The focus group members looked down from the TV monitor and grinned at the moderator: “She’s a legend. A trailblazer.”
It wasn’t long after starting Research Narrative. I remember sitting in the backroom of a focus group, listening to gay men in Texas talk about cultural icon Ru Paul. As they discussed the magic of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, with its stunning creativity and abundance of self-expression, they also gushed about its namesake star, a legend that drag fans tremendously respect and even revere.
She could be a she, or he could be a he; that didn’t matter much to viewers. What mattered was that whatever Ru Paul did, Ru Paul did it with fervor, talent, character (in both senses of the word), commitment, and unflappable fortitude.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to consult with the creative and producing teams behind groundbreaking shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Big Freedia – series that have promoted cultural diversity, celebrated the creativity and talent of LGBTQ icons and artists, and showcased gender fluidity. Shows that understood intersectionality even before that word hit the American vernacular.
THE MULTICULTURAL MINDSET
Of course, not every project can feature an iconic drag queen or the “Queen of Bounce.” I’ve also had sobering conversations with news organizations about the lack of authenticity (never mind inherent discrimination) that comes with having such a consistent “look” or “sound” that racial minority talent code-switch every time they go on-air. I’ve nodded with a sigh as Black men participating in our research joked that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not, in fact, the only Black scientist in America.
I’ve listened as Hispanic focus group participants debated each other on the importance of learning and speaking Spanish as acculturated Americans—and as they discussed fusing their Puerto Rican, Dominican, Peruvian, Mexican, and Cuban roots with their U.S. upbringing.
My work has taught me what it means to be truly multi-cultural. And the reality of the audience and consumer landscape today is that it is multi-cultural, not as a carveout off to the side but as a way of life in much of America. So, at Research Narrative, we weave a multi-cultural mindset into everything we do.
That can mean requiring nested quotas (or over-quotas) on surveys to ensure representation, challenging clients to consider their biases, challenging ourselves to get outside of our own comfort zones, and collaborating with other top-notch researchers who bring different backgrounds, life experiences and perspectives to bear. That last part is how Voices of Equity began.
CRAFTING SOLUTIONS, NOT PROMISES
Despite all the wonderful, meaningful work that my colleagues and I have had the privilege of facilitating, operating in the consumer and audience insights space has its limitations when it comes to social change. And 2020 shined a giant spotlight on that limitation.
Certainly, we can help make news media more representative of America, and television writ large more inclusive of racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, and their respective talent and stories. But we couldn’t protect Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. Or the Asian-American children and senior citizens getting bullied at school or on the street thanks to “Chinese flu” rhetoric. Or the many Hispanic residents of our HQ location of Los Angeles, who’ve experienced outsized COVID-19 exposure and hospitalization as essential workers.
I spent much of 2020 thinking about all the people I wasn’t helping. Like many business leaders, I wanted to do more. I am a problem solver by nature (and by trade) and stewing in the problem space isn’t my M.O. – crafting solutions is.
As I watched corporations tweet out #BlackLivesMatter, while telling employees they couldn’t vocalize that same support while on the job, I longed for a more meaningful solution than empty social media promises. And while I was encouraged by the sudden deluge of corporate financial commitments to DEI efforts, it seemed most of those allocations were arbitrary dollar amounts rooted more in publicity than meaningful impact.
I wondered if I was alone in seeking more substantive, well-crafted solutions to creating safety, equity, and well-being for communities of color. So, I began reaching out to the other top-notch researchers I know and respect, many of whom have been trusted partners for years. I asked them, “Am I alone in thinking that we can do better?”
Everyone agreed we can, and must, do better. Not only wasn’t I alone, we were all thinking it.
FOUNDING VOICES OF EQUITY
That group of trusted colleagues, now formally organized as the Multicultural Insights Collective (MIC), began to meet every Friday to discuss one central, operating question: “How are we going to be part of the solution?” Over time, we concluded that brands must make smarter and more foundational investments in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
So was born Voices of Equity, a series of consortia-based research studies to address equity in business. The first of that series, Words Matter, launched in the spring of 2021.
As co-founders of MIC and the Voices of Equity initiative, we’re committed not only to informing a successful foundation for diversity and equity initiatives, but also to evangelizing both the economic and moral imperative of that effort.
That’s why Voices of Equity isn’t free. It’s not a charity effort. We know that businesses derive tremendous economic benefit from being more inclusive in their operations. So, while our studies are crafted to be affordable for small and large organizations alike, they aren’t free. After all, the value of DEI isn’t zero.
I don’t imagine I’ll ever be a legend or trailblazer in the vein of Ru Paul. She’s in her own league. But I can take a stand in my own industry and create avenues toward being smarter, more collaborative, and more proactive in understanding what it takes to build a constructive organizational ecosystem—one where equity isn’t a pipe dream and protecting each other is a business objective.