A portrait of a woman in front of green leafy trees
BRIDGE BUILDER: Teresa Pershing is a systems & process manager for TNC. © Rebecca Kiger

Magazine Articles

Interview: Teresa Pershing

A leading member of TNC’s employee resource group Nature’s Pride discusses how human diversity can make a difference in the world of conservation.

Winter 2019

Danielle Furlich Deputy Editor

More

You just completed a two-year term as co-leader of Nature’s Pride, an employee resource group started within TNC in 2013. The organization has had an explicit nondiscrimination policy in place for decades, so why does gender identity and sexual orientation need attention at TNC? Nature’s Pride is structured around two pillars: visibility and safety. When the group started, TNC already had an equity statement that included sexual orientation. We offered benefits important to members of the LGBTQ+ community—health benefits for domestic partners, for example. But externally, that wasn’t always visible. When you went to nature.org looking to work at TNC, you wouldn’t necessarily know that we were an LGBTQ+-friendly organization.

Why was that a problem? If we’re not recruiting from across a diverse group of communities, and we’re not employing a diversity of people, then TNC’s perspective is suffering. A diverse workforce is fundamental, especially in our urban work and our international conservation work.

What did Nature’s Pride do to fix that? We went to a lot of job fairs and connected with the LGBTQ+ community. We also started advertising that TNC has domestic partner benefits and parental leave for people who are adopting a child. And our health insurance is good for trans people—all things that are really specifically important to the LGBTQ+ community.

So before we go any further, a confession: I actually looked up LGBTQ in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. As you obviously know, it stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning. The + at the end is meant to encompass other identities within, or beyond, queer. You’ve shared that you identify as bisexual and queer, and you have a Ph.D. in English literature and queer studies. May I ask, what does queer mean? So, for me, queer is a way of shedding the binary. Shedding it so there’s something in between gay and lesbian or straight; male or female; masculine or feminine. It captures this fluidity that I identify with. Not everybody would be comfortable identifying as queer. In general, the hard-and-fast rule is always refer to people using the language that they use to refer to themselves. It’s just like naming.

What do you mean? Well, you would never call me Terry because I didn’t introduce myself as Terry, right? In the same way, if you called me a lesbian I would be like, “Who?” Because I don’t identify as a lesbian.  

A diverse workforce is fundamental, especially in our urban work and our international conservation work.

Let’s talk about visibility in the workplace. I participated in TNC’s Engaging Across Difference training—a workshop that some Nature’s Pride members have helped facilitate. That workshop was three intense days, at least for me, of looking at and making space for differences. It was certainly the first time I talked frankly with colleagues about their experiences of race, sexual orientation and gender identity. That class has made a big difference for this organization. I know a lot of people who have come out through that process, because they felt safe. And certainly it helps the LGBTQ+ community at TNC feel like they have colleagues who have got their back.

You mentioned goals of visibility and safety. What concerns do members of Nature’s Pride have about safety? One big gap that existed when Nature’s Pride formed was that TNC had no plan for how to support LGBTQ+ employees in places where it’s illegal to be LGBTQ+. When Nature’s Pride was formed, I think there were eight countries like that where TNC was working. [TNC works in more countries now that have anti-LGBTQ+ laws.]

I’m guessing that’s a tricky issue. The Conservancy is very careful about respecting local cultures. While it’s not within the scope of TNC’s control—or mission, frankly—to try to change these laws, TNC does guarantee that staff will not face discrimination in any of our programs anyplace in the world. Also it is TNC’s policy not to put employees in dangerous situations, and to empower them to say no to travel without affecting their careers. So if I were invited to a team retreat in one of those countries, I have now—through participating in this interview—made the choice that that is not a trip that I would make, because, in my view, I would no longer feel safe.

Yikes. I didn’t even think about that. Yeah. I think the other fundamental contribution of Nature’s Pride at TNC is really helping the organization understand how LGBTQ+ people navigate life at work. Having this conversation is more important to me than being in a team retreat. And I know that I won’t lose my job and my career won’t suffer.

I understand Nature’s Pride created a handbook to get at this issue. We recently released a Global Safety and Equity Handbook that outlines the legal status of the LGBTQ+ community and cultural attitudes toward LGBTQ+ people in every place TNC works. It’s meant to help TNC staff, especially LGBTQ+ employees and their supervisors.

Are there other challenges you wish TNC would tackle? I think one of the biggest challenges that Nature’s Pride and TNC face is figuring out how to make employees feel truly safe sharing their experiences as members of the LGBTQ+ community. The Nature’s Pride team sees the data from TNC’s annual anonymous employee survey. We specifically see the data from employees who identify themselves as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

So what are the data telling you? Individuals have expressed a lack of trust in reporting harassment—a lack of confidence that TNC will do anything about it and that they are safe in reporting it. There’s also a problem among international women who identify as lesbian or bisexual not feeling like they can trust their team with that information.

So if TNC gets this right, how will things change for staff? And for conservation? Of course it is always the individual’s option whether they openly bring this side of themselves to work. Essentially, Nature’s Pride exists to ensure that all TNC staff can bring their authentic and whole selves to work without fear of repercussion. If I can’t bring that perspective to the table, then you’re not going to get the best version of me. And TNC needs the best version of all of us, if we hope to achieve our conservation goals. Because they are lofty ones.

Danielle Furlich is deputy editor of Nature Conservancy magazine and coauthor of the how-to guide, Writing for a Good Cause.