Now more than ever, we have the stage and everyone in the room is listening. But if we’re all headed in different directions ’we’ (Black and Brown people) will never get what we need. Here’s what needs to happen right now.
My first speaking engagement in Vegas was lit. This was all new, so my nerves were a mess. While preparing backstage, a co-worker approached me — I thought — to wish me luck.
“I’m so excited to see you present. We have some big clients in here, so… do you think you can maybe… um… talk a little ya know… maybe just sound more buttoned up. Maybe don’t curse at all either?”
Not the pep talk I was expecting.
She smiled, patted me on the shoulder like a pet and went back to her seat. Before I had time to think, I was being mic’d up, so I took a breath, ran onto the stage with my hands in the air and said…
“WHAT THE FUCK IS UP, HOW IS EVERYBODY DOING?!!”
Yeah, I said it, but moments before I did, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. This was the moment I stopped giving a shit what people think. I’ve lived a lifetime pretending to be what others want me to be and as LeBron said: “I’d rather fail being who I am than fail being somebody that they want me to be.”
We need proper alignment
Now more than ever, we have the stage and everyone in the room is listening. But if we’re all headed in different directions ’we’ (Black and Brown people) will never get what we need. Fair pay. A seat at the table. A diverse working environment. To move forward, we must be aligned. Aligning means coming together to figure out how we proceed in lockstep. The fact is, I’m not seeing enough of this. What I do see, is several of us trying to solve the same problem in our own bubbles.
Let’s do the math around platforms built for Black and Brown people. There are 19 diverse talent platforms; I co-founded one of them. There are 13 diverse creative communities. There are 11 organizations for education and training. And there are 10 diverse organizations and programs for advocacy.
Let me be very clear. I am extremely proud of every organization, and the people behind them. These initiatives took real work. But could you imagine if we came together as one unified platform? Imagine if 53 became four. Or even one!
At a minimum, we need to come together to address how we move forward and ensure that we are effectively communicating the same things. As the African proverb goes: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
We need to show up
Plain and simple, I’m tired of the talk. I want action! We need to step up and do more to build the future we hope to see. ALL of us!
Showing up isn’t liking a post, joining a list, or attending a conference. It’s sending the elevator back down and ensuring the next person’s ride to the top isn’t as difficult as yours. Those coming up behind us shouldn’t have to make the same mistakes we made or overcome the same obstacles. Teach the young ones, share your knowledge; this can come by way of mentorship, introductions for opportunities, and making room at YOUR table for another seat.
I recently dedicated one day of work to BIPOC creatives who needed mentorship. One post to social media allowed me to meet and educate 14 young creatives. I recall a statement that one of my mentees made: “It is so disappointing to know there are so few Black executive creatives, and when you reach out for help or advice they don’t respond and act like you don’t exist.” Which brings me to my next point.
It’s time to help people get proper training and guidance to grow into being qualified for the middle, so we can see more of us at the top. Stop hoarding experiences and knowledge we have gathered and start sharing it to equip the next generation—creating our replacements. That might scare you, but this is how we further the cause and leave it better than when we found it.
Showing up is also speaking up. LOUDLY! I can count on one hand the number of Black and Brown executives that speak out on social media, on stage, or in press. Many are afraid of the repercussions at work. I myself have been in a situation where my public visibility was becoming so much of an issue that it helped pave my way out the front door. BUT FUCK THAT! This time is different; people are listening. Set an example for those that follow in our footsteps and share our truths so others can learn from it.
Create new rules of engagement
People will “jump on the band wagon” to use our voices for their benefit. Refuse to be a token for anyone. I created my 13% rule to help enforce this and share the stage with others who might not be receiving the same opportunities; if you want me to speak at your event, on a panel, or at a conference, I will only participate if 13% of the other speakers are Black. Match the percent of Black people in the US population. This keeps our partners accountable and drives real change in who and what we’re seeing on our most visible platforms.
It took some time in my career to understand the impact that I can make on this space for others. If any of us can turn around and make an impact on just one person, imagine the outcome.
Walt Geer is executive creative director, experience design at VMLY&R