Norma Barnes-Euresti has accomplished much in her career.
Among other things, she is currently vice-president and chief counsel at Kellogg Company. She formerly served as an administrative law judge for the Illinois Human Rights Commission, and also served as an attorney for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago.
She is also one of 11 new board members at the National LGBT Bar Association and Foundation.
In an email interview, Barnes-Euresti discussed her job, role models and obstacles for the LGBT community.
Windy City Times: What was the biggest motivating factor in you embarking on a legal career?
Norma Barnes-Euresti: For me, my calling has always centered on justice. I wanted to become a lawyer, because I saw from an early age the power that the law had to right wrongs, to create peace. I wanted to be a part of that magic.
My mother came to the United States from Mexico in search of a better life when she was just 19 years old, and got an opportunity to go to a junior college in Kentucky. In the 1970s, we moved to Utah, where my mom worked as a translator for a migrant assistance center. They did a number of great things, both big and small, for the migrant community, and I was always very proud of my mom for the role she played.
Although I was only in grade school at the time, I was impressed that things could be made right via the legal process and made the decision that I would become a lawyer. My decision was further cemented when later when another civil rights matter happened in my high school. I never wavered from that choice, even when a teacher told me that I could marry a lawyer, but never become one. Ironically, my wife did in fact go to law school, but I don't think that is what they meant when they made that comment.
WCT: At one point, you worked with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. How was that experience?
NB-E: That was a great experience! I am a big believer that everyone should at some point have a job where they are focused on making the community a better place. I also believe that everyone can contribute to a better community, regardless of their job. The work I did at LAFC was very meaningful, and I got the added benefit of collaborating with very talented and committed people. I'm happy to report that the same is true of where I work now.
WCT: What does it mean to be on the board of the National LGBT Bar Association and Foundation?
NB-E: For me, it is a dream come true. When I was a child, I never imagined that such an organization would ever even exist and that I would get to be a part of it. To promote justice in and through the legal profession for our community is perhaps my strongest calling.
WCT: Tell me about KPride & Allies.
NB-E: KPride & Allies is one of Kellogg Company's largest employee business resource groups. We are comprised of members of the LGBTQ community and our supporters and allies. We hold/participate in so many events throughout the year, it would be difficult for me to do justice to all of them.
Some examples include: sponsorship and participation in Pride events in areas where Kellogg employees work and live ( in fact, I was the Grand Marshall for the first ever Battle Creek Pride March ); testifying at a City Council hearing to add sexual orientation/gender identity to its anti-discrimination ordinance; lunch and learns on a variety of topics; hosting the Western Michigan Summit; participating in panel discussions at the Out and Equal conference; and assisting marketing with ideas to connect with the LGBTQ community.
WCT: What do you feel is the biggest obstacle for LGBTs in the workplace?
NB-E: I think the biggest issue is still feeling safe enough to be out and proud. Not being able to bring your authentic self to work greatly impedes our ability to reach our fullest potential. That, in turn, hurts the companies we work for. Kellogg recognizes the benefit it receives when employees are able to bring their whole selves to work. Sadly, not every company has been able to recognize that truth.
WCT: Describe a typical day for you.
NB-E: We are a global company, so my workday crosses quite a few time zones. I partner and collaborate with people worldwide on a variety of employment, labor, benefits, immigration, EEO, employee relations and ethics topics throughout the day. My wife and I make sure that we carve out time to have coffee together in the morning, and that we have dinner as a family every day. Sometimes that means have dinner at an odd hour, but we make each other a priority. Afterward, I catch up on my work email and whatever research I need to get done.
WCT: Who would you say is your role model?
NB-E: I have so many people I admire, so it is hard for me to name just one. A few of them would be Audre Lorde, Barbara Gittings, George Takei, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Ellen Degenres and Diana Nyad. I had the pleasure of meeting Diana at Out and Equal last year. It was my birthday, and I got a picture of us with my favorite character, Toucan Sam. Her motto, "Find a way," is a mantra that I often rely upon to get me through the tough days.
WCT: What are the best and worst aspects of your current position?
NB-E: The best aspect of my job is actually when nothing happens. When we can stop the wrong from happening. In prior jobs, like LAFC, or when I was an ALJ for the Human Rights Commission, the story had already happened. Someone had already been harmed/discriminated against. The only remedy was money, but money does not restore dignity.
At Kellogg, we can intercede very early on to prevent risks. Unfortunately, we aren't able to prevent everything. The good news is we can work to bring peace and justice to those situations. We can always work with the person who has been wronged to remedy and heal their situation. We can always work to help people learn what they have done wrong, and get them to make restitution and avoid that behavior in future. That is actually the harder part of the equation.
The natural tendency when someone does something wrong is to simply reject them, along with their offensive behavior. The problem is that they are then very likely to keep doing the same thing, and will continue to hurt others. Even if they get fired and are no longer in your workplace, they might still live in your community, and can have a negative impact on that environment. If we want to see change, real change, in the places where we work, live and play, we have to be willing to help lead people from wrong to right. Otherwise, we will just keep encountering the negative effects of their destructive behavior.
WCT: What advice do you have for LGBT individuals climbing the corporate ladder?
NB-E: I would recommend a couple of easy areas of focus, and one that will be a little tougher. First, technical competence in your role. You need to be an expert at what you do, and you will need to invest in yourself outside of work. That means continuous learning to get better at what you do. Attend seminars, read books and articles on the subject, and don't expect to only do that during working hours. But keep in mind that technical competence is just "table" stakes. In other words, being an expert gets you to the base of the ladder, but it won't help you climb. Lack of expertise, on the other hand, will absolutely prevent you from climbing.
Climbing the ladder requires leadership competencies and your personal brand. Be sure that you know what your company needs from its leaders, what its business strategies and objectives are, and that you are living those values and executing on the strategy.
One thing we all have to consider is whether to be out or not. This is very tough for some, but my advice is to try to be out if you can. And if you can't, think strongly about making a move to somewhere where you can be out. This does not mean you can only live in a state/city that is on the leading edge of diversity. Nor does it mean only work at companies that have a proven track record of walking the talk on diversity. That may make it easier but it's not absolutely necessary.
It's important for us to champion the change we want to see in companies and communities that have not made it there yet. I know this will sound unrealistic for some folks who will read this advice. I get it. I have lived quite a bit of my life in locations that had opportunities to becoming more diverse and inclusive. Keep in mind, when I first relocated from Chicago to Michigan, K-Pride and Allies did not exist. Battle Creek Pride did not exist. There were no ordinances forbidding discrimination. I didn't know anyone at work who was a member of the LGBTQ community. I understand what it feels like to have concerns about safety.
But I offer that advice for several reasons. One, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to hide your true self. That means you have less energy to devote to your work, and that will impede your ability to reach your full potential and shine. Two, people can tell when you are hiding something, which may lead to them not trusting you. Trust is a secret ingredient to making work move more quickly and effectively. The reverse is also true. If people don't trust you, it will inevitably act as a huge anchor, and will hold you back no matter how talented you are. It will also hamper your ability to build a relationships at work in other ways as well.
When I wasn't yet out to everyone, I tried to avoid chit-chat like the plague. I knew that answering a simple question like, 'what did you do this weekend,' would involve having to be thoughtful about names, pronouns and activities. As a result, I would immediately shut down any attempts to engage in small talk with me by moving quickly to the business at hand. People experienced me as being cold and disinterested in them as human beings. And if someone thinks you don't care about them, they will not accept you as a leader. If you can't lead, you will find it difficult to move up the corporate ladder.
However, if you are devoting all of your energy to being valuable at work, and are engaged and engaging, you will quickly reach your highest potential. If you have the reputation as being a trusted individual, who easily establishes good working relationships that enables you to manage others, you will find that you will quickly move up the ladder.
The risk is that you might not be accepted. If you aren't accepted, then trust me, you didn't want to work there in the first place. Because long-term, it will be very difficult to get ahead in that environment anyway, because the negative impact it can have on your energy, trust and relationships will make it very difficult for you to do your best work and reach your full potential.
As more of us move up the ladder, we need to help others do the same. No one is ever entirely self-made. Behind every success story are people who paved the way and made it possible. We owe it to them to do the same for others.
WCT: What's one little-known fact about you?
NB-E: Before I was a lawyer, almost all of my jobs involved working with horses. Although my health now prevents me from riding, I have stayed involved and own several racehorses in partnership. My best horse currently is 2015 Horse of the Year, Wiggle It Jiggleit.