Before I get any further into this piece, let me pause here and let you know that I identify as a white-presenting Cherokee woman. I am an enrolled Citizen of the Cherokee Nation who also has an Irish-German mother. As is the case with most people, my identity is complex with many layers. I use this self-named “mixed-identity” to my advantage when I work with clients who represent identities different from my own.
For the past 8 years, I have been nearly exclusively working with Black-led nonprofits and nonprofits that serve predominantly Black communities. In these roles, I have drafted communications strategy, public engagements, branding, and community report designs. As someone who does not identify as Black, I have not taken my role in this message design and delivery for these organizations lightly. Below, I share some tips and lessons learned for how I’ve navigated these roles to ensure trustworthy, equitable, inclusive results:
Pause & Observe
Before entering into any space that is not reflective of your own community, take a minute to step back. Pause. Observe. Be present, be curious, be respectful. Learn about the community you are being asked to serve and support before you jump to any conclusions about what that support looks like. Every community and every culture is different, requiring time and space to learn the intricacies of relationships, strengths, needs, and preferences.
Know You Will Fail. Be Willing to Hear So.
You are not going to get everything right the first time. When I was still somewhat new in a position for an org that served a historically disinvested community, I made a suggestion to a senior Black woman about how to market an event they were planning – and got reprimanded publicly for how I showed up in that instance. It was rough, but necessary. I had a conversation with the elder afterwards hoping to learn and grow from this experience. This willingness to have hard conversations, hear the words being said, and adjust, is what, in the end, built trust and formed a stronger relationship.
Build Diverse Teams
The best way to ensure appropriate messaging is to build a team of content creators with a diversity of backgrounds and identities. In each of my roles, there have been many contributors to the final products: either as editors, reviewers, designers, or writers. Each person catches something different, allowing for the best end product that will truly resonate with and be accessible to your audience. This also applies when layering on the many other factors that impact identity like, and definitely not limited to: neurodivergence, socio-economic class, education level, et cetera.
Accept That You Are Not The Expert
We all leave formal training believing we can solve most communications and marketing problems with our earned degree(s) or completed internship and work experience. In my case, I had many years of corporate marketing under my belt. And, when you are in a space for crafting messages targeting a community that is not your own, you are not the expert. Be willing to accept that, even with the best educational training, you do not have the lived experience of that community and need to follow their lead. What might be considered an industry best practice is not necessarily the right approach for every audience.
Give The Community The Chance To Lead
One of the most important points of practice that I have in place is to ask the community being served what they need and how they need it. Even more so, give them the space to help craft the final product. For example, when my team was creating a report card for an affordable housing advocacy group, we invited the community into the solutions forming process. We also asked what tools they needed in the end to carry the work forward and drafted the final pieces to fit those identified needs. What I had envisioned would be the final product, was not what the community requested. So we adjusted and re-aligned to deliver something that was useful and sustainable.
Take the time to intentionally step back instead of stepping forward when crafting messages for audiences that do not match your own identities. The final products will always be better when we pause, listen, make space for multiple voices, and let the community lead.
Jessica Payne, MSW, is the Director of Equitable Engagement at Gladiator Consulting. Jessica’s passion is making sure that all voices have the chance to be heard. Blending her decade-long experience in communications, social media, and design with her Master’s Degree in Social Work, she works with organizations and communities to reach their goals through consensus building using a racial equity lens. Her broad experience ranges from preparing neighborhoods for the planning process, to creating coalitions for policy action, to leading a small community development corporation in building new affordable housing. She spends her free time gardening and hanging out with her neighbors in Old North.