Behind the Scenes

About a year ago I was invited to a meeting with the owners at an influential magazine. The conversation revolved around my creative team and how we might be of help with work behind the scenes.

As always the vibe was super respectful and informational. But I knew the connection was off from the jump. For starters, I’m ‘old’ by most industry standards so I know that throws folks off. But our squad ranges to 21 and up so I’m well versed in the youth environment so my Dad jokes are intentional — ”yes, I watch the TikTak”.

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Jan Owen, CEO for The Foundation for Young Australians

Second, we are not cheap. No apologies here. We don’t charge for our time or itemize services. We are thinkers and problem solvers. You get what you pay for and some folks are interested in paying. All good.

But the disconnect in this particular interaction was driven by the sight of two people out of thirty who loosely reflected the images on the covers of their magazine or feeds of their social.

Admittedly, I was uncomfortable. Seriously.

I lived on the Upper East Side for five years, worked in Beaverton for over ten years and attended white universities. Why was I so shook now?

The older I get, the less I’ve played into code switching or respectability politics. Truth be told, I was never all that good at it, but I did try to make other folks feel comfortable when I knew they were out of their element. As it turns out, toning the office music down from Mobb Deep to Mos Def wasn’t as big of a leap as I thought it would be. My bad.

But I’ve honestly grown tired of making other folks feel comfortable at my expense so I frankly stopped worrying about those who don’t understand that it’s a two-way street.

Do we lose out on jobs? Of course.

Do we miss opportunities to extend our message? Definitely.

Do I worry about it? Nope.

In my career I’ve been in serious HR violation moments that I shrugged off but that hour in that office unnerved me. I talked about it for weeks.

I really can’t explain why.

Then, a year later,

I read this tweet from Jazerai Allen-Lord.

Look Who’s Talking

Seeing our stories on big and small screens is meaningful and we are accustomed to seeing them told from our POV — because no one else cared to tell them.

But when our stories became compelling and profitable, other folks wanted to tell those stories too.

And I completely understand.

But when we are completely void in the telling of our stories, I feel sick.

Seriously.

Twice in the last month I’ve watched nonprofits in Harlem that I work with have their stories shot and told by others. We weren’t staffed in time to submit proposals, but my heart sank each time I saw the all white crews paid to capture our community.

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Shared Experiences

Over the last year I’ve enjoyed watching as folks I’ve inspired or mentored give me even a morsel of credit for their hard-earned success. No design I’ve ever worked on is as meaningful as those moments.

Corny, but true.

So we set out to do more of that story building through AndThem. In the middle of a pandemic.

Thankfully the team is happily grinding on projects and the business is filling out smoothly.

But three times in the last month I’ve been thanked by folks outside of our collective for making them feel at home. They unexpectedly stopped us in the middle of our meetings to express how much they appreciated being in our presence while we build their strategies, engineer their materials and direct their photo shoots. They assured us that they never had any issues on other projects with other agencies, but they never felt as comfortable as they felt with us. They were being themselves.

As a product designer I naively assumed that Black and Brown content creation teams were everywhere and I assumed they were always at work. Music videos and Sprite ads have to have representation on the other side of the camera, right?

This past weekend one of our talented models, Kwabena Brenya, told me about the awkwardness he had with a certain magazine. Yup, that one. We laughed about it because coping mechanisms are real.

Before he left the shoot, he stopped me to say how much he enjoyed the work that he shared with us. He was quick to acknowledge that he always had fun on sets and working with people, but our days were different. Our work was different.

I asked him if it was okay to record his gratitude and he obliged without hesitation.

SEO Algorithmic Name Checking

I always hesitate to mention how I got to this point because I’m conscious of living in the past and name dropping. I remember the moments when Tinker Hatfield brought me into the room to work when there was no reason to do so.

But I really remember every time Kanye West forced a room of white males to bite their tongues while I shared my ideas. I really remember every time D’Wayne Edwards made me share my story in front of groups of aspiring creatives. I really remember every time Jason Mayden just calls to check in on me.

Those moments are different and who tells those stories are as meaningful as the stories themselves. The empathy and vibe are different. They just are.

By now you might be curious what magazine I was visiting. But I’m guessing it will be easier for you to figure out the magazines I wasn’t visiting.

Good things.

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Kwabena Brenya in XTEP, Photographer: Jon Lopez

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