TitleD6 Perspectives: In Conversation with Black Media Professionals
PostedApril 2022
Story What does black history month mean to you personally? And what would you say to someone who’s still wonders why it’s still relevant today?

Dwenya: For me, it’s about celebrating how far we’ve come. I think about my grandmother and grandfather. My grandmother was a cafeteria worker. She didn’t have the opportunities that are in place today, but because of what they did and how they pioneered a way for us, it allows me to sit in the position that I sit into today. that’s why it is important to celebrate and be reminded – this is where we came from, this where we are today.

Kyle: I think it’s really important and exciting for me because I learn so much. It’s a great history lesson. I think it’s important that people know how much we contributed to society and to the community. Even the small things, like the Super Soaker – that was created by a black male. So, it’s very interesting the things that you find out. It should be all year obviously, but it’s a great month.

Nicola: I’m going to make a confession that until recently, I never really gave a lot of thought to black history month. I have a six-year-old little boy now. He’s a Black-Polish-Latino kid with a fairly white face. And these last couple years, I’ve realized how important it is for me to make sure that he knows where he comes from. And that he knows history beyond racism and slavery.

Who were some of your earliest memories of black media and how did these images influence you?

Nicola: I’m going to age myself, but The Cosby Show. It was definitely the first time that I saw a black family on TV that wasn’t being chased down. You know what I mean? It was a positive reflection. It wasn’t exactly what my family looked like, but it was the closest version I had seen up until then. And my family sat down every Thursday night and watched it. And then A Different World – that blew my mind. I was like, “I have to go there. I want to be friends with these people. Where are they?”

And Fame. Fame and Debbie Allen made me want to be a creative. Looking at black icons, I think the contributions that Debbie made are crazy. And I didn’t even really know, until recently, her influence on media and the larger film industry, it’s just bananas.

Dwenya: Soul Train was the first one for me, because I was a dancer. I always gravitated towards music. With Don Cornelius, I almost felt like it was us celebrating dance, but at the same time, they were also talking about things that were going on in the community.

And of course, Queen Oprah. Oprah was definitely one of the first inspirations for me. I saw a woman that looks like me that is just owning the stage, and commanding this presence, and bringing the news. She was one of the first ones to start pushing the medium. “Let’s talk about these issues. Let’s talk about cultural issues that people are afraid to have conversations about.”

Kyle: Arsenio Hall was a very, very big talk show for me. He was great. But I have to say, the Black Power Ranger was amazing. Okay. It was amazing to want to be out in the street and playing and stuff and having a Black Power Ranger. And he was like the type of people I would hang out with, so Black Power Ranger was going for me.

What was it like breaking into the media industry? What challenges did you see? How was it different from what you thought it was going to be?

Kyle: One of the challenges was, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me. Not only with me being black, but also just as young as I was. Every once in a while, I would see young black professionals that look like me out on a tour or something, and I’d be like, “Yeah, I see you.”

Dwenya: I had a strong instructor at the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College, Dr. David Tarpenning. He was aware of the American Advertising Federations Minority Students of America Program, so he encouraged me to apply, and I got selected. Through that program, the CMO at JC Penney pulled two of us in right out of college. Where it was a big challenge for me was not realizing there’s a whole business side of it. And I didn’t have that business acumen right out of college, so I had to learn that along the way.

Let’s talk about this idea of imposter syndrome, which is prevalent within minorities in the workplace. Is that something that you’ve had to deal with in the media industry and your career and your journey?

Dwenya: I didn’t take on the word imposter. I’m more honest and up-front and try to figure out, okay, who do I need to speak to? What expert do I need to pull in the room? Instead of playing that imposter role, because I’m here for a reason. Right now, I have over 17 years in my career, so I’ve earned my seat at the table and am able to know what I need to do to drive a business forward. Like anyone else, I still have to evolve and learn as the industry is changing, but now that I know what I need to do, I don’t feel like I take that on at this point in my career.

Nicola: There was an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review. The headline was, “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.” And the article’s take is that this term has been developed to make you question if you should be in the room, when it’s the room that needs to be fixed, not you.

That said, as a mixed chick from New Jersey, I’ve always had a different feeling of imposter syndrome. I don’t have difficulty getting in the room. Let’s be honest. I am not the darkest or have the darkest complexion on this panel, so I’ve always had to prove my blackness.

Whether it be to my colleagues, to my fellow black community. You’d be surprised that some of the reactions I get when people find out I’m black. So, from six to, I just turned 46, I’ve gotten the, “what are you? Where are you from?” and I’m like, “well, I’m a woman from New Jersey…” Because in even the most progressive rooms, it’s so easy to be “the other,” to not see someone that looks like you at the table and that can make it hard to get through the day and maybe lack a sense of community.

What do you think the corporate world has done right in terms of filling these rooms with more diverse voices, particularly Black voices? How do you think the conditions have improved?

Kyle: I think it’s a matter of creating groups, creating those type of groups to have in the corporation in the first place. Acknowledgement is a really big thing. A lot more companies are celebrating Juneteenth, which is great. They speak out when social injustice happens and that’s really big in itself. There’s definitely a lot more that can be done, but I think there’s a lot more that has been done.

Nicola: I think the rooms don’t happen by accident. And they’re not going to suddenly become diverse by accident. We all have to work on it. I don’t want to make it a black and white issue. Diversity is a much broader topic. I think change has happened, but there is a lot more to go. You can’t just hire black people. That’s the easy part. It’s the mentorship and it’s the opportunities for promotion and the equal pay and it’s no microaggressions. All of that comes with it. We can have a beautiful “About Us” page that looks like a Benton ad, but if we’re not actually doing the work, and acknowledging employees, and promoting people, and having different points of view at every level, then I’m not sure how far we’ve come. I think it’s a work in progress and Dwenya was citing her parents and her grandparents earlier. If that is the bar we’ve taken huge leaps, but I do think we have some room for improvement and we just need to look at ourselves. Myself included and say, “am I being intentional in what I’m doing and putting action behind that intent.”

Jessica: I like what you’re saying about acknowledging, because a lot of times companies will hire black, but then they won’t listen to black people when they ask for what they need. Instead, it’s just a matter of checking boxes versus actually making real change. And like you just said, Nicola, if the bar is our grandparents, who grew up during the civil rights movement and everything, then unfortunately those people were fighting for basic human rights, which means the bar is pretty low.

So, Let’s get into how the digital age has really changed the game for black creators and black people in general. Social media is the reason we have George Floyd. It’s the reason we’ve been able to document these movements over the past 2 years. How do you think that social media has changed the game for black creators?


Social media is a true reflection of the world. It’s a better reflection of the world than Corporate America is currently set up as, so it is really driving change. And if you can start to get your inside structure to match closer to what diversity looks like in the world, then that’s going to be that litmus test for truly connecting to audiences in the right way.

Kyle: There are no more gatekeepers, which is great, but it’s a gift and a curse. Everybody has a voice, but everybody has a voice. You’ll see black creators say something very powerful and meaningful, but then you’ll also hear the ignorance of some other people, so it’s difficult.

We are storytellers, and there are so many stories of the black experience that were not told when there were gatekeepers. But here we are today, and everybody has the opportunity to see something that they can relate to. So, it makes the black experience more… It’s like a big virtual hug. Like we’re all hugging each other because it’s not just one or two black experiences, there are so many of them. And social media has made it so you can find the ones that resonate with you.

Dwenya: You brought a good point Kyle, all these new stories that we’re learning they’re not just for us to see as a culture. You also have other cultures seeing and learning our stories directly from us. And what I love about that is it is opening up a narrative. Over the course of the past two years, I’ve had people across my network with different diverse backgrounds, literally emailing me or calling me or texting me saying, “Hey, I saw this. Is this true? What has your experience been like?” And I don’t mind having those conversations because to me, it says I’m ready to understand what your experience is really like. I’m open to it. So that’s the one thing I do love about social media – it has evolved people’s minds.

Nicola: I think when we talk about media itself and storytelling and our business it’s opened the playing field. I’m not saying everyone can beat Issa Ray, but she started with a web show. She’s like, “Hey, if you are not going to take this deal, I’m going to produce my own show and I’m going to put it out there.” And again, I’m not saying, “Oh, I’m going to be the next Issa Ray, and it’s so easy.” But it does open a door that’s maybe closed in other places with larger corporations. And allows you to control your story and tell stories that maybe the HBO’s of the world aren’t willing to tell in that moment.

Do you believe that social media algorithms are set up to disadvantage black content creators? Do you feel that algorithms have somehow either intentionally or unintentionally been set up a disadvantage for black creators?

Dwenya: I know that content creators had a strike last year about it so that I’m aware of, so to me, if that many African American content creators are raising the issue, then clearly there’s something going on. And if so, Let’s keep the grounds fair. Let’s make sure everybody’s getting the same practice across algorithms. That’s all I can speak on. I don’t have all the facts, but I do know there was a heightened awareness about it, so if there’s an issue let’s resolve it.

Kyle: I’ll say this. I think that the one I’ve heard the most about is TikTok. And I look at it as the music industry. Like years and years back when there were so many black people making music like Chubby Checker and white people taking that and them becoming popular from it.

So that’s kind of what I see. There are a lot of like black creators having original ideas, having original dances, whatever the case, and then it becomes mainstream from white creators. I’m not sure about the algorithms, but TikTok is from overseas – China if I’m not mistaken. So, you have to see what they think America is. Is it black people or is it white people who they think are going to get millions and millions of views?

What is your favorite and most exciting thing about being a black creative and how do you think that adds value to the workplace?

Nicola: I make sure that I bring my own point of view to almost everything we do in the media relations space, and I value the opinions of everyone in that space. For me, I had a really small victory. For years, we were using same voiceover for our audio news releases. A fine voiceover, but it was a middle-aged white male, so I’m like, “we need a woman. We need a brown person. We need a younger voice.”

Finally, we started using Jasmine and she was amazing, and it just felt like such a big win to have choice and to have that different voice be a part of the content that we were putting out.

And it wasn’t just, “Oh, let’s use Jasmine, because she’s a black chick.” She was really good. And it turned out, brands loved her. They loved her VO. So little things like advocating for more diversity and talent with our brands is a big one. Adding different faces to our roster. I think it’s about point of view and making sure that it’s heard.

Kyle: Piggybacking off Nicola, small victories matter. I’ve always said that. And what’s interesting is that I’m the same way when it comes to media relations bureaus. I think it’s really important to have a diverse bureau, and I’m an especially big advocate for it when the product is something that the black community uses or can benefit from. And I’ve been in spaces before where we’ll put something out here because maybe it’s what we think the client wants or what the producer may think the client wants. And a company, big companies will come back and say, “Hey, we need more diversity.” And I’ll be, “good for you. Good for you.”

Have you had the opportunity to pay it forward to other black creatives in this space? And if so, what was the experience like and how has that changed you for the better?

Nicola: I can say I hired Kyle.

Kyle: Big win! (laughter)

Nicola: I don’t have like a specific big moment, but I do try to be intentional when I do have the opportunity to make a hire. So, my little team, I am intentional about that, and that’s not hiring black and brown people for the sake of hiring black and brown people but hiring talented people. I am looking for different perspectives. I feel like that’s my in the moment contribution to paying it forward.

Dwenya: I definitely have a lot of up-and-coming, young, talented career stars, mentees of mine and they just kind of gravitate to me along the way. And they’re not necessarily all in marketing, but in different fields. I do check-ins with the them if they need career advice.

I had some mentors, but surprisingly, not as many probably as people would think along the way. Especially people with that look like me. But I will say that I am appreciative of all the mentors that I did have because they helped mold me into the marketing strategist that I am today. So, I pay it forward to the people that I mentor.

When it comes to hiring, I am intentional, but I do find it challenging as a strategist. You don’t want to hire someone just for the sake of being a black or brown person of color. Do they have the right talent? Do they have the right skill set? And I do feel finding strong strategists has been a challenge, unfortunately. And I do want to make sure that I’m continuing to give back and help them understand what do you really need to really sit in this chair?

Nicola: That’s probably like a lack of mentorship, right? To me, that’s why the pool is so small. It’s a lack of branding to certain communities about certain industries. My mentor is not brown. He’s a white guy and he’s amazing. But it is again, different point of views. And I think that it is on us to try to fill that space for younger people or people our own age.

If you could talk to that little black creative that might have been you several years ago, leave us with something to flourish. Give us some words of wisdom and send us off right.

Dwenya: Don’t be afraid to shine. Like don’t be afraid to shine. Like you are enough. And your ideas are enough and they’re big enough.

Nicola: Advocate for yourself and ask questions. Every time I’m afraid to make a decision, to question a decision made by someone else or ask for a promotion. I remember some advice my father gave me when I was 15 and I was working at a local sub-shop in New Jersey. And he said, “If you don’t ask, the answer is definitely no.”

Kyle: I would say, it’s funny because I actually live my life this way. Then I heard the quote. I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s me.” It’s from Dave Chappelle actually. And when he was accepting the Mark Twain prize, and he said, his mother told him something very, very important when he was very young. And she said, “Sometimes you have to be the lion to be the lamb that you really are.” And that’s that really, really stuck with me. So sometimes you really have to step outside yourself to really advocate for yourself just to step back in. And we’re like, okay, everything’s okay now. Just come to peace with yourself. So that’s a good one.

Akeem: So, these topics are ever changing, and progress is evolving. As we continue to celebrate black history month, it’s helpful to keep history in mind, be aware of the perspective and experiences of black and brown people for context today. And don’t be afraid to ask how you can help advance equality and equity for all people, where you live and where you work.