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Zoo, garden lack diverse staff
Blacks, Hispanics make up tiny part of full-time workers

Friday, January 06, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Reacting to an annual employment diversity report, a pair of Cook County commissioners Thursday aimed sharp criticism at the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden for not hiring more minorities.

"I think that those numbers are pathetic," Commissioner Roberto Maldonado (D-Chicago) said. "A quarter of their budget is paid for by the taxpayers of the county, so therefore we have the right to demand from them ... [a] fair chance to Hispanics and African-Americans to work in those institutions."

Two percent of the full-time employees at the Brookfield Zoo are African-American and 6 percent are Hispanic, according to figures released by the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

At the botanic garden, 3 percent of full-time workers are African-American and 12 percent are Hispanic.

The facilities are managed by separate, independent not-for-profit organizations, but they are owned by, and receive funding from, the Forest Preserve District.

"I think in all fairness we need to improve the numbers to reflect the makeup of Cook County," said Commissioner Bobbie Steele, a black Democrat who represents parts of Chicago's West Side.

Steele noted with dismay that the figures showed no full-time black laborers working at the botanic garden.

"When I see no representation of minorities in those positions at the garden, you know, that's thoroughly disappointing to me," Steele said.

Sue Markgraf, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Botanic Garden, said executives there are aware of the need to hire more minorities, and "it is something we are working on."

Markgraf said the garden posts job openings on various Web sites as well as in newspapers in minority communities.

The garden is on Cook County's northern border in Glencoe. Transportation has been an issue in attempts to boost minority employment, and that is another area the garden is working to address, Markgraf said.

Stuart Strahl, chief executive and president of the Chicago Zoological Society, which runs Brookfield Zoo, said the institution has made diversity a key focus since he arrived two years ago.

Before he was hired, Strahl said the executive management team included no minorities. Now, there are two, he said. The team works with community groups and schools to encourage young people to see the zoo as a career opportunity, which is a challenge nationwide in the scientific fields, Strahl said.

"We're really focused," he said. "It's a matter, though, of not just recruitment but of training and career building."

Strahl noted that about 25 percent of the zoo's part-time employees are minorities.

"That is where we feel strongly that we can grow our diversity by starting in the part-time ranks and then working up from there," Strahl said.

When seasonal employment is factored in, 10 percent of the zoo's nearly 1,000 workers are African-Americans and 13 percent are Hispanic. At the garden, 4 percent are black and 20 percent Hispanic when seasonal workers are included, according to the report.

In terms of funding, the zoo receives about $14 million in Cook County property taxes annually, while the garden gets nearly $9 million, according to the Forest Preserve District's 2006 budget.

County Board President John Stroger, the first African-American to hold the position, said leaders have improved the minority employment figures at the Forest Preserve District. However, he noted that he does not control hiring at the independent zoo and garden.

"Getting minorities out to the botanic garden is not the easiest thing to do," Stroger said. "I think I've been on the same wavelength ... to try to open the process up. But I'm not going to perform, and cannot perform, a miracle."

Maldonado said Latinos regularly travel from the city to jobs in the collar counties.

The Forest Preserve District, which Stroger controls, has African-Americans in 29 percent of its full-time and seasonal ranks.

Eight percent of the workers are Hispanic, according to the report.

Maldonado said he intends to introduce an affirmative action ordinance that he said would essentially force the governments, along with the zoo and the garden, to hire more minorities.

Although dismayed at the employment figures, Steele credited the garden for reaching into minority communities with horticultural and other programs.

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