Black History Month: Honoring the Past, Influencing the Future

February 16, 2021By Craig NoldenBurrelles, Career Advice, Communications, Industry Events, Marketing, Media Industry, Media Outreach, Media Relations, News Coverage, Press Release, PRSA, PRSSA, Public Relations, Social Media 1 Comment

I recently attended an amazing and inspiring webinar from the Museum of Public Relations and the Diversity Action Alliance titled, Black PR History 2021: Ushering in A New Era of History-Makers. Scheduled for 90 minutes, it ran a little over two hours, and I can safely say the viewers probably wanted it to go on for even more time. I know I did!

As a history buff, I loved the time spent at the beginning of the webinar on the history of Black History Month and how it came to be. I remember reading about Carter G. Woodson many years ago at an exhibit at the University of Chicago (where he received a B.A. and M.A.) that honored him for being the father of Black History and eventually the inspiration for Black History Month. Carter also earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1912.

Woodson originally created  “Negro History Week” in 1926 and decided to have it fall during the second week of February. This week was chosen because it coincided with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and that of Frederick Douglass on February 20. Both of these were dates black communities had celebrated together since the late 19th century.

A wonderful Woodson quote was shared during the webinar that came from the second Black History Week in 1927, where he wrote: “It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a history week. We should emphasize not Negro history, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a selected history of races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice.”

Woodson wanted history—a unified history, not a separate history for whites and blacks and everyone else. Negro History Week grew in popularity throughout the following decades, with many mayors across the United States endorsing it as a holiday until it eventually became known as Black History Month in 1976.

That rich historical foundation helped set the table for the webinar and the power-packed panels that followed. Filled with incredible communicators who are shaping Black History presently, and will into the future, the black experience regarding diversity, equity and inclusion were discussions that were as informative as they were gripping.

Life & work experiences of the panel:

Charlene Wheeless, Senior Advisor for Equity and Justice, APCO Worldwide, started off her discussion by telling of her experiences as not only a person of color, but as a woman of color. On starting her career back in the late 80’s, she said: “just before leaving my apartment, I would grab a suit of armor off my coatrack, it was invisible, of course, but it was my shield. The protection I needed to deal with the myriad of macro and micro aggressions that I would face day in and day out. You know, the subtle acts of aggression that leave you feeling marginalized, discounted, ignored and even invisible. Like no matter who we are, we’re not enough. And for women of color, it’s worse. Studies show that women of color feel it even more, we are reminded we ‘don’t belong nearly every day.”

Even after achieving tremendous success and climbing the corporate ladder to reach the C-suite, Wheeless says many people still ask her what she has to worry about now that ‘she’s at the top of her field’. Her response: “Everything! Just because you have a seat at the table, doesn’t mean you’re welcome there. Those acts of macro and micro aggression still happen. The road ‘hasn’t become easier, it just becomes different.’”

She closed out her thoughts with this moving message: “I don’t want to matter for just a month, I want to matter for 365 days a year.”

Next up, Candace Steele Flippin, SVP and Chief Communications Officer at Acuity Brands, spoke to the workplace challenges that African Americans still face and what folks can do. “Walk into situations with an open mind and have a support system and make a commitment to yourself to show up and be your authentic self as someone to deserves to be honored, respected, heard and validated in the workplace. The reality is, unfortunately, as long as bias exists, we are vulnerable.”

Sabrina Browne, Account Director, Burson Cohn & Wolfe; Board Member, Girl Scouts of America added some valuable insights on what brands and agencies can do to help the cause. “Every single brand, every corporation must really take that time to assess where they’re going to stand on the issues, how they’re going to join the conversation strategically, but also make a long-term impact. Because this isn’t about the short-term gain, it’s about that long-term trust and commitment to the black stakeholder.”

Damon Jones, Chief Communications Officer at Proctor & Gamble, added to ‘Sabrina’s comments with, “we cannot solve any problems until we first can acknowledge that it exists. For companies, and many in this country, you have to acknowledge that directly, or indirectly, intentionally or not, many institutions have been complicit in institutional racism. And racism is just a hard word to hear, it’s a hard word to talk about, it makes people uncomfortable in all sorts of ways. But once you can acknowledge that it exists, acknowledge that institutions have a role in being complicit at some level, then you can move on to talk about your responsibility to begin to fix it.”

Talking about P&G, Jones went on to say, “that’s been the soul-searching journey that we’ve been on as an institution. We’re the world’s largest advertiser and when you think about the images that we put into people’s homes every day, when you see someone called beautiful in an ad, and that person is beautiful because she has blond hair and blue eyes, and you do that for generation after generation after generation, you should not wonder why the world has a certain definition of beauty. So, we’ve recognized that there have been these biases that exist, and we’ve recognized that we needed to do something about it. We created a long-running program called My Black is Beautiful, which is a program that fundamentally teaches young black girls that there is no single standard of beauty, no matter what your hair looks like, your skin looks like, your body shape looks like, we are beautiful in our own way.”

Listening to Jones talk about their efforts trying to help educate the African American community, but the broader community as well, about why we say certain things, why we expect certain things and the conditioning that goes along with that was really powerful stuff. Challenging stereotypes and norms are something all brands need to focus on in regard to this very important topic.

Emily K. Graham, Chief Equity & Impact Officer, Omnicom Group had some very powerful words in regard to hiring and finding black talent, “when I started my career at agencies, including global, I did not see many senior level black people, and I could count them on one hand most of my career. In fact, now, I’m the only person at the C-level at Omnicom that’s a black person, and I’m hoping that changes. But I want you all to know that you don’t have to have a limitation just because you can’t see it, you absolutely can be it.”

She went on to say, “we need to change the paradigm, we need to expect more from the agencies and companies who want our talent.”

I learned so much from this webinar and highly encourage folks to give it a watch, it is worth your time. Among my personal take-aways:

  • Black History is American history.
  • Black History Month is a time to reflect upon and commemorate the work of black people before us and look forward to their contributions to come (like the truly AMAZING webinar panelists).
  • While companies should use Black History Month to connect with their black employees, they should remember to celebrate their black employees year-round, not just in February.

There’s obviously so much work still to be done, but with inspirational folks like this panel in leadership roles, the future of the cause can only continue to advance.

Please watch the replay of the webinar here.

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