Last year, when it became clear just how much COVID-19 was devastating Black and Brown communities, Judy Jackson felt a responsibility to act.
The global head of culture at WPP reached out to friends in the industry, including Monique Nelson, chair and CEO of multicultural agency UniWorld Group, and Deidre Smalls-Landau, chief marketing officer and EVP of global culture at UM, to ask: What can we do?
“I took a leap of faith and contacted about 50 people and said, ‘let’s get on a Zoom call, identify what's happening and explore what we can do together,” Jackson said.
Little did they know that call would lead to the industry’s first cross-agency, grassroots community for people of color, We All Rise Together, which officially launched on April 23, 2020.
“One of the things we are passionate about is finding ways to bridge gaps across agencies and holding companies,” Jackson said. “We’re coming together as people and leaders who are passionate about making a difference for our communities, and we're not beholden to the agencies we’re part of.”
In June 2020, after George Floyd’s killing by police officer Derek Chauvin set off a racial reckoning across the globe, We All Rise Together’s momentum only grew. The group expanded in size and began exploring ways that marginalized communities within agencies could come together to heal and achieve inclusion and empowerment.
To achieve real outcomes, We All Rise Together organized around three pillars: health, led by Jackson; wealth, led by Nelson; and mobility, led by Kai Deveraux Lawson, SVP of diversity, equity and inclusion at Dentsu Creative. Smalls-Landau led the branding and communications work for the organization.
The group, which now has a distribution list of more than 150 people, holds monthly virtual meetings covering topics ranging from Black music month to Pride to mental health. Each meeting, which is open to anyone, is led by a different person, and closes off with a Q&A session and an update on the group’s core pillars to ensure people know how to tap into resources and programs available.
The pillars were chosen strategically to tackle key areas where BIPOC communities have been most affected. The mobility pillar, for example, aims to help BIPOC employees move upward in their organizations. We All Rise Together partnered with Circus Street to offer free training, and people also have an opportunity to be trained by long-term HR professionals.
“We’re trying to be responsive to the community based on what we hear,” Smalls-Landau said.
The mental health pillar brings in therapists and other experts to lead sessions and create safe spaces for people to talk, with a particular focus on helping Black women deal with the disproportionate stressors of the pandemic. Past sessions have been held on the myth of the “strong Black woman” and Black love.
And the wealth pillar is about economically empowering BIPOC-owned businesses. The group has partnered with nonprofit The Acceleration Project (TAP), which supports businesses owned by underserved communities, and this week celebrated its first graduating cohort of 13 BIPOC-owned small businesses.
“PPP went to a small number of Latino, Black and Brown businesses, which meant there was no bailout for our businesses,” Nelson said. “We want to level that playing field by giving people the support that they need to not only survive, but thrive on the other side.”
Over the past year, We All Rise Together has grown through “old-school word of mouth,” Smalls-Landau said, which has “always been the root of Black and Brown communities.” Agencies have pitched in to create a website so that more people can join the community and stay up to date on meetings, programming and other opportunities.
Because the network was started by three agency leaders, high-level executives have pledged their support for the group and often join sessions. That’s led younger people to “realize we're all just people with different jobs,” Jackson said, and tap into a place where they can make “connections [with leadership] and work together to do good.”
“There’s no hierarchy,” she said.
Although We All Rise Together started in response to COVID-19, as the group sustains momentum and grows, it’s looking for more formal partnerships with industry organizations to help accelerate opportunities for BIPOC employees in the future.
“I’ve been surprised at how much people needed community,” Jackson said. “We’re going to be organic, let the community decide and respond to what they need. This is not stopping.”
Smalls-Landau added: “The [COVID-19] virus will go away, but the virus that has been in this country for 400 years and continues to oppress will never go away in my lifetime. So we will always need a way for people to support their community outside of their hustle.”