Blue Shield of California is a proud sponsor of Pride celebrations in San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego. Robert Birks, an internal brand manager at Blue Shield of California (BSC), is a member of the Black Employee Network (B.E.N.) and Co-Chair of Shield Pride, an LGBTQ+ group. His story of leadership and courage contributes to Blue Shield’s goal of being a great place to work.
It’s a moment I share with pride. Every year Blue Shield of California’s Black Employee Network Employee Resource Group (B.E.N.) hosts their annual summit to a jam-packed, sold out crowd. At the 2015 summit, I was listening and watching intently when the Shield Pride ERG co-chairs (which just happened to be two Caucasian men) approached the stage and, to my surprise, asked that anyone else in the audience that was a member of the Shield Pride ERG to please stand.
When I think back on it I can remember for a few seconds feeling an odd sense of panic. Honoring that request was a turning point in my life.
I took a deep breath. Summoned my courage. Pushed myself off the chair and stood up proud. It felt that all eyes were on me (besides the fact that I stand tall at 6’4”). It would be the first time I had been “out” in front of what was primarily an African-American audience of employees from across the organization. I remember saying to myself “You did it.”
When I look back on it, it was the kind of moment I had been waiting for and really needed to happen. I finally felt free – free to be my authentic self, and felt a new sense of power released itself within me. Both professionally, and personally.
Blue Shield’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) provide amazing support. They’re open to all employees and participation is voluntary. They provide a tremendous amount of invaluable opportunities from networking, professional development, community outreach, volunteering and more. They help to instill and reinforce a positive and welcoming workplace environment for people of all different backgrounds and experiences. Their doors are always open.
This journey of personal growth can be a long one. It was for me.
Just a few years ago, I could not have imagined sharing such personal experiences, or taking on a leadership role to be the face of Shield Pride. But once I started, I understood the impact I could make by being an example to others.
I remember sharing with my cousin details about my work at Blue Shield. I explained my role with the Shield Pride ERG. To my surprise, he responded by saying “Wow, it looks like you found your calling.”
“My calling?” I thought, “My calling?” I was actually a bit speechless. But the more I have thought about it, the more I realize that it is true.
When I think about my time as co-chair of the Shield Pride ERG, I can say that these past few years have been so gratifying for me that it’s actually hard to put in words.
And sometimes I even get emotional when I talk with others about the Shield Pride ERG because it brings to light just how important it is to me to try to make a difference for others, for the company, for myself, and to be front, center and proud as an African-American gay man – to show others that it’s okay to be black and gay at Blue Shield, especially among people of color.
The idea of keeping the LGBTQ+ culture helps with another goal: normalizing conversations about LGBTQ+ people. We recently launched our new story-telling series, Out Talk, which gives LGBTQ+ employees an opportunity to tell their personal stories, opening eyes to the struggles and triumphs of their co-workers, and engaging in a dialogue that helps people understand the diversity of the human experience. The more our group can do to educate, enlighten and inspire, the more we’re able to make a difference internally and externally.
Before joining Blue Shield, I longed to be in a place where race and sexual orientation were not worries for me. I wanted to belong to an organization that gave me the freedom to be myself. Explaining that feeling of freedom is hard to put into words, but I know it makes me believe that the sky really is the limit and that by bringing my full self to work every day, there’s nothing to stop me from having a limitless life.
Another turning point came just last year. For the first time ever, I put a picture of my husband and I on my desk. I look at it every day when I come to work, and smile. It reminds me of how far I’ve come.