thought leadership

The Rise of Representation

By: Mariam Shahab, Director, Digital Strategy 

You are diverse. Whoever you are reading this post right now, you have a unique perspective you carry around with you to work, to the gym, on your dates, to the grocery store and everywhere in between. You can’t stop being the culmination of all of the experiences you’ve had that make up who you are. The systems our society live by might make it easier or more challenging for you to be your authentic self and that’s where the tension lies.

I am a Director of Digital Strategy at Golin. I am an American. I am a Texan. I am an immigrant. I am a Muslim. I am a woman. And most recently, I was one of 30 Goliners who had the privilege to attend the National Diversity Council’s 15th annual Diversity & Leadership conference.

Over the course of three days, I felt empowered by President Barack Obama’s advice on leading with intentional inclusion, validated by America Ferrera’s story of living between cultures and motivated by General Colin Powell’s steadfast perseverance through hardship. Outside of the incredible keynote speakers, I was inspired by my fellow attendees and the breakout session panelists who are doing more than just opening the door to diverse talent, but they are making room for them to be at the table, contribute their skills and create change.

Through conversations at the conference, I was able to further solidify my personal passion in the diversity & inclusion space focused on advocating for the concept of “representation matters.” Representation of race, gender, sexual orientation and age (among many other dimensions of diversity) matters in all forms of media and entertainment. It matters in politics, in the classroom, in small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. It matters in the images we choose for social media campaigns, the influencers we partner with to amplify brand messages and the words we choose when we describe target audiences.

Representation matters because when you see others who look like you, dress like you, sound like you or come from upbringing like yours, you feel seen, heard, validated and even inspired to take action to buy that movie ticket starring a predominantly black cast, advocate for that brand that creates beauty products for your skin color or even go on a shopping spree at that store that’s embracing modest fashion.

The old adage of a melting pot of cultures is an outdated view on cultural assimilation. As America Ferrara said, “Who I am is not something to be overcome.” Blending our identities strips us of our histories and our diversity. Our American systems are currently built to accommodate difference through exclusion; but by flipping the script, being curious, learning and re-learning history, we can rebuild systems that allow us to be unified without ignoring our differences.

Diversity only succeeds when we dismantle the systems that purposefully kept us segregated and unrepresented. As we take steps toward progress, a representative “first” [insert race, gender, sexual orientation here] is just a first unless we do the work to make room for seconds, tenths and so on until counting is no longer necessary.

It is no easy task and it starts with being uncomfortable and questioning everything to look for opportunities to move the conversation to actions that include and empower individuals and change systems that inhibit equity. How will you #practiceinclusion and make a difference?