What We’re Up To

BR Talk: Black History Month

February 24th, 2023

We sat down with some colleagues, Westley Bayas, VP of Campaign and Creative Services; Olúwatọ̀nà Campbell, AAE on Technology & Innovation; and Biruktawit Zelalem, AE on Strategic Campaigns, for a Black History Month panel. Moderated by Jahad Carter, AE on Cities, the panel explored what it looks like for organizations to authentically engage in and commemorate this time and the meaning of Black History Month.

Jahad: Let’s start with a quick little fun fact. Fun fact about me is that recently, I just met Toccara from America’s Next Top Model. What about you, Westley? 

Westley: I recently became a sneakerhead. So now I’m 15 pairs in, and I’m seeing the problem that people have when they become sneakerheads. It’s addictive. 

Jahad: I love that. Who’s next? Olúwatọ̀nà?

Olúwatọ̀nà: This is my tried and true fun fact. I have 14 middle names, and I know four of them. Don’t ask me all of them. 

Jahad: And lastly…

Biruk: Hi y’all. Fun fact about me is that I am double jointed in my shoulders, so if I ever get arrested, I can at least bring it to the front, which is nice. 

Jahad: Okay, well I hope you don’t get arrested! Pivoting to other things…

Why did you all choose to work at BerlinRosen?

Westley: I was doing political work as an independent consultant and wanted to be able to expand the access of resources that I had. I was one person working on campaigns, primarily with Black and brown people, and getting some success. But being in an organization like this, having so many other talented people that are around, has made it a lot easier for me to go find those same types of political candidates—Black and brown people, young folk, women—and be able to help serve them even better. 

I wanted to do things other than just political work, so the fact that we’re so large and we have so much going on here, it’s an opportunity to really be able to expand my creative thinking and horizons and just try to get involved in things bigger than politics. 

Olúwatọ̀nà: I used to work in political organizing, then I made the shift into media relations. I’ve always been passionate about climate change and the implications it has for Black and brown people worldwide. At the same time, I’m also very passionate about technology and media. And in most of my work, it’s always been difficult to bridge the gap between all three of those things because I think they are, for different reasons, urgent and important. So, in February of last year, I joined BR because of the opportunity to work closely with clients working across those issues. Today I work with tech startups that are leading the green transition, from a climate risk platform to a global renewable energy company, as well as working with clients working to build better futures and opportunities for people of color. 

Biruk: I started here as an intern, and then joining full-time in 2020, it’s just been a great experience, and I feel like the clients that we have not only care about the issues that we discuss and things that are impacting marginalized communities, but they actually listen to our advice. Oftentimes in organizations, when you talk about racial justice issues or social impact conversations come up in general, people get really uncomfortable. But people are really able to talk about that freely here. It doesn’t feel like you’re the Black voice saying something controversial. It’s very much a collaborative environment where people want to listen and take heed to what people are saying—what marginalized folks in particular are saying. 

Jahad: I love that. And I’m sure you probably all had a moment to probably think about this question, but I will let any of you answer first. Whoever has it at the top of the mind.

What has been your favorite memory here so far? 

Westley: I think the work memory has just been the history that we’ve been able to create with Black candidates that we’ve been upholding. So getting the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh (Ed Gainey) elected; getting the first Black woman sheriff elected anywhere in Louisiana (Susan Hutson), my home state; being able to get the first Black Congresswoman elected for Western PA (Summer Lee). Really being able to make big history. I came here because I wanted to be able to help build Black political power.

Biruk: That 2020 Black History Month happy hour, man. That goes down in the books because that was a great time. I don’t know, just something about getting Black people in a room, even if it’s virtual, it just does something to your spirit. The camaraderie and being able to just have shared experiences with other Black people here. Especially seeing how many Black people we’ve hired on and how big the teams have—again, they’re not as big as they can be—but just being here for over three years and seeing that transition. It’s just so rewarding getting to introduce myself to new folks that are coming on and building those relationships. Each one of them is really memorable to me. 

Jahad: I love that, I really do actually love that. And I know this next question can be a little bit, in my opinion, I think it’s a little bit larger than what you can just say in this panel specifically. But to each of you:

What would you feel that Black History Month means to you?

Jahad: [Panelists silent] I see the eyes, I see the thinking.

Biruk: It means a lot of things; that’s a big question. First and foremost, it’s pride. I want to take it as a moment of honoring each other and appreciating each other and it being a real opportunity to recognize one another. Black History Month is 24/7 if you’re Black. It’s not like that’s the only time we celebrate each other or recognize each other. Especially Black American people. And I’ll call this out as an immigrant. Not everybody taking and commodifying Blackness—Black American experiences specifically. It’s a reminder that these aren’t just American things—these aren’t just global experiences or cultures—that you get to just take part in because they come from America. These experiences are unique to this community that has gone through so much and has given the world and America so much, and we need to honor that.

Olúwatọ̀nà: Same here, it is a moment of reflection and celebration. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the work and legacy of those who have come before us. And specifically, even for me, sort of to Biruk’s point—as someone who is an immigrant, or grew up as a first generation American—a great opportunity to learn and feel interconnected to the legacies of Black people, not only just in this country, but across the diaspora in the Caribbean, Latin America, and also back in Africa, too (as well as other Black communities around the globe). So for me, this is an important time to reflect, but also celebrate all of our deeply connected histories. 

Jahad: That was really, really beautiful. And I feel like, personally, you all answered it very very well because I kind of have a hard time, especially after 2020 specifically, even paying attention to Black History Month activities. I wish that I was able to give that as well and reflect on it as well. At the same time, you know, in that kind of honesty in this next question:

What do you think is the most impactful way for companies and organizations to commemorate this month? 

Olúwatọ̀nà: I think it’s still kind of a hard question for me to parse because I don’t even know how to do it as an individual—let alone, how are we as a community meant to commemorate this month? I don’t have a firm and definitive answer. I guess I would start by looking at the other 11 months. And for me, when companies or organizations kind of just parachute into February for Black History Month… something queer people know all too well during Pride Month. A lot of organizations and companies parachute into our months of celebration. They change their logo or put out a long post to paper over the fact that their engagement with these communities is missing during the rest of the year. There’s not a continued commitment or engagement to our communities when this happens. So I think overall, if organizations or companies want to commemorate the month, they should start by reflecting on the work they are doing year-round instead of only showing up when there’s more scrutiny or attention.

Jahad: These past few years have been really hard on a lot of us. So for firms, it’s really looking at equity and how people need to do their work and the conflicts to try to make it better for them. And I guess that also leads into the next question:

What does it look like to you if an organization authentically engages with Black History Month, and not necessarily parachute, as you were saying, Olúwatọ̀nà? 

Olúwatọ̀nà: You know, I think that organizations or companies that try to make this month or even any of the work they do that is in support of “Black liberation,” “racial justice,” “antiracism,” or the different ways of phrasing it, I think they are off to the wrong start when they are centering themselves and their work, rather than supporting or just giving resources when possible to people who are genuinely doing the work to make the world safer, better, more sustainable for Black people. Most of it, for me at least, it’s usually a better sign when I see an organization consciously choosing not to be in the center. Consciously choosing not to be the organization or be the person “doing the work” is critical for thoughtful and authentic engagement. At the end of the day, this work should be in the service of getting out of the way of, in this specific context—literally just let Black people do that work that is ultimately creating a better kind of future.  

So in short, taking a step back is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for thoughtful and authentic engagement with Black History Month. 

Westley: In a perfect world, an organization shows and values its contributions for its Black workers every day. It’s part of the larger ideal and value set of the organization, which is: how are we creating safe and open and accessible pathways, so that all of the workers—but I think particularly your workers, Black and brown workers, and for me specifically, the Black workers—are able to succeed in environments like this? I think to the point, it was a big risk and a big jump to move from New Orleans, LA to New York in the span of a weekend and find housing. You wanna feel like your organization can have your back in those instances. They understand how small or large investments in Black-owned and -led entities not only benefit the work that we’re doing as a whole, it benefits our organization and the people, it benefits the Black folk that are being able to keep their businesses going a little bit while longer. We’re understanding that we’re not just doing it because it’s February, we’re doing it because this is just a smart way of how businesses are able to help grow other small businesses, build connections and find new inspiration for creative. 

And honestly, the thing that I would say is that an authentic organization is gonna speak up strongly and unapologetically for its Black staffers and the larger society issues, and emphasize when harder issues come up. If you’re gonna monetize Blackness, then you better stand up for it—especially when you won’t make a dime standing up for the right thing. That’s the minimum of authenticity. Actually stand up for it when it’s not gonna benefit your pocket. 

You stand up for it because you give a damn about—and I love what you said earlier Biruk—humanity. If you believe in humanity and you believe Black folk are part of and have humanity, then you’re just gonna do the right thing because that’s what you’re gonna do. And usually, if you do the right thing from a smart perspective, that’s gonna help you from a business perspective as well. 

Jahad: So basically the best way that an organization can authentically engage in Black History Month is to create Black History Year!

Westley: You’re not wrong there. That’s all I’m gonna say. 

Biruk: Right!

Jahad: Okay, so we have a little fun one. We have a few lists of categories of restaurants, businesses, creators, movies, songs and books that are either Black-owned or created by a Black person.

What’s your favorite…

Restaurant: The Munch Factory (in NOLA)
Business: DIOP
Creator: Kyle Jones
Movie: “The Five Heartbeats”
Song: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” by Marvin Gaye
Book: “Black Boy Fly,” by Joshua Renfroe

Restaurant: Berber Street Food
Business: Camera Ready Kutz, a queer- & women-owned barbershop in Bed-Stuy
Creator: Beyoncé
Movie: “Moonlight”
Song: “Try a Little Tenderness,” by Otis Redding (Pip Millett’s version is a close second)
Book: “Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia E. Butler

Restaurant: Sylvia’s
Business: All Black women that do hair
Creator: Azealia Banks
Movie: “Waiting to Exhale”
Song: “Washed Away,” by Kelela
Book: “The Shadow King,” by Maaza Mengiste