Celebrating Pride Month: A Conversation with Penn’s LEAP

To celebrate Pride Month, University Life hosted a conversation with Penn’s revitalized employee resource group, LEAP (LGBTQ+ Employees at Penn). The newly formed LEAP leadership team shared their vision and goals for LEAP and spoke candidly about their experiences at Penn. The interview below was hosted in University Life and included the following LEAP Members:

  • Michael Sievers (he/him/his), LEAP Co-Chair
  • Dani Trimmer (he/him/his), LEAP Co-Chair
  • Nik Kroushl (she/her/hers), Communications Co-Chair
  • Sarah Punderson (she/her/hers), Communications Co-Chair
  • Emily Delany (she/her/hers), Programming Chair
  • Sam Lim (they/them/theirs), Internal Affairs Chair

LEAP includes a diverse of representation of faculty, staff, and post docs from schools and spaces across the University of Pennsylvania. Members of the Penn community interested in becoming involved with LEAP should contact co-chairs Michael Sievers (sieversm@upenn.edu) and/or Dani Trimmer (dtrimmer@upenn.edu). 

University Life: Can you discuss how LEAP has been reenergized over the past year? 

Dani Trimmer: My previous employer had a similar employee resource group that was stagnant, and we revived it. When I came to Penn, I started asking if Penn had something similar. I kept getting directed to go to Penn’s LGBT Center. Unfortunately, the pandemic had forced the group to take a pause. Once we returned to normal operations post pandemic, some colleagues were having conversations about reenergizing the group. We came together and voiced that we would like to see this brought back and shared how an LGBTQ+ group for faculty and staff here at Penn can support community building.  We started from a blank slate and have been off to a great start. 

University Life: How long has it been since the restart? 

Michael Sievers: Last fall of this past academic year, there was a call out to Faculty and Staff and an informal event hosted by the LGBT Center to see if anyone was interested in reviving LEAP. I had expressed some interest in joining and was tapped on the shoulder by the LGBT Center’s Malik Muhammad to consider co-leading the effort. There were a couple of other people interested, and he encouraged us to get together and really talk about it.  This effort was important to all of us, so we began figuring out how best to revive it. When I was asked if I’d be willing to step up and be a part of this, I said absolutely.  

Nik Kroushl: Malik Muhammad and Jake Muscato [in University Life at Penn] have given us guidance and support throughout this process, and they should get a shoutout for being our lighthouse.  

University Life: Considering the Penn community, what types of initiatives, policies, and changes would you like to see happen that relate to LEAP’s mission and goals?  

Emily Delany: The stuff that we’ve already done has been very rooted in community building. What we’re doing now is presenting different social opportunities. We had a Wellness Walk at the end of June to close-off Pride Month. It’s just a way to create a social opportunity to meet and greet folks from across campus and offer an opportunity to walk together and have discourse about different things happening on campus, different things happening in our city, as it relates to like LGBTQ+ folks. We just had a social event called Pride and Popsicles. A lot of what we’re doing right now is rooted in community building and social interaction. As a queer employee, it’s something that I look for in an employer: to be able to create community and feel seen and heard in the space that I function in every day. A lot of what LEAP is trying to do is create spaces of authenticity where people are able to oscillate in this safe environment. Building community is a primary goal for what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re constantly looking for input from folks about how to build the community we want to see at Penn. That’s a big root of what we have been doing so far. 

Sam Lim: It’s important to contextualize that on a national scale. We came out of a pandemic that directly impacted the LGBTQ community in a disproportionate manner. Being in the city of Philadelphia, sometimes we think we’re safe from that, but in reality, we’re not. I appreciate that Penn is willing to support this type of work to support our folks. I want to reinforce that, yes, it’s community building, but it’s also life-saving community building in so many ways and for so many individuals. People don’t realize how important small, day-to-day interactions will make a difference for someone living their true life. 

University Life: What does it mean for Penn students that might be LGBTQ+ and see that their university supports the people that work for them? 

Emily Delany: As someone that works in a student-serving role, I find that often our engineers are yearning for spaces in which they can create these mutual relationships. For example, having a lab partner and feeling as if they will not be misgendered in their lab space. I’m very much an out employee at Penn. Just having that someone that you see in the halls and know that they’ll advocate for you, organize meeting spaces, or help you facilitate conversations with faculty members if there was an issue ensued in class. It’s important to have that visibility so that folks are able to feel like they can be their best selves while they’re here and live up to their highest potential. But it’s very hard to do that unless you can see some of yourself and the folks that are working in the spaces, you’re actively involved in every day. 

Michael Sievers: For me, I’ve found it important to have a queer person that you can point towards and say they are living their life here and living fully whom they are. It’s just important to have that representation.  

Nik Kroushl: I work with faculty on building courses, and I’ve had opportunities occasionally to help them adjust language or think about how certain things are presented. I’ll talk about my partner with faculty members, and maybe that gives them an idea to include LGBTQ+ folks when they’re creating a case study. It establishes that sense of visibility. If some of the content in classes is a little bit more inclusive, then hopefully it makes a little bit of a difference.  

University Life: What does LEAP need from the larger Penn community to advance your work? 

Dani Trimmer: LEAP is one of the more prolific staff resource groups here at Penn. Something that I want to see is if we can be a model for other groups out there that want to come together and create their own network by using LEAP as an example. There are plenty of folks out there that are looking for the different resources that Penn offers in these areas. It’s not recreating the wheel. We do have these resources at the university. It comes down to whether they have the capacity or the balance to be able to offer them to faculty and staff, and that’s something that I see LEAP being able to serve as a model for other resource centers. If there were more Business Resource Groups (BRGs) like ours, we could have partnerships.  

Sam Lim: So many professional schools lie outside of the traditional university network. For the law school, we’re trying to start up more resources to support our LGBT employees, and there is an active student group. In the next few months, we will go to school to school and get the word out about LEAP. If we can build relationships with the schools specifically, maybe we can find more affordable and accessible ways for us to do those types of monthly rounds across the university so we’re not just sticking to one side of the campus.  

University Life: What types of goals, initiatives or policies would LEAP advocate for change at Penn? 

Sam Lim: This isn’t necessarily unique to Penn. Uniformity would be beneficial in terms of how LGBTQ+ policies are implemented. For example, the way that pronouns or gender identity are captured at the Law School is completely different, than other parts of campus, and even between staff and faculty.  For best practices sake, any employee who’s onboarded at Penn should have the opportunity to self-identify their gender identity. 

Sarah Punderson: There’s a desire from many staff and faculty to have gender-neutral bathrooms in all buildings, not just those that serve students. That’s such a tangible thing. If LEAP can keep bringing that up and make University leadership aware that it’s a huge priority for everyone—not just students—that seems like something that’s doable and would be an easy win for Penn culture.   

Emily Delany: The restroom point is the No. 1 conversation that I have with students. We have folks that are working in buildings on campus that must exit the building they’re in, go outside on the street, and access another building that has gender-inclusive restrooms. It’s problematic for many of our folks, not only our students, but our faculty, staff, and everyone at Penn. It is rooted in safety, and it should be such a high priority. From a policy and procedure standpoint, gender-inclusive restrooms are such a low-hanging fruit. It’s something that’s important to our community.  

Nik Kroushl: We did a survey to see what people wanted, and one thing that came up was that there is not a centralized or clear process for name changes that cut across all university systems. Of course, there is the perennial problem of a billion different software programs and systems, and they don’t all talk to each other.  

Sarah Punderson: This is all social justice. It’s all about pushing Penn to become the most inclusive employer and representative of Philadelphia residents.  

Sam Lim: Actually, Penn has great benefits for queer people, specifically for trans folk who are trying to get different types of procedures and access. But we need to be transparent about those benefits to potential job candidates.  

University Life: What has LEAP and Penn’s LGBTQ+ community done to allow you to flourish as Penn as an employee? 

Michael Sievers: I used to work for a religious-based institution. I had to hide my identity and say that I was not going to be gay. On my first day on campus at Penn, I remember seeing the pride flag on a door, and it made me feel seen.  Being able to talk with my coworkers about my life, whether it’s who I’m dating or where I am socializing, — it’s made a tremendous difference in my well-being. Just being able to live fully as myself. I don’t feel I need to censor parts of who I am. That’s something that’s impacted me here.  

Dani Trimmer: Due to the nature of my position here. I talk to lots of people at Penn, and I end up essentially being a cheerleader for Penn because I’ve talked about how much I love being here. I love the culture that’s here. Are we perfect? No, absolutely not. I focus on the good that we do here, and LEAP is one of those things. I can tell you that it fills me with a sense of pride. This discussion that we are having here right now — being able to talk about LGBTQ+ rights at Penn and hear people’s reactions from it — particularly hits home for me. It’s pretty promising, and it makes you feel like you’re actually doing something bigger than you. 

Nik Kroushl: This is the first time that I’ve had queer coworkers in my own department. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been in education, places where generally people are supportive. I had a coworker who got married last fall, and we had a big cross-department meeting, and they shared their wedding photos, and we had a cake for them. I know it meant a lot to that person to have that celebrated because they’ve been in environments where it wouldn’t have been celebrated. To see them be excited about having a supportive environment makes me really happy. 

Sam Lim: In 2017, I was kicked out of my college’s fraternity because I came out and I was in surgery. After graduation, I went to teach in the South, and I was harassed. I was told I wasn’t fit to be a teacher because I was queer. Then I went to become the head of an LGBT Center at a university in the northeast. I thought I was safe, but I was still harassed and discriminated against by my colleagues. This is the first job where I can be out and use the word transgender. My coworkers respect me, and I have the benefits I need. That has changed my quality of life so much. I understand the weight that these situations hold for our students who have experienced coming out in college. This board is helping to show future professionals that they can be supported in a professional environment.  

Sarah Punderson: Personally, since I’ve been at Penn, my wife has carried our two children and we’ve grown into a family of four. It’s no small thing to simply be able to share that joy with my coworkers. They threw me a baby shower, which was unexpected. I want to help LEAP lean into improving Penn’s reputation as a great place to work for the queer community for a number of reasons.  

Emily Delany: For me, it’s been rooted in visibility. At Penn Engineering, we have a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office. I think having an employer that creates spaces of visibility and supports them, whether that’s monetarily, publicizing events, or giving access to space. And I hope LEAP continues to be a part of building out those spaces. 

A sincere “thank you” to LEAP for participating in this interview with University Life. Click below to learn more about LEAP @ Penn.