Like so many people around the world, I watched the events of January 6, 2021 unfold with varying degrees of shock, sadness and despair. For me, one of the greatest tragedies resulting from the terror that was acted out during the Capitol riots is that so many others saw the events as a justifiable, long overdue triumph. The overwhelming majority of the rioters who claim to love America missed the point. They believe that they and they alone can determine who and what an American is and – even more frightening – what true patriotism is all about. I would wager that if you asked many, if not all, of the rioters who “love America” who the first American patriot was, as an example, they would not be able to answer. Why? Because they do not know nor care to know about Black History.
Crispus Attucks remains a personal hero of mine and for people of all backgrounds who believe in standing up for what is right even in the face of grave danger, oppression and injustice. A former slave, Crispus Attucks was the first to die in the American Revolutionary War and his single act of bravery set our nation on course to become independent from Britain – this, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Blacks were still in bondage on these very shores and would remain so for centuries. The very building that the Rioters were pillaging was built on the backs of Black slaves and servicemen, as is the White House itself. But this is little known to too many.
The lack of understanding or awareness of Black History as an undeniable and inextricable aspect of American history – and indeed the history of the world – is at the root of so much of the hate and blatant disregard for human rights the world has been exposed to in the last nine months alone. Now, would George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor still be alive if their alleged killers knew who Crispus Attucks was? Probably not. But a consistent educational curriculum and mainstream messaging around the contributions and impact that Black people continue to have on the world is needed now more than ever and can help shape informed dialogue and even inspire changes in behavior.
Shortly after the Capitol Riots, 14 days later to be exact, President Biden made it official: racial equality is now a government priority. Thank you – but this has been four centuries in the making. Strides are being made but it has to start with us – Black, White, Brown, all of us. So the new Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity is long overdue. No matter what side of the political fence you sit on – it is pretty obvious that our society needs a reckoning, and a deeper look at how we got where we are and how, together, we can improve race relations and create a better path forward. The government can surely play a part in this, but the challenge remains with people – in neighborhoods, at hotels, pools, beaches, parks – wherever people gather to ensure that lives are not senselessly and grotesquely lost, that people are not questioned merely for existing and we are all free to go where we want to as the creed of this country mandates.
Fortunately as a marketing communications professional with more than 20 years in the business, I have been able to use my position to educate and elevate people of all backgrounds to understand how history, art, science and culture can work together to unify us all in the name of the one thing that we have in common: diversity.
Ensuring D&I success in the workplace can seem like a challenge to some, though, it is heartening to see the PR and marcomms industry is finally making a concerted effort to address the issue. As head of diversity at a global agency, I know what it takes to ensure D&I success:
- Align values – commit to a culture of diversity in both people and thought.
- Identify and adhere to clear recruiting and networking goals.
- Highlight and reward inclusive leadership behaviors.
- Address unconscious bias in the workplace with regular, mandatory training.
- Diversify recruiting efforts – go to varied places and industries – there is no such thing as “finding good minority candidates is a challenge.”
- Foster an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion – consider things like a Book Club featuring authors of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, host guest speaker series with notable figures on the frontlines in the fight for equal justice to start.
- Expand mentorship efforts to include mid-level to senior diverse executives – this will help with retention and attract senior talent.
- Invest in professional development and education opportunities.
- Sponsor industry and grassroots activities to showcase your company’s unique culture and offerings.
While it is sad to consider the people who believe that Blackness is a thing to be disdained or ashamed of, it’s heartening to know that movements are afoot – by organizations such as Learning For Justice and historical initiatives like the 1619 Project – to foster dialogue and to share history – a history that is filled with both tragedy and triumph, yet still stands with extraordinary resilience. I personally fly the American flag every chance I get, and I advocate for Black people wherever, whenever and however I can. Because, as Dr. King said, “It is left to us.” Ours is a shared history, American history, world history, the history of US.
Helen C. Shelton is a Senior Partner and Director of Diversity at global marketing communications firm, Finn Partners. In this capacity, she oversees FINN’s award-winning Actions Speak Louder program as well as the firm’s 90-person Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee dedicated to advancing diversity in the industry through Civic Engagement and Volunteerism, Recruitment and Education, and Inclusion and Employee Engagement. Named one of the 25 Most Influential Black Women in Business by The Network Journal magazine, Helen is one of 40 PR executives of color featured in the seminal book, Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership and regularly writes about multicultural marketing and DEI in industry trades, including PR News and Triple Pundit.
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