Alaska Businesses Embrace Culture of Inclusion

Two and a half years ago, supporters of equality in Anchorage, Alaska faced a devastating loss.

It was April 2012, and momentum had been building for a vote to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in the city’s non-discrimination ordinance. Hopeful, yet cautious, the LGBTQ and ally community and did everything they could to get voters in support of this effort to the polls.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. The ballot initiative failed—defeated by roughly 60% in a public vote. This was the fourth unsuccessful attempt in Anchorage history to secure legal protections for the LGBTQ community, the first of which occurred back in 1976.

It is currently legal in Alaska to fire someone or deny them housing because of their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, making it critical for local communities to take steps to support LGBTQ workers and families.

Following the 2012 loss, local lawyer Glenn Cravez began to think about what it would take to finally assure workplace protections for LGBTQ residents in Anchorage. He had heard the same arguments over and over throughout the multiple fights to establish an inclusive non-discrimination ordinance—many of which centered on how such protections would be costly to local businesses.

Glenn knew that in order to change 40 years of discrimination, local businesses would need to be out in front, leading the charge. He used the 2012 loss as an opportunity to galvanize the business community—highlighting the important role business leaders can play in advancing equality and changing public opinion.

“The absence of [a non-discrimination ordinance], sends a profound message about what type of community, and business environment, Anchorage aspires to,” he said. “Local businesses have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to help shift that business climate.”

A professional mediator, Glenn knew that respectful conversations are usually the most productive, which is why he began having quiet discussions with business leaders to line up support for this issue and outline the way forward. Part of these conversations involved dispelling the myths that have been spread about the impact this policy change would have on people’s bottom line.

By the summer of 2013, the work was infused with new energy and a new voice in the form of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. Andrew Halcro, the new Chamber president and a former non-partisan candidate for governor, made a public announcement that the Chamber would take on a new initiative in support of the inclusive non-discrimination ordinance, rebranding it “One Anchorage, One Economy” (a tribute to the 2012 ballot measure).

“This is a great opportunity for our members to recognize and respect Anchorage’s growing diversity while improving the economy,” Halcro said.

Under him, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce publicly launched One Anchorage, One Economy as its “commerce of diversity” initiative at their October 2013 meeting.

Businesses across the country, large and small, recognize that non-discrimination laws are good for business—increasing fairness and productivity in the workplace. In fact, 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have included policies that protect LGBTQ employees in the work place.

“The Chamber felt the need to lead One Anchorage, One Economy on behalf of the business community due to the economic and social strength we will achieve working together,” said Andrew. “Today, some of the most successful companies in Anchorage are those that embrace a culture of inclusion.”

A year later, the work continues with a clear path forward and momentum in its favor. With a growing number of businesses supporting their efforts, committee members are meeting on a regular basis to discuss the next phase of community outreach and education.

The group plans to survey local businesses as well, with support from Identity, Inc. and Pride Foundation. Stemming from thoughtful consideration of how other LGBTQ communities have engaged local businesses, this effort will rate businesses based on their non-discrimination policies, training and supervision practices, and philanthropic support of the LGBTQ community.

By the summer of 2015, the two organizations plan to share a guidebook of Anchorage businesses that receive a 100% rating, allowing consumers and prospective employees to support inclusive businesses. Raising the visibility of the businesses that support full equality will allow the local LGBTQ and ally community to, in turn, support those businesses.

Outreach will also be done to provide tools and resources to businesses that are interested in updating their policies and procedures to become more inclusive. Sample policies, practices, and training will be provided to promote understanding and give all businesses the tools they need to succeed. The goal is to make it easy and streamlined for businesses to do the right thing.

Despite the 2012 defeat of the ballot initiative, Alaska business owners and the LGBTQ community have banded together to chart a bold and promising course for the future. Together, we’re working to ensure that all Anchorage residents have the right to fairness, opportunity, and equality.

Josh Hemsath is Pride Foundation’s regional development organizer in Alaska. Email Josh.

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