Today, more HR managers and organizations understand the need for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but we still have a way to go. We must be the change we want to see in the world. This starts with increasing your awareness, respecting one another, listening to one another, and focusing on the power of allyship to bring about positive change.
Allyship in the workplace is essential to make your business feel safe, comfortable, and welcoming to everyone. Allyship can lead to greater profitability, increase your organization’s appeal to the most highly skilled candidates, and inspire others to embrace allyship in their own workplace.
In our latest “Faces of HR” profile, allyship has been a lifeboat for Ashley T. Brundage, Founder and President of Empowering Differences.
“In this journey for me, I largely was able to survive through allyship,” Brundage recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “For me, it also stemmed to my four-step process of empowerment that I created. The essential four steps are to know yourself, know others, develop your strategy, and then act. I have a book, workbook, and an online course that all help people drive more empowerment. However, the biggest thing that I want people to do is realize self-actualization. Ultimately, you must have self-actualization to allow empowerment to flow for others.”
Read on to learn more about Ashley and her background.
How did you get your start in the field?
I actually worked for 12 years in the restaurant business. And, of course, you do a lot of recruitment, hiring, training, and education in that space. I was running a team of 50 people and that was my first foray into human resources. And in the restaurant industry, you’re always turning people over to some degree, no matter how amazing of a program you have. I really started to learn how to connect with others and building my human resources skills in that space, but what I didn’t realize, was how much privilege I had in this society.
That is what I started to uncover when I decided to live my life authentically and transition my gender in 2008. I lost my job and my house. I’ve fought through poverty, homelessness, discrimination, and harassment, while trying to find a job as an out transgender person in 2009 and 2010. And then that led me then to realize that while I’ve had my experiences on one side living as one of the most privileged people that move in society, but then serve 30 social economic levels down. At that point I realized, wow, this is all about diversity, equity, inclusion, and ultimately empowerment. Ultimately, I had to figure out what’s the key guiding principle in me finding my way to diversity and inclusion.
Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?
I’ve had several. I think it’s important to access. And I used what I call 10 empowering actions to leverage change. It’s actually the framework for the empowering differences concept that I built. Access is ultimately one of those key actions, people talk about driving equity, driving accessibility, or driving change, but it largely depends on what resources and who you have access to. And so, I wanted to have the biggest contact database, to be able to say, “Oh, I need to talk to the CEO. Boom. I need to talk to the CHR. Oh, boom.” And that ultimately is what helped to influence my path from a part-time associate to becoming a VP of diversity and inclusion in less than five years. But every single manager that I’ve had in my journey, from point A to point Z really were impactful.
Even if it was someone who may have displayed non-inclusive behavior. I think every single person we interact with along our journey, we can pull something away from them. Whether it be a best practice or what to do or what not to do. I think about the first manager I ever encountered in the restaurant business, who was like, if you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late. And if you’re late, you’re unacceptable. I used that as a framework for so many other things that I did in my career. Ultimately, really having the person who has access to more sponsors and more influencers at the end of the day, that’s the person who wins the race in this journey.
So you just mentioned non inclusiveness. Could you elaborate a bit on that?
So, non-inclusive or sometimes it’s exclusive. Might be another way of positioning that, but they are a little bit different, I think. This is just my own opinion. Because we could have things that might not necessarily… that might be exclusive in nature, but it’s how you communicate it towards other people that then will present whether it’s non-inclusive. I think that there’s a little bit of a delineation between those two concepts, and it all depends on communication. So honestly, one of the big actions that I outlined in all my content for powering differences is the empowering action of inspire. Many people come and they my course, and then they’re like, “Oh, well, I was just looking at that action, and I was thinking, well, that’s largely connected to like inspirational information.” But for me, the inspirational information largely connects to how you communicate, what it is that you’re getting across to the other person in the conversation.
What is your best mistake and what did you learn from it?
My best mistake was being an advocate for my own community. Naturally, I show up and I want to wrap myself in a transgender pride flag. Probably have somewhere sitting here in my office. I don’t know. Well, whatever, maybe it’s not here, but wrap myself in a transgender pride flag and be like, “Oh, we need to champion for LGBTQ rights, and equal access to healthcare,” which does not exist. And people think that “Oh yeah, okay. You can go and do whatever you want.” But honestly, no, that’s not actually the case. But what I realized when I made this mistake is that I was seen as literally just a Homer for my own diverse community.
And my voice, being an out transgender person, being a woman, having a disability, and being vocal is about who I am and my identity. I have an opportunity to advocate for those communities, but I can make so much more of an impact if I start advocating for racial equality, or social justice, or more Hispanic or Latino/Latina representation in an organization because we’re stronger together. So, I had to kind of make that mistake because first I was just championing for trans rights and LGBTQ rights, but I honestly, I had to do the work. I had to do research to find out which marginalized communities really needed the most support and where could I lend my voice to make a measured impact for them.
That largely came from doing research and reading about Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And knowing that that actually led to wins and disability inclusion in 1990, and then that led to wins for the Supreme Court in 2020, and the SCOTUS ruling for Bostock ruling, which showed that there is, and no discrimination allowed for trans, or LGBTQ workers. Now while we have a level of discrimination playing field, as it relates to workplaces, there’s so much more still left to do, to bring equal rights for that community, but advocating for others ultimately can drive that change faster.
What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part and how would you change it?
My favorite part is helping others, making connections, and giving back my time. I was in Washington D.C. recently, and I got an opportunity to volunteer all my empowerment resources for homeless LGBTQ youth. And seeing the look on their face when they accepted these books that I handed them, that I had signed and wrote out an empowering message inside, was just absolutely a life changing moment for me. And I wasn’t the one receiving anything for that. So, it was like giving up the empowerment. Empowerment is about giving power and authority to others. There are selfless acts that you can do, that you can live by, that you then make measured impacts for other people. So, I keep track of everything that I donate, everything that I do as far as my time, and that usually gives me that fuel to fight for a stronger future.
And then on the flip side of that, I could go to probably some of the normal ones that people would say. People fighting back on social media, or not inclusive language, being mis-gendered is a tough one to face, having people use your name in publications is not fun either, and I faced all of those in my journey. Probably the biggest thing for me is when people think that sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression is just an LGBTQ thing, which is false. Sexual orientation, gender identity expression, applies to every single person. All seven billion different people on this planet have a sexual orientation, a gender identity, and expression. And it’s not just LGBTQ culture. It applies to everybody. And that one is just like nails on a chalkboard to me. I want to continue to educate, so that way people realize that it’s not just an LGBTQ thing, it’s an everybody thing.
How can company leaders make HR value within their organization?
Well, I think that they must have a lot of patience. I also think that education, access, and inclusion, all the 10 empowering actions to leverage change that I hammered out in my content that I created, would all be great actions that an HR leader can take to make a measured impact for their constituents. It’s hard to just pick one, but I mean, I think that we really must think all around empowering our colleagues as being the number one priority.
Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you currently seeing any trends now?
There are a lot of trends in this space, all stemming around a measured action. Literally everything is going to be data analytic driven around DEI and other acronyms that we use today. But I think the numbers are going to be what really drives the change for the future. Numbers around the engagement, numbers around participants, numbers around how your company grows, intentional inclusion, how you cultivate new clientele, and how you foster relationships. I think that the numbers are going to become more omnipresent. At least that’s what I’ve noticed is that there are so many organizations that are building software and other things to track everything from privilege, to intersectionality, to understanding, to all these concepts that drive inclusion forward and tie back to a measured outcome.
I talk about this with a lot of transgender advocates, where I tell them, “Oh, by the way, just so you know, in like 50, 100 years from now, certain students are going to pull up their virtual textbook, and they’re going to read about the trans civil rights era, just like they read around the civil rights era, and they’re not going to read around the social justice movement era.” All these things are interconnected. At the end of the day, the future world is going to look back and they’re going to say, “Okay, what was it that you did to make a measured impact?” Remember empowerment is about giving power, and authority. So, if you hold onto the power, or you hold onto authority, and if you decide to give it to somebody, make sure that you keep track of that measured resource of what it is that you are providing to someone, so that way you can report back on how you impacted through empowerment.
What advice do you have for anyone entering the HR profession?
If you’re thinking about getting into this line of work, have lots of passion, compassion, and understanding. You will only know your own lived experiences. Would my story have been different, if I didn’t have racial privilege, and understanding that is one thing that helps me to understand I need to do more to advocate for marginalized people of color. I work with black trans advocacy organizations and provide my online course to them so that they have more empowerment. So, if you’re thinking about getting into this field, you really have to take a look at what you can do to utilize your power and provide that empowerment for others.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of being alive and surviving some of the dangerous and bad situations that I have been in. I was one of the lucky ones. And a lot of that is geared to the fact that I was talked out of transitioning when I was 17 in the nineties. Had I transitioned then, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I definitely wouldn’t be here in this environment, in this capacity. And the biggest thing that saved my life was the fact that I had kids, and they became Ashley’s allies. I challenge others who are in this work of DEI and HR to think about what your path or responsibility as an ally is. I was lucky to have had offspring to be an ally for me. They literally saved my life multiple times in moments where I had thought about committing suicide because of how difficult this world was just for me.
And I had privileges. So just imagine what that’s like for people who don’t have offspring or don’t have family, or don’t have as many privileges as I may have. Then think about how you’re listening today, that means you have the technology, you have access to this platform, you can hear what’s being said, or read with captions on a device. You’re doing a privilege check basically for yourself. Do one every time you wake up in the morning and know what things you hold onto as privileges, that then can be used to empower others, and that can be done through ally ship. Ally is not a passive verb, it’s an action. And it must be done with purposeful actions tied to it. So, allies take steps to check privilege, allies take steps to provide empowerment, allies take steps to educate themselves, allies take steps to educate others. All these things drive more change through DEI, and they drive more change for our society, and it’s the biggest thing that I’m proud of.