Op-Ed: How starting a queer ERG changed our company
Maren Larsen created a little magic when she decided to start a queer ERG (employee resource group) at Outside, Inc
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In early March, my publication, Outside magazine, was acquired by the company now known as Outside Inc. Overnight, I went from one of a staff of dozens who all knew each other by name to a box on a zoom call with 500 participants. In the flurry of video meetings during the first few weeks after the acquisition, someone mentioned ERGs—employee resource groups. I’d never worked at a company with ERGs before, and I hardly knew what they were. But my overwhelmed brain managed to pick up that we could start new ones if we wanted. I composed a Slack message to the person talking about ERGs while still on the call and hit send as soon as it was over.
Back when Outside was just a magazine and I was barely a full-time employee, I’d created a tiny private Slack group for the handful of LGBTQ+ people I knew in the office. There, we shared our joys (like the latest video from our favorite drag queen, Pattie Gonia) and our frustrations (about anti-trans legislation and other oppressions, new and old). It was a small space, with rare messages, but it was ours.
My first message about the ERG was essentially an attempt to save that space. We knew our Slack groups would disappear once we switched over to the company-wide system, and I didn’t want to lose my tiny queer community. The response: Outside didn’t have a queer ERG yet, but I was welcome to create one.
Just a little over three months later, Outside & Proud, our company’s queer ERG, is a reality. We have a Slack channel, of course, whose members amount to more than 10 percent of the entire company. We have Instagram and Facebook accounts, where we share LGBTQ+ stories from our publications and brands and are working to build a community of queer outdoorsists. Through selling Pride tank tops, we’ve been able to make editorial grants to fund queer-centered content during the month of June. We’ll also be sharing part of the proceeds with non-profits doing important work for our community. We’re working on securing funding for other editorial projects that will make sure LGBTQ+ content is a priority for all our publications year-round.
Those are the big successes—the ones that look good on presentation slides in company-wide meetings. But the most meaningful moments, for me, are the little ones. Like when my building manager, Jim Lundy-Butler, reached out to ask if, in his words, “an old gay guy” like himself would be welcome in our ERG, and I teared up as I told him we’d love to have him. “In all of my adult life…there has never been an opportunity like this,” he told me. My co-founder, Annastasia Sewell, says it was the first time in her career she’d felt comfortable being out—we’d worked together for a year and a half before we even came out to each other. When an exciting opportunity started to come together, our executive sponsor and ally-in-chief, Jon Dorn, says “It feels like there’s some magic happening right now, doesn’t it?” and I got goosebumps.
In many ways, it has felt like magic. We have a space where there was none (nor even a hope of it) before, and at a time when it really feels like change is happening and we can have a say in it. When we ask for help to accomplish a task, incredibly talented people—allies and queer folks, coworkers and community members alike—raise their hands. When I need support from my queer siblings, there is a community that I know will be there for me.
But it has also been incredibly difficult. My co-founders and I have confessed losing sleep over trying to accomplish the lofty goals we’ve set for ourselves and not letting the queer community down. I’ve received emails and edits on documents from ERG members at 10:30 at night. We’ve stumbled trying to build a community that’s too big, too fast. While we’ve taken on all this important work, we’ve also done the jobs we were hired to do.
There have been moments when I’ve thought about how contradictory it is to ask people who are already marginalized to do more work to fight for the space they deserve, and I’ve wondered if this is why we do not yet have a BIPOC ERG. At the same time, spaces for marginalized communities created by out-group folks won’t be as useful or as welcoming to the people they intend to protect, no matter how well-intentioned. (Some companies have started to compensate their ERG leaders to alleviate this problem.)
Our queer ERG is young, which means we have both endless possibilities and a mountain of work to do. Once Pride Month ends, we’ll need to figure out how we can be successful and useful year round. That will hopefully mean directing our attention inward, to build stronger bonds among our members, in part to share the feeling of deep personal and professional satisfaction I and my co-founders have felt from doing this work. Every time someone shares in the Slack group their current queer reading recommendation, or the latest news about their favorite athlete coming out, I feel a little burst of joy. It’s an acknowledgement that, while we love what we do, we’re all more than just our jobs.
Maren Larsen is an associate gear editor at Outside. She is a queer/bisexual cis woman and advocate for intersectional LGBTQ+ representation in outdoor sports.