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Q&A with OVCDEI: Thoughts on moving toward anti-racist marketing and communications

This campus is so fortunate to have the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (OVCDEI) leading us toward an increasingly diverse and inclusive community. Not only are the office's resources critical to fulfilling our mission as a university, the people on staff at OVCDEI are incredibly knowledgeable and generous.

Last year at a workshop sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation (OVCRI), I heard Elizabeth Tsukahara, Assistant Director of Communications, and Ross Wantland, Director of Curriculum Development and Education, share a very thought-provoking presentation about anti-racist communications – a topic I knew would appeal to a larger group of marketing and communications professionals. Ross was more than willing to continue the conversation with me – and all of you.

Kristin: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with the marketing and communications community on campus.

Ross: I'm happy to. It’s a great moment to revisit these conversations. Over the past year we’ve had many renewed opportunities to talk and think about questions like “How does racism operate?” and “What are some of the subtle forms racism may take around us?” 

When we first start thinking about racism and anti-racism, we often begin thinking about what we don’t want, which is an OK place to start – to note the things that are harmful and inadequate that we might be engaged in. We also need to think about what’s on the other side of that: “What does it look like to confront racism? How can we move from not causing harm as communicators to actively promoting racial equity and justice through our work?” Communicators in particular have some wonderful opportunities here, because they’re already very thoughtful about the importance of language – of words, of representation and stories.

Kristin: As a communicator, I know it’s possible to highly value the importance of language and to still second guess whether I’m taking the right approach and using the right words. Do you have any advice in that area?

Ross: One of the ways to do that is to make sure we’re having rich conversations about who exactly we mean, who are we talking about? Be as specific and accurate as you can. The term “diverse students”, for instance, is incredibly vague because there are so many types of diversity. And when we use words like “minority,” “underrepresented” and “underserved,” it’s easy to use a term that’s not actually what you mean. For example, “underrepresented” begs the question “Who are we talking about, in relation to what? This city or country? This particular program or major?” The important thing is to stop and think “Who exactly do I mean?” and then to be as accurate as possible.

Kristin: Are there other things we can do as communicators to make sure we’re using the best words in a given piece?

Ross: Making sure the language we’re using is accurate to the community we’re using it with or for may just mean checking in with those people to see what they think. This applies not just to the people we’re writing about, but also considering the people we’re writing for – how different audiences are going to encounter our writing. 

It’s also good to have relationships with resources on campus like the LGTB Resource Center and DRES (Disability Resources & Educational Services) to make sure the language we’re using is current and appropriate. The final thing is to have some kind of internal agreement around style and around values that drive the conversation. We need some values that guide us, and clarity around how we talk about things and how that fits into the university’s mission.

Kristin: Do you have other favorite resources that might help us get started?

Ross: Definitely. Take a look at the Radical Copyeditor, Racial Equity Tools, and the University of British Columbia's Indigenous Peoples Language Guide. My colleague Elizabeth Tsukahara shared these resources with me. I’ve learned so much from working with her – she's one of the most thoughtful and inclusive communicators I’ve ever met!

(Ross and I had much more to talk about. The second part of our conversation, which focuses on representation in our stories and photography, will be published in a post next week.)