Celebrating Success: MOLA’s LGBTQIA+ Network
As part of Pride Month, Lucas Emberson, co-lead of our recently formed LGBTQIA+ Network has written about their experiences within the sector, and the value of creating safe spaces for staff. This long-read provides important reflections on progress made, as well as what we can do in the future to continue making MOLA a more inclusive place to work…
Hi, my name’s Lucas. I’ve worked in commercial archaeology for over two years, and I’ve been the co-lead of the MOLA LGBTQIA+ Network since its official launch in September 2022.
Alex and I set up the Network (with invaluable help from other colleagues) with four aims in mind. These were to:
- to promote a sense of community in MOLA
- to share experiences, network & socialise
- to bridge the gaps between the office and field, and between the five MOLA offices
- encourage intersectional approaches within MOLA’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) framework.
The Network was an experiment. We didn’t know how much interest there would be, especially in an organisation like MOLA, where staff are based at sites and offices across the UK. Alex and I are both members of the field team. Developing a new shared space across a large company was intimidating. In the beginning we didn’t know if we would engage with members of staff who carry out very different work across the company (and country!)
Very quickly, however, I realised we had nothing to worry about. The Network was a huge success from the start, and it has only grown. We get new members all the time, with representation across all levels of the company. Everyone engages with our polls and posts, as well as our events. The events are something I have started to look forward to, especially seeing members who come every time.
As a Network we’ve been on quite a few trips already, and I’ve learned so much. I’ll list some here, so you can see how wide-ranging and diverse our events have been — all with an archaeological and LGBTQIA+ focus where possible:
- Bletchley Park to learn about the individuals, especially women and LGBTQIA+ people, who cracked German codes in WW2.
- The British Library’s Alexander: Making of a Myth exhibition, where we discovered attitudes toward Alexander’s sexuality through the ages.
- An amazing visit to Queer Museum and the We/Us Exhibition on queer experiences. There we had the opportunity to speak to the curators and gained important insight into the stories they tell.
I have been really touched by the feedback we have received from our members, because I relate to them on such a deep level. The Network has created links between people who might not have otherwise crossed paths. There is also a real sense of community. Members have told us they enjoy having a like-minded group they can connect with as much as they like (or their schedule allows!). They expressed how much pride they feel in the group, and how it’s helped them become more of the person they identify as, in and out of work. Members also liked that the group was a place to discuss LGBTQIA+ experiences, including inspiring additions to their reading lists. Most importantly, it has allowed them to network with people whose experiences overlap with their own.
As for myself, I feel a huge sense of achievement for helping launch such a fantastic initiative. I also feel pride in having a role that lets me fully embody the person I am, and helps other people do the same.
Like many LGBTQIA+ people, including allies, I spent my young life and teenage years (until my early twenties) the victim of serious bullying, both at school and work. It is difficult not to internalise those experiences. The construction industry doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to inclusivity, so I started working in commercial archaeology, I made a pact to myself that I would be careful.
Don’t get me wrong, there is more positive development than I have experienced in previous years. Many companies are now making a conscious effort, and change is well and truly underway. But my “pact” involved not openly expressing my identity as an LGBTQIA+ person out of fear of similar experiences to those in my past. I was ‘preserving’ or ‘hiding’ my self-identified queerness to survive in what can be a resoundingly heteronormative and masculine workplace. I was even relieved my first contract was short— if things got awkward or I felt bullied, I didn’t have long to wait it out.
Very quickly, however, I understood MOLA was a safe place for me to be who I am. I found refuge among friends and colleagues. I was surprised at how diverse MOLA was, with people coming from all walks of life, with all sorts of experiences, and identifying in many different ways. Building and taking part in the Network has entrenched (haha, trenches — archaeology joke) that belief. More than that, it is a constant reminder that I am not alone. I can be myself, and a support system exists for me if I ever need it.
Not only has the Network allowed me to share who I am, it has helped me further understand myself — about my experiences, as well as in relation to other people. I have had some of the most incredible, inspiring conversations about what it means to be a minority in commercial archaeology, and in the world in general. I have learned things I never would have without the Network.
My respect for MOLA has also grown as we have developed the Network. I have seen so many companies slap a rainbow on a few things and call it a day, claiming that their company is inclusive and diverse. Most of the time the opportunities to promote further inclusion and diversity just don’t happen. The people they claim to be championing do not feel cared for, heard, or represented.
In comparison, MOLA has given us a budget, as well as the tools and time to flesh our idea out. The company continues to support everything the Network does. This has given me confidence MOLA is a company that wants to make positive change. I hope we will set a precedent for other archaeological companies across the UK. To show how they can improve the access, facilities, representation, and overall experience of all LGBTQIA+ and marginalised and/or minoritised people within our sector. Making real, tangible, and enthusiastic change involves investment on the company’s behalf, both time and money. But it is so important.
Even though I have had terrible experiences in the past, I know that as a cisgender, straight-passing (depending on the company…) gay man, I can hide that part of my personality when I need to. I understand that it isn’t as easy for other people. Therefore, when developing the Network with Alex, it was vital our aims highlighted the importance of intersectionality.
We take this aim very seriously. With the Network for Ethnically Diverse Staff (NEDS), we have already organised joint events, which allow the sharing of experiences between LGBTQIA+ and other historically marginalised or minority groups within the UK. We are all linked, because until relatively recently there was either a specific place for us in popular society, or none at all. Many of our communities are carving out new spaces to exist in and justifying that existence every single day.
If we want to make real, systemic change, we need to be educated on experiences beyond our own. Collaboration and intersectional approaches are vital. We based this approach on bell hooks’ theory of healing through community, using common identities to facilitate group-processing and group-healing. This involves bringing together people whose experiences have overlapped to ease the feelings of isolation that go with marginalisation and minoritisation. Individuals can experience these feelings in multiple ways depending on their social/racial/ethnic/sexual/gender identity.
Naturally, we have approached this theory with an LGBTQIA+ focus. But it was important we did not remove it from its context of racial identities. hooks theory centred on the experiences shared by Black people. With help from the Network for Ethnically Diverse Staff, and with nuance, we are using this theory to build an intersectional approach. Ultimately, it’s only through empathy, understanding, mutual respect, and exchange, that we can work together to build a more inclusive, equitable, and peaceful society – including at work. We’re archaeologists after all, and we don’t forget our history. It was non-white, gender nonconforming activists (and icons) that massively advanced LGBTQIA+ rights movements in the West. We owe them everything.
In line with this, Alex and I knew from the beginning we would be ‘leaders’ in name only. We believe a hierarchical structure completely goes against our aims for the Network. Corporate structure is often all about hierarchy, so this can be difficult for people to understand. Because of this, we have recently proposed a fifth aim for the Network: to promote a more horizontal structure where all members take ownership of the Network. Our members do not need to ask us for permission for anything. Alex and I are not the ‘voice’ or ‘face’ of the LGBTQIA+ experience at MOLA. Our aim has always been to create a space where people feel comfortable expressing their experiences. We hope they will then go on to develop the Network in fun and interesting ways.
The Network is run for and by staff. Whatever they want, we see how we can implement it. This is the only way we can begin to challenge and hopefully deconstruct the status quo — the hierarchies that have seen minorities and marginalised people oppressed and excluded from positions of power for centuries. It’s from people who question that status quo, like our icons mentioned above, that we should all draw inspiration from. We hope that inspiration and activism will fuel the Network for many years to come.
There is always work to do and new steps to be taken. In the future we would like to see a paid ‘LGBTQIA+/EDI Representative’ position at MOLA. Currently we are all volunteers. This means we are limited to what we can do in our free time, or around our role at work. More funding is always great, too. This would allow us to expand the scale of our events, ideally also expanding our audience. We also hope to organise more events outside of the London, as we have members who are not based in the capital. We help them get involved where we can but, with the cost-of-living crisis, we understand that people can’t travel to every event we hold. Hopefully more funding can change that.
It would also be great to see MOLA expand collaborations with clients and other contractors around EDI issues. We work on sites with people from lots of different companies. As we share space, it would be nice to also share experiences and visions for how we imagine a fair, diverse, and inclusive work environment, where everyone is supported and uplifted. There is massive potential for the future, and we’re excited to see how the Network can contribute to that vision.
Thanks for reading and happy Pride Month!