The Importance of Diversity and Recognizing Black History Month

By Matt Mendolera-Schamann

A conversation with two Matter employees of color 

February is Black History Month, and that can bring about interesting opportunities for reflection at any workplace, but especially at an agency like ours. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ethnic makeup of the PR industry in the U.S. is nearly 88% white — with just more than 8% African American, and an even smaller number of Asian and Latinx American professionals accounting for the rest of the professionals in our field. When it comes to acknowledging Black History Month, PR firms are faced with the sometimes-uncomfortable reality of the question: Are we qualified to talk about this, when we still have so much work to do to address underrepresentation and lack of racial diversity? I’d like to think yes – it’s not just important, but imperative. Because I’ve learned that in life, and especially in business, if we can’t acknowledge our shortcomings, we can’t begin to address them. 

That’s why I’m exceptionally proud to be the co-chair of the Diversity Committee here at Matter – not because I believe I or Matter deserve a pat on the back or can speak from some lofty pulpit on the topic – but because it’s important to talk about how our leadership recognized the need to create this initiative and is comfortable admitting we have a lot of work to do. 

With that in mind, amidst various internal communications planned to acknowledge Black History Month, we also approached some of the professionals of color on our team to discuss their experience in the industry and at Matter. I’ll be honest – a few of us were a bit worried that even the idea of interviewing our colleagues on this basis might have the unintended effect of encouraging tokenism – but we also felt it was disingenuous to comment on the topic at all without spotlighting the voices of Black team members in positions of leadership, and giving our peers a platform to be honest. So, I hope you’ll take a minute to read through this Q&A with two rising stars at Matter: Marissa Lindstrom, who was recently promoted to Digital Marketing Strategist in one of our fastest-growing and most demanding departments, and Tobias Henderson, who recently raised his hand to help lead our Professionals of Color Circle and co-chair our Diversity Committee. 

What drew you to Matter? And to this career in general? 

Marissa: Less than a year ago, I moved from San Diego, CA to Salisbury, MA, so naturally I was looking for jobs in the area. I was introduced to Matter by a coworker, Alex Foley, and immediately knew it was somewhere I wanted to work. I was not only drawn to Matter’s captivating company culture, but also the amazing work the digital team was producing. Since graduating college, I knew I wanted to work in the marketing world and as my entry-level career began to blossom, I quickly recognized my passion for digital marketing. 

Tobias: Being a visually motivated individual, the first thing that attracted me to Matter was the bold, eye catching design of the website! After perusing the impressive list of #workperks offered (summer Fridays are my fave!), I stumbled across a spotlight feature of Anne Lines, Matter vice president, detailing her experience with Matter and her favorite thing about public relations: how every day is different. The daily versatility of working in this field, in an agency setting like Matter, is why I find PR so appealing. It never gets boring! And knowing a VP still enjoys that aspect most sealed the deal for me. 

What do you think Matter is doing right to tackle this topic, and where might we have our biggest opportunities to improve? 

Marissa: Diversity is a “trending” topic on most executives’ minds. Companies know they should be cultivating a diverse work environment, but they don’t always understand why. The difference between these other companies and Matter is we understand the value of diverse opinions, backgrounds and mindsets, and furthermore we encourage and respect these opinions. Matter is not only creating a diverse workforce, but also a diverse leadership team comprised of women, people of color and other diverse backgrounds. We’ve created communities of diverse employees through our Professionals of Color circle, which serves as a safe space for people of color. However, there is always room for improvement, as the work is never done. While Matter employees go above and beyond to make sure they are volunteering in the local community, we should explore dedicating some of our volunteer efforts to organizations that specifically aid Black individuals. 

Tobias: Starting the tough conversation is the first (and right) step to diversity. We only have room to improve from here!

Do you think it’s important (and/or appropriate) for workplaces to recognize and put into place formal programming around cultural or racial observations like Black History Month? Why or why not? 

Tobias: Not only is it appropriate, it’s necessary. Formal programming around culture is an action which reflects that our leadership values all marginalized voices.

Marissa: I can’t express enough how important it is for workplaces to recognize and put formal programming in place for cultural observations like Black History Month. It’s imperative to build on the study of Black history and get people to understand the important roles of black people in the larger narrative of the United States. BHM is a great time to pay homage and create more opportunities for learning by supporting black business owners, hosting black speakers to come speak to your employees, and amplifying black voices by giving people of color, like myself, the opportunity to share our experiences with the greater company and feel comfortable doing so. 

How important is diversity and inclusion to you, when you think about your position and role at a growing, national agency like ours? 

Marissa: Diversity and inclusion are very important topics in my life and something I am extremely passionate about. We are all human, and while we may come from different walks of life, backgrounds and cultures, at the end of the day, we are all in this together. As a woman of color, I strive to do my best, and be my most authentic self every day in order to encourage others to do the same. Often, people of diverse backgrounds feel like they cannot share their authentic self to the greater public due to fear of judgement. I hope my experiences and my voice encourage others to share their unique point of views, thoughts and leadership with all of us at Matter. We all have an authentic self, we all have our own experiences and we should all let our voices be heard, so we can all learn from one another. 

Tobias: As a professional of color, there’s no question that diversity is inherently important to me. I live it every day. What is important? Inclusion. With initiatives like Matter’s diversity effort, it opens the possibility to have a seat at the table and join the conversation. Being a member and co-chair of the Diversity Committee has already connected me with unique and kind individuals from the northern shores of Massachusetts to the Columbia River. Simply having the ability to have an open, honest conversation with someone who understands the little, yet important, things that unite our common purpose: to just be ourselves. Nothing more and nothing less. 

What would you challenge other agencies and firms to think about or put into action?

Tobias: I challenge other agencies to incorporate an open-door policy into their organizational strategy. Providing a space and time for everyone to have honest, open conversations about sensitive topics like diversity and inclusion is key to realizing a cohesive and united workforce.

Marissa: I challenge other agencies to look at their employees and ask if their staff is representative of who they want to be. While many people talk about having a diverse workforce, it’s not enough to say it — you must do it. Hiring people of diverse backgrounds, promoting within and encouraging your staff to form diversity committees to support historically marginalized groups is so important. You must continuously educate your employees on the importance of diversity and speak truth to power in your inclusion efforts. When we know better, we do better. And as companies work to foster diversity and inclusion, it is important we hold ourselves accountable. 

What do you like best about your job every day, and the clients you work with? 

Tobias: I enjoy the fluidity of my day-to-day and the varying industries of our clients. It’s amazing to work with clients in varying fields, whether it’s cannabis-related tech solutions or the latest product making waves in DevOps, I get to learn something new every day.  

Marissa: What I like most is that I am constantly challenged to step outside of my comfort zone to do something new or learn something different every day. There is never a dull day on the digital services team, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a contributing member! I work with a diverse roster of clients — from tech, to healthcare, to transportation services — and I wouldn’t want it any other way. There is a tremendous opportunity in working with a variety of clients that has only helped me strengthen my skillset. I hold great pride in being a member of the Matter team and I look forward to my continued growth and opportunity at this thriving agency!

Our Work Continues

A year and a half ago, Matter endeavored to hold ourselves more accountable, making a concerted effort to more meaningfully and explicitly foster diversity at Matter. Working together and with the help of an outside consultant, we formed our Diversity Committee, developed a 5-year strategic plan, and began executing on it. While inclusiveness and support for diversity have always been in Matter’s DNA, formalizing this effort has allowed us to be more cognizant of what we need to do as an organization and as individuals to strengthen how we recruit a more diverse workforce, maintain an environment where everyone’s perspectives and contributions are encouraged and respected, better serve our diverse clients and their audiences, and reflect the communities where we live and work. 

From our senior leadership to staff across locations, everyone at Matter has passionately embraced and supported this initiative as well as the recommendations our Committee has brought to them. Since launching, we’ve made some great first strides – in our hiring and retention; by introducing more inclusive benefits, such as floating holidays for religious observances and cultural celebrations; through establishing a series of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for professionals of color, LGBTQ+ colleagues and allies, and for women and young professionals; and by developing a series of staff-wide trainings that we’ll begin executing in the coming months. But we have a lot more to do – and we welcome that reality. From offering more meaningful educational programming and fun activities to celebrate milestones and observations, to ensuring we give real leadership opportunities to all employees in an equitable and responsible way, we’re excited to elevate our colleagues and watch Matter grow. In ways big and small, we are doing our part to ensure someday soon, the statistics on the ethnic makeup of our industry more accurately and appropriately reflect the real community we’re a part of.