Blake Marquis | Mar. 14 2022
The recent news coming out of Texas and Florida puts this year’s SXSW in Austin, TX, occurring at an interesting, hard-to-understand, cultural moment.
Diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI). An ongoing important topic in our industry that has shed a light on how some truly feel and also spotlighted how much work lies ahead for our industry.
Ash Ramirez, DEI Lead, spoke on “The Next Generation of DEI Culture” panel at SXSW on Saturday, March 12 alongside Bennett Bennett, co-founder of 600&Rising; Nate Nichols, founder of Palette Group and co-founder of Allyship & Action; and moderator Jazmine Brown, Ad Council director of DEI.
We connected with Ash before and after the panel to get their thoughts on how they anticipate the panel will go, the general vibe at SXSW given what’s happening in the world and in America, and any key takeaways from the panel that resonated with them.
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Q: How did you end up on this panel, Ash? Also, why is this conversation important to you and important for the industry?
I’ve had a long-standing relationship with the Ad Council since I started working in DEI. First, it was attending their events as a MAIPer then it turned into contributing content to their diversity efforts. And before I knew it they kept tapping me for speaking engagements, the latest being this panel.
This conversation is important to me for a multitude of reasons, but I think where this is taking place has an added layer of complexity. The panel is intended to have a conversation as it pertains to the future of diversity practices and the effects the work has on our industry. Aside from creating inclusive cultures many of the initiatives DEI leaders are creating are based around social justice efforts. When you add in the fact that Texas is a very conservative state (and in fact has been 1 of 3 states to pass anti-lgbtq bills in the last two weeks), you can’t help but wonder, “why have this type of convo in a place like that”. Ultimately change will not happen if we keep talking to all the people that agree with our efforts. It’s the ones that either don’t have any resources or information to learn more about the subject and why it’s important and the folks that are against topics like teaching LGBTQ+ history or critical race theory in schools that we need to talk to. And I do want to note, these folks don’t just live in the South, they are everywhere including in our industry.
Now, these are extremely tough conversations to be had, but if we can get even one person to understand the importance of this work and get them to activate, then the panel will have succeeded.
Q: Do you have any outcome hopes for this panel? I.e., what do you hope the industry gains from attending this panel?
Expanding someone’s perspective will be the biggest win. And personally, I intend to say my peace as it relates to the Anti LGBTQ+ bill in Texas (I am a native Texan and Trans Non-Binary Latine), my hope with that is that it leads to more support for trans orgs and hopefully legislative changes. But for the industry specifically, I hope people understand that everyone has a role to play when it comes to diversity work. It doesn’t just fall on your DEI leads, leadership, or employee resource groups, or BIPOC employees. And I hope leaders get serious (and I mean really serious) about this work. They have to be willing to deal with their white fragility and be open to the folks leading the DE&I efforts – our intention is not to call you out, in fact, we’re calling you in. As a collaborator, as an ally, as a partner.
Q: DEI is a topic that, as others and the media have said, sometimes feels like a lot of talk but little action. What actions can the industry take to become more inclusive?
1. Get creative with your talent pipelines. We often hear there’s not enough talent, but I think we haven’t given enough consideration to looking at folks from non-traditional backgrounds/experiences, who have transferrable skills, who have potential and can be taught. I’m also one for creating your own pipeline or partnering with an organization that is starting to tap into one.
2. Invest in your diversity departments. Give your leads what they need – a considerable budget they can work with, folks to help them plan and execute who aren’t just doing it as an “extracurricular”, learning and development, leadership backing, etc. We can’t assume the work can be done without these things, and in fact, you’re actually setting your lead up for failure.
3. Consider other facets of diversity as well as intersectionality. We still have plenty of work to do in regards to race/ethnicity, gender/gender identity, LGBTQIA+, etc. but there are areas where we have barely scratched the surface – religion, disability (both visible and non-visible), socioeconomic status, parental/caretaker status. We should start to bring awareness and include folks from these areas in the conversation when it comes to inclusion. Intersectionality needs to also be considered as many people don’t just hold one identity, in fact holding more spaces where there’s cross-collaboration between groups can foster inclusivity and unity.
Q: Honestly, what was the vibe like at SXSW? Did you check out any other talks or activations after your panel?
It was a bit surreal to be in a space where there’s a ton of people but also I think there was a sense of appreciation to be back and conversing with people. There weren’t as many folks as I was expecting but the intimacy I think made it all the better experience. I met Roy Wood Jr and said hi to Alok Vaid-Menon (a trans ICON). I wasn’t there for a long time but I did get to check out a talk on breaking stereotypes on Black fatherhood, Keni Thacker from 100 Roses was there, and it was amazing hearing their experiences.
Q: Any takeaways from the panel that resonated with you, Ash?
I think the first is don’t take yourself too seriously. I had a lot of anxiety leading up to us walking on that stage, and I had to remind myself that I’m the subject matter expert and my thoughts are valued. I absolutely loved working with my fellow panelists and moderator. Before this panel, I had worked with these folks from like three degrees of separation, now we’ve gotten close, and I feel like we’ll probably be working together very soon.
On a personal note, I almost didn’t come to SXSW because of the anti-trans bill that was passed a few weeks ago and because, as a trans person myself, I didn’t feel 100% safe. But I’m glad I went because I recognized that I had a platform to share my truth and create empathy. After the panel, I got a lot of thank-yous for my vulnerability, and it left me thinking about my next move in this space related to thought leadership. Stay tuned!