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo (CMZ), Bennett’s role is to coordinate all ends of the project and bring them together—from scheduling and facilitating meetings, managing spreadsheets of the hundreds of community organizations from seven identified neighborhoods surrounding the zoo that the team has identified as part of the project, and assisting the CMZ core team, the Antioch core team, and the AmeriCorps VISTA outreach team.

Getting to know visitors in her previous position at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium informed the messaging Bennett created for signage and exhibits. Being in conversation allowed her to connect with guest’s needs and wants to enhance the connection between the institution and their patrons. The Co-designing Conservation with (not for) Communities project, which is currently spanning three zoos (Cleveland MetroParks Zoo, Woodland Park Zoo, and Zoo New England), aims to take this concept further—incorporating community members into the process of creating/ redefining programming. The Zoos want to be authentic neighbors and effective partners in the community. To do so, they are entering into this co-design process to identify what is already working really well now in the community, where the community wants to be in 5-10 years, and how they can work together to create programming that equally benefits the community members and wildlife in the future.

Love of Animals & the Power of Information

Nadya Bennett Bennett comes to this work out of a lifelong love for animals, wildlife, and nature, as well as a passion for conservation. Her dissertation, currently in progress, explores the progression of birders as hobbyists becoming citizen scientists using individual, social, and environmental identity theories alongside adapted motivational frameworks. Her study speaks to and has grown out of a particular concern for the way information can help or hinder a cause. I have always been a visual person,” Bennett says. “I was that person who wanted to look through exhibits and read labels no matter what kind of museum I visited.  That led me to become very critical about what I was learning from those exhibit labels—recognizing that often, I was learning nothing simply because the content on those labels was just so boring.”

Much power lies in the conveyance of information—in terms of both content and delivery. In an organization like a zoo or museum, communication often comes down to the label presented along with an exhibit. To a biologist who has studied an animal to great extent, a label bearing just that animal’s name would carry a great deal of information, but to a child encountering that animal for the first time, it would be virtually meaningless. Bennett sees an incredible opportunity in increasing the effectiveness of messaging. Thoughtful communication has the potential to not only educate, but inspire. “I originally got involved with zoos and aquariums because I felt it was so important to start exploring how to ‘get it right’ when it came to talking to people about animals,” she says, “especially when it came to conservation efforts and the trouble many species are in – often because of human actions/behavior.”

Collaboration & Connection

The heart of the co-design effort lies in collaboration. Now, at the beginning stages of the project, efforts are focused on building a coalition of voices and input. The AmeriCorps VISTA staff members are currently the connection to the various communities surrounding the zoo that the project hopes to involve in the co-design process. They have strong connections to the neighborhoods involved in the project, and much of their job centers around creating valuable relationships with local organizations, businesses, educational institutions, and individuals/ families.

As the endeavor progresses, focus groups and larger-scale community meetings will provide local residents and organizations opportunities to speak about what the zoo offers to the community, casting them in decision-maker roles along with facility staff and management.

It is this same spirit of connectivity and collaboration that drew Bennett to the Conservation Psychology program at AUNE. She appreciates the interdisciplinary nature of the program, and the way students are guided through the structured process so that their interests and passions can be combined with academics and scholarship to work towards producing innovative approaches/solutions to environmental issues. “The world needs new and more effective ways of strategic thinking through existing and new challenges to come,” she says, “and Antioch’s social justice-oriented approach seems to me to be an important part of creating and fostering such initiatives.”

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Malia Gaffney

Malia Gaffney

Malia Gaffney holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives in LA.
Antioch University

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