An Interview with EWL's Queer Co-founders
At the core of EWL, co-founders Rhi Alyxander, Dane Wilson, and Silvyn Tetreault share the values of curiosity, utility, flexibility, and empowerment. They also share the quality of identifying as queer. While Rhi and Dane knew each other from college prior to EWL’s formation, Silvyn connected with them online around the time that Rhi was drafting the first open letter and gaining a clear understanding of what EWL could be.
In honor of Pride month, we’re taking a closer look at our co-founders by exploring what queerness means to each of them, as well as how it influences and shapes both the workplace culture and official mission of EWL.
The following Q & A highlights edited versions of the answers I obtained from Rhi, Dane, and Silvyn earlier this month.
In what ways did your shared nonbinary identities contribute to the development of EWL within its first year?
Silvyn: As someone who exclusively goes by gender neutral pronouns, it’s often a necessity to disclose that and do so firmly, otherwise folks will make incorrect assumptions about me. I was fresh out of a workplace where my identity was not understood or respected. Finding out that both of my other co-founders were queer made me breathe the biggest sigh of relief I’ve ever sighed in my life. For me personally, I was able to be so much more productive and successful in the workplace because I didn’t feel like a pariah.
Dane: While queerness is not part of EWL’s mission, our organization is certainly influenced by queer history and organization strategies. At its heart, EWL disrupts the status quo and empowers educators to accomplish more with the time they have. The queer communities we have known and loved have become integral in the foundation of EWL and continue to inspire us to challenge norms and expectations through our work.
Rhi: I was raised by lesbians and met my first trans person when I was 4. In a world that for the most part isn’t LGBTQIA+ inclusive, that upbringing alone has made me stand out as particularly friendly and knowledgeable. That quality, in and of itself, has shaped the culture at EWL. It has to be inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, or the three of us can’t thrive.
Please expand a bit on what the word “queer” means to each of you.
Rhi: I use “queer” because it’s a way of signaling that I don’t want to assimilate into straight society, but that I want to live my authentic life. Queerness embraces going against the norm, and therefore challenging oppressive power structures like racism and ableism. I think that aspect of my identity has shaped the way I run EWL differently than mainstream CEOs. But at the end of the day, I don’t actually see those differences as “queer practices,” I see those as “best practices.” I just took “risks” on more inclusive organizational structures because I could see how I would benefit from them as a disabled, queer person.
Dane: For me, queerness escapes definition and specificity because it challenges what is familiar or anticipated. Queerness imbues what I do with who I am, often unconventionally and unapologetically, and gives all the rest of you the chance to do the work pinning me down if that pleases you.
Silvyn: Queer means that I don’t understand why we assign qualities to people based on their genitalia rather than their character, actions, interests, and skills. It means that I don’t understand why our conceptions of what makes a good “man” or “woman” are any different - don’t most good people share similar qualities of empathy, compassion, open-mindedness, and a passion for justice regardless of gender?
For me personally, “queer” means that I recognize that the ways I think about myself, gender, and sexuality are quite literally “odd” or even disruptive in comparison with societal norms.
While I understand that EWL isn’t a fundamentally queer organization, it certainly feels like a fundamentally inclusive one. In which ways has EWL’s queer core influenced this approach?
Silvyn: The fact that our leadership understands some level of marginalization means that we know how to spot problematic behavior a little better than an all-cis team. We all understand what it’s like to have people ignore your concerns and not listen to you, and we don’t want anyone on our team to experience that.
This means we work very hard at understanding the people on our team by asking about/observing things like which strategies help them be most successful in the workplace, how they communicate and like to be communicated to, and personal factors that inform their experiences, decisions and workplace style. We know our people, we value communicating with them openly, and when something goes wrong we design solutions collaboratively.
Dane: We are committed to openness and inclusivity, in our own virtual spaces where we meet and in the projects and programs we are building. [For example], there is no educational standard for queer/gender/sexuality studies, especially in pre-collegiate contexts. This is a big problem, because gender and sexuality and queerness in general are complicated concepts, and it is unfair to expect people queer or otherwise to intuitively navigate these social complexities.
By educating young people about the history of queerness, how cultures vary in their expression of identity, and other aspects of gender/sexuality studies, we hope to provide the basic tools that all students should have when it comes to understanding gender/sexual identities in themselves and others.
Rhi: It’s particularly hard to be out as gay - let alone a politicized identity like queer -- when you work in education. The younger the children you work with, the more you’re expected to conform to mainstream purity politics. It’s very strange to have to conform to norms that you know harm children -- like rigid gender roles -- in order to work with children. Because I’ve always worked with kids, this is the first time I haven’t had to worry about that.
“Queer,” “gay,” “race,” “gender,” whatever issues are all just “people” issues. Because of my own experiences as a marginalized person, I strive to create an inclusive environment where everyone’s needs are addressed in our foundation, rather than othering folks by putting their concerns in a special compartment. That doesn’t mean you ignore differences; it means you’re automatically considering them in everything you do.
When it comes to celebrating Pride, you’re unlikely to find any of EWL’s co-founders at a boisterous parade. However, they are each forces for change and empowerment within their communities across the USA.
Sometimes this looks like throwing dinner parties, going to a community drag show, or simply supporting artists and business owners who identify along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
Other times, it may be as simple as giving enthusiastic fist pumps and shouts of solidarity when curious young people see you out and about and ask if you support Pride.
Dane says it well when he reminds readers that Pride is about “helping to create a new, uniquely local, temporary offshoot of society where norms and expectations are fundamentally and intentionally shifted.” According to Dane, it’s important to “invite the unfamiliar and celebrate the space you are helping to create.”
To an extent, this advice about inviting the unfamiliar and celebrating the space you help create also applies to navigating the formation of organizations that, like EWL, leverage leadership’s direct experiences of adversity to create a new long-term approach to both work and education.
For more insight into the challenges and opportunities of working while queer, stay tuned for Silvyn’s upcoming essay, within which they use personal experience to illustrate both the best and worst practices for creating a genuinely inclusive environment.
Meanwhile, for a deeper understanding of EWL’s evolution, check out our LinkedIn post on how a memo can change the world, and be sure to sign up for our newsletter to receive future updates and find out how you can get involved!