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COO Matt Herrington Discusses Allyship in the Workplace with Olivia Jaramillo of Equality Utah

Extra Space Storage Executive Vice President and COO Matt Herrington was recently joined by guest speaker Olivia Jaramillo of Equality Utah to discuss how we can be better allies to our peers and coworkers in the LGBTQIA+ community. Jaramillo is a Strategic Leadership Consultant and a Diversity Equity and Inclusion Specialist. She is currently Director for Public Outreach at Equality Utah. She was born and raised in Mexico and is a retired United States Air Force Veteran.

Below is a video and highlights from this candid and insightful discussion.

Herrington: Good morning, everybody. My name is Matt Herrington. I’m the Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Operations for Extra Space Storage. My guest today is Olivia Jaramillo. Olivia has a very interesting background, and we’re thrilled to have her with us today. She is the Strategic Leadership Consultant and a Diversity Equity and Inclusion Specialist. She is currently the Director for Public Outreach at Equality Utah. She was born and raised in Mexico and is also a retired veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Thank you, Olivia, for your service. I’d like Olivia to introduce herself and tell us her story.

Jaramillo: Thank you so much, Matt. I’m excited to be here. It seems Extra Space Storage is doing some great things, so I’m thrilled to be part of this conversation with all of you.

My name is Olivia Jaramillo, and I was born and raised in central Mexico in the state of Zacatecas. I grew up there in a very conservative Catholic family. We were very strict Catholics, which is also synonymous with other Christian faiths. I immigrated to the United States when I was 14 years old, which was a huge change for me. It was hard getting used to a different culture. Growing up in Mexico, we always saw America as the land of promise and freedom, and it was something we truly admired. But coming here was a culture shock, in a good way, but also in other ways it was hard. Even acculturating to the Mexican American culture, which was different from my native culture in Mexico, navigating those spaces, learning how to speak English, and all of these little things you learn moving to a different country. If you’ve ever done so or explored a different country, you can probably understand how it can be shocking at first.

Once I graduated from high school, I was looking around El Paso, TX, thinking I didn’t want to just stay here. There’s nothing wrong with El Paso, but I wanted to see the world. I always wanted to travel to Europe and go to all these places, but at the same time, I wanted to get my college education. So I did both at the same time. I know this might sound like an Air Force recruiting commercial, but I was driving past the recruiting office with some friends, and that’s how I joined the United States Air Force.

I proceeded to do that for the next 20 years of my life, which was a great adventure. I served on several tours to Iraq when we were in that conflict. I also served on several humanitarian visits to Africa, which was an incredible experience. That’s part of the military that isn’t always talked about—all of our humanitarian work. So I love to shout that out. There are so many great things that we don’t even realize our U.S. Military is doing. So anyone listening to this call, if you are a veteran or currently serving, thank you for your service. So, I was stationed for seven years in Europe. And then, one of my last assignments was directing Honor Guard operations out of Hill Air Force Base [in Utah]. Again, I had a great adventure in the military. It really fulfilled the traveling I wanted to do.

Since I was little, I’ve always known that there was something different about me. I don’t want to say ‘not normal’ because that’s how we’re working on changing language. I’ve always felt myself to be different inside, different from what my dad wanted me to be or the norms and culture in Mexico and even here in the United States. That never went away. Growing up in the mid-80s in Mexico, I had no idea what transgender was. That word wasn’t really out there; back then, it was called transsexual. And all my family told me was that those people were prostitutes or drug users. So as a kid, you think, ‘Oh, that’s not what I want to be; I want to be a real girl.’

That’s something that followed me throughout my whole life and into my military service. Then in 2012, we started hearing rumors that there was going to be a policy change that would allow members to serve while being openly transgender. In 2016 when the policy did become active, I was right there at the door and ready to do it. I had prepared myself for years. I think I was the fourth or fifth person in the nation to take advantage of this policy. But I braced myself for a ‘hit’ because it was a coming-out moment. And when somebody comes out, it’s scary. So I braced myself because I had a lot to lose. I had a certain rank, and I led a squadron. I had troops that I mentored and thought, ‘What would they think?’ But I was surprised to receive nothing but love and support from up and down my chain of command. It was such an incredible experience.

People would approach me and say, ‘Hey, I want to support you, but do you mind just cutting me some slack on pronouns?’ Or, ‘Hey, do you mind sharing more with me about what this means?’ That opened my eyes to the right way to do this advocacy work. There’s a right way to frame it because most people in the workplace just don’t know what they don’t know. And that’s what really opened my eyes: we can find common ground on things and build on them from there. Most people are open to learning. Of course, there are the extremes where they are not, but the overwhelming majority of people are open to learning something and understanding an issue. Once I retired from the military, that led me to my work with Equality Utah and diversity, equity, and inclusion. So that’s been a great opportunity to share my story of being an immigrant, transgender, and retired military veteran. I love what I do because it’s a great opportunity to connect with others.

Herrington: That’s an amazing story, Olivia. I appreciate you being so candid in sharing that. It means a lot to me, and it’s brave of you to talk about these things and things like finding common ground. I really appreciate your military service. We also have an Employee Resource Group (ERG) that’s military-oriented, and your service overseas in Iraq and your humanitarian efforts in Africa are commendable. Thanks for sharing all of that.

Jaramillo: You’re welcome, and thank you for letting me share. I love when I hear that there’s a veteran ERG because, more often than not, we are a bit of an afterthought. It’s great that we can still shout out to our troops and veterans.

Herrington: So we’re here as part of Pride Month, and I’m curious about what Pride Month means to you and what message you would have for our company about Pride Month.

Jaramillo: June is Pride Month, and people get ready for that explosion of rainbows every year! I liken it to the LGBTQ Christmas because Christmas is an explosion of red every year and Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas is You.” People from different sectors have proposed the same question and even asked why we use the word pride. It’s good to have pride in ourselves, but I know some people also mirror that word to vanity, and perhaps we were raised thinking being a vain person is not a good thing. So for many people, that’s what Pride feels like because it is just such an explosion of things.

The one thing that I always point out to people is that the LGBTQ community is such a small community. Even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like that because we are very fortunate to have a big voice. But when you break down the letters LGBTQ, each represents such a tiny community, and you find so much negative news against these communities. So when we hear the word pride, it’s not about saying we’re prideful people; it’s more about saying we should have pride in ourselves and in loving who we are and being authentic. In the LGBTQ community, we go through a lot of depression and anxiety and a higher rate of suicide. We want to turn this conversation into something positive and say, ‘You are who you are, and your authenticity is good.’ So it’s okay to have a month where we have an explosion of acceptance and saying, ‘Who you are is worthy.’ Every single member of the LGBTQ community is somebody’s family. We’re somebody’s brother, sister, friend, or coworker. We all know somebody within the LGBTQ community, and we can ask ourselves, ‘Don’t I believe that this person is worthy of love?’

Herrington: That’s such a great way to put it. Every year I see this growing too, and I see more flags in my community now. You are right, I think our circles have all expanded. These groups have always been there, but now we’re seeing people become more and more comfortable being their authentic selves and being comfortable with who they are. They’re gaining more support in the community, and we need to continue that. Thank you for your thoughts on that.

Jaramillo: I’ll add a bit more to that—I have this thing I call points of empathy. We can all find a point of empathy with each other because we all want to show up as our authentic selves. Whether your authentic self wants to be a school teacher, you work toward that. We can all find that empathy and understand that. Or maybe it’s, ‘I really feel authentic with my religious faith,’ we can all understand what it might feel like to have to fight so hard to be authentic in that.

Herrington: This is a good lead-in to our next questions. What struggles do the LGBTQIA+ community still face today?

Jaramillo: I’ll start with this—I live in Salt Lake City, UT, but I’m sure we’re going to be joined by people from all over. But here in Utah, something people don’t know and are usually surprised when they hear this is that we are the most conservative state in the country with the most protections for the LGBTQ community. Regardless of what you may hear on the news, with everything going on and bills that happened earlier this year, we are still the most protective state for the LGBTQ community among the conservative States. I love showcasing that because it shows that we can find common ground to move forward regardless of where you live.

That being said, we still have a lot of work to do regarding understanding [of LGBTQ+] in our workplaces. I think that’s the next step. Just because we have the laws that say you’re protected doesn’t mean that in the lived experience, it’s actually happening. It’s similar to laws that say don’t go over the speed limit, but people do go over the speed limit. That’s similar to what’s happening to this community.

So I always invite others to ask questions of the community because that works to do away with misconceptions. And that’s what we are seeing, that we’re still struggling with a lot of stigmas. Maybe it’s our religious faith or just our personal upbringing. We’re still working through those things—accepting something outside of what we know. If we take an example of someone, let’s say their name is Frank. And Frank is transitioning. Frank is going to be a woman now. We’re still struggling in the education and understanding of those things.

Herrington: Olivia, how do we become better at allyship, and what is allyship to you?

Jaramillo: An ally is not necessarily part of the community but someone who stands with you and supports you. That’s really what an ally does. Let’s take the example I just created in the workplace of Frank. If we see somebody transitioning in the workplace, you might say, ‘I like Frank. I think he’s a great worker and brings a lot to our company. I like them, I just don’t understand what they are going through. Why would they do this?’ A great way to be an ally is going to Frank and saying, ‘I would love to learn more about this side of you. Would you mind telling me what I can do to support you?’ That’s usually the easiest and best way to be an ally.

Many people think you have to wear a rainbow or something like that. You don’t. The simplest thing is listening to understand other people’s stories. When we are part of a conversation, we’re normally ready to respond because we want to say something too. But if we sit back in this scenario, for example, and instead of saying, ‘Well, I don’t know about this, Frank, my faith doesn’t allow me to understand that.’ Instead, try to understand why they are going through these changes and be open to understanding something outside of who we are. That is the easiest way to be an ally.

Herrington: I love it. I’ve learned a lot today just by listening to you. And you’re right, we often want to jump in and think that we know, but we don’t know the whole story. So we should ask questions and be open and understanding.

Jaramillo: These days, we see more acceptance for the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community, but anybody under that transgender or nonbinary umbrella, especially nonbinary, people default to, ‘I don’t know about this nonbinary stuff.’ Again, we can use that same tool of listening to understand. If you hear that Terry, for example, came out as nonbinary, simply saying, ‘Hey Terry, I’d love to learn what that means to you.’ Another easy thing we can do is use proper pronouns—and show your own pronouns even if you’re not part of the LGBTQ community. People ask why that’s important. One example might be when you’re on the phone and accidentally get misgendered. You immediately say, ‘Oh, wait, it’s Sir or Mr.’ We immediately become hyper-aware of our own gender because somebody just called us something that we are not. And that’s a simple way we can understand how pronouns are important for Terry or Frank. It’s not just something within the LGBTQ community, pronouns are part of everybody’s identity. So, sharing your pronouns lets the entire world know that you are aware of the importance of pronouns and that you respect somebody else’s pronouns. Just those two simple things—listening to understand and trying your best with pronouns—are the easiest ways to be an ally.

Herrington: I have one more question for you. We have a big and diverse company. We have 4,960 employees, and we’re spread over 41 different states. So we have a diverse group of employees, which we’re very proud of. What words of wisdom do you have for individuals who might be struggling to be their authentic selves outside or inside the workplace?

Jaramillo: It’s a very personal journey to come out. Whatever it is—a different gender identity or sexual and romantic orientation. Anything different from what is expected is difficult. It’s a spectrum, and even within that spectrum, for example, of sexual attraction, you have heterosexuality, then homosexuality, and in between, you have so many different things. And we talk so much about everything else that we forget heterosexuality is also a journey. Everybody experiences their own orientation differently, and we go through different changes.

It can be very difficult when somebody goes through something outside of tradition or the norm. So I always commend people who come out because it takes courage to do so. I want them to know that there is a community out there that supports them and loves them, and there are many people in every workplace, whether they know it or not, willing to respect them and be their allies. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but you never know how somebody will react to you coming out. Even somebody that perhaps you thought of as being extremely closed off, and the next thing you know, they become your biggest ally. So, take your time and be courageous.

Herrington: So, I took away several things today. We’re going to do a better job of listing to understand. We’re going to ask questions and use pronouns. And we’re going to make it comfortable and be empathetic with people to produce a higher level of understanding for each individual’s journey. Is anything else you would add to that?

Jaramillo: As an ally, you make mistakes. We all do. Whether it’s pronouns or something else, that’s okay. It’s part of that journey, and we’re all on it. The goal is progress, not perfection. The point is to keep going forward on that road, and that’s how you build allyship in the workplace.

Extra Space Storage’s Diversity & Inclusion committees are dedicated to creating a safe and understanding workplace for every individual. Visit equalityutah.org to learn more about Olivia Jaramillo and her organization, Equality Utah.