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While America plays catch-up, agencies can take charge

Want to really make a difference? Build a community from the ground up to unite people in today's polarised political climate

The  summer of 2016 and the end of 2017 saw a lot of change in America, both politically and socially. In July of 2016, in two days, police officers brutally shot and killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, setting off a national debate about race and policing that permeated every aspect of our culture. Then, with the election of Donald Trump, divisive speech and actions that were once verboten had become a regular part of cultural discourse.

Social norms eroded and gave way to something else. Fear trickled into both the personal and professional lives of many Americans. Across nearly every category, business executives, marketers and communication practitioners have needed to react to or manage crisis in various forms over the last few years that have stemmed from the current political climate, from making sure immigrant employees feel safe and heard to managing outright attacks over social media. The leadership at Huge heard it and felt it too. It was time to enable change and take action.

With this as a backdrop, it became increasingly clear that agencies could provide a culture that fosters an environment for building communities and enable a change that spreads from beyond a workplace into the country. Successful agencies, by design, must be a reflection of their audience and clients. As consumers with buying power are becoming more diverse and more socially aware than previous generations, our clients are asking for similar messaging in the work we produce. Leadership must be open to making change happen when there is a demand.

From my experience with workplace diversity initiatives, I’ve come away with a few key points that are vital for leaders instituting similar programs in other workplaces. Here are three tips agencies can do now to help unite and drive change as a politically charged climate drives us apart.

      1) Create a movement from the ground up, not the top down

So many companies try to address employee needs without ever actually asking employees themselves what they need. But the only way to know what employees need and what has the best chance of working is simply to ask. Be upfront and transparent. Host town halls, one-to-ones, open-door policies, make sure all employees know their voices are welcome and needed to make the company the best place it can be. If employees know their voices matter, they are more likely to use them.

Based on the feedback from employees, at the beginning of 2018 Huge sought to find ways to create safe spaces for minority groups to come together and discuss the issues that affect them. Rather than creating cookie-cutter groups and imposing them on employees, Huge wanted to create grassroots networks that truly served its employees’ needs. The idea was that each network, or Affinity Group as they’re now officially called, is based around a common characteristic, interest or life experience. My colleague Apryl Gordy and I decided officially to create a safe place for Black and Brown employees at Huge who identify with the African Diaspora. We named the group RBG—Red Black and Green, the colors of the Pan-African Flag.

       2) Don’t act like you have all the answers

Engagement is necessary for successful diversity programs to take root. Once pain points are identified within your organization, natural leaders will emerge who will are more than willing to dig into these tough topics. Be open to these leaders coming from anywhere in the organization – and listen to what they have to say with an open mind.

In the last eight months, RBG has grown and outperformed the expectations. We established four pillars for the group: knowledge and education; finances and generational wealth; social events/interactions; community involvement. Since inception, Apryl and I were able to deliver our presentation ‘The Things We Talk About Around the Dinner Table: Black Perspective’ for the whole company, Huge leadership, individual departments and across our offices. This was followed up by additional events and initiatives by RBG for not only Huge, but also the public. Based on the positive feedback and candid conversations, we knew we were on to something and knew we wanted the group’s impact to reach beyond the agency’s walls.

      3) Less talk, more action

Once solutions have been tossed around informally, empower those natural leaders to implement the changes they want to see. Give them support, a budget and mentors. Then tell them to go create something meaningful and see what happens.

RBG wasn’t the only group started. Huge also introduced Huge Women, Huge LGBTQ, Huge Immigrants, and Huge Parents. Each group has provided a safe space to discuss individuals’ issues and work on solutions, both in and out of work. These groups have done a number of events, as well, from bringing in Mark Segal, legend of the gay rights movement, for Pride Month to coordinating buses to the Families Belong Together protest in Washington DC.

In a time when Americans are standing together and fighting for equality, recognition and even their lives, harnessing that passion in the workplace is vital for modern companies. And all it takes is a little listening, a few potentially uncomfortable conversations and a willingness to grow.

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