Workshop photo of individuals reading display board

Using Co-Design Principles, Zoo Partnerships Expand

Who are zoos for? How can they do a better job of reaching underserved communities? And how do they include members of those communities in design processes they’ve often been excluded from?

These are some of the questions that Antioch New England faculty member Kayla Cranston has been not just asking but actively working to resolve. To this end, in 2018 Cranston led a partnership between AmeriCorps VISTA, the Saint Louis Zoo, and residents of the nearby town of Ferguson, Missouri—which had recently seen both the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer and the protests that followed, which brought the Black Lives Matter movement to greater prominence nationwide.

In the project “we aimed,” says Cranston, “to identify which conservation programming would be most relevant, valuable, and useful to members of the community that the Zoo had historically underserved near Ferguson.” To do this, Cranston recruited AmeriCorps VISTA members who were born and raised in Ferguson, and together they attended community meetings, neighborhood meetings, and church gatherings to begin a more authentic, durable relationship with the community members. This led to the eventual collaborative development of conservation programs that were relevant and useful to the local community.“The reason this is so important,” explains Cranston, “is if you are working with a program that is going to require long-term engagement from the community, you want to have them own the project in a meaningful, autonomous way.”

Following the success of this pilot, AmeriCorps has asked Cranston to lead the project’s expansion across the country. Today she is directing the Co-Designing Conservation Partnership, an expanding program where AmeriCorps VISTA members work in collaboration with faculty members and students from Antioch New England and Antioch Seattle to lead programs like this at zoos and aquariums across the country. Currently these teams are working to change programming at three locations—the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio, Zoo New England in Boston, and the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Sue Byers is the faculty lead in Seattle. The partnership will welcome Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, in fall 2021. Eventually Cranston hopes to bring programming to Antioch Los Angeles and Antioch Santa Barbara as well.

The core mission is to build lasting, justice-oriented relationships between historically marginalized communities and nearby organizations. “The ultimate goal is to help a national network of conservation organizations move…toward a true allyship,” says Cranston. Through this important work, she sees a path “toward the equally important goals of community wellbeing and wildlife conservation.”

Please visit to read our full feature on this program. Thanks to Hunter Gagnon for contributing reporting.