Black History – and Black Culture – Matters All Year Long, Not Just in February

By Matt Mendolera-Schamann

Yesterday marked the first day of Black History Month – an annual celebration of achievements by Black individuals and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history. As my colleague Marissa Lindstrom stated in her email to our agency announcing the ways we are marking the occasion this year, it’s an opportunity to celebrate and learn about the contributions of African Americans — because Black history is American history.

In addition to her role as a Senior Strategist within our Integrated team, Marissa serves as one of the co-chairs of our Professionals of Color Circle and has been instrumental in planning the various programs we’re launching throughout the year. This includes a monthly series of spotlights on books, podcasts, events, movies, restaurants, art and other resources that are Black created or Black centric, which will accompany our “book club” style virtual meetups.

Additionally, to get everyone at Matter involved: we announced that we’ll be giving stipends to employees to support a Black-owned local business, artist or creator; collaborating with our Helping Hands committee to volunteer with local organizations that support communities of color in our neighborhoods; and kicking off a series of fun activities that honor Black culture, starting with an African Dance class taught by world-class instructor and local artist, Greg Coles.

Here, in Marissa’s own words, is a snapshot of why we’ve taken this approach:

Why do you think it’s important for companies to acknowledge Black History Month?

Marissa: In school, it’s common for education systems to teach students about Black history. But, as we become adults and enter the workforce, the celebration of African American history becomes less common. And unfortunately, there is a lot of research that talks about racism, discrimination and non-inclusive culture that Black employees face in the workplace. As a company, it’s up to us to set standards of how we address discrimination, and encourage inclusion and belonging for ALL employees. Recognizing and celebrating Black culture and sharing the experiences of Black individuals is a way for employees to understand the reality of racial bias and unfair treatment, especially when it’s coming from the perspective of people they know. 

When brainstorming ideas and collaborating on this year’s initiatives, what did you want to accomplish?

Marissa: I wanted our entire staff at Matter to not only listen and learn. By sharing Black business owners and content creators with them, I wanted them to FEEL and experience Black culture by creating initiatives they could actively participate in, like an African dance class and hands-on volunteer programs in the communities where Black people are most impacted. Companies that create a social post or two during Black History Month to “show” their support simply aren’t doing enough. We have to put action behind our intention. This month, we’re offering employees a stipend to support a Black-owned business or creator of their choice and that is doing something, rather than just talking about it.

For companies considering how to make their businesses and culture more inclusive of Black, multiracial and other people of color, what do they need to keep in mind?

Marissa: The people. People always need to come first. If you’re aiming to make your business and culture more inclusive, then you should think about creating resources and standards of diversity and inclusivity that directly benefit the people. There are a number of steps businesses can take now to improve racial diversity and inclusion in the workforce, but the three that stand out the most to me are:

  1. Hiring and recruiting – adjust your screening/search process for candidates to make sure it’s inclusive, unbiased and helping you hire diverse individuals at ALL levels within the organization.
  2. Support – Create resources for your current employees, like ERGs (employee resource groups), to foster mentorship and safe spaces.
  3. Education – acknowledging the lack of diversity first and taking the time to notice differences is critical. Making diversity training available for everyone at the company, and making a conscious effort to ensure your language is inclusive, is so important. It should be clear to every employee that your company values and strives for racial diversity in the workplace.

What Marissa said about creating a workplace culture where we foster a true sense of belonging and backing up our words with actions, are two important drivers of our entire approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.

As Matter’s Leader of Diversity + Inclusion, what I love about these programs we’re rolling out is that they extend the impact of Black History Month to the rest of the year, providing everyone at Matter with the opportunity to continue learning and listening to Black voices, supporting Black artists, and participating in important conversations. It reaffirms our perspective that Black History Month is a special tribute, a time for acknowledgment, reflection and inspiration – and a celebration we plan to honor throughout the entire year.

I’ve said before in this very blog that we are the first to admit we have much more work to do, and we are tackling it every day we show up for each other and our clients. I’m excited that our collective passion is fueling continued progress on this front. Every day, we’re infusing this work into the fabric of our company — and it’s initiatives like these that will help us make a positive impact for our people, our agency and our community.