Tennessee Aquarium veteran Mara-Lynne Payne helping make iconic Chattanooga attraction a friendlier, more diverse place

Photography by Matt Hamilton / Mara-Lynne Payne
Photography by Matt Hamilton / Mara-Lynne Payne

According to its website, the Tennessee Aquarium is home to more than 12,000 animals representing some 800 species.

The Aquarium's workforce isn't quite that diverse yet, but Mara-Lynne Payne's been working on it since 2017.

"We wanted to commit to being more culturally inclusive, engaging diverse audiences and looking like the community we serve," says Payne, a 31-year Aquarium veteran who was tapped in late 2022 to serve there as director of Equity and Diversity. She'd served previously as manager of Diversity and Inclusion and senior manager for Inclusion, Equity and Diversity.

"Our mission is to inspire," she adds. "It's all part of being a trusted partner."

A Brainerd High and Tennessee Wesleyan University graduate, Payne says she started at the Aquarium in 1991, the year before the attraction opened its doors. She says she worked initially in membership, teaming with then-Membership Director George Connelly and Darleene Cole to recruit the Aquarium's first backers.

"At the time we had one of the most successful membership programs" in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), she says. "We blew expectations out of the water, had a lot of good events and built a community."

Payne says she went on to work in annual giving, group reservations and brand enhancement before shifting into a diversity/inclusion role. She says her range of experience helped her "understand how everything we do ties together - from the CEO to group reservations to facility staff."

Payne says her first diversity/inclusion post was a result of the strategic plan crafted in 2017 by the Aquarium's leadership. She says the Aquarium has "diversified its workforce tremendously" in recent years.

"I see racial and gender diversity throughout the workforce," she says. "Employees with different abilities, and probably five generations as well."

Payne says a fresh look at the Aquarium's policies regarding hair color, piercings and tattoos led her to conclude that "we were leaving talent on the table."

"We saw some of those policies were not necessary," she says. "(Those policies) were limiting us in terms of bringing in exceptional talent."

Payne, who serves on the AZA Diversity Committee, also notes the Aquarium's inclusive leave policy, new holidays and opportunities for training in areas including cultural competency and inclusive leadership.

"We've made some very significant changes," she says, "to make this a friendlier place."