This article originally appeared in Issue 360 of GCN.
Dublin’s 2019 Pride celebrations were marked by the visible and vocal splits that emerged in our community due to differing opinions on the presence of multinational corporations in the parade and the increasing commercialisation of the festival. With that in mind, sociologist and LGBT+ activist, Evgeny Shtorn, talked to John Malcolm Anderson, leader of Prism – the LGBT+ employee resource group in Verizon Media Dublin. Here John details his own growth as an activist and how he makes space for activism within a multinational corporation.
John was raised the youngest of seven children in a Jehovah Witness family in Ballina, County Mayo. “It is a sort of fundamentalist Christian sect, non-Trinitarian, quite sectarian,” John explains. From early childhood, he remembers attending meetings and doing bible study almost every day. He would go out on field service with his parents and siblings, knocking door-to-door, preaching their beliefs.
Until John was 16 he still believed in the Jehovah Witness doctrine. Then he began having doubts, in part related to his sexuality, but also to the doctrine itself.
When he was 17, John came out to his parents as gay. The reaction wasn’t one of acceptance. “It was generally very bad, my dad took it a lot softer while my mom just went mad. It’s obviously a big thing to not be straight and there’s no sex before marriage… Homosexuality was considered a big sin and presented almost like a disease”.
Another big challenge for John was growing up in Ballina as a mixed-race child, from Jamaican-English heritage. “There’s not a massive amount of diversity in Ballina. Not when I was growing up anyway,” says John. He had some good friends, but always felt that the colour of his skin was noticeable. “It was made very clear that you were not part of certain communities.”
John decided to make a big move to New Zealand to study for a bachelor’s degree. “Although it was my choice to leave the sect I was born into, the consequences of this action were severe. I almost lost any access to my family and friends”.
John came back to Ireland and applied to GMIT to do his undergrad.
Another big challenge for John was growing up in Ballina as a mixed-race child, from Jamaican-English heritage.
He remembers that time warmly. “Galway was really welcoming. I made lots of good friends there and finally was able to open up, accept myself a bit more and deal with the trauma of my family situation.”
It was also here he met his first boyfriend. “I was still afraid. I think a lot of socialisation that happens in so called ‘high control groups’, including Jehovah Witnesses, around sexuality is so intense that you might think you have got past it in terms of your understanding of the world, but you still have the same reservations inside.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree he accepted a position in Yahoo, which has subsequently been acquired by Verizon. John moved to Dublin and in general, everything in his life improved, but his experience of being marginalised, excluded, poor and lonely made him move decisively to the space of socially engaged projects within his own company and outside it. “I’ve always felt that some sort of moral compass was needed, maybe it’s inherited from my time as a Jehovah Witness.” He realised the importance of feeling personal responsibility for social improvement.
At the start you’re just trying to get your job done and figure out how to do it as best as possible. But with time you try and help more systematically. For me, part of the systemic issue is how the corporations sit in the community, how they integrate and how they help people who are really stuck or who are getting forced out with rental prices. I can’t help feeling somehow responsible for them.”
At the beginning John wasn’t actively involved in activism within his own company, but he came across articles and statistics that detailed the fact that a lot of LGBT+ people are still closeted within corporations, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). So John became part of the ERG (Employee Resource Group) and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) teams. “The immediate thing that drove me to LGBT+ activism within the corporation is all we can do for LGBT+ people outside of the corporation. I had this idea that maybe we were already more privileged socially and economically, even though there are still issues around visibility and the feeling that some LGBT+ are not comfortable to be out of the closet at the workplace.”
For me, part of the systemic issue is how the corporations sit in the community, how they integrate and how they help people who are really stuck or who are getting forced out with rental prices. I can’t help feeling somehow responsible for them.
John is tireless in figuring out how the resources that he and his colleagues have can be used to support disadvantaged and marginalised groups. In 2019 they organised a talk on the intersection between LGBT+ issues and international protection around Refugee Week and Dublin Pride week to raise awareness about LGBT+ people in Direct Provision, inviting the Irish Refugee Council and Queer Diaspora Ireland.
Over 60 employees were there, most of them had very little knowledge about Direct Provision. It became the start of a fundraising campaign where the employees of Verizon donated money to support the Irish Refugee Council. John is also currently involved in organising a training program that includes people seeking asylum. He believes it is very important to give everyone a chance. “A lot of people have a refugee status or right to work, but cannot find work. I want to be sure that we do real training programmes that help in mobilising everyone, with a diverse range of employment opportunities.”
He is also very much interested in a dialogue with those who actively critique corporations. Right now he is organising a panel discussion about Dublin Pride with the idea of bringing together voices from the more critical side as well as the actual organisers and discuss with them more meaningful corporate involvement. “As a media company, I think it’d be really useful for everyone if we could provide a platform for that conversation. It is well needed, and as an activist, I’m happy that it has already started.”
He disagrees with the message that corporations should be pushed out. “At the end of the day a corporation is a very nonspecific entity. I would say that to be critical of corporations is not a bad thing, but the critique needs specificity in order for it to actually provide any sort of change or dialogue.”
His main focus is on how much corporations really care versus how much is just virtue signalling as a form of advertising.
Beyond his work with LGBT+ issues he is also interested in a wide spectrum of social issues. “I can see that as much benefit as these massive tech and finance corporations bring, there’s also the issue of inflation and the housing market. I’m interested in where corporate social responsibility can go, where it can evolve beyond a tokenism and really drive into systemic change. It would show to communities that these guys are here to stay and that they are really invested. We need to bridge the gap between the state and the corporate responsibility.”
The main goal for John is to build a network, because he believes that only in collaboration and solidarity it is possible to achieve a systemic change.
The main goal for John is to build a network, because he believes that only in collaboration and solidarity it is possible to achieve a systemic change. He is now working on a hip-hop event to provide a platform for young artists where they rap on socially conscious issues. “Intersection is the key,” John affirms. “It’s a big event, and alone my group wouldn’t be able to do it, but we brought together our different ERG that are supporting women, diversity, mental health, etc, and now it seems possible to make a really huge event of a high standard.”
John acknowledges that it’s not enough to work on social issues from just one corporation, and he is trying to establish contacts with LGBT+ leaders of ERG groups in other big corporations. John realised through discussions with others that there is a huge interest from people who want to work with him, either Irish-born or new-comers, LGBT+ or straight, with kids or childfree – they are trying to do their best to make Ireland a great place to live in. “Joined forces can help to build proper corporate social responsibility and facilitate communication between different stakeholders.”
Almost a decade after leaving Ballina, John hasn’t forgotten his hometown. He is now in conversation with councillors to establish a sister cities project between Ballina and Port Antonio in Jamaica. “If it’s done properly, it is a massive opportunity for economic and cultural exchange programs. North West Ireland and Jamaica share a colonial history. That’s why you have a place in Jamaica called Sligoville. There was a massive redistribution of people happening under the British Empire, where thousands of people were sent from North Mayo to Jamaica. But I think it’s beneficial not just as a tourist exercise. It will also help to create that awareness around multiculturalism and diversity in more rural parts of Ireland.”
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