What has been the highlight of your career?
I am very fortunate to have had a number of jobs that have given me opportunities to work for big, positive change in the world. Living and working in West Africa as my first job out of University, helping women’s journalists and supporting press freedom was phenomenal. Supporting the US government’s US Citizenship and Immigration Services post 9/11, as a change management consultant was an incredible honor. Living overseas and supporting a massive, whole-of-government modernization program certainly helped me in my role as CEO of Out & Equal. All of these and more have been extraordinary highlights and have made me who I am. Leading this organisation at a time in history when we see real backlash against our community alongside an exciting trend of corporate activism is very motivating. People do not want to go backwards, but rather see through and push forward their investments in Diversity and Inclusion, so we are well positioned to keep creating and supporting this wave of change.
Who or what has been your main inspiration in your career?
My parents are a huge inspiration and I love them very much, they are my personal heroes! Also my mother’s younger sister, Ann. She came to live with us when I was an infant, because my mother’s father and mother both passed away right before I was born. My parents were only 24 and my father was at grad school and working a few different jobs, but they took in my young aunt and uncle (14 and 13). So, they were together surviving the very traumatic experience of losing their parents, while also trying to get on with life and their own family, and ensured my childhood was filled with joy and love. My aunt is also a non-profit executive and has really inspired me through her pursuit of excellence and her integrity. She is always mission focused. She is brave, funny, caring and she has always loved me unconditionally and with no judgement, no matter who I was with or what my struggles were.
What are your favourite pastimes when you aren’t working?
Like most parents, my pastimes are tied up with having kids, so bringing young children back from overseas to a really cool city like Washington DC has been amazing. It has been great to see Washington through new eyes, get to know it again and appreciate what it offers families. This is especially the case with arts and culture. Aside from that, I try to visit as many restaurants, concerts and independent films with friends… lamenting of course the closing of my beloved “Phase 1” lesbian bar and celebrating a new one opening- League of her Own!
What would you like to be if you didn’t do what you currently do?
I can’t imagine doing anything different to what I’m doing now- it’s a dream job. However, if I were not doing this, I might try to work on or produce a National Public Radio (NPR) show like “This American Life”, work on “the Daily” podcast, or produce Rachel Maddow’s show. I have a huge passion for journalism and press freedom, so being involved in the news business in some capacity would be exciting and rewarding- especially now when we need good investigative reporting more than ever.
What is your favourite restaurant – or best ever meal – and who was it with?
I love all kinds of food, but right now Turkish and Korean are at the top of the list. I am fortunate enough to say that I have had too many “best” meals to count just one, but will just say, the company always counts most- I smile when I think of how many great moments of connection and dialogue I’ve had with amazing people over a great meal.
What was the book which most influenced you when a teenager or child?
Toni Morrison, who has sadly recently passed away, is my favourite author. Her book Beloved magically fell into my lap before spending a night on Goree Island in Dakar, Senegal when I was living there in 1997. I stayed up all night reading it in a small hotel, only 100 meters from the “Door of No Return” where thousands of slaves were deported to the United States. To me, she feels similar to my other favorite author Arundhati Roy (author of The God of Small Things) in that their writing is so rich with metaphor I am lost in the magical worlds of their characters- so many of whom are women facing difficult choices.
Do you have something on your desk or where you work, which is personal – if so, what?
Yes – it is one of my favourite things on my desk, although I also sometimes travel with it. It is a small booklet – a copy of our Constitution, that was given to me when I was waiting for a friend at Dulles Airport. It was just after Donald Trump had tried to introduce the Muslim travel ban, and my daughters’ father is Arab Muslim and was going to visit us in a few weeks. So, while waiting for my friend to come out, I approached a table of attorneys from the ACLU who were volunteering to help out people and their families who might have a hard time getting through Customs. As I was standing there, one of my most beloved heroes, Khizr Khan, visited the attorneys to thank and encourage them. He is the Pakistani father who lost his son in Iraq – a member of our military who fought for our country and was killed. He and his wife spoke at our Democratic National Convention in 2016. They talked about being proud Muslims and inspired everyone with their message about who our constitution was made for. In this widely seen speech, the most dramatic part is when he holds up a copy of the Constitution and speaks to Donald Trump directly, asking him if he has ever read it, and offering to lend him his copy. The ACLU table had small booklet copies, and so I took one and had him sign it after speaking to him for a few wonderful minutes. He wrote “Erin, be strong. Khizr Khan.” It is now one of my most cherished items — it’s a simple and powerful reminder.
What led you into a career in activism?
My parents graduated college in the late 1960s just down the road from Kent State, where unarmed students were killed by members of the Ohio State national guard. My dad lived in fear of his number being called for the Vietnam draft. Nixon. MLK and Robert Kennedy assassinations… I was born to parents who were the first American generation to stand up en masse, re-evaluate what the government was telling them, and fight for the principles of justice, freedom and equality in the US. My mother (a social worker) took me to letter writing campaigns for Amnesty International when I was very young, so I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t an activist. However, if there was a specific time it felt like my own journey, when more consciously stepped into this, it would be the year I came home from living in West Africa. James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death behind a pickup truck owned by white supremacists, Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay in Laramie Wyoming and then the mass shooting at Columbine High School happened- all of those in less than a year. I was sitting at my desk and felt a huge weight on top of me, feeling like I had to start working specifically for diversity and inclusion (what we called “tolerance” back then). I quit my job and moved out to Colorado to try to start a non-profit with one of Matthew’s friends with seed money generously given by the Shepard family. I don’t remember this actually being a personal choice- it felt like something I had to do.
How has your appetite to be an activist changed during your career – and why?
Living in these hugely concerning times for so many marginalized communities has only strengthened my resolve to be in the movement, and in the larger, intersectional fight for justice. Like many people, especially those of us who have children who have to grow up in the world we are creating now, I don’t think hunkering down in a bubble of privilege or moving to the “safety of Canada” is an option. I see huge opportunities and inspirational stories about people from different movements reaching across to each other to strengthen our impact. I see Greta Thunberg from Sweden, the high school students from Parkland, and so many other youth who are demanding we listen to them… they are not waiting for us, they are leading the fight. My kids are half Arab-Muslim, so their (and their father’s) issues of feeling safe and like they belong in this country are my issues. I remember during my first job at IWMF, I helped a woman journalist from Algeria named Horria Saihi get into the country to accept our Courage in Journalism award, and it was the first time she had not been out of a disguise (Horria was reporting on and ended up on the “hit list” of the country’s Islamic Fundamentalist group). She also hadn’t seen her daughter in two years, to protect her. I asked her if such a big sacrifice was worth it- something I couldn’t imagine at the time. She said to me, “If I don’t do this, then my daughter has no chance to grow up in a country that is safe. If I don’t do it, who will?” That has stuck with me. My daughters don’t have as much of my attention as everyone would like… I travel a lot for this job and feel like I’m working 24/7. But I am doing this for them, for their young friend who is transitioning in 2nd grade and her mom who is worried she might not be able to find or be welcomed in jobs, for young black trans women who can’t even access the normal ladders of economic opportunity because they are being murdered, for LGBTQ people in Brazil who had a safe space to commune and get job-training at Casa Un, but are back out on the streets now that their virulently homophobic President is in power.
I also am extremely motivated by large companies and executives in them taking strong public stances for equality- even when their bottom lines might take a hit. I am right where I want to be.