I’m a Black leader. Here’s how I keep making D&I a priority when I feel like my life doesn’t matter

The VP of diversity and communications at a creative agency says she uses these personal strategies as a Black woman to become a leader and continue her work in the corporate world.

I’m a Black leader. Here’s how I keep making D&I a priority when I feel like my life doesn’t matter
[Photo: Chris Strong/Getty Images]

Since the death of George Floyd, I’ve read a profusion of articles and had an abundance of conversations. It’s the conversations with Black people in the ad industry that stood out to me. In each conversation, I notice the vacillation between hope and confusion. We’ve got your attention, but what took so long? Our colleagues see us, but we’ve always been here.


If you’re Black in advertising, chances are you’re ready to throw in the towel at any given moment, or you’ve at least contemplated it. Please don’t. The industry needs us. You’re tired. Rest up. There’s work to do, only this time enlist an army of allies.

While leading the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at 22squared, an independent creative agency based in Atlanta, something happened. Something that has continued to happen during my ad career since Trayvon Martin’s 2012 killing. It happened, again. George Floyd. Not only was I afraid of catching COVID-19, but I was also afraid for Black lives.

The week George Floyd was killed was both the best and worst week of my professional career, both for the same reason. I had to advise the agency on what to do next. I had to ensure our Black employees were seen, were heard, and were taken care of. I had to show up as a Black leader while Black America was in crisis. While I was in crisis.

This time was different. It had to be. I couldn’t suppress my feelings. As the director of Diversity, it is my job to advise the agency on what’s going on and what to do next. It is my job to help clear the runway for Black people to speak. It is my job to show up for the agency, but most importantly, stand up for myself. I was no longer going to sit back and not demand change and action at a place I call home, among people I call family. So I reflected on my journey over the years and thought about what I needed to do differently. I needed to show up whole, even while I was hurting and afraid. I had to tap into these personal strategies that I’d developed that would make this time different.


Take the time to feel it and go through it. Does that look like self-care? A few days off? I liken this to bereavement, where we take time to grieve. All of this is traumatizing and continues to be. Watching these videos in your feed is like watching a loved one. Take the time to gather your thoughts and yourself. To do that, let your manager know that you’re struggling to focus your energy because of recent events in the news. Let them know that you want to be able to show up to work whole and you need the time to recharge. In 2016, I asked to work from home after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. The work still got done, but I was in the comfort of my own space to gather myself. If you need the time off, come prepared with a list of what’s on your plate at the moment, and solutions on how the work can still get done.


It’s not easy, but say how you’re feeling. Without exhaustion and constant explanation, you are entitled to be heard. We can no longer silence ourselves or be silenced. Charge your leaders with helping you through it. Do this is by asking them to allow you to take the time to gather yourself. Your manager should listen to your needs and respond in ways to support you. I have often asked my leaders to help me get into rooms that they are in and I am not. This is so that my voice can be heard by that audience. The audience that can implement change. Sometimes helping you is nothing more than being supported in that way.



The action you take can be personal, professional, or both. Influencing your friends, family, and community are the highest growing trees where you can affect change and it ripples out. But when it comes to our professions, we tend to feel helpless. Yet, there are ways to affect change in the workplace, too.

If your influence with clients is limited, it doesn’t mean you have to leave. Depending on where you are in your career, and where you are mentally, I recommend raising your hand to be the one to help push your clients to make change in their culture, advertising, and community efforts. New business is everyone’s business, so you can also help to bring on new Black-owned businesses as clients. Find Black-owned vendors and partners that your agency can partner with to assist in client work. When roles open up, recommend your Black colleagues and sing their praises. Head to HR and offer up networks and resources where they can find Black talent. When senior and executive leadership roles open up, insist that a Black person fill those roles.

Everyone is responsible for the environment the workplace propagates. Hold your leaders accountable for promoting an inclusive and equitable environment, not just a diverse one. Create spaces and opportunities for Black voices to be elevated and heard. Encourage cultural activities. Not only during times of strife but all the time.


All of this does not and cannot fall on you and the other Black employees. We cannot dismantle these systems on our own. We need the activism of the majority. Deploy your allies. When they ask how they can help, I don’t hold back and I tell them exactly what I need. A few of my examples:

  • ask them to mentor and sponsor Black people and NBPOC who are early in their careers
  • research and learn about the 13th amendment
  • hire and promote Black and other marginalized people and ensure equity compensation
  • commit to long-term listening and learning by reading about the Black experience
  • widen their circles to include more diverse people who look, speak, and see the world differently

To my Black colleagues in the industry, don’t let the word “leader” deter you from thinking this doesn’t apply to you because you may not hold a certain title. When it comes to this topic, this experience, and this feeling, you are a leader. #BlackLivesMatter

 Janis Middleton is the vice president of Diversity and Communications Strategy at Atlanta-based, independent creative agency 22squared.