When Katie Kern’s boss pulled her aside after a meeting, she told her to stop nodding her head. To her boss, a head nod is always a sign of agreement, but Kern was just acknowledging that she was following along. She grew up in a Black church, and “the nod” is a cultural nuance she doesn’t think twice about.
“I was offended that she told me to stop doing something that was a natural behavior,” said Kern, who now works as the vp of marketing and public relations at Media Frenzy Global. “When there’s a pastor speaking, we nod our heads. That’s part of our culture.”
That wasn’t the first time Kern had felt pressured to assimilate to an agency’s culture. As one of the few Black women in a predominantly white field, Kern has felt out of place when wearing her natural hair to work, faced microaggressions and experienced imposter syndrome.
When racial justice tensions were at their height in June, Kern wanted to encourage agencies to do a lot more than just stand in solidarity. She teamed up with a longtime friend, Lee Deas of Obviouslee Marketing, to launch Act in Solidarity, a pledge and 30-60-90 day plan that works to hold companies accountable for their words.
While Kern’s agency is far along in its diversity initiatives, Deas admits that she has a lot more progress to make. The pair contend that signing the pledge and following the plan is a starting point for an agency. It’s also another step toward inclusion, and all participants are encouraged to work together to create a more equitable industry.
“Everyone is going to have a different growth opportunity,” said Deas. “Let’s collaborate, talk to each other and share resources. As long as you have an aptitude for change, let’s all get after it together.”
Their message seems to resonating: More than 30 agencies have signed the pledge across 15 states.
The plan, which is geared toward smaller and medium-sized agencies, encourages companies to connect team members with mental health resources, recalibrate the talent pipeline by forming relationships with HBCUs and Black Student Unions, and diversify vendors.
Act in Solidarity has become “both a resource and a support group,” as Deas and Kern are guiding agencies through the creation of individualized plans and sharing resources through a Facebook group that is open to all who have signed the pledge.
According to Kern, agencies should be focusing less on checking boxes and meeting quotas and more on ending the injustices that Black employees face regularly.
“Why can’t agencies retain black talent? It’s because our journey is brutal,” she said. “You go in with high hopes and expectations, but making it up the ranks is literally dampened every single day by microaggressions and having to prove that you belong.”
As marketing professionals, Kern and Deas believe their industry has a responsibility and opportunity to make systemic change—but the right voices need to be present.
“It is our responsibility to make sure we are doing right by the people and cultures that we’re trying to represent,” Kern said. “Biases come out when we’re thinking about marketing initiatives. If you are talking to a specific audience, there needs to be someone from that particular demographic in the room.”