The Hershey Company — A Chief Engine of Change is Conversation: Fireside Chat With Evan Wolfson

Originally published on by Damien Atkins, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary

“By claiming the vocabulary of marriage, we’d be seizing an engine of transformation by which non-gay people understand who gay people are and who trans people are. By claiming shared vocabulary, we would be helping people come to understand our common humanity.” — Evan Wolfson

  • Diversity and inclusion have long been a focus for Hershey. Events like the company-wide fireside chat I hosted with Evan Wolfson, is one of the many courageous conversations we’re having internally on making a difference and being part of a positive change.
  • Having courageous conversations and demonstrating empathy are just the beginning. Positive change will come only if each of us individually commits to it and acts. Even small acts can have a lasting impact. Share a meal with a colleague of a different race. Grab coffee with someone of a different sexual orientation, or gender identity or ethnicity. Perhaps, read a book written by someone completely different from you. Tutor that student from the other side of town. Take that class. Watch that movie. Do something.

On Friday, June 26, I had the opportunity to host a fireside chat at Hershey (virtually, of course) with Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, and widely considered the architect of the movement that led to the nationwide victory for same-sex marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2015. On the fifth anniversary of this historic decision, Evan and I discussed a range of topics during the event hosted by our Prism Employee Business Resource Group (BRG). Our discussion ranged from the decades-long journey which led to victory in the Supreme Court in 2015 to how the strategy to win in that case can be applied to any movement or cause.

The strategic framework to win equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community is no different than the framework used to secure equal rights for the Black community, or any other important societal legal and cultural shift. It’s about winning hearts and minds, fundamentally changing attitudes and highlighting our common humanity.

The battle for equal rights for the LGBTQ community began long before the 2015 Supreme Court decision and well before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. In fact, it’s still being fought and won today as was seen in the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits “discrimination on the basis of sex,” includes LGBTQ+ employees.

This ongoing progression perfectly illustrates a point Wolfson made in our chat: change does not fall out of the sky and is not permanent. Public sentiment starts from within ourselves and progresses toward change in behavior and ultimately change in policy. This a long-range strategy built on everyday conversations to win hearts and minds.

Being an ally and creating change

Here at Hershey, we have been talking a lot about what it means to be an ally and how to become one. Wolfson has a long career of working with allies to create change. In fact, included among those whom he considers to be his heroes (such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Theodore Roosevelt) is Dan Foley. Foley is a non-gay attorney who in 1993 represented a Hawaiian couple seeking to marry. Foley brought Wolfson onto the case as his co-counsel and the Hawaii Supreme Court declared marriage discrimination unconstitutional for the first time in history. This was also the first time that the fight for same-sex marriage was ever argued in court. In the words of Wolfson, “even though he [Foley] felt like he did not know a huge amount about it and it wasn’t his cause or community at the beginning, he brought that case. And had he not done so, the whole decades-long struggle that culminated in the victory we celebrate today would have looked very different and been very much delayed.”

There’s no question that allies have an important role to play in any fight for freedom. So the question is, how do you become an ally? I personally believe in the power of reading and personal experience as a way to explore different points of view and create change within yourself. Wolfson agreed that learning is a key component to allyship. But before homework comes listening and empathy. Listening to and demonstrating empathy to others and trying to understand and acknowledge where you may not have understood before. Once we recognize those areas where we as individuals need to learn and shift our own thinking, we can add our voice and support to the cause.

“Even when things are bad, we the people can make a difference. If it had once been different, it can look different again.” — Evan Wolfson

A simple way to take action each day is to follow trusted organizations who are working to create change and follow the recommended actions and resources as shared by the organizations. As a company, we are proud supporters of the Human Rights Campaign, and in the fight for racial justice, are long-time supporters of the Greater Harrisburg Area NAACP ACT-SO and The Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Earlier this spring, we also became supporters of the Equal Justice Initiative.

These organizations, among many others, are guiding our communities in incremental building blocks and ultimately momentous breakthroughs. History has shown us that with work and public support, the state of a cause can improve.

Bringing our whole selves to work

At Hershey, we are encouraged by the highest levels of our leadership to bring our whole selves to work each day. We’ve long known that diversity make us better and by creating an inclusive workplace we’re not only a stronger company, but a stronger community. Does that mean everyone at Hershey is comfortable expressing who they are at work? I’m sure it doesn’t. When I asked Wolfson what he would say to employees who were hesitant to come out at work, he encouraged them to remember the positive effect that one individual person has on the world around us. By being ourselves, we make the company better and in turn, all of us better.