The moment I faced my white privilege and failed as an ally

Lisen Stromberg at 3% Conference in NYC / Bronac McNeil

There are moments and then there are MOMENTS. Those that jolt you into a new awareness that can never be reversed. Some call it getting “woke.” For me, at the very least, it was an awakening.

It happened on November 3 (at 12:51 pm exactly) on Day Two of The 3% Conference. It was at the end of the presentation of the first 3% Certified agencies – an agency-changing effort my team and I had been working hard to bring to fruition for nearly two years.

During the Q&A period, Derek Walker, an African-American freelance creative director, rose to ask a question of the agency leaders who had just been awarded certification. “What are you doing to recruit senior talent? You can hire in this junior talent and then they don’t see anyone that looks like them and... How do you address it?”

One leader said she found it hard to find diverse talent in the Midwest where her agency is headquartered. Another indicated they are actively hiring diverse talent, but are committed to “growing from within” which, he noted, takes time.

In a voice quivering with frustration, and so much more, Derek said,

“There are hundreds of black creatives who are freelancing and fully capable of doing the job right now... It is important we can’t be telling black people we have to wait... If I told a white woman to wait ten years until we can move her up into a leadership position, she would be offended. To say that to us is inherently wrong.”

And there it was. THE MOMENT.

The few seconds where I – as the moderator of the discussion and the chief operating officer of The 3% Movement – had the chance to meet the issue head-on or, as so many like me have done before, move on.

I could have invited Derek on stage for a more productive, deeper conversation about race in our industry. I could have given other audience members a chance to tell their stories. I could have shared details with attendees and the hundreds watching via livestream about our growing creatives of color community and invited them to join in our effort to make change. At the very least, I could have encouraged the audience to use the impending lunch period to continue this conversation and report back their thoughts, ideas, and recommendations.

I did none of those things.

My excuse? We were running late, and I was expected to present to 40 senior leaders during a private luncheon. My mind was on that, and the long list of other things that had to be accomplished to ensure the conference was a success.

So I acknowledged Derek’s concerns, challenged the industry to do better, and then quickly wrapped up the session and raced off to my lunch meeting.

In other words, instead of using that moment to truly get Beyond Gender (the theme of last year's conference in New York City) and address one of the key reasons we were all there, I moved on.

Gulp.

In the weeks and months since THE MOMENT, I have listened and heard from friends, colleagues, and other people of color. They have shared their frustration and pain, their voices often quivering much like Derek’s.

Thanks to their willingness to educate me, I have come to understand that as a white person, I have the luxury of moving on.

I may see the challenges faced by Derek and others in our industry as a problem to be solved, yet I will never metabolize it as a lived experience to be reckoned with every day, one that can’t be set aside as I rush to the next meeting, the next priority.

It’s white privilege at its core.

I can’t go back and redo that moment. But I can learn from my mistake, and use the platform I have as a leader of The 3% Movement to commit to being a more significant part of the solution and, with help and guidance, a lesser part of the problem.

To that end, here is my late response to Derek and all other creatives of color who feel like “the other other” – a term women of color used in a recent survey 3% conducted on inclusion.

Your talent and contributions cannot wait a moment longer to be seen, appreciated, lauded and justly compensated. And 3% is dedicated to doing everything in our power to ensure that happens.

On this, the first day of Black History month, I am excited to share what we, as a company, are doing in 2018:

Listening

What started as a closed Facebook Group for female creatives of color in the 3% community took on real-life energy and momentum yesterday. We hosted the first in a series of town hall listening events at Wunderman in New York City. Similar gatherings are planned in Detroit at Campbell-Ewald, and in St. Louis at HLK. At these meetings, 3% leadership – myself, chief executive officer Kat Gordon and public relations lead Nancy Vaughn – will meet with local groups of female creatives of color and their allies. To listen. To talk. To forge new relationships and ensure we’re offering support where it’s most needed. And to compile a list of microactions that these women tell us allies can do to help drive real change.

Spotlighting

At the first town hall event we announced a new partnership with Behance. We’re working together to build a channel of portfolio work from female creatives of color. Using a simple hashtag, any client or agency can search to view the work of these talented women. The next time an agency says they can’t find diverse talent, we’ll have a place to send them. No more excuses. 3% plans to use this resource to support our ongoing creative needs.

Demonstrating

We love Cindy Gallop’s philosophy of “Communication Through Demonstration.” If you attended our fall conference, you might have noticed that half of our 82 speakers were people of color. We showed that diversity makes for better outcomes by demonstrating diversity at an event that earned top ratings in our exit survey. And we are committed to doing it again and again and again. We had no trouble finding fantastic talent and will continue to publicly call bullshit on CES and any other conference that claims they can’t find diverse speakers. (Hat tip to The Drum’s Doug Zanger who compiled this list of 70 marketing women of color ready to rock the stage at your next event.)

There’s more in the works that 3% will share in the months ahead. But for now, we are humbly acknowledging we don’t have all of the answers, but we’re ready to get very quiet to learn them.

Thanks to those who are willing to teach us, and to you for listening.

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