Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Specialist may be a new job title for Mark Cuilla—he spent his first five years at Premera in customer service—but DEI work is familiar territory for him. At heart, Mark is a community organizer and advocate with two decades of experience working and volunteering with non-profits on issues such as reproductive health and LGBTQIA+ rights. We sat down with Mark to learn how he’s bringing his experiences from inside and outside Premera into his role as DEI Specialist, and what others can do on organizational and individual levels to create more inclusive workplaces.
Q: What does your role as DEI Specialist entail and what led you to this position?
A: I got really excited when I saw this position open last year. I have a background in social justice fields and a degree in women’s and gender studies. I’ve worked and volunteered as a community organizer and advocate for sexual health education, reproductive health, and LGBTQIA+ rights. I’ve worked to raise awareness about behavioral health issues like eating disorders. Plus, I have internal experience with Premera and its culture, having worked on the customer service team since 2017. This role offers an exciting opportunity to bring all those pieces together and create educational opportunities that foster a more inclusive and psychologically safe work environment.
When I began my gender transition in 2020, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know anyone at Premera who had transitioned publicly before. There was no roadmap. I knew that I had support from my team and my manager, but I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be more broadly. I sent out an email to everyone I worked with announcing that my name was changing and that people might notice other changes about me. I was open about this being part of my gender transition. I have a folder of all the supportive emails I received in response. It was overwhelming. I felt so affirmed and validated. There definitely have been some bumps along the way, but I know I have a lot of support on my side. It hasn’t been perfect and if I had to do it again, there are some things I’d do differently, but coming out is not one of those things. And now I can use my experiences to help others.
That’s what my job is about—making space for employees to share and learn from others’ lived experiences. We all have so much to gain from each other. I organize educational opportunities and also have a lot of one-on-one conversations with employees to help them navigate DEI and the workplace.
When people learn about my work they say, “You must do a lot of talking.” But in reality, I do a lot of listening. I learn something every single day, sometimes about other people and sometimes about my own history and the biases that I am still working on.
Q: You started at Premera in 2017 as a Customer Service Representative. How does your experience working in customer service inform your current work?
A: Customer Service Representatives are the backbone of our organization. They are the first people that our members and providers interface with. It is a challenging job. I think being able to relate to this behind-the-scenes part of our organization helps me in my current role. I understand that Customer Service Representatives have a schedule they have to follow so the way they interact with our DEI work looks different. I think a lot about how we can help promote a sense of belonging for everyone at Premera. It’s important to create a space where people feel they belong, regardless of your role in the organization.
Q: Premera hosts DEI workgroups for employees. Please tell us a little about the groups.
A: Our DEI workgroups help create learning opportunities that build deeper awareness and understanding of DEI. They are all voluntary and Premera employees can join any workgroup as a learner. They are organized around historically excluded communities. For example, we have a Black and African American workgroup, a neurodiversity workgroup, and a transgender workgroup. Group members have access to conversations and share educational resources on Microsoft Teams, and a subset of group organizers create activities that align with our values, like putting together Premera Spotlight events. I encourage all Premera employees to get involved in a workgroup that interests them.
Q: You mentioned Premera Spotlights. What are they and why are they an important part of Premera’s DEI work?
A: Spotlights are a way to start conversations—conversations that can often be difficult. They are opportunities for employees to learn from their coworkers’ lived experiences. Each month is dedicated to an identity or a group – for example LGBTQIA+ Pride, Black History, Women’s History, or Jewish American Heritage Month. We’ve structured the Spotlights to have two parts. The first focuses on learning and examining biases. We share information, such as history and current issues that relate to the present-day workplace. The second part is a roundtable conversation and opportunity to ask questions. We aren’t typically allowed much space in our lives to ask questions about things like race, religion, and identity. Spotlights are intentional about exploring these important topics so that people have a space to learn and reflect. It also gives employees an opportunity to share their experiences, which leads to people being more comfortable bringing their full selves to work.
Q: What are some practices and policies employers should think about to create a more inclusive workplace?
A: DEI work is often seen as an add-on and is often the first thing to get taken away if workloads become too much. Employers should make sure they have dedicated DEI-focused employees and commit to providing the resources necessary to support a DEI program. It needs to be treated as an integral part of an organization and not as an extracurricular activity.
It’s also important for people to learn how to make mistakes and for workplaces to make room for mistakes. I don’t recall ever being taught how to make or move forward from a mistake. Growing up, we are taught how to strive for perfection, so we don’t know how to react when we make a mistake or how to mitigate harm we’ve caused. I love talking about mistakes. The truth is, we don’t know everything, so we’re going to make mistakes. The real question is, how do we move forward from our mistakes, repair harm that we caused, and do better next time.
We tend to think that people all have the same knowledge or experiences that we have. It’s always a helpful reminder for me to realize that something I’ve known about or experienced for years is a brand-new concept for someone else. It’s important to recognize that people are all starting from different places. It’s not bad, it’s not good, it’s just different.
Q: Individual actions are important, too. What are things employees should consider to support their LGBTQIA+ coworkers?
One of the easiest things you can do is diversify your social media and what you’re consuming. If you only see thin white bodies in your social media feed, be purposeful about following different hashtags—for instance, #blackjoy or #fatacceptance—gives a different perspective that we don’t often see in the media.
Books are also a great way to seek out different perspectives. I am a library lover. Every month our public libraries come up with an excellent list of books based on that month’s theme, like Native American Heritage Month (November) or Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May).
Also, have conversations with your neighbors, coworkers, and friends to learn about their experiences. Ask questions and be open to learning something new. Asking questions and being curious and open-minded is one of the best ways to learn.
Q: You live in Spokane, Washington. What are some organizations in Spokane with resources for the LGBTQIA+ community and allies you recommend people check out?
Odyssey Youth Movement is Spokane’s “go-to” organization for LGBTQIA+ youth. They have a drop-in center with activities and resources for LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults. I found support from Odyssey when I was a young adult and have been involved with the organization ever since as a volunteer, board member, and donor. The Spectrum Center is another great resource for LGBTQ+ people of all ages.
Also, the Gonzaga School of Law holds a monthly Name and Gender Change ID Clinic where law students help people with the paperwork they need for legal name and gender changes—things like updating IDs, birth certificates, bank accounts, and more.