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Q&A with OVCDEI (part 2): Representation

Opportunities for campus marcom professionals to begin moving toward anti-racist marketing and communications are the focus of my first conversation with Ross Wantland of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (OVCDEI). In this followup post, Ross shares guidance about representation – in both storytelling and photography.

Kristin: What are some of the ways that racism can show up in our storytelling?

Ross: There are definitely ways racism gets embedded not only in the language used, but also in who gets to write the story, whose stories get written, and what other narratives and voices are included in those stories.

For instance, it’s important to think about who is telling the story and from what vantage point. Folks-of-colors’ stories often get told from a paternalistic perspective, where the neutral vantage point is that of the institution. An example of an unintended message might be that it’s somehow unusual for these students, faculty or staff to have achieved what they’ve achieved. There’s a delicate balance there, because the stories you’re trying to tell are stories of success and achievement, but how we tell them matters.

Kristin: That’s definitely a delicate balance. Sometimes, as a communicator, you can feel like you’re doing exactly the right thing by spotlighting a person of color, only to find out that you went about it in a less-than-ideal way. Do you have any tips about how to get closer to that ideal? 

Ross: One of the ways to combat an undesired narrative is to ask deeper questions of the story you’re telling – to find out “What’s important to this person? What are the pieces they want others to know about their journey, their work or accomplishment?” It’s also important to recognize and resist the temptation to rely on those sort of old tropes that can lead to the person being held out as a token.

Kristin: What about when we’re marketing the university or a program, rather than spotlighting a person or achievement?

Ross: This is when we need to think about how different audiences are going to encounter our writing. We can have an idea about what the Illinois experience looks like, but when we take time to imagine our audience’s experiences we might realize that we need to move beyond some of those traditional, mainstream ideas. The Illinois experience can look very different to different people.

Kristin: What should we be thinking about when it comes to the photography we use in our marketing? I’ve been in higher ed communications since the late-1990s, so I’m familiar with the debates that were happening then in higher ed marketing. The conversation focused on the importance of including people of color in your photos without over-representing the reality on your campus. How should we consider these questions in 2021? Is there a clear line between enough and too much?  

Ross: That’s a great question. First, I don’t believe that representation in images, video and stories we’re telling has to be a true demographic approximation of your campus. I want to hear more stories from students of color about their experiences on campus, and historically we haven’t heard their stories.

As you were talking, I realized that for me there’s a difference between how I feel about images of people that include their stories versus those that are just stand-alone images. By giving people featured in images a voice to tell their stories, we move away from the danger of tokenism. We’re also giving our audience more opportunities to see themselves here, navigating the college experience their way.

Kristin: Thank you so much for sharing your time and knowledge, Ross. We're all fortunate to have colleagues like you and Elizabeth (Tsukahara) at OVCDEI, guiding us toward an increasingly diverse and inclusive campus community.