On October 18th, Out & Equal participated in the Federal Service Summit at the Department of Interior in Washington, DC. The annual Summit is intended for LGBTQ federal employee resource group members and leaders, D&I professionals, and LGBTQ federal employees and contractors.
The agenda included workshops on communicating with senior leaders surrounding LGBTQ issues, discussion on moving beyond the gender binary and several guest speakers. The Summit included over employees from more than 20 diverse agencies.
Out & Equal’s CEO, Erin Uritus, delivered the keynote address. She drew on her own experience to call for inclusiveness, not just within the federal workforce, but also within GLOBE, the ERG that serves them.
Here is the text of Erin’s speech below:
Hello everyone – thank you! I am so happy to be here. And, I am grateful. Grateful that you invited me to speak at this historic day. And even more grateful that the hundreds of you in this room embody the very best of public service – jobs devoted to our collective greater good. There is most definitely Pride in Federal Service.
I came here directly from Out & Equal’s largest event of the year- our Annual Global Workplace summit. This week, six-thousand people committed to equality and sustaining cultures of belonging took over the Gaylord Convention Center. We had representation from many federal agencies and I was thrilled to see you there! And I want to let you know that as we open a DC office and ramp up our programs, we will be here for our federal colleagues and friends.
I feel a special kinship with our federal workforce. Actually if we are all sharing today, I will tell you that back in 20s, I applied at USAJobs but did not get a call back. No hard feelings.
For years I worked as a government contractor.
But what I want to share with you today are some important lessons I learned that changed the course of my life and career, for whatever they are worth, and in a time when everyone has a “top 10 list of wisdom to impart, I hope they contribute to the vault of wisdom you are collecting, and help in the next part of the journey.
Story 1: When I applied to work as a government contractor in 1999, at the urging of my first girlfriend who was a contractor at the time, I had just come back from living and working in west Africa, training women journalists and working for press freedom. I was 24 and had pretty much single-handedly opened and run our west Africa office and inaugural conference with women from around the continent and celebrity American journalists.
This was followed by a brief stint in Colorado, where I tried to start a non-profit working against hate crimes in the aftermath of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard’s murders. I had a bachelor’s degree in both political science and French, but no MBA, and no consulting experience. Somehow, I got hired by Booz Allen’s public involvement and comms team up in Aberdeen MD supporting the US army’s Chemical Demilitarization program. I could tell on day one, I was working in the presence of brilliant people. They were also kind and collaborative, which helped because, in those first few months, I was really floundering and having a crisis of confidence- why the hell did they hire me? I had no background in consulting, had not worked for the government, and didn’t feel like I fit the “mold” I saw around me. I also was still in the closet, so I *really* didn’t see many people around who represented me. I looked at the brief job description and SOW for guidance, but kept tripping over what I thought a junior consultant was supposed to do.
Well, one day, my principal grew tired of my repetitive questions, and turned to face me directly when I followed her into the copy room. “Robyn,” I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing here… I feel like I’m not contributing… why did you hire me?”
Well, Robyn then did me a huge favor- one I’ll never forget… she said, “we hired you because when we saw what you did in Africa and in Colorado, we saw you could make something out of nothing, that you looked around and found problems, and then figure out a way to overcome huge hurdles- either emotional or structural- and solve them. That’s what you need to do here too.”
And then she looked at me straight in the face, with a combination of helpful directness, and frightening exasperation and said, “Now, don’t F-ing ask that question ever again!”
And you know what, I never did… I have never again asked anyone for a job description, or doubted what I had to contribute if it didn’t seem like I fit the mold. It was a smack in the face, but I am so grateful for that- especially in my mid 20’s. It’s an important lesson – and I encourage you all to do the same- because this world and all of our problems have no time or patience for self-doubt and hand-wringing. We all need each other, and the world needs you.
As an important side note, when I looked at myself and my own diversity in a new light, I began connecting and developing relationships with my colleagues in different ways. When I looked around and noticed what we did well – what clients really loved us for- it was this variety of life experience and perspective. I’ll never forget that.
Story 2: A few years later, I had been supporting what was at the time the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and essentially what was a customer service modernization effort. It was going really well, until 9/11 happened. We lost friends that day in the Pentagon. It was devastating for so many of us.
And the company did a great job bringing in counselors to help process that grief and loss, which was very helpful. But then many of us supporting government clients pretty quickly went into situations where this trauma was compounded because we had to help our clients deal with grief and trauma. Defense, Tech, Security, as you can imagine. Well, our team migrated the immigration customer service work into the newly formed Citizen and Immigration Services (CIS) department, as it was being swept into the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. Our new job was to “rebrand” CIS and help define a new identity apart from Customs and Border Protection.
Sounds like benign and helpful work, right?
We also learned that the old INS was comprised of generations of proud families who had worked there with the belief in a mission to welcome people into our “melting pot,” and that oftentimes the “services” side (who tended to be women) were married to men who worked in enforcement. When the agency split, some families split and marriages ended. And once-proud government workers were held to confusing internal standards and a hostile public.
As their change management consultants, we attempted business as usual until it became clear that it was not a time for business as usual. We constructed a listening tour that engaged the leadership, the entire workforce, and the union in processing what they were going through and then co-created a new and meaningful identity together. When I ran into my client 10 years later- still an SES in CIS – he said it was one of his proudest and most meaningful pieces work he did in his career.
I wanted to recall this story and its lesson for me, because – and it goes without saying – we are living through extraordinarily stressful, even traumatic times that really require us to slow down, see what’s happening, and foster meaningful connection in simple ways.
People’s anxiety is increasing, and we are living through what the previous US surgeon general has called an “epidemic of loneliness” that is having severe impacts on health and therefore the economy. At the same time that we may understand that being authentic and open allows us to connect to others in meaningful and helpful ways, we also know it can be used against us. And so many people are shutting down and getting sick and depressed.
We as an LGBTQIA+ community are evolving. The gender revolution is happening. 20% of Millennials now identify as LGBTQ. But 52% of Gen Z who are now entering the workforce identify as either LGBTQ or not exclusively straight. People don’t always want to align to one pre-prescribed identity group or ERG, and so as you consider the next phase of its journey – I ask you: do you understand your full LGBTQ family in your office or agency? Is everyone at the table? Has everyone at least been invited?
What I see a lot in this job – and I understand it – is the pressure to achieve business results, but I sometimes also see ERGs losing focus on the reason they were started in the first place: Are they mechanisms to help foster connection and employee growth?
I attended my first Out & Equal summit in 2002, and it was only a few hundred people. I identified as bisexual but sort of “hiding” as a lesbian because the LGBTQ community felt particularly non-welcoming to trans and bi people in the 90s… so I lied to my gay, male ERG colleagues and told them I was going to some HR track workshop, while I quietly snuck into the bisexual workshop that year. I thought I was going to be the only one in the room, but ended up connecting to so many others who I felt were my real community who understood me. It gave me the strength to come back to my ERG and challenge my colleagues who – while discussing our strategy for the year – said we didn’t have to worry about bisexuals or trans people at our company because there’s weren’t any.
How far we’ve come right? And clearly, how far you have come. I am tremendously proud of GLOBE, because you all in this room have helped this ERG advance, and it’s evident what an impact you have made.
Cornwell West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” As you move forward, I encourage you to keep seeing each other, loving each other – everyone in this community, hold your allies close, really get to know your colleagues and the stories behind their diversity. If you are an ally member of your ERG, thank you.
Look around, find problems, and solve them. And don’t make the solutions so complicated that you lose people. I wish you the best of success and thank you for letting me be part of this incredible Summit!