BITE Focus

“Empathy is the first step to opening the doors to change”

Swiss, Founder of Black Pound Day and Shadi-Sade Sarreshtehdarzadeh, Strategy Director at Ogilvy & Strategist at Ogilvy Roots on the vital work being done to amplify Black-owned businesses.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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The events of the past year have only served to highlight the systemic racism that pervades global society. From the protests that rippled around the world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police in America to the businesses being held accountable for their shockingly homogenous teams, people are no longer afraid to speak up when they see injustice taking place. 

Black Pound Day was established as a peaceful response to this ongoing racial crisis by DJ Swiss to create a solution-based approach to supporting the growth of the Black economy in the UK. Swiss explains: “Championing black businesses at present is important for me because despite the fact we are told we live in a meritocracy and have acquired the education and skills to run successful enterprises, economic discrimination has continued to disproportionately affect my community, which blights our access to resources and hinders mobility in so many domains of society.” 

Black Pound Day is an ongoing initiative that takes place on the first Saturday of every month, encouraging consumers to switch their usual shopping destinations to local and online Black-owned businesses. Supporters that buy from Black-owned businesses can upload the receipt directly to the Black Pound Day website so the organisation can work out a monthly total. In August 2020, the initiative contributed £24,031 to Black-owned businesses. 

“Coming off the back of George Floyd’s murder, humanity has been forced to listen with a compassionate ear about racial injustices. What better time than now can we utilise this window of opportunity,” adds Swiss. 

If people truly want to effect change, a large part of their activism is practicing silence and listening to those being affected by racism and racial discrimination.

Swiss

The People Behind the Label 

Swiss goes on to explain just how chronic the economic imbalance is within the UK between how much is spent by the Black community and how much is invested in it. He says: “We contribute 25 to 32 billion pounds  per year to the UK economy but receive 1% of venture capitalist funding, lose out on 3.2 billion pounds per year because of the ethnic pay gap, have 80% less savings than white households and after acquiring degrees from some of the most prestigious universities, we are still waiting two and a half years to get jobs that are equivalent to our qualifications.” 

“The powerful thing about Black Pound Day is that it acknowledges the potential the Black community have to make economic change,” adds Shadi-sade Sarreshtehdarzadeh, Strategy Director at Ogilvy & Strategist at Ogilvy Roots, an internal D&I agency initiative which champions greater cultural and ethnic diversity in the industry. 

But, she adds, it cannot just be the responsibility of the Black community to bring about change. It needs to be a collaborative approach. “It cannot be the responsibility of one community alone to make societal change, especially when they are a group that aren’t typically listened to or included in our modern society,” she explains. “If other people of colour, other minority groups, and white allies switched a usual purchase just once a month on Black Pound Day to the same item from a Black-owned business, can you imagine the change that would bring? That is the meaning of putting your money where your mouth is, because a black square on Instagram doesn’t give the economic empowerment that the Black community needs and deserves.” 

This is ethos which underpins the authentic new campaign Ogilvy Roots have worked on with Black Pound Day and WPP Roots networks, entitled: ‘The People Behind the Label.’ The work is designed to amplify Black-owned businesses and sees Ogilvy Roots leading creative, GroupM supporting with media spend and GTB poised to redesign Black Pound Day’s website. The campaign is also designed to raise awareness of the Black Pound Day directory which can help people discover Black-owned businesses. “Community is crucial. Real change never came from one person, it takes a tide of people to make true lasting change,” Sarreshtehdarzadeh adds. 

All that matters is action 

Swiss is passionate about the power of action, not talks; in deeds not words. As he explains: “action is the only way to truly yield results; words are just a performative act of selfishness and are a form of enabling racism.” 

He goes on to articulate the many forms this action can take, alongside supporting initiatives like Black Pound Day: “If people truly want to effect change, a large part of their activism is practicing silence and listening to those being affected by racism and racial discrimination. They need to brace themselves for a long journey of breaking down and rebuilding the worldview they’ve been socialised into by engaging with academic literature centred around the black experience as well as activists and educated allies that have really walked the path. Those are actions that will potentially affect the world and influence behavioural changes at a deeper level than words will.” 

For Sarreshtehdarzadeh, progress is about long-term change, not a one-stop solution: “There are some quick fixes, but rather than focusing on ticking boxes to drive change quickly, we need to be focusing on driving deep rooted change. This isn’t an issue that can have a plaster put on it, it needs a hell of a lot of antiseptic and air to breathe.” 

She believes this starts with ensuring that unconscious bias training is a mandate for all staff as well as enabling education to take place within the companies. While she feels, “it is not the job of minority groups to educate others,” she adds, that “it can be the job of agency heads to make sure the resources are there. Basic guidelines on how to talk about diversity and intersectionality help make conversations easier.” 

She also speaks passionately about the need for more nuanced script writing and casting decisions that don’t simply extend to slotting in one diverse couple to a scene. Her invitation to agencies is to help educate their clients; to go on a journey with them and for senior leadership teams to empower their employees to stand up where they see fit. For Sarreshtehdarzadeh, she also wants to see an end to tick box recruitment, to allow everyone to have a seat at the table: “As a brown, mentally disabled woman, I don’t want people to give me opportunities based on the boxes I tick on a form, but instead based on me, my skills, my achievements, and my value. I am more than a diversity box ticked.” 

Just because you are being asked to be inclusive of someone else’s struggles, it does not mean to demean yours.

Shadi-sade Sarreshtehdarzadeh

Invite everyone to the table 

What both Swiss and Sarreshtehdarzadeh are clear about is that space needs to be given to differing perspectives, both within businesses and also within what choices consumers are given about where they spend their money. 

For Swiss, this extends to social media platforms doing more to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities. He offers a few suggestions: “making sure free ad spaces are given to organisations or causes that represent injustices which minorities are affected by so equal visibility is given those causes as the profit-making ones. And generally, when needed the algorithms should prioritise productive movements of the underrepresented.” 

Sarreshtehdarzadeh’s advice for nurturing new talent in the midst of this crisis, particularly talent from underrepresented communities, is simple: “Invite them to the table. Ask for their opinion. Mentor them. Give them the space they need to grow. Take into consideration the extra barriers they face and accommodate your space to allow them to thrive.” 

She believes it’s vital that the industry opens doors for the next generation, whether that’s through greater access to education and resources, developing apprenticeships or working with school outreach programmes to, as she explains, “open the doors to a new generation of talent who would otherwise have blindly walked away from the industry.” 

Fundamentally the work that Black Pound Day does is about education and amplification, something that Ogilvy Roots are determined to support. It’s an exercise in awareness, around where you put your money and who you invest your money in when it comes to both talent and products. 

While Sarreshtehdarzadeh suggests there is no easy route, she offers her advice for those within the industry looking to be proactive allies in the push for great representation: “There is no easy route or just one thing that you can do differently here; it takes work, commitment, and self-awareness to change habits of a lifetime. That said, empathy is the first step to opening the doors to change. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Listen to their experiences. Read around their history. And most importantly, do not take offence. We all struggle in our lives. We all have our own issues. There are many forms of discrimination that go beyond race.” 

She continues: “Just because you are being asked to be inclusive of someone else’s struggles, it does not mean to demean yours. Rather, it helps open everyone’s eyes to different experiences, and will have a positive halo effect of creating greater empathy and understanding for all minority groups, whether that be socio-economic, disability, sexuality, or otherwise. Opening yourself up to see beyond your own struggles is the most powerful thing you can do personally.” It’s a lesson in empathetic open-mindedness that feels all the more essential in a year as tumultuous as 2020. A challenge of sorts to the industry and its consumers to both shop better and better reflect those shoppers in turn.

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