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In this episode, originally recorded as a DEI community call, Reverend Dr. Mark Fowler joins the program to discuss religion as an element of workplace diversity. Discover how the work on interreligious understanding changed since the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement and how organizations can prepare for, evaluate readiness and begin to build faith-based resource groups.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • The connection between religion and inclusive leadership (18:00)
  • Rev. Fowler’s definition of intersectionality (22:30)
  • The impact of working from home (30:00)
  • How to approach co-workers about religious differences (31:10)
  • The role of religion-based ERG’s in organizations (36:30)
  • The importance for companies of setting clear guidelines (43:30)
  • How to include those who are spiritual but not religious (50:30)
  • Whether to have religious ERG’s be in a closed or open forum (55:15)
  • Why workplaces are microcosms of society (60:15)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: So I would love to get right into this with you, Mark. Thank you, and we’ve put your background up here in front of the group, but tell us about quickly, what does Tanenbaum Center focus on, and then tell us about your personal story, how you identify, how you feel passion for this work every day? How you I’m sure you feel you’re working like right in your purpose. And this is such a need, such a need, and I think such a poorly understood aspect of what we talk about when we talk about inclusivity of all dimensions of identity. And such a deeply personal and important thing to so many people, particularly communities of color, so we talked about that too. And I’d love to hear any statistics you’d like to share to ground us in your background, Tanenbaum’s work and the sort of urgency of this conversation now more than ever.

MARK FOWLER: Sure. So first of all, it’s such a pleasure to be with all of you and I’m actually flipping through the screens just to see everybody and see your tiles. It’s great to be with all of you. Tanenbaum is not-for-profit organization, we are a secular non-sectarian, not-for-profit. We’ve been in existence for 28 years. Our mission is to combat religious prejudice, to promote justice and build respect for religious difference. And I do agree that I think that unique intersection of religion and race and ethnicity and other identifiers is particularly key to the conversations that we’re having now that are evolving around equity more broadly defined. We have four primary program areas, one in education where we provide training and resources to teachers and school systems. We have a program in healthcare where we train medical providers and nonclinical staff in the ways in which patients and families make decisions about their care, that are based on their religious beliefs and practices.

We have a program in peace building and conflict resolution where we raise the profile of local religious actors who are working for peace in conflict zones around the world. And for over 20 years, we’ve been working with global corporations and large non-for-profits in their policies and their practices as it relates to religious inclusion in the workplace. And the big idea as we’re a nonprofit, we’re mission-driven. So the ultimate goal that we work towards for our workplace efforts is that every employee, regardless of whether they are religious or not, would experience respect by their employer and they would know that. So imagine a day where … And can you all hear that construction going on in the background? Is that really awful? Is it totally messing it up? Okay. So I live in New York City in Brooklyn, Flatbush on a block that is being gentrified. So there are…

JENNIFER BROWN: Say no more.

MARK FOWLER: But where was I? See, this is also what happens at 56, is that you are in the mid of a sentence and then just can’t-




MARK FOWLER: Hey Melissa. Hey neighbor. So when talking about the work and workplaces, policies, practices, briefings for senior executives and for the C-suite on the role that religion plays in your industry, not just within your company, but in your industry. Who are your clients, who’re your customers, how is religion impacting their desire to buy, sale or not participate at all? We do trainings for managers, really looking at inclusive leadership from the perspective of, well, are you including the dimension of religion as part of inclusive leadership? Are you mindful of the needs of your direct reports? Are you mindful of your market as it relates to religious inclusion? Hey Kira McDonald, who is a friend of Tanenbaum. You all need to give her a job, she’s ridiculously talented. Let’s see, what else? We also do a lot of work around intersectionality.

So a lot of that work over the last few years has been around the intersection of religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and Jane Marie… who some of you might know from… we’ve been working together in a very concerted way for the past couple of years, because both as an … Here’s a little bit of my story. So as someone who identifies as … And I identify as black, not in opposition to African American, it’s just that’s what took up the larger part of my life up until now. And I also identify as African American, but as a black person, as a gay man, who’s had my own journey around religion, and which was not necessarily one of exclusion, that there’s more to the story of the intersection of religion and sexual orientation and gender identity that it often happens in the workplace.

And often these identifiers were pitted as the jets and the sharks about to rumble in the cafeteria. And whereas there’s in many instances, depending on a person’s identification, either as LGBTQ+ or as a religious person, there very well are places where the experience can be the same of one of either covering or hiding, or afraid to ask for a particular accommodation. So that’s been a good part of our work. And then also doing work that’s just more foundational on why religion matters in the workplace. And I’d just say a little bit more just about myself and my story, so I just recently, a couple of months ago took over the leadership of Tanenbaum as CEO. I’ve been with the organization for 13 years, and so you can imagine June 1st was my first day as CEO and that’s right when all of the protest around the murder of George Floyd were taking place.

And so here I am, as someone who was raised Christian, I’m African American black, identify as gay, I’m an interfaith and interspiritual minister leading a secular non-sectarian, not-for-profit committed to combating religious prejudice, so what do I say? What’s my first missive about the events of the day. And so to a certain degree my various identifiers in the ways in which they intersect, I’m a little bit built for this moment, at least from the perspective that I can see a number of blue points and a number of different experiences, but also being very mindful that identity… When we talk about identity, when we train around identity, we talk about social identity and social identifiers becoming salient. We all have different identifiers, but they’re not always important to us on a moment by moment basis, the circumstances that we find ourselves in make our identities pop for us. So when I think about my own identifiers and the intersection of them, then I’m thinking about when I’m watching protests in the street, what’s salient for me.

It’s not always that I’m black, sometimes it’s because of my age, because I see the people who were protesting were half my age and I’m like, yes, do it, hit the streets, stay out there, don’t go home. But then it also might be another moment when I see someone and I see people protesting and there are rainbow flags in the midst of this Black Lives Matter protest. And so then I’m like, “Oh, wow, this is a new experience. I didn’t know that these two identifiers of mine would actually co-exist publicly in a demand for justice,” so there’s that. And then the last thing I’ll say and I’ll stop rambling. When I think about intersectionality, I really do maintain Dr. Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality. So not just that I have multiple identities, but the ways in which the unique compilation of my identities actually makes it difficult for me to navigate spaces to access power or privilege. Or what power or privilege I have can be taken away. So yeah, that’s my first mad rant for the hour.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. That was so good. And by the way everybody, flea market is uptown and being able to watch, so you’ve noticed that already. So please, keep your questions coming and one of us will see them and raise them. It sounds like there’s a lot of construction going on Mark, but it is what it is.

MARK FOWLER: I can run over and close the window. I can do that.


MARK FOWLER: What do you all think?

JENNIFER BROWN: No, it’s fine. It’s really not, and this is our new normal, so it’s fine. Don’t worry, I want you to be well ventilated. So Mark, the state of this conversation, thank you by the way for sharing all of your story and being vulnerable and honest with this group. Mark, you’re getting a lot of love and a lot of congratulations by the way for taking over the CEO role. So what good hands the organization is in, perfect. And also you said, I was built for this moment. I always say we all have been working for this moment really hard. I think in many cases, unheralded, all of that hard work, all of that volunteering that we all do to make our workplaces better, to support our colleagues, it really is our moment in many ways. And so it’s a moment for our field and I’m just so thrilled that we get to actually apply everything that we’ve been studying and that we care so much about, and bring this intersectional lens that you described to it, because that’s what’s going to be needed to create sustainable change is a more inclusive model. So I appreciate that.

So Mark, I was curious sort of what were you seeing in your advisory on religion in the workplace and spirituality in the workplace pre-COVID and then can you describe what’s evolved. How has the conversation shifted? Are you getting different questions now? Is there a different degree of urgency? And what are you advising because you’re in a position to, as many of us are, we’re asked to crystal ball these things. And it’s anybody’s guess, our world is changing really fast, but there’s also some true things that we know in our bones, right? We know because it’s our lived experience. We know who’s not feeling, seen and heard in the workplace, and this summer isn’t going to fix that. So we’ve got to chart this course in a really bold way, and hopefully our clients and our employees will follow us, but so how has that evolution occurred for you? And take that anywhere you want. I know you’ve had such an incredible front row seat that I think we’d all really be interested to know more about.

MARK FOWLER: Sure. So before COVID hit and before we started working at home, a lot of our work was focused on advancing the idea that religion was no longer something you have a choice to figure out whether you’re going to address it or not, the train has left the station. Everyone is going to in one way or another, going to have to figure out how and if they’re going to address religious diversity in the workplace. And our conference, which we had to cancel was really settled around this theme that we need to now take proactive action to make workplaces inclusive around religious diversity. And we don’t have a whole lot of time to waste. I also think that we were still in the work. So we have a corporate membership program, we have about 40 companies, some of you I’m sure are corporate members. And that has been a phenomenal growth experience for us, but at the same time, there are many number of companies who are still hemming and hawing whether they want to address religious diversity or not. So we’re still trying to push that rock up the hill. When COVID hit, two things happen. One of the things is that I think religion moved into the background except for the public conversations around it.

So you started seeing they were in New York City anyway, there were religious communities that were still trying to maintain their ritual practices around death and dying, but were actually breaking social distance and breaking some of the mandates in the city, and then the judgment of those communities, right? So not kind of an examination of … It’s almost like asking someone to stop breathing when you ask them to stop engaging in a ritual that is a part of who they understand themselves to be, and not providing enough space around the challenge that it is from a psychosocial perspective of, you’re asking me not to funeralize my mother, you’re asking me not to sit shiva for my grandfather. How does that work? And pivoting, I feel a little bit like we’ve all been on the ballerina box for the last five months, not just pivoting, but just turning around in circles on point with no end, trying to really figure out how to adapt to all of these new normals.

And let me say that I don’t like that whole thing about new normal, this hasn’t been going on long enough for it to be normal, so I take that back. What we see now is that there’s certainly in society, we still see people, the virus is rising and ebbing in different places, but people who are still in hospitals who are dying or who are still dealing with COVID, and every other health related issue by the way, because it’s not like people stopped getting cancer and other diseases because COVID came. So now we have this compounded put upon health system that already wasn’t necessarily built for addressing the religious diversity of their patients who now are set in a whole new set of circumstances. So we’re now just trying to push out information as best we can, and provide training and resources as we can for the circumstances that they are today.

The other thing I think that’s showing up from the idea of the world of work is that before COVID and before so many people were working remotely, we would have conversations about quiet rooms with companies and developing spaces within the building and on campuses where people could observe their religious beliefs and practices and go back to work. But now you have people who since so much of the workforce is working remotely, there are a couple of pieces. One is that people are not less adherent because they’re working at home. So the same amount of time that they need for their prayer observation, they need to take that at home. And then there’s this spectrum, well, you’re at home, so really why do you need to do that? Or do you really need to take the same kind of time for that? Yeah, I do. And what’s the accommodation and the virtual experience, it’s going to require more communication, more awareness for managers to know that simply because somebody is working from home, doesn’t mean that their religious and spiritual obligations are any less important.

And I do think that there’s also another piece of this, which is because we’re working from home, we’ve gotten a five month deep dive into social interactions. So you are in many ways being invited into people’s homes. If they choose not to have a virtual background, you may see artwork or displays of religiosity in their home that you may not have even known what their religious background was or what some of their learnings were, where their learnings are. If you’re curious about it, how do you ask about that? Because you really are in somebody’s house, you’re not just looking at their desks. So being mindful that a respectful, curious question is always better than trying to confirm some idea you have in your head. Like the difference of the questions would be like, you can see in my virtual background and the only reason it’s a virtual background is that the wall is actually over there, and there’s no setup over there for me to do this.

I took a picture of the wall and that’s my virtual background. But you can see a lot of my artwork is religious inspired, a lot of it Christian inspired. And so someone might ask me, I see that you have a lot of artwork in your background, could you tell me a little bit about it? Why is that important to you? That’s a respectful, curious question. An example of one that may not be as respectful and not as curious is, well, I know that you’re gay, but I had no idea you were religious too. Like that level of nonsense. And then as the person receiving the question, then you have to manage how… who and how are you going to be in the situation. Can you give some space to the person? Can you communicate to them that that might not have been the best way to ask that question, here’s what I think you’re asking me, as opposed to loading all canons and getting ready to shoot.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you Mark, for elaborating on that. It’s a conversation you and I had in my prep call and I actually asked Mark, I said, “What would the respectful version of that be if I wanted to invite you to share with me, if you felt comfortable, what do those mean?” And so we role played that, and I really appreciate your point around our reaction instead of taking battle stations, say coaching people gently to say, you might have asked this question differently and that might be feedback for ourselves, or it might be feedback for a colleague, maybe we’re on a team call and we overhear something like that. It may be an opportunity to really be an accomplice for someone and not put the burden on people to always be the one to give that feedback about something that was problematic. So yeah, I appreciate that. Thank you.

MARK FOWLER: We have a principle that’s set around competencies for respectful communication, and the last one is acknowledge and apologize for mistakes made. Because each one of us is well meaning, and every one of us every day is going to step in it. You’re going to say the wrong thing to the wrong person, hopefully it’s not the wrong day. Like you say the wrong thing to the wrong person. And if we can create some space for ourselves and others around our learning journey and how to be inclusive and respectful, then that sometimes gives a little bit of padding to firing all cannons. I think you could probably get a sense that I keep the war room ready just in case, but that’s not the default. We don’t want to default to that.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Absolutely right. We have so many good questions Mark, but I have a couple more for you before we turn it over to folks. But if you all have been putting questions in, I would love to have you unmute yourselves in a moment and speak to Mark directly and you can go back and forth, but I did want to talk about affinity groups, ERGs, BRGs, what’s in a name. You and I had a really illuminating conversation about the state of single identity or single faith groups and multi-faith groups, and I was curious if you saw any evolution in that.

Or if it’s a “both and” right now that it just depends, and there’s particular challenges you identify to each of the models, which I thought this group would really appreciate as we think through. And I would love in the chat to hear by the way, if people have religious, spiritual faith groups in your network, in your companies. I just would love to do just an informal poll. So if you do have a network, now might be the time to say, we have one, here’s how it identifies, and maybe how long it’s been in place. I’d be curious about that too, so Mark.

MARK FOWLER: Yeah. So I would say in terms of trending employee resource groups are certainly a lot of the work that companies come to us to do. There are three primary models within the idea of a faith-based employee resource group for business resource group. One if the model of individual groups that are aligned with a particular religious or spiritual tradition, and those groups operate independent of one another. There is an interfaith network where you have individual identity groups within this identity groups, but they are networks together. And so in addition to the individual work they do, they also create a common agenda for the year’s activities. And then there’s the interfaith or multifaith model where it’s kind of everybody, anyone of any kind of religious belief or practice is invited to participate.

One thing that’s important just about faith-based employee resource groups like any other employee resource group, is that even if it’s an individual group, it cannot be exclusionary by nature because that would be the complete opposite of the charter of any employer resource group or business resource group. Everyone has got to be able to have access to that group. And I think that that might sometimes pose a challenge when you have company, if you’re a company that has individual papers, how are they able to effectively communicate that they are open to everyone, but they’re exploring one particular dimension of faith, and even the diversity within. So simply to say that you have a Christian ERG is not descriptive at all, because depending on what source you site, there are anywhere between four or 40,000 different denominations of Christianity, either in the United States, around the world.

So simply because you say you’re having a Christian ERG that doesn’t really tell you anything. The interfaith network is a really interesting model because Ford is actually one of the examples we often talk about, also Accenture has an interfaith network, and the business case that they’ve built has been so phenomenal, really both in terms of their culture and the people, but also what they provide to the world around and the worlds that they interact with. And there is a governing body, if you will, that manages all of the joint interactions that each group also has its own individual agendas. And the interfaith or multi faith group sometimes people think that, okay, this is the answer. We’re just going to have interfaith and we’re going to invite everybody, but then you got to be mindful of once you open the door, everybody’s welcome.

So that means when the wickens come, come on in. And when the pagan come, come on in, and there is that work internally around respect and curiosity within the group then within the company, but then the stakeholders outside of the company. So those are some of the dynamics that play out. And I definitely think that there has been an increase over the last five to 10 years of the numbers of companies that are exploring this. And my question at this point is why not explore it? Why not do the due diligence to think, what’s the business case for this group of people within your employee base to actually both explore their own connection to one another, but what can they provide for the company as well, and for your clients and your customers.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Thank you. That’s perfect. I would love to invite Sheffield Spence, would you like to come off mute and ask your really good question?

SHEFFIELD SPENCE: Sure. Hi there, Mark. First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us on this issue. I find it to be very fascinating, very important, and really imperative that we’re having these conversations. So first of all, thank you so much for that. Basically my question just surrounds how if you’ve found a difference talking about these issues surrounding religion regionally, because as someone from the South, I’m an Arkansan. I’m not going to say go hogs or any of that but I am an Arkansan. And we do find that just within my own personal relationships and even at work, it seems as though Christianity is really the focus. So I’m wondering if you’ve seen many differences when discussing this regionally or what’s been your experience with that?

MARK FOWLER: Yeah. So thank you Sheffield for the question. I don’t think that there actually is a difference regionally, and I do think that the distribution in your particular region makes a difference. So we did a survey, a national survey on the experience of the American worker and religious bias in 2013. And one of the things that we found nationally, was that 36% of American workers across the nation could identify either that they witnessed or experienced religious, non-accommodation by their employers. When we looked at it geographically, there were actually no statistical significant differences between different regions. And so there’s this experience, right? That if you’re in the South or if you’re in the Midwest, that it’s going to be particularly harder, but the data that we have, doesn’t really show that. What you have to look at is what’s the religious diversity, and a way to do this is sometimes to look at census data, the American community survey continues to dig through census data for the last 10 years.

And it can sometimes give you an insight into the religious diversity in your city and in your state, who is present there, because the percentages are actually going to likely be in lock step with the percentages around people’s conversations around religion in the workplace, or who’s working there, right? And then this becomes a complicated issue or at least gets complicated by the idea of what do we mean by inclusion, and what do we mean by diversity? I actually really was trying to remember, I was actually in your state doing a presentation for an unnamed company, and it was an interfaith panel. And after the presentation, this young woman came up to me, young woman, white, probably not more than 30 years old, hair covered, long skirt, very modestly dressed, and she said to me that, “I really appreciate you coming in. I appreciate what you all do. Just that I sometimes have a lot of trouble with other women here at work because they think that I’m being suppressed by my religion because I dress modestly and I cover my hair.”

So that would usually be a narrative that we would more likely hear from a Muslim who wear the hijab, but we’re not necessarily hearing as much about the experience of the young Christian woman, white woman, who is actually part of a religious minority within Christianity, and how they’re treated … So I don’t think that it has as much to do with region as much as it has to do with policy and practice, because regardless of the region, if your company is setting up clear guidelines around the policies and practices within the expectation of behavior that you have around religious differences, and that is going to be managed nationally and internationally depending on your focus

SHEFFIELD SPENCE: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question. I really appreciate it.

MARK FOWLER: You’re welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: And if anybody can find that 2013 study and share the link in the chat, that would be fabulous. Thanks for mentioning that, Mark. It’s really helpful.

MARK FOWLER: It’s on the workplace resources page, if you go to tanenbaum.org/workplace, the survey should be there.

JENNIFER BROWN: Great. Okay. So couple other questions for you. I know Chris Pope, I see you asked a question about balancing religious expression with exclusionary fundamentalism, and how that shows up in the workplace. I know politics is enough of a challenge in workplaces and this can feel somewhat similar in terms of the potential for conflict, Mark. So if that’s the fear of our organization and that’s holding back the investigation of faith-based networks like you were advocating for, how do we position that to our internal stakeholders to say, I guess, how will that conflict be anticipated and handled? I also wonder if being open to all, like ERGs need to be invites conflict that people aren’t really prepared for, and that distracts from the purpose of the networks too. So I feel we’ve got to be very prudent about how these groups are set up and certainly chartered, like you said. I mean, can you address the sort of push and pull of the beliefs, conflicting beliefs, and then how does an organization move forward knowing that this is something we’re inviting, potentially?

MARK FOWLER: Yeah. And Chris, can you just give me that language again real quick, in terms of the distinction.

CHRIS POPE: How do you balance free expression of religion at work with what could be considered exclusionary fundamentalism? People that really locked down, but then they end up even some of the things that they do or choices they make could even go against company policy or something like that because it’s a part of their religious expression.

MARK FOWLER: Sure, absolutely. So thank you for the question. So one of the things I think the balance and the paradox is, is that diversity and inclusion in equity efforts invite people to bring their whole selves to work, and then says, well, if you could put that part in your locker or leave that in your car until lunchtime or till time to go, then that’s okay. I do think that there’s a distinction between, again belief and behavior, and one of kind of the cornerstones of the work that we do, and one of our strategies for competencies around respectful communication and behavior is manage people’s behavior and not their belief.

So I can believe anything, but how I behave toward you as a colleague, as a customer, as a client, that as an employer, I do have something to say about, and I can actually make very clear guidelines on the expected behavior that you are to engage in with one another. So an example of this for me is when we do policy work, I know that we need a new language for this, but one of the policy recommendations we make for companies to consider is an anti profitizing policy. And that’s actually the wrong word, right? Because what we’re saying is that we acknowledge and recognize that a part of many traditions is the invitation to others to join that tradition, or to consider that tradition.

And that that is a natural and important mandate and tenant across a number of traditions, but in the workplace, if you make that offer and someone says to you, I’d really rather not have that conversation with you, or I don’t want to discuss changing tradition, once they do that, then you need to stop. If that dynamic is not clearly expressed in your policy, then you leave the door open for well-meaning people to manage themselves. And everyone is well-meaning, but people are very different in terms of their capacities around communications. And so it’s important to be very specific about the behavior you want people to engage in and what behaviors you want them to avoid.

CHRIS POPE: Just as a follow-up. So is it treated like other relationships? So I’m at work and maybe there’s someone that I’m interested in, that I might actually want to take out on a date, right? It is okay to ask someone out on a date at work, but when they say no, then that’s where it stops. And so you’re managing that behavior, but it’s okay to ask the question, is that a similar connection?

MARK FOWLER: Yes. And I thank you for saying that Chris, because the other thing that I think that’s important is that we interact with the dimension of religion as if it is somehow different than other identifiers. And in some ways it is because it’s so critical and core and central to how people understand themselves, not just who they say they are, but how they make relationship with themselves and the rest of the world, but the ways in which we engage with different identifiers doesn’t change. And so the dynamic that you laid out is really a perfect expression of that. And then there are the policies that you already have in place around derogatory language toward colleague, social media usage, et cetera, I find and we find that people have policies in place, but there have been some instances afraid to use the policy because religion has become the issue. And it’s kind of, well, why? Because you actually have a protocol in place, follow your protocol. And then the question becomes well, we sometimes do our training in, so what’s stopping? What is that that’s actually making it seem like we’re talking about a different thing.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Thanks, Chris and Mark. A couple of folks, including JD and Dominic have brought up the question of spiritual, but not religious. So inclusion of spirituality in this Mark, and I’m sure that’s a rising conversation too, and people are coming out about spirituality, right? As they define it, so I’d love to hear. Dominic, I’d love to invite you if you’d like to weigh in on why this question came up for you and what you’d like to know specifically?

DOMINIC LONGO: Yeah. Hi Mark, nice to see you here. Well, the idea of religious orientation is one that I brought into the conversation in response to JD’s good question about, Hey, I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious. Is that a separate category? And as an LGBTQ person myself, this idea of, well, we all have some orientation around our sexual selves, well, similarly we have orientation around religion, and whatever that is, could be atheist. How does that kind of concept empower folks, Mark in your experience with companies and organizations?

MARK FOWLER: Yeah. So thank you for the question. Thank you, Dominic. And I saw your question, JD, and I actually made a note of it, that spirituality like that. So when we do our work at Tanenbaum, we look at the spectrum of belief and practice. And we actually think about religion from the perspective of, if you will, a venn diagram of the intersection of culture, belief, and practice. And when we talk about any kind of policy or any recommendation, we are talking about everyone from the most adherent person to of any tradition, to the most about faith. So our work does not necessarily segment, this is what you need to say or do for religious people, or this is what you need to say or do for spiritual people, but any policy or practice or training considers the experience that people self-identify in terms of their relationship to religion and spirituality or not. And that the policies that hold for that diversity.

I would also say that many of you I’m sure are familiar with data that comes out of the Pew Forum for religion and public life and that 20, anywhere depending on the U.S., anywhere between 23 and 25% of Americans now identify as spiritual but unaffiliated. But the larger percentage of that group of people identify with some kind of spiritual practice that is important to them, but it’s not a part of a formalized religious tradition. The smaller percentage of people actually identify as atheist or agnostic. So when you were talking about, let’s say accommodations, which I’m now talking more about productivity tools as opposed to accommodation, that someone who is spiritual may still require an accommodation or productivity tool in the same way that someone who is a member of an inherent tradition may. So an example of this for us, which is also a better practice that we encourage companies to consider, at Tanenbaum, we’re a smaller nonprofit.

And because we were named after a rabbi, if the first day of the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur will fall on a weekday, we are officially closed for that day, but we recognize that everyone doesn’t celebrate those day. And so we’ve made the provision that if people want to work on that day, they can, and they can use that day for a day of meaning or significance to them. And one example that we had at that was one of our employees at one point was an atheist, but every year she honored and acknowledged the day her father died. So she would be someone who might work on Rosh HaShanah, and then take that day off because it was a day of meaning and significance for her. And again, the policy itself and the practice of the policy allows for the diversity of belief and practice. And thank you, Melissa, because you were all over these, finding these statistics and links, so thank you. You’re not missing a beat, so I appreciate that.

JENNIFER BROWN: We do, we have a lot of interaction here and it’s a collaborative effort. I do appreciate that. Thank you. Other questions for Mark, anybody would like to come off mute and ask your question if I missed it?

CATHY FOREMAN: I have a question.


CATHY FOREMAN: Hi. I was just curious, for the sake of safe space, is it plausible that you can have an ERG that is closed to everyone, but maybe periodically you open it? I’ll have an open invitation to other people who don’t necessarily belong to that sex and then just have an agenda that is open forum.

MARK FOWLER: So thank you, is it Cathy?


MARK FOWLER: For the question, okay, thank you. So here becomes the rub. I don’t know a chief diversity officer or a manager of ERG is going to sign off on a charter or an organization that limits itself in interaction with other groups. One of the mandates I see evolving in the space and has been for the last, I would say five years or better, is the idea of what can resource groups do together, not just for themselves. So I would say that that would be a challenge that I would see. And then the other thing that I would also probably offer for consideration is what is the role of the ally to your group, and who is the ally to your group? And do you want allies to your group? Because the language and the modalities around allyship, I think and Jennifer you correct me if I’m wrong, because this is really your wheel house, really kind of with landing around LGBTQ status for a long time.

And then more recently, the dynamics of allyship have been expanded to consider other resource groups of various kinds. And it just seems to me that if the purpose of your employee resource group, if it is of a single religious nature, it’s not necessarily just about practice, it’s really, it could be about exploration of one’s tradition. It could be about the insights that your tradition can have on the work that is done by that company or that industry. It might be a little bit more of a distinction between an affinity group of people who are coming together for a specific ritual and religious practice than an employee resource group, that’s really looking to support the work of its members, but also to support the business. So those would be some of the things that I would say might be areas to look at.

CATHY FOREMAN: I’m sorry, just to piggyback on that, so you’re saying that there’s a distinction between ERG and affinity group, and we need to decide which one we’re going to be. If we’re going to be an employee resource group that works for, or around company issues and so forth, or if we’re an affinity group that is focusing on particular issues in that sector of people, if you will.

MARK FOWLER: Correct. And just an additional piece, thank you, because you’re helping me write my keynote for the GDP conference, but one of the things that I’m going to touch on in that talk is the evolution of ERGs. And if you look back to the late 60s, early 70s, one of the progenitors, or one of the forces that birthed ERGs was companies dealing with affirmative action requirements as federal contractors. And so there was this mandate that became available, that if you want to do business with the government, you need to show that you are actively affirming a workplace that provides opportunity for everyone. And it’s a really important question that you’re bringing up Cathy, because I think that we’ve definitely seen the dynamic at Tanenbaum where we’ve heard of companies where a group of people come together and they say that they want to form a religious network to operate in opposition to the LGBTQ network.

That the values of this religious group, many times Christian, are not reflected in the company’s favoritism toward the LGBT group. And even if that were your purpose, why would you tell someone that? Why would you tell someone that you actually want to stand in opposition to the people you work with on a daily basis? And maybe the work that you’re talking about is work that’s self-exploratory in an affinity group. And an affinity group was actually a progenitor to, in part of the developmental history, to a resource group.

CATHY FOREMAN: So you could have both simultaneously, you could have an ERG and an affinity group?

MARK FOWLER: Well, potentially, but I think that you actually want to … I mean, the question that you asked is the right one, is why do you want to form at all?


MARK FOWLER: Well first, what is your intention, and what’s the context in which you’re creating this group? Because if you’re creating it out of frustration or if you’re creating it out of, not you personally Cathy, but if you’re looking to create a group out of frustration or anger or an experience of not being seen, then you need to address those three issues before any conversation of a resource group or an affinity group is ever had. Because if people are walking around unseen and unheard, you’ve got a bigger issue that that affinity group or ERG group can’t possibly handle.

CATHY FOREMAN: So I’m sorry everyone for taking so much time, but I just have one more piece of this. So for me, we don’t have anything diversity or inclusion related, we’re starting it. So that’s where these questions are coming from. And I had proposed affinity groups, but they came back with ERGs. And my question, my concern was that people not having a safe place where they could voice their opinions and not be looked at from an “outsider”, if you will, as being negative or unimpactful to the business, but still to be able to have somewhere. And like I said, maybe open it once a month or once a quarter to everyone, so they could come in and see the work that had been done, or to at least gauge their interest in what we were discussing.

MARK FOWLER: Yes. So I think that there are two issues in which you’re saying, so one thank you for being the person who’s shepherding this process, it is thankless, I know. So thank you for doing that. One thing is that as you and your company are actually trying to figure out what the strategy is, think about this over time. Because it sounds to me and Jennifer, again, this is your wheel house, but it sounds to me like there’s a great deal of data and speaking out, talking out about what people are experiencing and what they want to actually give maybe insight and languages to whether it’s an affinity group or whether it’s an employee resource group. Because there’s a responsibility that’s expected of employee resource groups that’s not necessarily expected of an affinity group. And the other thing that I’ll say is that spaces are not safe simply because they’re made up of people of the same identity. Spaces are safe because there are authentic conversations up front about where and how harm can be done.

So spaces are not safe simply because people of the same identity group get together. For those of you who may be affiliated with your LGBT group or LGBTQ+ group, when the question of diversity comes up within the LGBTQ group, in many communities it’s like where are the black people? You all don’t have any black queens around here, what’s going on? And part of that is our own history in the community of segregation and disassociation and separate bars and all of that kind of stuff. So one of the things I think for this conversation and all others that have to do with diversity, equity and inclusion, is that our workplaces are actually microcosms of society. There’s very little that happens in the workplace that’s not happening in the world. But the powerful opportunity within a company, is that you actually get to create an environment, an ecosystem where in some instances, people are experiencing equity for the first time in their life around a particular aspect of their identity. So there is both a great opportunity, but there’s also a great responsibility when you engage in the creation of this ecosystem.

CATHY FOREMAN: Okay. Thank you very much.

MARK FOWLER: Thank you Cathy-

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a good question. Yeah, Cathy, a lot of people are in the same boat you are. I would tell you as somebody that’s worked on ERGs, et cetera, what’s in a name for years. I’ve seen companies refer to them in so many different ways, and it is true what we’re saying that what really matters is how they’re chartered. And the addition of business to business resource groups, I think was the latest addition to it, meaning that groups, it was sort of making the explicit business focus, right? That we are here not just to be a community, but we’re here to actually add value back to the organization. And I think that’s an evolution that the groups have gone through as we’ve matured this conversation. Like everybody is saying, it’s less important what you call them, but if you do use the words resource or business, it probably drives a bit of a more intentional focus on those things. And then you need to make sure your strategy mirrors that.

And then I would also add about safe spaces is interesting, we do a program for Wells Fargo at JBC for LGBT leaders and leaders with diversabilities and veterans. And Wells has made it a priority to have a closed door session only for those groups. And I have to say, when I’m asked this whole question about an open door, closed door, the transformation that happens in that room when LGBTQ people get together and can literally let their guard down and breathe, and stop covering for a minute and just be in community is such a rare experience, sometimes  a first experience at work for people that there’s so many emotions, there’s tears. They say that I’ve never been so comfortable as I’m learning and talking about my own leadership and my own journey.

And so they’ve taken a really hard line, and I’ve seen this beautiful thing that can be created for folks who don’t feel safe on a regular hourly basis. And so I do think Mark, I mean, I wish we had more time, but maybe I give the both and answer, and I say, I really would advise that we do create. There’s somebody in the chat that said we created black only spaces as we were going through June and July, and those were so important. And so I hope your legal teams or whoever, is not saying to you, “Your door must be open all the time to everyone, no question.” But this might require a little bit of massaging, but I do think for folks who felt unsafe, this single identity, if there is such a thing as single identity, there’s not, right? Of course, that’s never true, but for those of us that have felt we just literally have to constantly keep our waterline really high on a daily basis, being in a room like that is a singular experience. It is a transformational experience.

And I think it’s the least we can do for people to build things in such a way that they can do that. That there’s not always allies in the room, and that we can work out our own stuff between us. Like you said so beautifully, just I heard you Mark as saying, “If you’re in a marginalized identity, it doesn’t mean that you’re not perpetrating bias still, that it doesn’t mean that you automatically are inclusive.” So when we come together, we’ve got to be watching for intersectionality within our own communities all the time. I mean, it’s got to be a constant commitment. Who’s not in here, who doesn’t feel comfortable entering the space? Where’s the racial diversity, gender identity diversity within the LGBTQ world? Where’s the just people with disabilities who also identify in our community? If we’re not careful, we can end up looking a lot like the bigger world that we are trying to differentiate from and trying to create a different script for, right? So anyway, go ahead, Mark.

MARK FOWLER: Yeah. I just wanted to say that I think the key word of what I heard you saying Jennifer, is that those conversations are purposeful. You are purposely bringing together people of a particular identity group and there’s a purposeful nature of the conversation, and I think that that’s the distinguisher. Not out of fear but out of a desire for people to grow, to explore, to explain, to apologize or whatever it is, and I think that that’s maybe the distinguisher.

JENNIFER BROWN: Okay, awesome. I know I can’t keep you all anymore, but Mark, thank you so much. Everybody unmute yourself and say thank you Mark. One, two, three.

EVERYONE: Thank you Mark.

JENNIFER BROWN: We appreciate you, Mark. We appreciate your work. Please follow Mark, he teaches a lot online. Congratulations again on taking the home of Tanenbaum and we’re so excited to see what you’re going to create. And how can we reach you by the way Mark, if people have questions. I know we talked about this at the top of the call, but can you just reiterate that?

MARK FOWLER: So either info@tanenbaum.org, my email address directly is mfowler@tanenbaum.org and our handles are @tanenbaumcenter on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. And on Facebook and LinkedIn, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much, Mark. And I’ll see you all next week. Thanks for coming today. Next week, we’re going to be talking about actually masculinity, intersectional masculinity as a precursor to the Better Man Conference, which is coming up in September, where I’m presenting, a lot of others are, and please tune in for it. I know it’s a vacation week for a lot of us, I hope it is honestly, but please come. I won’t be on the call, but it will be led by Eduardo Placer, who’s a great friend of mine and an incredible host. And I really think it’s going to be a robust conversation, so please don’t miss it and I’ll see you all next week. Thank you. Take care. Be safe. Bye-bye everybody. Thank you, Mark.