By Heather Johnson
It was February 1997, and Lee Gash-Maxey, formerly the managing producer of BET Movies and now CEO of the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce, had called and offered me one of two production assistant positions for BET Movies. I was beyond ecstatic. The previous year I had heard about Encore (now known as STARZ) partnering with BET to create a thematic movie channel dedicated to celebrating the cinematic works of African Americans, and although my professional experience was primarily in print journalism, I was determined to be a part of this endeavor.
I had heard and read so much about the excitement for this new channel that it never occurred to me I would encounter individuals who were less than thrilled about the partnership. When I joined Encore, I was acutely aware of some resentment, and I noticed our team was not warmly received. Our experience, backgrounds and education were repeatedly questioned and marginalized. We often fielded inquiries and comments regarding affirmative action, our skin tone, where we lived and who we knew. It was an overwhelming experience, and one I was not personally prepared to encounter in the workplace.
When Nina Henderson (Moore), a Harvard-educated, brilliant, African American woman joined our team, I silently rejoiced. Not only had our team been fighting lingering stereotypes within the organization, we were also working — sometimes unsuccessfully — to remove those stereotypes from being portrayed in our promotions and marketing efforts. Due to some of our team’s lack of longevity in the field and our newness to the organization, our opinions were often disregarded or discounted; however, Nina and Lee together helped us successfully argue that African Americans are educated, diverse and experienced professionals who want to see ourselves portrayed non-stereotypically. We, as the creators and promoters of BET Movies, believed we had a responsibility to positively represent African Americans, and Nina and Lee fostered the courage for me, personally, to use my position to be heard and try to affect positive change for African Americans in both the workplace and in communications.
I would love to report my experiences at STARZ working for a thematic movie channel for African Americans were isolated incidents. Unfortunately, I have continued to encounter similar experiences. As I have become a more seasoned professional, I have used the tools provided by Nina and Lee to broach and continue candid conversations focused on diversity and inclusion.
Anthony Hicks, APR, writes in the current edition of Public Relations Tactics, “it’s tempting to believe that the profession may now be nearing an inflection point where a clear road to accelerated progress is in sight,” however, Hicks and I both agree that there is much more work to be done. In his blog, Hicks also cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reported in 2016 that only 10.3 percent of public relations and fundraising managers are Black or African American, 5.4 percent are Asian, and 3.3 percent are Latino. In a field where diversity is sometimes limited, it is important to have discussions to remove barriers to allow all of us to prosper. I will always appreciate Nina’s and Lee’s courage and determination to engage our coworkers, but we cannot carry the burden alone. This is an issue all of us must face together. Our allies must be willing to engage and encourage the conversations for all of us to fully understand, embrace and employ diversity and inclusion.
Join me in welcoming Nina Henderson Moore to our November 13 luncheon Communicating with Diversity in Mind. Nina will share her insight on how we can instill, create and promote diversity in our communication strategies and tactics. Click here for more information and early registration.
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