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Passion Piece: Cultivating Space for Black Creatives
Feb. 27, 2020 | By: A.P. Chaney, Creative Director
What African American pioneer/game-changer comes to mind in our industry?
Bozoma Saint John, Tom Burrell, Elaine Welteroth, Ann Fudge, Ava Duvernay, Spike Lee, Issa Rae, Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler, Solange, Lizzo, and Melina Matsoukas are some of the authentic African American creators in our industry who reflect representation and uniqueness.
And so, to me, they are the mirrors in culture bringing to life the adage “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
The beauty and the brilliance of these creators reside in their voices and vision, as they boldly articulate with action, that the richness of African American culture does not rest with one perspective relative to the black experience.
We are living in a black renaissance, very similar to that of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, but with more accessibility from a medium that extends well beyond a city: the internet. Exposure today is instantaneous, less sanitized and readily available to broader audiences through digital and social platforms globally. African Americans are controlling their narrative while simultaneously disrupting the stereotypes in the media and creative industries. That’s the opportunity and optimism of this digital age.
Why do you believe the number of African Americans in advertising stands at 5.3 percent? What can we do as an industry to increase the pipeline of diverse talent?
That stat is both concerning and compelling. What, perhaps, is more critical is that the number is cut in half when we examine the numbers of black creatives, black women, or black senior leadership in agencies. To oversimplify a complex question, I contend that access is the problem and the solution. While attending Spelman College, the field of public relations (or anything related directly to communications) was not among the professional possibilities.
While cultivating my career interests, my prior job title of copywriter was not one that I could even contemplate and didn’t even know it existed as a profession. The route to pursue my passion evolved through an unfulfilling post-college experience as a paralegal and intentional interactions with individuals in communications-related fields. As a result of these experiences, and in order to find my professional passions, the road led me to earn my Masters’s degree from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
All that is to say: Prior exposure to the field would have allowed, perhaps even accelerated, my learning and career experience. This sentiment is a universal one that I hear often from agency friends, mentors, and colleagues of color. While initiatives exist for more traditional disciplines (e.g., medicine, law, business), significant professional opportunities are largely absent in our industries. Collaborations with institutions where students of color reside would be a great start. Specifically, investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities would start the conversation and create awareness and concrete career opportunities for students interested in creative fields. These partnerships will expose, attract, and increase the pipeline of diverse talent. Additionally, the monetary expenditure must be supplemented with mentoring investments. Potential creatives, especially ones of color, must be cultivated and nurtured. As professionals/agencies, we can take the lead to ensure a more diverse workforce as we invest in inclusion, and affirm access.
How can we increase the number of African Americans in leadership positions?
The change in direction starts with the tone at the top. Paraphrasing Solange, in order to be seated at the table, the invitation must be extended. When people of color do not see reflections of what they can be, they see walls and not mirrors which can make the glass ceiling feel like concrete.
Providing the real-deal, unfettered feedback is a key ingredient to advancing African Americans in leadership positions.
To increase leadership, a real commitment to sponsorship and mentorship must occur. Realistically, it also does not always begin with black and brown folks, it begins with those in senior positions. And as the question states: We [black and brown folks] aren’t in those positions #kanyeshrug. While I view mentors as advisors, I see sponsors as advocates who have the ability to actually advance black creatives, as their career champion. Strong sponsorship is key to sustained support for African American employees. This requires serious efforts in helping managers understand the nuances of helping (young) black talent navigating the workplace, particularly the culture of unspoken expectations.
Open, authentic, empathetic, and nuanced mentorship and sponsorship can provide acceleration for African American growth in leadership.
How has African American culture impacted mainstream culture as well as influence the work we do for clients?
I am reminded of a quote from President Barack Obama where he states,
“The truth of the matter is, American culture at this point — what is truly American — is Black culture to a large degree.”
African American culture is American culture (or mainstream culture); no divide in delineation exists or should. Same goes for history. What really personifies this premise for me is hip-hop, as this genre is inherently black and its influence on culture. For the first time in our history, hip-hop has surpassed rock on the charts and Migos has out charted the Beatles. These are feats people thought were unattainable. Hip-hop’s influence is everywhere, from Hamilton on Broadway to Black Panther. Our partners know and see it, and it’s on us to keep them updated on its relevance just like a competitor’s best practices.
Yes, hip-hop is only about 40 years old and is considered “edgy” and “unfiltered”, but it’s not going anywhere and it’s inherently American just like apple pie. Africans Americans’ thumbprint is on this country’s identity and this contribution should be acknowledged and appreciated every day, not just on days in February.