Originally posted June 10th, 2020. To see our latest updates, please scroll down.
June 17th, 2021: We’re still working on our 1-year update to this letter. Apologies for the delay. It will be live and sent out soon.
Let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about New Orleans. Let’s talk about our need to do better.
Witnessing once again the senseless killing of Black men and women by our nation’s police departments highlights the systemic racism that Black communities have been subject to for far too long. On the issue of police brutality, I am disgusted and ashamed to see local and national leadership continue to perpetually fail the Black community. Sadly, the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Modesto Reyes, and many, many others have been shocking reminders to myself and people across the country that there is a bigger problem in our society that cannot be ignored. One that needs to be tackled from the ground up.
Online Optimism stands with our Black neighbors, friends, and family members during this time. We are also seeking to improve our relationships with the Black communities that have made and continue to make this city what it is.
We could as an agency reduce the conversation to a largely performative #BlackOutTuesday post on Instagram and carry on as we were before. We could make a one-time donation to a Black-led organization. But permanent change doesn’t come from one or two actions. A sustained commitment to combating systemic racism requires implementing long-term changes throughout our business structure and company culture.
One of our core values at Online Optimism is to “Better Our Community.” While we have used this value to prioritize quarterly volunteering, donating regularly to local charities, and supporting other local businesses, we realize now that we’ve kept the “community” part of this vague. If you don’t specify which communities, then whoever reads the value can assume it to be their own.
Or at least that’s what I thought. When looking at this value from a privileged vantage point like my own, it’s easy to assume others will see it as you see it. We need to be explicit.
Black Lives Matter.
I need to listen. I need to learn—and so does our agency. We need to change.
Listening & Learning From Others
Thankfully, New Orleans is full of people who work tirelessly combating systemic racism, so there’s a lot to learn.
St. Thomas Community Health Center has, since its founding in 1987, committed itself to being an anti-racist institution. All their staff receiving a salary from the clinic are required to do Undoing Racism training with the People’s Institute. Being one of our clients, they invited their Online Optimism account team, including myself, to attend one of these training sessions three years ago. To be frank, we did not go by choice. It was required by St. Thomas to continue working with them. After attending once, we figured “that was that,” and we didn’t go again, even as our staff continued to grow. This was a mistake. We need to do better.
Another client, The Data Center creates endless content showing the disparities that come from systemic racism. However, that content and data stays in their feeds and networks, rather than being cross-promoted and amplified by our agency’s channels and Online Optimism’s own paid advertising budget. That is a mistake. We need to do better.
A glance at our staff page indicates pretty quickly to the casual observer that our agency doesn’t visually reflect the city we hire from. Let’s look at how our team’s racial breakdown compares to our city’s:
|Race||New Orleans Metro Area||Online Optimism Employees||Online Optimism Specialists|
New Orleans Metro Area Data taken from The Data Center, of course. Online Optimism data taken from an optional survey provided to our team this week. We currently have 14 full time employees and 9 specialists, and this data is based on 22 responses. Columns may not add up to 100% exactly due to rounding. (One note on our data: Some of our staff self-identified as “Indian” rather than Asian. We have classified them here as Asian per Census guidelines.) Specialists are part of our paid internship program. While Specialists are not full-time, permanent employees, more than half our employees started as Specialists, which is why a look at Online Optimism’s diversity needs to consider it.
These hiring decisions happened subconsciously, which makes it all the more important for us to clearly state publicly and in written policies our desires for a diverse staff. We had not done so. That is a mistake. We need to do better.
We don’t provide any time in office for our staff to use their talents to support communities in need. For example, one of our Strategists took their own time to make this list of Black-led organizations in our city that could use our ongoing support. Why haven’t we given any space for our staff to work together on projects like this? That is a mistake. We need to do better.
As an agency, we offer donations to 501(c)(3) organizations of our staff members’ choosing multiple times a year. But we do not currently match donations of their own, which could put even more dollars into supporting those around the city combating systemic racism. That is a mistake. We need to do better.
Immediate Steps to a Long-Term Solution
We’re approaching our response as a long-term one. We will spend the next year coming up with policies that move Online Optimism more toward our vision to be “an agency that people want to work for.”
Here are some steps we’ve begun taking to begin the conversation.
- We provided financial donations, as part of GiveNOLA Day, to the local organizations tagged in our #BlackOutTuesday post. We are working to revise our current nonprofit donation policies to improve and expand them. Dollars are the easiest way for a company to support social causes, but it’s only the first step. We will give greater than our fair share. Expect to hear more from us on this before the end of June.
- We have reached out to partners to see what we can provide to Black-owned businesses and organizations fighting systemic racism. Yes, that does include money, but it also includes our expertise in digital marketing and design. Our agency is built to amplify voices. We should be using it to do so. We should be offering this repeatedly, rather than once. Expect to hear more on this by the middle of July.
- We will begin mandatory anti-racism training for staff and Specialists. We are working on coordinating this as part of our fall Specialist onboarding, but we expect to have those policies in place by the end of August.
- We need to improve our hiring process, for employees and Specialists, to bring in a more diverse team of talent. I personally believe this will be the most difficult to accomplish properly, and will take time. We currently perform some outreach to HBCUs, but we need to do a better job at actually showing up to job fairs on their campuses, at considering how we write and promote available positions, and at increasing our training opportunities to bring in a more diverse population of applicants. Our goal is that a diversity survey like the one above, taken in June 2021, will reflect a team that looks more like our city than it does at the moment.
- And lastly: We clearly need to rewrite the value “Better Our Community” to be more specific and more explicitly inclusive. But we’re going to hold off on that until we feel that our words appropriately reflect our agency’s actions.
Most importantly, we’ll follow our first value—Build on Trust—and talk openly about these challenges. We will make mistakes. We see this moment as the beginning of a conversation that our agency will be having for a long time to come.
In addition to more frequent updates, we will have an updated post a year from now, on June 10, 2021, with what we’ve done and our progress.
What will it look like? It should include:
- An Our Team page with more diverse staff than we currently have
- A long list of donations and organizations that we’ve supported in their work to combat systemic racism
- Stories in our social media feeds of how anti-racist training has changed how we approach working for our clients
- Strides toward making the digital marketing world more conscious of how systemic racism affects our industry and our ads
- And concrete policies in our handbook that lead to more equitable outcomes for our employees, our clients, and our city
We are sharing this post through our email list, social media, and website to try to disseminate this to all who work with our team. We hope that everyone agrees with our sentiment, but understand that many will fall into one of three parties.
- Those that are, like us, learning in this moment, and find some points agreeable and some less so. We invite you to join us in the conversation. Share your thoughts and questions with us so that we can grow together.
- People who think it’s pathetic that a New Orleans business with “Better Our Community” as a value worked for eight years before deciding to critically evaluate our understanding of local and national issues pertaining to race. You’re not wrong. Online Optimism has spent time during our past eight years discussing race and diversity internally among our team, but we have so far failed to find ways to put our ideas into action. We hope to convince you that we have changed.
- Potential clients and employees who will choose not to work with us due to our stance on this issue. Frankly, they are not the types of people we want to work with.
We are making this process public not to promote ourselves. We do it to hold ourselves publicly accountable to our community.
Our end goal is not just to change our team: I hope that we come up with ways to distribute these steps past Online Optimism, to provide ways for marketing agencies, New Orleans businesses, and other CEOs to make an impact. If we are truly going to make cultural change, we need to think beyond Online Optimism.
As an agency, we have made mistakes. We will do better.
If you have any thoughts on the subject, or advice, or stories about how you’ve implemented cultural change in your organization, I want to hear it. Please reach out at [email protected]
Thanks for reading,