July 29, 2020
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Telling Black stories inclusive of joy

Philanthropists and public sector communicators are writing about Black lives—and getting it wrong. Here are 4 ways to ensure you are sharing a holistic representation of the Black experience.

Storytelling is a powerful tool for action. Too often, stories centered around the Black community focus on a one-dimensional narrative absent of the joy, resilience, and progress they deserve. Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

This year’s Juneteenth was one of the most anticipated and celebratory in recent history. For the first time, Juneeteenth was honored on a national scale. Organizations nationwide edited their handbooks to recognize the day as a company holiday; philanthropists such as Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings, donated to historically Black colleges and offered funds and resources to Black causes and businesses. City officials like San Francisco Mayor London Breed redesigned policing policies that center the San Francisco community and in D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser unabashedly proclaimed Black Lives Matter, paying homage to the movement with a colossal mural artfully painted in a prominent city space and renaming the former 16th Street NW, Black Lives Matter Plaza. Several cities would follow this act of leadership.

Juneteenth 2020 was perhaps the first time in our nation’s recent history where Black people will remember a national effort to recognize Black humanity beyond our pain and adversities—a practice that has long been absent from philanthropy and the public sector. Philanthropy often celebrates the stories of Black people, but only in a self serving way that convinces donors that their plight can be overcome through grants and donations. This toxic practice relegates an already marginalized person to a box outlined by that single experience. Black people deserve to have stories told about the Black experience in a humane and holistic way. The coverage of Hurricane Katrina, where Black people were called looters and others were finding resources for survival, is one example.

As the digital strategist for Living Cities, I am intentional about capturing the plight and resilience of Black people in our work while also sharing stories of Black self-preservation, achievement, and joy. As a Black woman, I well-understand how Black narrative is multi-dimensional. Unfortunately, most strategic communicators who do not share this identity generally lack this understanding, showcasing perpetual stories of Black trauma with imagery reflecting the Black experience to the likes of a Great Depression—as if moments of happiness are fleeting.

Black people deserve to have stories told about the Black experience in a humane and holistic way.

While supporting the storytelling of more than a dozen major U.S. cities through our City Accelerator initiative, I noticed that some cities could not even name Black, and therefore failed at capturing the fullness of the Black experience. The cities’ narrative about Black people used limited terminology such as “diverse” and “minorities” in their messaging. This practice has precedent in the public sector. In 1989, the J.A. Croson v. City of Richmond decision required that government procurement programs establish a compelling interest to enact race-conscious programs. This Supreme Court decision was designed to stop the wave of local governments’ preference for Black people receiving state and city contracts in the 1980s and language of that era is still widely used today.

Philanthropists and public sector communicators must practice storytelling that is a humane representation of the Black experience. One way I have practiced holistic storytelling is with a campaign I self-asserted as “Black Joy Week” that preceded June 19, 2020. That week, I posted stories on social media that were a reflection of Black resilience, progression and of course joy. View the Twitter thread here.

High-production storytelling efforts are great, however there are everyday tactics to implement that share Blackness authentically and fully. If you want to make a shift in your communications, here are four ways you can reflect Black joy when sharing stories related to the Black experience:

Publish photos of Black people smiling … and celebrating … in confidence … in peace … in joy.

Black people are humans, like anyone else, who experience a range of emotions beyond just sadness, seriousness and anger. Digital storytelling in philanthropy and the public sector should embrace diverse images representing the range of emotions experienced by Black people, inclusive of happy and empowering emotions.

And, your stories should exhibit variations of Blackness in hair texture and styles, eye and skin colors and abilities. My suggestion to combat the form of erasure that Croson laws enforced, is to show the faces of the group you speak of through photos.

Progress is a significant part of the Black narrative and is far too often omitted from stories of economic development centering Black people.

Incorporate positive statistics in economic development stories.

We get it. Racism has caused a deficit in Black wealth–and yet–the Black community has prevailed against all odds. Progress is a significant part of the Black narrative and is far too often omitted from stories of economic development centering Black people.

When talking about the Black economy, it is imperative to source stories of advancement to accompany the statistics that highlight the disparities Black people face. Philanthropists and the public sector communicators might emphasize how:

Support Black people in sharing their own stories.

Black voices are necessary. It is imperative that philanthropists and the public sector empower members of the Black community to narrate their own stories. For example, orgs might produce a video through the lens of the person. Black people are the experts of their own experiences. By providing a platform to elevate Black voices, Black storytelling is made more equitable and resonates with the audience in a more compelling way. To support a Black narrator, you can prompt them with a question like “What brought you joy this week?”

Encourage authenticity in stories.

Check your biases and times when you are attempting to censor a story to fit your organizational voice/brand/goal/intentions. It is common for a Black person to understand the necessity of code-switching when integrating in groups of non-Black people. There is an understanding that acting less Black, white people are disarmed thereby making the Black person safer to be around. This action can create/surface internalized ideals about Black people that white people come to subconsciously subscribe to.

While Juneteenth inevitably highlights some of this country’s egregious mistakes it is nicknamed “Jubilee Day” to center the resilience, aspirations, and joy of the Black experience. Just as there have been calls over the last few decades to recognize Black history and futures beyond Black History Month in February, Juneteenth 2020 has brought awareness to bringing humanity into these stories and uplifting Blackness.

Philanthropy and the public sector take heed.

This essay originally appeared on Living Cities’ blog.

Carmen Smith Living Cities

Carmen Smith

Living Cities

As the digital voice for Living Cities, Carmen crafts cross-sector messaging and campaigns using a racial equity lens for social change. Carmen has led the digital strategy for projects at the World Bank Group including international finance forums across Europe and Africa. She’s led communications for a housing and community development association in initiatives focused on advocacy at the federal level. Her efforts resulted in the passage of the first significant housing legislation in more than a decade.

In addition, Carmen is an award-winning editor for several magazines: Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and BELLE Magazine, all centered around economic development and women’s entrepreneurship. Carmen’s expertise in helping companies hone their digital voice in the social change space, stemmed from her experience as a lead graphic designer for national e-commerce brands Jackson and Perkins, Wayside Gardens and Park Seed.

Carmen holds a bachelor’s from Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. and a master’s in the Journalism and Business dual program from the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.