Designing an ERG to Inspire Engagement

As the night roars to life and the bars fill up, three friends huddled around a table at the edge of the crowd are about to make history. It’s late 2019 and Alexandra Brown has co-opted the usual cocktail conversation to brainstorm a name for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) new employee resource group (ERG) for people with disabilities.

She and her friends spent that night putting their heads together, rejecting countless attempts to capture Alexandra’s vision for the group she had just founded. She was excited by the potential of her new undertaking but also knew the group’s dry, dehumanizing original title is dead weight. 

She knew that she needed a name that welcomes all people with disabilities and allies. A name that could be cheered from the sidelines while uniting all kinds of individuals behind its worthy cause.

Then a new word entered the discussion: ADAPT. Suddenly, the case was cracked. Enter the Accommodating Differently Abled People Team (ADAPT).

Part of a Healthy D&I Ecosystem

Prior to founding ADAPT, Alexandra, who serves as an Emergency Preparedness Officer at NOAA, felt isolated by fears of speaking up about her invisible disability, and how that might affect her work relationships.

Though isolated, she was far from alone. Studies have shown that most members of the workforce with protected disabilities do not disclose their status due to similar fears.

While attending NOAA’s 3rd annual Diversity and Inclusion Summit, Alexandra realized that even though the event included speakers representing people with disabilities, there were no groups within NOAA that connected those speakers’ insights to actual resources for their employees. 

Luckily, NOAA’s previous investments in nurturing a diverse and ever-evolving talent pool had established a healthy DEI&A ecosystem, which was perfect for the germinating seed that would grow into ADAPT.

Connecting Communities to Close Organizational Gaps

“I sat there in the audience, and I thought, ‘Well, this doesn’t seem right,’” Alexandra recalls. She took the mic during a Q&A session. She heard herself announcing that she was founding a new ERG for people with disabilities at NOAA, calling out her email address and boldly inviting interested parties to reach out.

“I was shaking. I was sweating. I had goosebumps. I handed one of the lovely ladies the microphone, and then I kind of came back to reality.” In retrospect, she says she’s glad she listened when her instincts pushed her to open herself up to a new journey, new relationships, and a life-altering challenge.

NOAA’s Diversity and Inclusion Management Advisory Council (DIMAC) provided a support network of other ERG chairs. Alexandra’s peers offered her tools and practices in a space that fosters the dynamic energy required for ERG leadership. Alexandra also connected with ERG leaders at other organizations in her field and found new colleagues eager to share the resources she needed to address the concerns of everyone seeking her help.

The group’s work is complex, as are its effects on the larger culture at NOAA, but Alexandra makes it sound simple: “It’s really all about our members and knowing how to help them means being an effective listener.”

Alexandra and her current co-chair Jeff O’Hallaron serve as problem solvers, getting to know their community on a personal level and catering support activities to their members’ needs. They also serve as a voice for the differently abled people community by providing advice to managers and senior leaders in the organization. Members also help with outreach for students with disabilities as well as training within NOAA to facilitate the uncomfortable conversations that lead to progress.

ADAPT led an investigation to better understand the barriers employees with disabilities face at NOAA, planting seeds that continue to grow into more and more conversations around the often-erased experiences of people with disabilities. 

Most importantly, NOAA’s employees with disabilities now have a place to share their perspectives. That space allows those with unmet needs to ask for and receive accommodations, feel respected and reach their potential.

Nurturing Growth Beyond the Comfort Zone

ADAPT went on to win a 2021 Diversity Impact Award as one of the Top 25 ERGs in the United States for their impact on NOAA’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Alexandra sees her work as part of a larger cultural shift in our current historical moment to prioritize inclusion and “to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It’s one of the many ways her venture into ERG leadership has taught her to live more boldly.

“When you open yourself up to being a little afraid and a little ‘uncomfy,’ usually there’s somebody there on the other side to catch you,” she explains. “And maybe they’re a little scared, too.” 

But the upsides of this discomfort are clear to Alexandra Brown: “Two of you together, you’re less scared than you were by yourself.”

Have you been working to inspire progress like this in your organization?

You can apply now for the 2022 Diversity Impact Awards! Applications are open until July 1st, 2022. For more information you can also visit us at