Mark Fowler is the Deputy Chief Executive Officer at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, where he oversees all of Tanenbaum’s program areas and works with operations, fund development and communications. Mark is also responsible for program development, project management and the expansion of Tanenbaum programs nationally and internationally. Mark is a sought-after facilitator and keynote speaker on equality issues including race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. In 2018, he served as Navigator at the OutNEXT Global Summit, hosted by Barclays in New York City.
Mark began his career in public education and working with at-risk youth. He earned a B.A. in English and Education at Duke University, is trained as a Mediation and Conflict Resolution Specialist, and is an interfaith/interspiritual minister and graduate of the One Spirit Interfaith Seminary.
Describe how you came out:
When I think about coming out, I don’t think about it as a moment, I think about it as a process. I was in my 20s before I actually spoke to someone outside of myself about being gay – she was a very dear friend of mine and said all the right things. But even just coming out to family and friends happened at different moments.
A negative experience at work actually acted as a catalyst for me coming out to my mom. I had a very negative interaction with a coworker, and though it wasn’t explicitly around my sexual orientation, I could imagine where that conversation might go. I was a teacher at the time and it pushed me to consider what would happen if she found out I was gay as the result of some sort of public exposure.
I was so anxious about it that I made almost a scheduled appointment with my mother. She told me that she loved and accepted me, and I asked her an interesting question—“did you always know?” She said no, and I think that was important for me in how I thought about coming out both moving forward and for other people. Parents don’t always know, and the idea that they do is one of the myths we have to counter.
How has coming out, and being LGBT+ or an Ally at work, influenced your leadership approach and style?
I think being out at work has helped me to bear in mind, as a supervisor, that everyone may have some aspect of their identity that leads to them being treated unfairly over time. So, I really do go out of my way to make sure that I’m allowing the whole person to show up to work, and recognize that we may not even have all of the resources that they need. We all hold various aspects of our identities in different ways at different times, and I think being out makes me more flexible and aware of that dynamic.
While I am very prominently out about my sexual orientation now, and even my gender identity, a person may not be as out about my religious beliefs or veteran status or other aspects of identity. Part of what I try to be aware of in leadership is that we have to be willing to have the whole person show up at work, and continue to create an environment where people feel respected, part of the team, and cared for. A place where a person’s truth can be told. We find ourselves in a particular point in history when there’s a great deal of uncertainty. People have concerns about themselves and their family members that stay with them through their workdays. It’s important as leaders that we bear in mind how people are responding to the challenges of the day.
The most important thing I have learned from a boss is:
I was a New York City public high school teacher, and the principal of our school was a very passionate woman. I taught at a New York City high school that was designed for students who couldn’t attend school during the regular workday. As you can imagine, there were any number of stories among the students, but lack of motivation to be there was not one of them. When there was a job opening for Coordinator of Student Affairs for the school, I remember thinking how wonderful that would be but, I said to my colleague, I was probably not qualified and wouldn’t get the job. And she said something so simple: “What would it hurt if you apply?”
I applied and I did get the position and remained there for the rest of my teaching career, until I left the school in 2000. I loved my work in that position, and as a result, I had a very powerful and positive experience in my tenure as a teacher and administrator. If my colleague had not said that, I probably wouldn’t have applied.
I find myself sometimes just reflecting on that moment when I’m thinking about a potential new opportunity or innovation: “What do I have to lose?”
The most important thing I have learned from an employee is:
A couple of years into working for Tanenbaum, we were working on a presentation looking at the intersection of religion and sexual orientation and gender identity with statistics and trends within society, particularly within the United States. I was working with a particular colleague who I knew was married to a man, but as I kept talking about “my community”, she very softly and very simply said, “our community.” I have never forgotten that moment, because as much as I am out and as much as I am aware of my own sexual orientation and gender identity, I am still subject to assume the sexual orientation and gender identity of others based on little bits of information I have. It was really a powerful lesson for me to be mindful, that I have no idea how people intimately identify themselves — I have to always be mindful that I do not know. That’s the best place to operate from, with people.
What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
I left teaching to pursue a catering and baked goods business, and at one point I was telling my best friend about this new direction. He told me, “I think that you can make more money with what comes out of your mouth than anything you’ll ever pull out of an oven, but if it’s what you want to do, I’ll support you with it.” Ultimately, he was correct. I’ve never forgotten that moment.
I didn’t fully know at that moment the power of what was coming out of my mouth or the value that it might’ve been providing for people. So, I have lived life believing that if you surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth and how they see you, 9 times out of 10 people the people around you who love you think more of you than you do of yourself. If you can allow yourself to live in their listening, it can provide opportunities that you haven’t even thought about.
If you were planning a dinner party and could invite any five people from history, who would they be, and why?
I would want Oprah Winfrey at that table.
I would love to meet Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March on Washington. He was purposely asked not to stand on the steps of the capital because he was gay. Literally all of the planning for the March on Washington, every moment of it was his brainchild. He was asked to not participate in the culmination of his work because of his sexual orientation. I would love to meet him because I would love to meet the man who saw a greater need beyond his own need to be recognized and identified.
I would love to meet Socrates – the whole idea of questioning and inquiry and how that came to him.
I would love to meet the poet Rumi who many believe identified as gay. He was Muslim and how it was for him while the Divine flowed through him for so many years. People still live by the amazing words that he’s written today.
I’d love to meet Whitney Houston. I believe behind her story, the power and the gift of her voice there is still a very untold story about the woman that she was and what she really believed about life at the core.
The three books I would take to a deserted island are:
One of them would be the Bible. I’d actually have a chance to read it fully.
The other would probably be The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I read that book but I also used to teach it in a course that I called Literature and Sexual Orientation. There’s a very profound moment where the character of Shug defines what she understands God to be — how her thinking had shifted over the years and how God could be found in something as simple as the color purple in a field of wildflowers. That reading changed my life. It changed my thinking. It changed my own idea of what God is and could be in my life.
I’d want a blank journal so that I could actually write about what was going on and what I was thinking, and what I think about differently now that I’m on this island. If I should never get off the island, but somebody should find that, at least there’d be a piece of me that would survive.
Would you like to share anything else about your leadership style and approach?
I’m 54 years old. When I was young I was called names like faggot, and called gay, but many years ago I realized that taunting had nothing to do with sex or even sexual identity. It had more to do with words that had been affirmed as derogatory. If you were going to call somebody a name, those would be the most hurtful.
It’s important that we remember that all of these terms are unfolding, all of our knowledge and understanding — even the language that we use may or may not be an accurate depiction of the experiences that we’re having in the moment. I do think that’s part of leadership as well. Not just responding, but also looking to see where we can create and inform what’s next.