At Out & Equal, we believe in workplaces of belonging where every person is able to bring their full self to work. Allies are key for success.
During an Out & Equal Pride session with one of our partners, EMD Serono, we witnessed the power of being an ally in practice. Todd, a member of the company’s Leaders of Color ERG, and Marshall, a member of the LGBTQ+ ERG, shared their story of what being allies in the workplace looks like. We were particularly moved by how Marshall’s visible support for Leaders of Color inspired Todd to show up in support of the Rainbow Network.
The interview with Out & Equal and Todd and Marshall is below.
Marshall and Todd. Thank you for joining me today. Please take a moment and introduce yourselves. Talk a little bit about who you are, where you work, what you do for a living and your own involvement within your respective ERGs at your company.
My name is Todd Burks. I am a key account manager in the Raleigh-Durham area. I moved here really only to work with Marshall. No, I’m kidding. But when I did move here, Marshall was one of the first people I met. He was very gracious and we instantly connected. I’ve been here for a year and a half and I’m also a site lead for the inaugural LOC, Leaders of Color.
Last November 19th was the actual birth of LOC and I think that was EMD Serono’s way of realizing even before George Floyd’s death and all of the racial tension that we have going on right now, that we want to be well-balanced. We want to be welcoming. We want to be diverse… not just say it but to do it. So, we already had WIN, Women in Neurology. We already had WIL, Women in Leadership. We already had the Rainbow Network. We were missing that fourth wheel and that fourth wheel was Leaders of Color (LOC).
My name is Marshall Nelson. I moved here from Illinois in 2012 and then I joined the team in January of 2018 and I’m a key account manager as well. And as far as with the company, I’ve been thrilled because the previous company I was with, I was with them for 15 years and it’s been such an eye-opening experience to what I was missing out on in relation to what my current company offers to employees through their ERGs. What is so different to me is the fact that, as Todd stated, there’s a broad range of ERGs and it’s really nice to see that the Rainbow Network is there and that the company is taking these ERGs seriously and trying to show and display a broad, diverse workforce and avenues of fostering those cultural differences and that is something that I have really, really enjoyed.
Todd, this question is for you. Why did you join the Rainbow Network group? What originally brought you to their meeting? Marshall, how did this impact you?
Marshall had already joined LOC several months ago. He was like, “Hey, Todd, do you think it’s cool if I join?” I’m like, “Yeah, we welcome people of all colors, no matter your ethnicity, your racial identity, your religion, it doesn’t matter. We welcome all.”
After that, it just kind of dawned on me like an “ah-ha” moment like, wait a second. Marshall supporting me in LOC, what the hell am I doing? Why am I not helping him? Why am I not supporting the Rainbow Network?
I mean people that are different in any way shape or form… you just have a bond with people that are different and to be honest, Corporate America is really a lot of straight white people. People that are different stick together and have a bond.
So, I said, “What the hell am I doing? I know what: I’m supporting Marshall. I’m supporting people that are also different.”
I think originally I was kind of nervous about going to the meeting. I didn’t want to intrude so I asked Todd if I could come. And of course, he said yes! At the actual meeting, Todd announced me as being from the Rainbow Network and I thought, “This could be cool because I would get there and maybe there’d be other people that were part of the Rainbow Network that are also part of Leaders of Color!”
I really appreciated Todd encouraging me to go to the LOC meeting and then of course, certainly very appreciative of him joining our group as well. It’s helped me learn lessons about being your true self and bringing your true self to work and that’s something that Todd has really helped me embrace as well. I’m very thankful for that.
When I walk in a room, people don’t know if I’m gay or straight. They know I’m Black though without even having a conversation with me. When you’re different and it’s not because of your color, it requires more communication and conversation. Peeling back layers of the onion actually has to happen to get to know someone beyond how they appear.
We are in a very unique time: George Floyd, Confederate statues are coming down, college buildings are changing their names. I mean the list goes on and on. The shining light in this situation is this world is better because people are opening up without being fearful of retaliation and we are calling people out when they are wrong.
Time’s up on racism. Time’s up on treating people that are gay poorly. You’re going to be held accountable because people now have license and we, as a country, are a little late but better late than never.
What does being an ally mean to each of you and why is this important? How do you show up for other communities?
An ally for me is someone like Todd. He kind of exemplified that behavior in standing beside me and wanting to join the LGBTQ group to help better his understanding and just simply embrace that we are both different and that’s Ok. He wanted to embrace our diversity.
Embrace our differences, embrace our diversity. Basically, Marshall is not the mainstream and neither am I. Marshall and I are examples of trying to achieve levels of success both corporately and personally in our lives that mainstream white and straight America does not even have to think about, let alone endure. You’re a white gay male and I’m Black in Corporate America. Neither of us are mainstream. Which means it will come with some inherent challenges to get to where we’ve got in life, period. And none of us got to where we’re at by ourselves perfectly, that’s why we have allies. You can call them allies, mentors, advocates, all of the above.
And Todd, I think you would probably agree with this… I think that one thing, especially in being an ally, that I love and what it means to me is that knowing that I’m so glad that you’re this way, and I’m another way, let’s let those things that are different guide us, let’s learn about those differences with each other and then come together and be supportive for one another.
If you see something wrong and you don’t say anything, you’re condoning it. When this occurs, you are part of the societal and systemic problem! Your backbone is stronger than you think it is when other people are standing with you.
For example, with all of the demonstrations happening and peaceful protests for Black Lives Matter, I would join forces with Todd to walk to end, at least to try to eradicate, racism and just simply knowing that hey, we’ve got each other’s back, is really powerful.
The tip that I have on being a better ally is to look at your circle. If everybody looks like you, thinks like you, and acts like you, maybe change your circle because if you’ve got no diversity in your personal and professional circle, that’s an issue.
Out & Equal’s theme this year is the “Business of Belonging” and so I want to know what does belonging mean to you personally and what does it mean to you professionally? Do you have any examples of a time where you felt like you truly belonged?
Belonging, to me, is pretty simple. Am I safe where I’m at? Belonging means I’m not ostracized. Whether it’s at a corporate event, neighbors, friends, etc. Whatever it is, belonging means I’m not alone in the fight. I’m accepted. But a lot of times, I think, the problem lies in the fact that naturally as human beings we look for acceptance from people that don’t deserve our acceptance.
The group that I’m the most happy with, besides when I’m with my girlfriend, the group where I can let my hair down, where I’m the most at home, be myself, not explain what I’ve done, how I got to where I’m at, is when I’m with my NFL alumni friends because we’ve all gone through some of the same situations. My NFL group is my gay Pride. I love hanging out with them dearly and I do miss doing that in Atlanta big time.
I would say for me, the most I have felt that I am where I belong has actually been with my husband’s family. They have been extremely accepting and embracing to Jason and to myself as a couple and that is where, as Todd said, if we had hair, I could let my hair down and just have a lot of fun with them and not worry about anything but being myself and having fun with them and having a good time.
For the workplace, I would say that by far, I felt a connection right away with my team. I’m probably a part of the most embracing and welcoming team that I’ve ever experienced throughout my corporate tenure. Now, mind you, I think a lot of that is because of when I came onboard and the maturity that I’ve developed as I’ve grown older and wiser with my own self and bringing my true self to not just my personal life but also to my work life. Fortunately, for me, I feel like I have that support within my own team and the more people I get to know within my current work environment.
I think what I’ve learned is that the more that I am my true self within a professional setting, the more I’m comforted. I get a level of comfort from those that are around me and from the friends that I’ve made and the professional colleagues that I’ve turned our relationship from into a friendship. An example of that, of course, would be the friendship that Todd and I share.
As we wrap up, people reading this should know, that Marshall and I will be like salmon, we will keep swimming upstream fighting the current because it’s the right thing to do.