Making diversity happen from the classroom to the corner suite

Professor David W. Brown finds inspiration from his Temple University students who are working to promote diversity in the field of public relations. (WHYY file photo)

Professor David W. Brown finds inspiration from his Temple University students who are working to promote diversity in the field of public relations. (WHYY file photo)

I have to admit that – as an African-American executive with a 40-year-plus career in advertising and public relations – I’ve grown weary of the conversation about the lack of diversity in this profession.

I’ve been president of local Philly Ad Club.

I served as president of the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

I’ve been inducted into the PR Hall of Fame by the Philadelphia Public Relations Association. I’m scheduled to be inducted into advertising’s equivalent of the Hall of Fame later in the spring.

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I’ve been the “one and only” in places for so long that it no longer strikes me as strange when it happens again and again.

So I was a little less than enthused when a campaign class I teach at Temple University as part of a national competition was going to focus this year on attracting more diversity to the field. While Temple is one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country, our public relations major is underrepresented by students of color — and I wasn’t sure who would enroll in the course to tackle this tough topic.

I was ready to teach those willing to learn about issues around justice, equity, representation and privilege.

But I didn’t realize that I would be schooled as much as I would do the schooling.

For all the diversity initiatives that I’ve started, finished and started again, I have never worked alongside students who would be implementing the change we hope would benefit other generations to come.

I had believed the hype that students of this millennial generation were “over” the diversity thing … that they believed we were living in a post-racial society marked by the ascendancy of President Barack Obama and brought
into stark focus by the prevalence of President Donald Trump.

While some of that was true, these students were more “woke” than I thought they would be and more committed to making change happen than I was when I was their age.

To hear them tell it, diversity is not some far-off goal to be achieved.

For them, the time is now.

When asked about taking on the tough topic of diversity, one of the students put it this way: “When we started this work, I admit I was hesitant. I thought to myself, ‘I’m a senior. I won’t have enough time.’ But then I thought again … if not now, when?”

Another student offered this perspective: “We are the ones inheriting the industry, so being educated about diversity and taking action on this issue is imperative.”

So they went to work.

They established a mentorship program between students and professionals in the field.

They promoted a book called “Diverse Voices” that celebrated the real-life stories of PR practitioners and execs who have overcome obstacles to achieve their success.

They dug into history and uncovered PR pioneers of color as “hidden figures” who helped shape the field but never received the recognition they were due.

But, of course, diversity is more than just a lesson to be learned.

It’s a life path to follow.

It’s a responsibility to embrace.

Or to hear my students tell it … it’s a voice that must be heard – now.

David W. Brown is an assistant professor of instruction and his students, Christina Borst, Erica Deangelo, Lailumah Faisal, Rose McBride and Mary Kate O’Malley study public relations with him at Temple University.

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