There’s a bit of irony in talking about Black History Month in this, its 44th year, especially after the '2020' we collectively endured; a year that was anything but 'Normal'. I wondered, 'How will history remember 2020?' Well, the historians answered. To them, the memory of 2020 will be dominated by a pandemic, mass protests, and political power struggles (that would later rock the foundations of democracy as we know it).
But, I was forever changed by the many personal tragedies that took place and the countless lives that were changed socially, professionally, economically and emotionally.
There was the unrelenting confluence of Coronavirus, increasing death tolls and lockdown rules. Paired with obtuse and detached political leadership, we coped as food instability, economic insecurity, and domestic challenges mounted. Uncertainty, nervousness and skepticism were the emotions I remember, but I also remember fighting feelings of fear, despair and hopelessness.
Then, on top of all this, we watched George Floyd, an unarmed, black man be murdered by agents of a system intended to serve and protect. Not a new occurrence, but uniquely different this time.
I gasped as if… I hurt as if… I cried as if… I was injured as if… Permanently.
By permanent, I’ll use an analogy to clarify. There are some injuries that we heal from – cuts, scrapes, bumps, bruises – they happen, and you may not even skip a beat. Fall down, get up, rinse, repeat.
But other, more serious and permanent injuries, change us. They force us physically, emotionally and intellectually to unlearn and relearn things we may have previously undervalued or taken for granted. In other words, 2020 permanently shattered my sense of ‘Normal’.
As I reflected, something both obvious and profound dawned on me: 'Normal' needed shattering. 'Normal' had most of America (and more specifically, people I called friends and colleagues) conditioned to ignore, deny, and gaslight anyone who claimed that police brutality, systemic bias, institutional racism and economic inequity were real and impacting them personally.
'Normal' suggested that I – a middle-aged father and husband; highly educated and articulate, accomplished and ambitious; empathetic and generous; and unmistakably Black, was both an anomaly to celebrate and threat to mitigate. 'Normal' pardoned many companies and corporations (including ones that I have worked in and with) for masking homogeneity as a pipeline problem and helped cover up long-standing race, gender, age, ability and identity biases.
'Normal' generated a reality distortion field that championed diversity and inclusion training without reconciling – much less acknowledging – our nation’s centuries-old, racist legacies, white fragility and guilt, and the tangible effects these have on achieving equity, developing empathy and placing belonging over assimilation.
So, I say, 'Rest in pieces, 'Normal'. I will not miss you.'
To go back to 'Normal' would be an unforgivable insult to the memory of George Floyd and the memory of those whose lives have been prematurely taken before and since his passing.
As a corporate leader and industry voice, the overdue demise of 'Normal' prompted leaders in my organisation to act, speak, and behave in real and tangible ways, not the least of which was my promotion to chief integration officer in July 2020. Now, seven months into the role, I lead the company in a sustained effort to acknowledge, recruit, amplify, and reward BIPOC talent while creating an ecosystem of inclusion and belonging across departments, geographies, and identities. We call this enterprise-wide effort ‘Transformation’. And it’s a commitment that every single company across our industry needs to make.
With Transformation, I apply the same methodology and processes that have earned us industry recognition to one of the biggest challenges our industry faces: diversifying representation, bringing equity and access to career advancement and creating authentic belonging in our walls and across our work.
I collaborate with discipline, department, and business leads on enriching every intersection where people, ideas, process, and profitability meet to move all things diversity from being a cost centre to a growth-driver. I partner with decisive and experienced leaders in the DEI and HR spaces to innovate and develop improvements across the employee experience – from job postings and applications through to exits (whether separation or retirement).
All of this is happening because we aspire to become the most diverse, inclusive and creative agency in the world. But here’s the thing: every company should have that same aspiration. Across agencies, brands, and holding companies. And our leaders should back that aspiration with real investment.
I’m proud that hundreds of employees across the organisation have pledged their time, talent and passion to this journey. I’m humbled that several of our client partners have validated this point of view and locked arms with us to 'know better and do better'. All of them acknowledging that we’re running a marathon versus a sprint, and that we have many more miles and races ahead before we can claim victory.
We may stumble as we stride, but trust that that those stumbles will be forward-moving with action, intention and a willingness to adapt. I hope the rest of our industry will join us.
In honour of those that came before us, and all those to follow, the HISTORY we are poised to make TODAY can become the 'Normal' our successors celebrate us for tomorrow and beyond.