a seat at the table: the southern black creative’s struggle to create value in white spaces
2016, my 27th year of living, was the most transformative one to date. And the fact that I keep saying this after each year speaks to how intense operating in purpose can be as we age. More specifically, as a black man & creative living in the south-first Alabama for 10 years and now Tennessee, that purpose and the works it creates are rooted in my varying experiences within the African diaspora. Both parts African AND American, the duality of my south-side Atlanta upbringing & Cameroonian experience creates a need in me to build communities that mirror who I am, in its totality.
The reality is that for many millennials in southern states, especially mid-sized southern cities like Chattanooga, TN & Huntsville, AL, the opportunities to create and add value to traditional systems just aren’t as plentiful as they should be. As I look at my friends and peers, many who have excelled and graduated from southern institutions, mainly HBCU’s, there is a similar conversation had by us all. And that is, where in OUR southern America, can we live where our individuality is respected, value is identified and work is compensated adequately?
To answer this question accurately is to take an intense, critical look at the cities we call home and the systems that hold them together. Because when you look at the numbers, black millennials hold the answers to many of our society’s questions. Don’t believe me? Ask Nielsen. They just released a consumer report entitled “Young, Connected & Black: African-American Millennials Are Driving Social Change & Leading Digital Advancement” that stems from a dialogue begun in the 2015 Diverse Intelligence Series report — “Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse, African American Consumers: The Untold Story.”
The opening line of the report states: “African-Americans are exuberant and reflective — optimistic about present-day advances in income, education, entrepreneurship and health care, and determined to forge a better future as influential leaders and catalysts of social awareness against discrimination and social injustice.” The report continues to express and explore the various ways black millennials are increasing our buying power, investing in brands that speak to Black love and pride, leveraging our understanding of technology and social media, investing in holistic living and urban sustainability and being the change we wish to see in OUR America, the one our children will have to live in.
So with consumer data that reflects why black millennials seem to be *cough* (dope as hell) the best return on investment for companies across industries, why do our cities not invest in our influence, expertise and buying power? Too much like right? This lack of representation in spaces of leadership & decision making across southern communities is rooted in a culture that indulges in black creativity but turns a side-eye to black enterprise. One that places an emphasis on the preservation of “the good old days”, not realizing how bad those days were for everyone else. Per our friends at Wikipedia, innovation is defined as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs or existing market needs. So as innovation districts and startup communities across the country become the catalyst for increasing urban development and local economic infrastructure, the need for black millennial wins in our southern America is a must. Because…innovation.
Simply put, we need to see more of our tangible heroes.
Educators. Doctors. Lawyers. App developers. Restaurant owners. Yoga instructors. Authors. Artists. Musicians. Black creatives & entrepreneurs who create sustainable businesses that strengthen community infrastructure. We have all of these people here, in our south. The issue, however, isn’t in numbers, but in representation. Because if you visit our downtowns and “central business districts”, places where various cultures traditionally collide and intersect, you don’t see us in positions of leadership, ownership. And that’s a shame. Because black millennials are killing it right now. And until our southern, black millennial experiences and flavor become a part of the aesthetic of the many places we call home, cities like Atlanta and Miami will continue to bust at the seams. And I love my hometown, but 285 can’t take no more.
Furthermore, the black southern experience is one rooted in family values, social equity, and black empowerment. Black colleges & universities present unique, structural & cultural challenges yet instill a sense of pride, preparedness, and perseverance in students that rival few. Our graduates and young professionals are blazing trails in technology, education, entertainment, social justice and entrepreneurship and coming up with new-age solutions to age-old problems in our communities. Being an urban planner, counselor and thought leader, my ability to communicate and influence across barriers has seen me permeate these traditional spaces while still maintaining my cultural identity. But this has not come without a steep price. One that gives me a great story to tell, but not an experience I would wish on any graduating college senior looking to put their skills to use in a community they love and are invested in.
So as the push towards building communities that represent us grows, our southern cities will continue to feel the pressure of a growing, and thriving, black professional population. One that places a value on their local community while embracing and celebrating the various cultures of the diaspora, in that community.
Simple enough, right?
With all of this said,it’s up to us as change makers to continue pushing the envelope and achieving greatness right where we are. The more we win, the easier these conversations get. So let’s keep winning.
At this point, we will forever and always have a seat at the table. But the issue is no longer whether we are at the table, but rather how many of us are there and do we own it yet.
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