From Bonsai to BEPA: How an employee gardening club changed Boeing

The Boeing Bonsai Club tells the story of Boeing's history in support of LGBTQ+ rights

October 16, 2019 in Our Commitment

In 1989, a small group of Boeing employees formed the Boeing Bonsai Club, though it had nothing to do with trees or gardening. The club was made up of LGBTQ+ employees in search of camaraderie, compassion and support, but who were unable to form as an official organization due to company policies at that time.

“Boeing LGBTQ+ employees first tried to gain official recognition from Boeing in the late eighties, but its application was denied, said John Blazey, vice president of Boeing Global Engagement and executive sponsor of BEPA. “Founding members had to organize as the ‘Bonsai’ tree club at one point, in essence, hiding who they were as botanists. However, company policies changed quickly to make Boeing a welcoming and inclusive place by the end of the next decade.”

Over the last thirty years, with support from employees and company leaders alike, the Bonsai Club grew into Boeing’s longest-running and one of its largest business resource groups – Boeing Employees Pride Alliance (BEPA) – which now boasts 14 chapters across the company.

“BEPA allows employees to feel safe enough to bring their whole selves to work. Once I felt comfortable being myself at work, I wasted less energy hiding parts of my life and coworkers could get to know me better,” said Brett Youngstrom, an IT specialist. “I felt more proud to be an employee.”

This year, attendees of the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Washington, D.C., for which Boeing is the host-city sponsor for the second year (the 2019 event was hosted in Seattle, Wash.) learned the story of the BEPA’s beginnings as the Bonsai Club. Summit participants tied ribbons on a giant bonsai tree in the Boeing activation space to symbolize Boeing’s journey to becoming a company committed to ending discrimination and ensuring equal opportunities for all employees, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Out & Equal Workplace Advocates is a nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer workplace equality. The annual Summit features three days of educational opportunities, workshops, speaker panels featuring prominent LGBTQ+ and ally leaders, networking events and more. Boeing employees and executives attend—along with colleagues from more than 500 other companies and organizations—to learn best practices and ways to become better advocates. Last year’s event was held in Seattle, Wash. and Boeing served as the host-city sponsor as well.

“I feel that BEPA inspires inclusion and acceptance at Boeing and in our surrounding communities,” said Micah Jones, a systems engineer. “To see a major company give this much support to a cause inspires other companies and individuals to do the same.”

Tim Keating, executive vice president of Government Operations, and BEPA executive champion, attended the summit and challenged participants to take their learnings and apply it for good.

“My hope moving forward is that we can make our companies and our communities more inclusive places, places that attract people from all backgrounds and places that treat everyone with respect,” Keating said. “It’s your job now to take what you learn here this week and move forward as change agents both within your companies and out in your communities.”

The 2019 Out & Equal Workplace Summit drew nearly 6,000 employees and executives from more than 30 countries — turnout that certainly would have made the original members of the Bonsai Club proud.

By Jason Capeheart and Rachel Ayres