Faridat Animashaun, a junior at Howard University, drafted the following blog post during her internship with Spitfire this Spring.
Seen. Heard. Prioritized.
A successful communicator is all three of these things. But as a young, Black woman at the start of my career, I know this is easier said than done.
In the communications field, we are constantly thinking, creating, sharing and shifting narratives. But what happens when the people who create and share these meanings hold the same backgrounds, identities and perspectives? We end up with colonized narratives – rather than authentic ones. We end up with incompatible messaging and campaigns that do not speak to those they are trying to impact, quite often reinforcing the structural deficits they aim to fix.
If public interest communicators are serious about changing how society thinks and acts, we need a truly diverse range of communicators who represent the communities we are fighting for.
I came to this realization while attending Howard University, a historically Black University in Washington, D.C.
While comprising only 3% of the country’s 3,688 institutions of higher learning, the 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States produce approximately 23% of all bachelor’s degrees, 13% of all master’s degrees and 20% of all first professional degrees earned by African Americans each year.
HBCUs cultivate individuals who strive to bring the reality of color to the social justice world, including Toni Morrison (Howard ’53), Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and educator, and Marian Wright Edelman (Spelman ’60), the founder of Children’s Defense Fund.
HBCUs are special because they bring history, context and culture into every aspect of education and professional development. And when HBCU graduates enter professional spaces, they bring this mindset with them. Too often, companies define diversity by checking boxes and filling quotas. They want to color without sound. But HBCU graduates understand that diversity is not just based on physical appearance or where you are from, but how you think and express your ideas.
I’ve brought this thinking into my internship at Spitfire.
Here, I have had the privilege to work with nonprofits and foundations that understand the history and culture of the communities they work with. Organizations like Art for Justice and Living Cities can frame conversations around criminal justice reform and racial equity in genuine ways that are meaningful to their audiences. That’s because they represent a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives themselves.
Communicators can certainly learn a lesson from HBCUs. They do not have the answers to all issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, but they are a great place to start. The concept and model of these institutions provide a blueprint for embracing cultural differences – which is crucial in our ever-growing multicultural and interconnected society.
Growing up in the U.K, a country with its own racist and discriminatory past, I have an even fuller picture of the need to build narratives and spaces that encourage people to bring our whole selves to work with us.
For public interest communications to be successful in uplifting communities of color and other marginalized groups, we must strive to ensure that all voices and perspectives are seen, heard and prioritized.