Aug 17, 2017

Engineering Toward Allyship

A couple years ago, I ran my first attempt at an LGBTQIA educational program at MailChimp. I’m passionate about LGBTQIA issues and my manager at the time recommended that, despite being just a junior engineer, I bring that passion to educating my colleagues to work. As a recent alum of Georgia Tech, I got their LGBTQIA Resource Center’s permission to lean heavily on their Safe Space program and led 2 groups of 8 people through a full 4-hour session. The feedback from participants was pretty great, but I heard one thing over and over:

“Make it more MailChimp-y.”

At one of those programs I met Mark, our Legal Compliance Manager, who was enthusiastic about helping me with precisely that. Mark and I spent a year writing a program that made more sense for MailChimp. What we discovered is how vital it is for a program to fit the company in every way, from graphics and group size to the important issues we chose to highlight. Georgia Tech calls their sessions “Safe Space” because it’s about creating places on campus where LGBTQIA students and community members know they will feel safe. But we had a slightly different aim. We decided we wanted to give employees tools to make positive change, so we called ours “Allyship.”

But before we went any further, we needed buy-in from our leadership. Marti (Chief Culture Officer) and Ailis (Senior Director of Human Resources) were supportive right from the start. Even though this might be a topic some companies would want to avoid addressing head on, I’m proud and unsurprised to say our leadership was enthusiastic. MailChimp has offered domestic partner benefits since 2012. Our badges show our preferred names, and we’ve had a presence at the Atlanta Pride Parade for years. We have no gendered dress code, employees have transitioned on the job, and anyone can get generous parental leave. We haven’t always had gender-neutral restrooms in our offices, but once we got the chance to build out our space, we made sure to add those, too. Despite Mark and I having job titles unrelated to this training, we got the company’s blessing to spend some of our work hours on this project.

During the training

We run our training with the assumption that all of our participants have good intent. And one thing we focus on is that, even with good intentions, when we don’t carefully think through what we say or do, we run the risk of hurting feelings and creating an uncomfortable environment. If I step on your toe, it doesn’t matter what my intent was—the impact is still painful.

This brings up another common issue, which is outing people. Accidentally revealing a part of someone’s identity is, unfortunately, very easy. And what some people don’t realize is that our identities and experiences can change the way people interact with us—at work, of course, but also out in the world, from micro-aggressions to outright aggression and even violence.

An important thing to remember is that we all mess up. People misgender themselves. I’ve accidentally outed my friends. Making mistakes is how we learn, and it certainly doesn’t make us terrible people, particularly if we commit to learning from our mistakes and changing our behavior.

Acknowledging privilege

Mark and I are both white and come from similar class backgrounds. (We actually found out as adults that our parents live only a few houses apart!). We’re both able-bodied U.S. citizens, and we speak English at home. LGBTQIA people, though, run the gamut of life experiences. No matter how educated and fair we tried to be, we knew we needed to include other voices. We approached this in 2 ways.

First, we include videos of other people explaining some of the topics we wanted to cover. This allows us to hear about insights, experiences, and perspectives that we could never get, simply drawing from those around us. One video we use features Janet Mock, a transgender activist and amazing author, asking the questions she frequently faces in interviews to a cisgender reporter. It illustrates, better than our words could, how easily questions that seem innocuous to the asker can feel very invasive to the answerer.

Second, after we finished writing our initial draft of the training, we sent copies to a group of employees at MailChimp. Throughout the writing process, word of our project had spread, and a variety of people—mostly queer folks—came out of the woodwork and volunteered to help.

We made sure not to approach anyone, as we believe that LGBTQIA people have enough to deal with without being “volun-told” or pressured to educate people. We also made sure that nobody was outed to us during that process—just because we were doing work that centered around queer issues didn’t mean that every queer person at work felt comfortable being out to us.

We then met individually with each volunteer, synthesized their feedback, and made edits to our training. We kept them included for our final “dress rehearsal,” along with some interested folks who came to the table with less topical knowledge—peeps we thought could ask difficult questions. This all helped us make sure our training was at the right level, we weren’t going over anybody’s head, and that nobody felt alienated.

Everyone can help

The allyship program we now have at MailChimp is one of my proudest accomplishments. We’ve run 12 trainings in less than a year and included more than 80 people, which is more than 10% of MailChimp’s entire staff. This summer, we trained a quarter of our summer interns. Employees in all departments and at all levels of the organization have—entirely voluntarily—participated. And in classic MailChimp fashion, we made swag for it! Everyone who participates in the training and gives us feedback receives a shiny enamel pronoun pin.

My biggest takeaway is that no matter what part you play in such a program, be vulnerable and encourage vulnerability. It allows folks of various job ranks and knowledge levels to feel comfortable sharing and asking questions. Oh, and don’t forget to thank everyone involved.

Allyship at MailChimp wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a few amazing allies. If you manage someone who is passionate about this work, encourage them and advocate for them. Work to make an environment where they can create educational materials during work as part of their job, no matter what their job is. If you work closely with someone who is starting or running an educational program, but you feel totally clueless, tell them that and participate! Be honest about your ignorance and open to learning. That’s the only way any of us can get better.