Talking About Race at Work—When the Work Is About Race

Written by on July 6, 2021

  • In the summer of 2020, a large number of brands and corporations rushed to show the world that they were part of the country’s reckoning over systemic racism. Some took legitimate, positive steps and shared their efforts in honest, meaningful ways; others put out vague platitudes and were quickly called out for their lack of real measurable action.

The issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace have often been seen by corporate leadership as an HR issue—a quota to fill, a finish line on the horizon, a magic number that will allow leadership to proudly proclaim their organization is really and truly diverse.

Of course, as these same corporations began to create more messaging about race in the months since June, from social media posts to public commitments to major campaigns, they’ve experienced additional layers of nuance in the day-to-day efforts to create work that illustrates the “systemic” part of “systemic racism”—the very people who had maintained the inequitable systems were now leading teams to create work about inequity, in many cases for the first time.

So, when your day-to-day work is directly about race, what do those conversations look like? What should they look like? Who gets to be in the room for these conversations? How does authentic work about race and racism get created? How do we facilitate conversations about representation, stereotypes and authenticity between employees with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds at every stage, while also keeping in mind that many of these conversations can be quite emotionally taxing for the BIPOC employees who take part?

To dig into the nuances of talking about race at work when the work itself is specifically about race, I recently spoke with three industry leaders whose day-to-day work provide three distinct lenses on this issue. Tara DeVeaux is the EVP and CMO of Wild Card, which recently partnered with the Ad Council on “You Will See Me,” our campaign featuring Viola Davis, Simone Biles and Questlove, which empowers the Black community to wear face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19. Kellie Wagner is the founder and CEO of Collective, a collaborative of DEI consultants built on the principle that no one person is an expert on all DEI issues. (Collective has facilitated two all-staff meetings at the Ad Council.) And Ash Ramirez, who is the co-founder of Women Who Create, a mentoring organization connecting women of color, is the director of diversity and inclusion at Digitas Health.

Tara DeVeaux

LP: Tara, you’re the EVP and CMO of Wild Card, which recently partnered with the Ad Council on a campaign about face coverings targeting the Black community. Could you talk a bit about the origins of the “You Will See Me” concept? What did you know you wanted, and what did you know you didn’t want in terms of the execution? What were those early conversations like?

Tara DeVeaux: When the Ad Council launched their #AloneTogether campaign focused on social distancing, we reached out and offered Wild Card|3AM services for whatever they needed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

A couple of months later, they asked us to take on the brief of reinforcing the importance of wearing a face mask within the Black community. I’d just had a discussion with my teenage son about the discrimination he may face while wearing a mask, so we jumped at the chance to tackle this incredibly important but also very nuanced issue.

As good marketers we’re taught that a single-minded brief is best. But this time, it was crucial to us to develop a dual-message campaign. The primary message was that Black Americans continue to lead the way in wearing face masks to protect ourselves and our communities. But the secondary message was a challenge to all other Americans to see us as the people we are under the masks—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, entertainers, athletes and community leaders.

We didn’t want the campaign to come off as preachy, so it was very important that the campaign be “for us, by us.” Not only was our cast Black Americans, so was much of the team behind the camera.

LP: What measures are you implementing to ensure offensive or culturally insensitive creative is never made? How do you foster a culture where employees feel comfortable directly addressing depictions of race during creative reviews or other high stakes, formal settings?

TD: Over the last year, even in the midst of a pandemic, we’ve been focused on increasing the number of diverse voices in our ranks. Having more people in the room is critical, but we also know that ensuring we have an inclusive culture is what will keep them here. And so we’re doing the hard work to become the company we aspire to be.

That means bringing in experts on systemic racism and its impact on corporate culture—and it means being open to hearing when we or our work isn’t living up to our aspirations.

We’re not there yet, but we’re closer than we were six months ago, and we’re committed to the long-term journey.

Having more people in the room is critical, but we also know that ensuring we have an inclusive culture is what will keep them here.

TARA DEVEAUX

LP: What are the most common mistakes you’ve seen from corporate messaging about systemic racism and racial injustice over the last few months?

TD: The most common mistake is thinking their work starts and ends at a donation. Companies rushed to promote their giving on social media, but some of those same companies have systemic issues within their organizations.

I think too often we’re not honest about the tremendous work that’s necessary to make systemic changes within an organization and we just want to celebrate the wins without showing the bumps and bruises. But talking openly about their problems and the solutions they’re putting in place validates the employees who were negatively impacted and gives outward recognition to the ones doing the hard work to change the culture.

LP: In what ways has our country’s ongoing reckoning with racist police brutality, anti-Black racism and systemic oppression caused you to reimagine what the culture and our industry could look like going forward?

TD: There’s a saying that goes, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.”

Well, right now, half of America is saying they’re ok with the status quo, and they’re rejecting the idea of systemic oppression, so it’s very hard for me to believe this moment will become a long-lasting movement. But it’s my hope and I’ll continue to do my part.

Kellie Wagner

LONNY PUGH: Kellie, you’ve built a business helping companies like ours create space for difficult conversations about race in the workplace. What led you to start Collective?

KELLIE WAGNER: I very much feel that Collective came about based on me needing to solve a problem for myself. From the time I landed in New York to the time I started Collective, when I left a job, it was almost always because I didn’t feel supported, particularly as a woman of color—either I didn’t feel supported or I didn’t feel included or I didn’t see myself represented.

Initially I was a little naïve. I joined a DEI committee, and when I realized, hey, this is actually a lot of work, I went to my company to ask if I could transition to a role that focused on that full-time. I thought that if the problems were so glaring to me, they would be equally glaring to my leadership team, and that wasn’t the case. I decided to start consulting on the side, and I just sought out different DEI practitioners and asked to support them. That’s really how I started doing the work.

One of the things I saw was that these independent consultants were working at a disadvantage because they only had their lived experience and perspective to leverage when doing the work, and they were being asked to be an expert in such a wide range of areas. Diversity, equity and inclusion span so many topics, so many lived experiences. To think that one person could be an expert in all those things is unrealistic.

I really leveraged my branding experience, background and operational knowledge to build a brand that could house different DEI practitioners under a unified banner, where we could leverage each other’s lived experiences and expertise to do the work in a more effective way. And that’s how we got started.

Diversity, equity and inclusion span so many topics, so many lived experiences. To think that one person could be an expert in all those things is unrealistic.

KELLIE WAGNER

LP: Are you seeing common issues faced by creative communication companies who might be creating content about racial injustice? Are there certain conversations or common experiences they’re having in terms of how they talk about this work together?

KW: Whether it’s companies like the Ad Council or nonprofits that serve communities that are impacted by racism, I think the unique layer here is that you not only have an internal values obligation to your team—you also have an external obligation based on what you do, the content you create, the mission that you’re driving. And so I would say that it becomes even more important to interrogate your own blind spots as a company. Because if you don’t, they’ll inevitably seep into the content that you put out or the mission that you aim to solve.

So if you’re creating content around the oppression or marginalization of Black people or BIPOC, and the process by which you get that content out there inadvertently marginalizes your own BIPOC in the company, or tokenizes them, or layers on white supremacist norms around working styles, then that matters just as much as the end output.

LP: As you’re having conversations with prospective clients, have you developed a radar for when a company takes this issue seriously?

KW: There are a couple of things that signal to me that they are taking it seriously. One is how much initiative they’ve taken on their own—to be creative, to think outside the box, to really start to do the work. I was just talking to someone who was telling me about some of the things they’ve done while they’ve been looking for extra support. I was told, “We did a social justice hackathon where we spent two weeks doing sprints on how we can impact change in our culture. And we went through all of our materials on the platform, our training materials, every kind of documentation we have, and we removed any kind of non-inclusive language.” To me, that shows initiative, that you’re not just waiting for someone to come in and tell you what to do—you don’t have an expectation that someone else is going to come in and solve your problem, and you’re willing to work.

The second thing that is a good signal for me is when leaders are involved. If I only talk to the HR person prior to us engaging, I’m like, okay, why aren’t the leaders wanting to know who this partner is? Why aren’t they coming to the table saying “This is my vision for this work” or “These are the things I’m concerned about”? When I see the leaders show up in the conversation from the get-go, that’s always reassuring because it signals to me that they recognize they have a big part in driving this work.

LP: You’ve facilitated two sessions for the Ad Council staff—one in person, before the pandemic, and one virtually, when we were fully remote. I’ve had interesting conversations with coworkers about the differences between those two experiences, and the question of whether, in some ways, people might’ve felt more able to express themselves from home, in their safe spaces, versus in the office, in person, in front of an actual audience. Have you experienced any unexpected changes in your sessions as they went virtual?

KW: Yeah—there are some silver linings, absolutely, or just learnings that surprised us at first. I think at home people are able to create the level of comfort that is necessary for them. I think there’s a little bit of safety in thinking, “Okay, if this becomes emotional, I can turn off the camera, I can take the space that I need,” versus feeling trapped or on display in the office in a different way.

I also love the ability to do breakout rooms, which allows us to move more fluidly between smaller, more intimate spaces and the larger group, which I actually think has been really beneficial.

I would also say that in an ideal world you wouldn’t need surveys to be anonymous. People would feel safe giving feedback and attributing themselves to it. And similarly, our goal is to move an organization to a place of psychological safety where people can feel comfortable sharing their perspective in the chat or out loud. But one nice thing about being virtual is that people can chat us privately and say, “Hey, I don’t feel comfortable addressing this with the group, but I want it to be surfaced. Is this something we can talk about?”

So I think there are additional layers to a virtual conversation that can actually foster deeper learning.

LP: In a work setting, one concern about having potentially difficult conversations about race is the emotional labor it may require of BIPOC employees. Your whole mission as a company involves taking part in those conversations. How do you prepare for sessions with your clients, and how do you take care of yourself afterward? What insights on best practices have you learned as your work evolves?

KW: Something that has become crystal clear to me is that we need to be willing to carve out space for these difficult conversations—but we also need to respect as leaders that not every BIPOC is going to want to engage in the conversation. The gesture is important, and it’s important that we create space for people to not participate, to listen. It’s important we don’t expect them to share their stories for the sake of everyone else. And even those who do participate might want to opt out midway through.

I think that for us as practitioners, we’re constantly having to set boundaries. You can only support others if you have space to take care of yourself. And so sometimes we might not ask a BIPOC facilitator to hold a particular space because they’re just not in that place to be able to give that right now. And we need to be mindful and respectful of that, and give equal weight to that, as we would when we serve others.

Someone on our team, a Black woman, recently said that to practice self-care and set those boundaries to take care of yourself, as a Black person, particularly as a Black woman in this country, is a radical act of protest. It’s not just a given. And so we encourage people to prioritize themselves over others, and I think that’s okay.

Ash Ramirez

LP: Ash, what led you to found Women Who Create early in your DEI journey?

ASH RAMIREZ: I remember diversity being always at the forefront for me, as a queer person, as a Latinx person, as a gender-nonconforming person, it was just something that has always been top of mind. But it was hard to get into diversity and inclusion. You had to know somebody who knows somebody, and you had to be doing your day job and stumble into diversity from there. And that wasn’t what I wanted, I didn’t want that trajectory for my career.

So I co-founded Women Who Create. It’s a mentorship program for women of color in advertising, tech, fashion and film—what we do is we pair aspiring professionals with already established women of color professionals, so it’s this curation of personalized, real relationships between two women of color, in which they get a chance to learn about each other and share commonalities that people who might have different backgrounds may not understand. So that was my baby, I grew that with my cofounder Shaunah Margaret. We’ve grown it to where we do year-round programming, and we’re planning for a yearly summit starting in 2021.

LP: You were previously a diversity manager at Conde Nast, and you’re now the director of diversity and inclusion at Digitas Health. How do you see roles like yours right now? Has the conversation changed since June?

AR: I believe diversity managers are the builders, the doers, basically the gas in the tank that makes the car go. As a manager we wear many hats. We are given a plan of action and it’s up to us to make it come to fruition.

I think to find success for diversity, and to figure out what works, it’s definitely entrepreneurship, it’s definitely a passion to want to push these initiatives. You have to be a people person to get people to see why diversity is important.

But the conversation hasn’t changed. The content itself hasn’t changed. What has changed is who’s opting into the conversation.

The conversation hasn’t changed. The content itself hasn’t changed. What has changed is who’s opting into the conversation.

ASH RAMIREZ

LP: Aside from having more people opt into the conversation, what resources, structure, access, or commitments you need to meet your goals?

AR: You’re breaking down a system that benefits predominantly non-POC, cisgender men, and it’s hard to want to break it down when the leadership itself is made up of those people. So we have to do some education there and work toward saying, “If we break down these barriers, it doesn’t mean that you’re at a loss.” So that leadership conversation and buy-in is extremely important before you start laying down any of the work.

I will also say: budgets. I’ve definitely worked in spaces where there’s no budget, or a very, very tiny budget. I think now more than ever it’s important to put money behind diversity and inclusion initiatives. It’s amazing what we can create out of nothing—imagine what we can do when we have 100K. Or 50K, even. It’s amazing. I definitely encourage companies to think about their budgets more intrinsically and really back these initiatives. It’s more than just talking about these initiatives—it costs money to do these things.

And you need the people to back it up as well. Everybody’s on their different D&I journey. Some people are just now understanding that it’s no longer a nice-to-have—it’s now a business imperative. People are currency. The retention of people and creating an inclusive culture where everyone feels they can learn and grow is important. These are all laddering up to a business case that’s indisputable at this point.

LP: I want to ask you about one of the types of conversations I spoke with Kellie about earlier. When creating work that directly deals with race and racial injustice specifically, how do you recommend balancing the need to have diverse voices in the room while also recognizing that some of these conversations, whether internal or external facing, might be especially taxing for BIPOC employees?

AR: I do want to take a moment and say it’s important to realize why this is taxing for BIPOC employees. The injustices that have occurred on multiple occasions—it’s a lot. It’s taxing, it’s traumatic. It’s to a point where the well-being and the mental health of your employees are being impacted. So it’s important to remember that, and to remember that these are people at the end of the day.

And yes, we want to make the work authentic and sound when it comes to highlighting these communities and highlighting these injustices, but also we have to remember that these BIPOC employees are people, and it’s important for them to get the spaces they need to breathe.

What’s also important is that there is the opportunity for them to enter the room if they see fit.

So we don’t want to fill a quota, we don’t want to check off this box, we don’t want to tell someone that they have to be part of this project. We want to leave this opportunity open for them if they want to opt in. And we want to communicate that. We want to say, “Hey, we are actively working on this project, we would love for you to take part in it because we respect your experience, and we would love to hear what you could ultimately bring to the table. But you don’t have to. You don’t have to if this is too much for you.” I feel like that respect of boundaries is super-important.

And I think there are other ways you can go about including diverse voices and diverse perspectives, aside from just asking your employees. You can do surveys, you can do focus groups, you can do research, you can look at different podcasts and speakers—there are so many other things you can do besides asking your employees, “Hey, you’re a Black person, tell me how you feel about racial injustice.”

LP: And are there common mistakes that you’ve seen from corporations, from corporate messaging over the last few months?

AR: The most common mistake, I believe, is when a corporation or corporate brand or any type of messenger comes into the conversation about racial inequality and racial injustices and hasn’t educated themselves on the matter. They come in and say, hey, Black lives matter, end tweet.

It feels inauthentic, it feels like they haven’t consulted the communities, it feels like they haven’t gotten a chance to really get the information they need to understand why this is an issue in the first place. So it leaves them in a space where they’re very vulnerable. And I know that they want to be the first ones to say something, but they’re also going to be the first on the line of attack when people react by saying, “Oh, well, what have you done, and what do you know about this community? Then the corporations are really ill-prepared. And we’ve seen that happen a lot.

But I feel the most impactful mistake is when someone does say something, and it sounds meaningful, but there’s no follow-up. It’s performative allyship, it’s all words and no action.

LP: Since June, it seems there’s an increased awareness among leadership that this is an issue they need to address, but that may not translate into increased clarity on the nuances of all the various things that even need to be unpacked. How has that cultural shift impacted the work that you do and the conversations you are now having?

AR: I would say that more people are wanting to opt in to working with me—supporting allies is new for us. And they have to exercise patience with diversity professionals and know that we’re often literally teams of one, or we’re working in silos and they have a lot going on. So yes, we hear you, and we want to make the plans to execute as fast as we can, and we are working towards that—but realistically this is going to be a long-term solution-finding exercise. So it’s a lot more managing expectations than before.

What hasn’t changed is that we’re always to going to be somebody that people of color and people from all underrepresented groups can go to when they need support.


Lonny Pugh is a writer and editor in New York City. He is currently Director, Brand and Communications at the Ad Council. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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