MN Zoo wants it known ‘We’re for everybody’

That includes its many job opportunities

Michelle L. Benson, Minnesota Zoo senior director of marketing and communications, plans to improve the prestige of the venue’s accessibility, so it’s no longer just for haves, excluding have-nots.

She notes, “[The zoo has] a new president and executive director [of] about a year and a half, John Frawley. His goal is to ensure the state of Minnesota knows the zoo is for everybody.” Specifically, she underscores, beyond well-to-do Apple Valley and, for that matter, the metro and suburban Twin Cities.

Michelle L. Benson (Photo courtesy of Michelle L. Benson)

“We don’t want price to be a barrier. We have a lot of programs if they can’t afford to pay, [including] Free to Explore for those who are on assistance. There are [corporations] that provide scholarship dollars. If somebody comes and says, ‘I can’t afford it, but I really want to go,’ they can fill out a form.

“There are ways,” she sums up. “We are free for Minnesotans who need it to be.”

Benson reflects as an aside, “One of my passions is to make sure Black and Brown or other underserved communities are empowered.” Another obstacle she’s surmounting, as much fun as enjoying rides, exhibits and, of course, exotic animals can be, for many the zoo’s location is simply too far out of the way.

“We have a transportation problem for people who don’t have a car; it’s a hike. We are working on [that]. For the sake of argument, if they can get to the Mall of America, we’ll [shuttle them] to the zoo and back. We’re looking at opportunities.”

Michelle Benson is not merely following a directive from higher up or just going along with a program. “I wouldn’t be at a place that does not welcome and is not authentically [engaging] my community and other communities.” That engagement entails, among other things, “getting people in the door to be educated about what we do [and] allowing others to take part in what we have. We have a very strong conservation message.”

She emphasizes that the overall priority is outreach. “Welcome to the Minnesota Zoo,” but not, Benson adds, to the exclusion of, for instance, Como Zoo. Quite the contrary: “I don’t look at any other attraction as competition [but] as an extension of what Minnesota has to offer.

“I don’t have a problem going to Como Zoo and doing a partnership. Or going to Mall of America at Sealife [or] Crayola, all of that. Because it helps with the brand of what Minnesota is.”

Associates back home asked the Chicago native, “‘Why would you move to Minnesota? There’s nothing there; not a lot going on.’ But you get here and there is. You just have to be connected. It’s all about exposure. If I can expose people to what we have to offer — the programs we offer — I want to do that.”

She is, in addition to being the lone African American female in a leadership position at the Minnesota Zoo, the highest placed African American, period. There are those who’d consider that some kind of badge of honor and enjoy nothing more than to pull the ladder up after them, relishing the I’m-the-only-one-here status.

Not Michelle Benson. “I do well interacting with different kinds of people, so, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m the only one. It matters if I’m the only for a very long time.”

She adds, having been on board only half a year, “I’ve already had conversations with my director and deputy director about our diversity inclusion and equity plan on moving forward with bringing more [professionals] of color to the zoo. Not just in lower level areas, but all the way up through leadership. Putting things in place in order to do that.

(Courtesy of Minnesota Zoo)

“A way to [put things in place] is being able to work with community organizations to let them know when positions are available. In our community, working at the zoo isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but there are a lot of different jobs.

“In addition to zoo keeping — dealing with animals — we have scientists, researchers, civil engineers, chemical engineers, and graphic designers. We have everything. You don’t have to only know about animals.”

“I want to get the word out when job opportunities arise, through contacting organizations and through [minority] media, so that I’m not the only one. Because there’s definitely enough space for all of us.”

As a personal observation, she continues, “I want to look around and see somebody who looks like me. If I have some problems, I want somebody I can talk to…who can identify with me. White people don’t have to think about that. There’s always somebody there that looks like them.

“I don’t take that for granted,” says Benson. “I usually start out being the only one, but I’m not going to be the only one for long.”

She pauses to reflect. “Being new to Minneapolis, I had a hard time finding Black folks. When [MSR Publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard] reached out to me, I was ecstatic. In Chicago, it’s so easy to find Black people. We’re everywhere. I’m making my way here. But, it’d be great if there was a group or something that embraced new Black or Brown people that come here.”

In the meantime, Michelle L. Benson is contentedly networking at LinkedIn. She is pleased to make a vital difference at the Minnesota Zoo.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403