AT&T’s (No. 1 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list and No. 2 on the Top Companies for Employee Resource Groups specialty list) African American employee resource group (ERG) The NETwork Black Integrated Communications Professionals has been around for 50 years. The LEAGUE at AT&T, Inc., the company’s LGBTQ ERG, has been around for 32 years. Fair360, formerly DiversityInc head of strategic partnerships and client fulfillment Lissiah Hundley spoke to Latya Taylor, CEO of The NETwork, and Dale Street, CEO of LEAGUE, about how these two ERGs have achieved longevity and success.
Taylor, who leads The NETwork on a national level, said first and foremost, structure aids consistency and longevity. She said having structured bylaws on how to run the group keeps members focused on achieving their mission.
“Those bylaws for us are truly gold, because they keep us in line and they keep us aligned to the mission and help to always keep our north star at the top of mind,” Taylor said.
Taylor also said giving term limits to those in leadership within ERGs helps to ensure fresh ideas remain circulating throughout these groups. Street said after 32 years, the main factor that keeps LEAGUE going is the acknowledgement that there is still a long way to go in achieving full rights for LGBTQ people on a broad scale. She also said driving business impact, professional development and community engagement for LGBTQ people and allies within AT&T keep the group constantly working toward new goals.
“Specific to the LBGTQ+ community, what’s kept us going over the past 30 years is that there is still so much more work to do,” Street said. “We know that here in the United States there’s still about 40% of people that are not comfortable being out at work. Even though AT&T has had workplace discrimination policies since 1975 … we still have a lot of people at AT&T that are not comfortable being out at work.”
She said LEAGUE operates autonomously and is responsible for setting and meeting those goals. ERGs at AT&T classify as 501(c)3 nonprofits, so those in leadership — like Street and Taylor — are CEOs of corporations.
“Why I think that’s led to our success is we are directly responsible for it,” Street said. “We own our organization, we own our success, we own what we do.”
When it comes to getting employees involved in ERGs, Taylor recommended using face-to-face communication to spread the word. Emails, she said, can fall short of getting people interested.
“There’s nothing that beats just shaking somebody’s hand, looking them in the eye and introducing yourself,” Taylor said.
Another way AT&T has managed to bolster participation in its ERGs is through involving allies. Street said she does not identify as LGBTQ, but in 2010, a co-worker who was part of LEAGUE approached her and asked her to get involved.
She said allies are important to marginalized communities because they can use their privilege to stand up for others who are disenfranchised.
“They are an advocate and a voice in the room when the other person is not,” Street said. “The ally in the room is the one that can stand up and say something.”
In addition to allyship, partnership is also important. LEAGUE and The NETwork maintain a continued partnership to address the reality of overlap between the communities. Intersectionality, the stacked effects of having multiple marginalized identities, applies to people of color who are LGBTQ. The two ERGs addressed the alarming rates of violence against transgender women of color as part of their collaboration. LEAGUE also partnered with The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth. They donated $1 million to the organization and helped develop the helpline’s text capability.
The NETwork got involved in community advocacy by helping spread the word about Access from AT&T, a program that helps grant internet access to low-income households for $10 a month, which helps students complete their work and continue learning outside of school.
ERGs have benefits not just in communities but also within companies and for individuals’ professional development as well. They allow employees to hold leadership positions and gain recognition in small groups. Taylor said the leadership positions The NETwork members hold within their group allow for visibility elsewhere in the company.
The NETwork’s signature program ESTEAM (Evolving, Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and Mathematics) helps encourage that STEM leadership in the community from an early age. ESTEAM helps educate young Black people about STEM fields to help bridge the racial and gendered divides within STEM, working toward a future where Black people hold leadership positions at companies like AT&T.
“We want to make sure that as time goes on, there’s going to be representation of African Americans at the table,” Taylor said.
However, the panelists said being a leader — or even an active member — of an ERG can be a difficult responsibility to balance with one’s paid position within a company. Leading an ERG is not a paid position. Taylor said employees should prioritize excelling in their paid roles because it will ultimately benefit their ERGs.
“You’ve got to be delivering and overdelivering in your actual paid role,” Taylor said. “Because if you’re not, and if you’re putting too much time into what you do for the ERG and not enough time into what you’re paid to do, it actually can jeopardize the ERG community for all of us, because then people start to feel like it’s taking up too much time.”
Taylor also recommended building strong teams within ERGs to delegate tasks and balance the workload.
Both The NETwork and LEAGUE are decadeslong products of advocates within the company who saw a need to spark change for workers within AT&T and the communities they serve. The NETwork began with African American employees in the wake of the civil rights movement meeting in secret and discussing ways to address concerns of Black employees facing inequitable treatment within the company. In the group’s early years, members faced threats for organizing. This year, AT&T’s 50-year anniversary celebration of The NETwork took place in Washington, D.C., and some of the founding members of the organization were in attendance.
“That, to me, chokes me up, when you think about how far we’ve come and how amazing it was to have some of our founding members there with us,” Taylor said. “They were able to see their dreams and their tears and their blood and their sweat come to fruition … I want to continue to make them proud. I want to continue to make them see that all the threats and all the blood and the scars, whatever it was, was not in vain.”
Read more coverage of our 2019 ERG Festival here.