In a world full of adversities, more workplaces need to truly embrace diversity

The content originally appeared on: INews Guyana

Everyone deserves the right to earn a livelihood. But even more importantly, everyone deserves the right to work in an environment free from hate and discrimination.

This was one of the founding principles of Fresh, a small café started in June 2023 by Michelle Howard, her husband, Keon Howard and their friend, Jeffery Walcott.

Nestled along Lamaha and Carmichael Street, Georgetown, Fresh prides itself in being a “love letter to Guyanese culture”.

It is supported by a small complement of staff, primarily made up of persons from often-marginalised factions of society, an intentional move by the café’s owners to ensure their workplace truly embraces the notion of diversity and inclusivity.

“When we began this venture, I emphasised to the boys that I wanted our partners to reflect the diverse community of Guyana,” Michelle Howard said.

Michelle is a 47-year-old mother of three who is passionate about volunteerism, social work, community service and entrepreneurship.

Though not a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Michelle is a proud ally; and her business ventures, including Fresh, are signatories to the Guyana Together Campaign.

The campaign was launched in September 2023 by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) and its partners, with the aim of achieving greater acceptance levels for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Guyanese, and reduce the level of stigma and prejudice by telling stories of real people who have found acceptance and support from family, coworkers, neighbours, friends and religious leaders.

To date, over 90 companies operating in Guyana have signed on, boldly declaring their support for all citizens to live their lives openly and with honesty, without fear of violence, discrimination or arrest.

“No one should be criminalised because of who they are or who they love,” the campaign endorsement statement reads.

Workplace discriminationGlobally, both outright and subtle discrimination is hurting LGBTQ+ workers, and even driving them out of their jobs, the BBC reported in March 2023.

“Many LGBTQ+ employees – more than eight million in the US workforce alone, according to some estimates – have had similar experiences of discomfort and conflict, whether through explicit workplace discrimination, or microaggressions – subtler, indirect actions that intentionally or unintentionally make marginalised groups feel hurt or even attacked,” the report outlined.

Half of LGBTQ+ and “sexual and gender diverse” people surveyed by the Center for American Progress (Cap) in 2022 reported experiencing some form of workplace discrimination or harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The number jumped to 70 per cent for transgender respondents.

And, often, these workers quit as a result: a 2021 study by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, a US-based public-policy think tank, showed that more than one-third of LGBTQ+ employees said they have left a job during their lifetime because of how they were treated by their employer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Locally, statistics are not available, but Michelle says she is aware of similar situations affecting Guyanese.

She reasoned that despite significant progress being made nationally with regards to LGBTQ+ acceptance in society, members of the community continue to be marginalised in various spaces, including work.

In fact, a 2022 study which was commissioned by SASOD and conducted by RMK Consulting Enterprise, found that a majority of those interviewed supported the move for legislative changes to ensure the protection against discrimination for gay and transgender people in the workplace.

Workplace diversitySo, when Fresh was launched, there was an intentional move to ensure the workplace truly embraced and celebrated diversity.

In fact, the owners partnered with the National Commission on Disability Guyana, which connected them with the Deaf Association of Guyana Inc., through which they formed a partnership that allowed them to employ individuals with visible disabilities.

Through other avenues, concerted efforts were also made to hire persons from the LGBTQ+ community.

Fresh

“Our work culture is built on fostering a community where people can express their identities, and we don’t just tolerate diversity; we embrace it. This is especially significant for individuals who identify with the LGBTQ+ community, who often face societal challenges,” Michelle explained.

“Our café is not only a place where healthier food just got tastier, but also a place committed to ensuring an equitable, diverse, and inclusive workplace. We strive to create an environment where our employees and customers alike can experience a sense of belonging and acceptance,” she added.

Michelle went on to explain that as Guyana’s economy expands and the country becomes a hub for more commercial activities, it will become a bigger melting pot of people and cultures.

Recognising this, she posited that it was a “no brainer” for herself and business partners to create workplaces that are truly inclusive.

“I feel everyone has something to offer and almost all of our partners who work with us, have taught us lessons of positivity or endurance and this is why I will work tirelessly to ensure that Fresh remains open and inclusive and when Guyanese come there, it gives them hope but also inspire them to be open and inclusive as we are,” Michelle shared.To achieve a more inclusive work environment, Fresh offers gender-affirming healthcare benefits and policies while making it easy to use, as well as mental health support and counselling for their employees.

More importantly, with regards to inclusivity for the LGBTQ+ community, Fresh openly and proudly celebrates Pride Month. Moreover, there is a no-tolerance policy against discrimination of any form.

“It is quickly admonished… We will not stand for any form of discrimination and will speak out against such practices,” Michelle affirmed.

“We want to ensure that we are very visible examples of how embracing others and sharing love and your spaces can be life-changing in so many ways. We have a role to play, we all do in respecting people and ending discrimination and we must be examples of that in our words and actions,” Michelle further expressed.

“People like me, who are providing employment, should seek after creating safe spaces. Safe spaces come from personal commitments you could make, endorsements and organisation commitments you should declare and also calls for all discriminatory practices to be removed…,” Michelle added.

Community of supportIn encouraging other workplaces to take deliberate efforts to be more inclusive in their practices, the businesswoman suggested that bold and public policies on “no tolerance for hate and disrespect” be embraced.

Michelle and Keon Howard

She also recommended that they openly, “promote respect among you and your work partners and you and the public; and make organisational and workplace endorsements of your safe work for LGBTQ+ members”, noting that “this goes a far way in letting everyone knows this is a safe and inclusive place.”

Moreover, she called for more companies to endorse the Guyana Together Campaign, adding that “this has provided me with such a new outlook on allies across the workplace, families and friends.”

For employees who feel marginalised in their workplaces, Michelle encouraged them to have hope.

“Please do not feel boxed in, there is a community of support and love for you all.”Michelle also called for more to be done at a national level to ensure LGBTQ+ persons are more accepted by society.

“The time is now for us to remove all discriminatory laws or any legislation that target and marginalise members of the LGBTQ+ community. This is a must. This must be seen not only from a human rights lens but one that is crucial for development and employment. Guyanese who identify as LGBTQ have a right to live, earn, be themselves, free to express themselves and for that we must find each and every way to ensure that all have access to the same rights and privileges. Because of our laws, some people are still afraid to live, members of the community still have a difficult time to find employment and that is a fact, if we are to be inclusive as a country, we downright have to make some changes.”