Joe Richards is many things — but first, he was a kindergartener.
“I think most people know the kind of field trip — all the little kindergartners take their lunches and coats and pile into a bus together and head to a museum,” he remembers.
“At the end of ours, they asked all the kids to present what they wanted to be when they grew up. I knew I wanted to be an artist, but my strongest memory from that moment is listening to everyone else’s answers and wanting to understand the ‘why’ behind them.”
Today, Joe works as a Customer Resolution Expert in T-Mobile’s Charleston Customer Experience Center, and serves as the lead for T-Mobile's Pride Employee Resource Group in the local Diversity, Equity & Inclusion chapter.
He’s also now the artist he knew he wanted to become all those years ago.
DE&I is about a seat at the table, but it’s also about the change that happens with our voices, and around ten thousand voices can be pretty powerful.Joe Richards
“I like to create things,” he starts, launching into an overview of artistic range that spans event and celebration planning, concept and costume design, prop fabrication and a turn as a female illusionist. As Joe describes sewing thousands of sequins onto a gown as a favor for a friend, a ‘blacklight poster costume’ installation he’s working to create with a team for a photo spread (“It’s kind of hard to explain,” he says with a laugh), and parties he’s themed down to the tiniest degree, two things stand out: his dedication to detailed craft and his generosity.
“I love watching people’s reactions,” Joe explains. “So no matter what I’m working on, the big question is always: What impact do you want? An experience — whether it happens through an event or set design or a photo someone’s taking in — is like climbing a mountain, and in terms of reaching the pinnacle, the details set things apart.”
An Artistic Approach to “Be You”
“DE&I is about a seat at the table, but it’s also about the change that happens with our voices, and around ten thousand voices can be pretty powerful,” Joe says, referencing T-Mobile's Pride ERG membership (over a third of the company’s employees, nearly 30,000, belong to one or more Employee Resource Group). “And that’s not to say we’re all using our voices by yelling. It’s just making connections.”
“As Pride lead, I answer a lot of questions for others. Sometimes the advice I give people is as simple as: If you make a mistake, just apologize. We all want to be seen, but we also just want connect with one another and there’s so much fear about getting it wrong.”
Pride season offers members of the LGBTQ+ community a moment to advocate and celebrate their identities together, but “Be You” has long been a year-round motto at T-Mobile. That motto, Joe explains, inspired him to look for a way to open up Pride — and the experience of being “seen” — to everyone.
“Validation is an important step in connecting with someone. Our vulnerability opens floodgates, and gives us the chance to see each other, maybe beyond corporate and work environments. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for that kind of validation.”
It’s his drive to make an impact combined with his singular artistic sensibility that has helped grow a participatory photo project he launched four years ago at the Charleston CEC called “Proud to Be.”
With the simple directive to employees to write down what they’re proud to be on a chalk board, Joe captured dozens of inspiring photographs of smiling sign bearers and built an art installation to display them in the call center. The project grew from 44 participants to 198 from 2018 to 2019.
This year, it expanded into a companywide T-Mobile initiative in celebration of Pride month.
It’s not always easy to know exactly what to celebrate, which can be part of what makes the experience special. Over time, he’s built up a playlist of helpful questions for these moments.
“I ask: If someone was meeting you for the first time today, and you could only tell them one thing about yourself, what would you say? Or I’ll ask people to share the thing they’re most proud of, and then dig into it — so if the answer is, ‘being a mom,’ maybe I’ll ask, ‘Whose mom?’ and what makes the person so proud to parent them.”
“More often than not, people really have to think about it. And some people write paragraphs.”
Over the years, members of the team have shared their pride in being a gay farmer, being Black and beautiful, being leaders and allies. They’ve showcased their families, their careers, their skills, and their attitudes. Joe laughs remembering a sign that read, “Proud to be oh so saucy!”
That variety, Joe says, “is what makes us great as human beings. That’s really the point — people love to use labels — but gay is what I am, not who I am. I’m a creator, I’m a storyteller. I want us all to break away from labels and see one another for who we are.”
And what happens in the process — the experience — is a work of art, too.
“‘Proud to Be’ is about giving that gift of self-discovery,” Joe says. “When it comes to creating that moment, it’s like that kindergarten field trip. You never know what someone is going to remember 30 or 40 years from now.”