Rana Reeves, Executive Creative Director and Founder of communications agency RanaVerse, returns to the program to discuss the work that he is doing to connect brands with popular and contemporary culture for commerce, utilizing the lens of diversity and equity to tell stories and highlight experiences to the mainstream.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Jennifer Brown: The DEI Foundations Program is coming up everybody, launching on May 4. We do cohorts throughout the year and this is the next date for you to take advantage of joining a cohort for this amazing program. I want to share a little bit more about what it’s all about. It’s fundamentally an opportunity to explore DEI concepts and consider how they’ve helped you become the person that you are today. In the online cohort, you’ll learn what each of the three components mean and why they’re important to organizations.
Jennifer Brown: We’ll consider barriers to inclusion in particular, such as covering an unconscious bias, and you’ll have the opportunity to reflect on your own diversity, equity and inclusion story and practice storytelling techniques that help you express these concepts to others in a way that will help influence positive change in the workplace. Best of all, you’ll have the flexibility to view prerecorded video presentations from JBC instructors, read thought provoking whitepapers from industry experts and discuss these issues and your own experiences with your classmates in online written discussion boards. All at the days and times that meet your unique scheduling needs.
Jennifer Brown: As an added bonus, participants are invited to an exclusive members only discussion group each week live via Zoom where we deep dive into our learning topics together with the help of an expert facilitator. Students will come away with an introspective understanding of how DEI has impacted them and how they can position themselves to make an impact on their community as a DEI practitioner. Please check us out. And if you’re ready to take that next step and join us, contact us at email@example.com and we’ll provide a discount code to you as a Will to Change listener. Thanks for investigating this amazing and unique opportunity. And if you can’t join the May 4th Cohort, I promise that we will be launching further cohorts during the course of 2021.
Rana Reeves: Brands have a grip on popular culture, adverts, advertising how people show up. How people are seen, how we use influences, how we use celebrity, all of this is within the brand gift world. If a brand makes the decision to move an agenda, then it begins to move because it’s beamed into people’s homes, it’s beamed on… If you can sell a product, you can sell an idea or you can sell a right way to live. Jennifer, basically it’s human nature. Do you want to be with the mean thing or the happy, welcoming thing? And if they’re both selling cars, you want to be with the happy, welcoming thing. All of this is shifting and I don’t feel like it’s shifting to the left or the right, I think it’s shifting to fairness and equity and respect.
Doug Foresta: Everyone has a diversity story, even those you don’t expect. Welcome to The Will to Change with Jennifer Brown. Get ready to hear from leading CEOs, best selling authors and entrepreneurs as we uncover their true stories of diversity and inclusion. And now, here’s your host, Jennifer Brown.
Doug Foresta: Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change. This is Doug Foresta and of course, I’m here with Jennifer Brown. Today’s guest is actually a returning guest on the show, Rana Reeves. He was on episode 114, Change or Die: Inclusive Creative Direction, and that came out in July, 2020. If you haven’t checked out that episode, please do so. Let me just say a little bit about Rana if you’re not familiar with him. Rana Reeves is an Executive Creative Director based in New York and London. For over 22 years, he has worked on a wide range of brands and award winning campaigns, including PlayStation, Gap, Adidas, Unilever, Equinox and General Motors. His specialty is marrying brands with popular and contemporary culture for commerce, utilizing the lens of diversity and equity to tell stories and highlight experiences to the mainstream, be that through content, partnership and/or experiences.
Doug Foresta: In 2018, Rana founded his communications agency, RanaVerse, to continue this mission. Jennifer, I know that you consider Rana to be a… He’s a collaborator and he’s also going to be on the DEI Community Call next week. Is that correct?
Jennifer Brown: That’s right. Yeah, we’re really excited to have Rana rejoin the Community Call with Sean Coleman, with whom he’s been collaborating on a special campaign. Yeah, I would recommend everybody check out the Community Call. If you’re not familiar with how to RSVP for it, you can go to jenniferbrownconuslting.com and scroll down a little bit and you’ll see that there’s information on it, but it’s 12:00 noon Eastern on Thursdays. Just RSVP’ing, even if you can’t attend live, you’ll still get the replay and the chat log, so I would really recommend you do it even if you think you can’t make it. Just get into the cycle and you’ll get that and all subsequent Community Call recordings and replays. In addition to, by the way, all the archives too. That’s a little known fact.
Jennifer Brown: You can RSVP a year after we started these and get the archives going way back, which could be hours and hours of interesting listening I think. But yeah, Rana’s really so special in his vision and how forward he is. He makes my head hurt in terms of things I think I know and think I understand and what the edge is, how even the progressive conversation is continuing to evolve quicker than even I know. And because he’s working with brands and pushing them to think about social justice in their messaging, think about how they are tackling social issues, how talent in front of the camera, talent behind the camera matters and how representation and economic justice has to permeate all transactions when it comes to creative treatments and really pointing the direction to brands about how are you… It’s not whether you’re going to use your voice because you have to, this is the expectation now, the question is how can we do this in a way that also drives our products, our sales, our community?
Jennifer Brown: Rana’s not afraid at all to have that conversation because he understands these are commercial enterprises. I mean, at the end of the day, they need to sell shampoo or body spray or cars or gym memberships or handbags, yes, but let’s face it, when the Edelman Trust Barometer, it is a trust barometer that comes out I think every year, Edelman is a big agency and it studies who are the most trusted entities right now? Corporations have eclipsed the government and they’ve taken a front position in terms of being more trusted, which you could argue however we feel about this, but when we are looking to these kinds of institutions to lead the way on social issues, it’s an interesting moment, agree or not agree, we are looking for those with might and power to push these pieces for equality and equity in a way only a large entity can. A lot of eyes are watching these brands for what they do.
Jennifer Brown: And if Rana is the intel inside, so to speak, in terms of their creative juice, it’s up to Rana and his vision for what this could look like. I think a lot of these brands are following his guidance and creating these campaigns that I think really speak to the future in a really inspiring and exciting way. So it’s where it’s happening and I trust Rana’s vision and the accountability that he introduces into these creative campaigns and his creative direction. I think it says a lot about the brands, whether it’s Unilever or Coach. The brands that are partnering with him, that have partnered with him for a long time, even a big auto maker, the brands that bring him in are really ready to take their own thought leadership and commitment to the next level and be more and more public with that and that’s just a really exciting place to be.
Jennifer Brown: We’re going to jump with this episode, since we’ve had Rana on several times, we’re just going to jump right in and you’ll hear me not do a formal introduction. We’re just going to jump right into the conversation because Rana is at his best when he’s just stream of unconsciousnessing, if that’s a verb. We just hope you all enjoy this episode and please do consider joining us on May 6th.
Rana Reeves: I suppose what I was trying to do was just give you a snapshot of where I am because where I am is still different from when we first started speaking or even in the middle of when we started speaking.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Yeah, true.
Rana Reeves: And things evolve and I think my perception or society’s, this nothing changes, nothing changes and stuff is always changing, so I’ve come to really see the Rainbow Flag as something that holds back the community because it allows corporations, people to not show us and to define who is us. It’s a symbol for our community and I get that, but it’s a very passive cop out of showing a rainbow. It’s like who is Pride for? Pride is for queer people to show queer people. That’s how I feel about it and I feel like it’s just used to not even… It desexualizes us. It takes away intimacy. It makes us “palatable” because we’re not seen. With the brands I’m working on, I’ve really moved away from that because it’s kind of insulting to put us down to six colors.
Rana Reeves: I understand that at a moment in time it had a reasoning, whether is that this is a safe space for queer people, but for me, we’ve moved on from that to a degree, particularly with corporations and with brands, et cetera, et cetera, that it needs to be more than a say. [Assa 00:10:50], my client at Unilever, will always talk about “Well, what is the due?” and the rainbow allows people to not do a due. It allows you to not come off the fence, then also there was a reason that they’ve developed a Progress Flag. It was because it kind of like it didn’t speak to everyone and I think that we have to always look back at what are the lenses that these symbols are created from?
Rana Reeves: The rainbow in the current context to me was created predominately, and I’m not a queer historian by any means, but through the lens of what was right or wrong for white cisgender gay men. Things change and this isn’t… Things can evolve.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah. Yeah. I think so.
Rana Reeves: The biggest thing for me is telling real stories of real people, not this kind of… They’ve talked lately about pink face. Have you seen that?
Jennifer Brown: No, what’s that?
Rana Reeves: The pink face is about straight actors that are playing queer roles and almost are defining what is queerness.
Jennifer Brown: Wow.
Rana Reeves: James Corden did it recently and he was accused of pink face, which is often like a palatable view of queerness. Either on the one side it’s nonthreatening or on the other side it’s predatory and it goes in between the two. So for me now, it’s all about showing authentic-ness, which is also really difficult with a community as broad as ours, Jennifer. It’s like we have to make 50 films if you really want to show that, but what I look for now is there’s still a lot of really bad work done I would say in my industry around the LGBTQ community and it’s still done through this lens of cisgender whiteness, a predominantly gay male whiteness.
Rana Reeves: What I try and do is talk to clients about, “Well, let’s look at stories that haven’t been told or are the source of things.” I’m currently in Atlanta shooting for Coach and two of the stories that they’re doing are blowing me away. Atlanta has the biggest Black Pride I believe in the US, as we’ve talked about before. I didn’t even know. Like show me a mainstream brand that is currently sponsoring a Black Pride. These are huge events, DC, Atlanta, Philly, so we’re here talking about Black Pride and what Atlanta as a city means to the queer community, particularly the black queer community, and then we’re talking about an intersection with southern culture, southern black culture, just southern culture. On top of that, we’re interviewing a woman, Stasha Sanchez, who’s a performer here, about the pageant scene, which again is something I knew nothing about, which is predominantly a black or a southern thing.
Rana Reeves: And the pageant scene, much like ballroom, has been for many years a safe space for trans women of color. They have male pageants, female pageants. There’s all this richness of queer experience that is just ignored or not told because the gatekeepers of who is telling the stories are the same people. That’s what I mean by Beyond the Rainbow and you see it in Pride products. My community is not there to be palatable for other people and these rainbow products that come out and things that I’ve talked to brands about, if you’re going to do Pride march or a Pride float, it’s not about having 90% straight girls and then like five or six gay men. If you don’t have enough people, ally with someone that deserves to be in that parade.
Rana Reeves: Give them the platform and all of this is just hidden behind the rainbow, like this idea of an ally is another one where everyone’s an ally now, but allies in action. So what action are you taking? Elizabeth Taylor was an ally. She stood up and she was counted and she was active, but now it’s become such a passive term like you can just buy this rainbow T-shirt, but you don’t really want to get involved. You don’t really want to show up for queer homeless kids or transgender women that are having to sell their bodies for hormones or whatever. The rainbow for me is allowing people to almost get off easily. It’s like the black square, it’s no different. It’s like we’ve talked about before, Jennifer, it’s like Stop Asian Hate. Stop is a verb, it’s an action, it’s not a post.
Jennifer Brown: Before we depart from Beyond The Rainbow, I just want to ask you to describe what the Progress Flag looks like for the audience. We’ll just take a moment to have you do that.
Rana Reeves: In terms of the Progress Flag, as I said, I’m not an expert by any means on this stuff, but my understanding was that it was a feeling that the Rainbow Flag, as I said, was created very much through the viewpoint of the white cisgender community and predominantly men and it wasn’t inclusive of… The community is evolving, let’s be honest, daily. It now includes I think there’s a Chevron and it has black and brown to include people of color and then it also is more inclusive of the trans community, gender nonbinary communities, et cetera, et cetera. For me, as I say, the beauty of these things are that they get to evolve. It’s not to say that the Rainbow Flag wasn’t important, but it’s also not some sacrosanct religious object that can’t be shifted.
Rana Reeves: So for me now, you can really see brands that are trying to acknowledge the shifts in the community by who has a Progress Flag flying outside the office, who’s using the Progress Flag in products, et cetera, et cetera. Because as I said, it has meaning. It’s like I would never use the ACT UP pink symbol because people died. And the flag has meaning, it’s not just decorative. It has a cultural resonance. I still look at it as in how to use this in a way that is respectful to the trauma that sits behind that flag.
Jennifer Brown: That’s so important, Rana. Yeah. We had Amber Hikes on the podcast several times, so our listeners should know the story about adding the original black and brown stripes to the flag, which predated, I think… I’m not sure if the Progress Flag with the chevron piece that also has been added to include the trans and gender nonbinary community more explicitly, so the flag has evolved as it should, as it should, but it was so fascinating to hear Amber talk about the resistance from the gay community, the resistance to the black and brown stripes and that was not that long ago.
Rana Reeves: Jennifer, all the time on the brand side if I get resistance, it is from white cisgender gay men. It tends to not be the cisgender white gay women because I think that they also have the intersection of being women to understand, but James Baldwin said it really eloquently that it is tough being gay, full stop, but I believe that there is a privilege to whiteness. They just don’t get it in the same way about it and just because you’re othered by your sexuality, there’s not that other layer of being othered by your color or othered by not fitting in or othered by being trans or gender nonconforming or fem presenting or whatever or mask resenting for queer women, whatever, so there’s a narrow band of what is meant to be gay and that is what is being challenged and evolved at the moment. I truly believe that it’s Gen Z that are doing that.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, I agree and thank goodness because we need to be shaken out of… I think shaken out of our privilege that continues to appear and, if we’re not careful, drive our agenda for change instead of having that intersectional lens.
Rana Reeves: Yeah. And you look at those old clips of… Now, they’re kind of like ionized, Marsha P. Johnson, Silvia Roberto, but you look at the old clips that Silvia Roberto was booed off the stage at Pride. Never forget. A lot of the work that I do isn’t just about straight allies, it’s about having to educate the mainstream of our community about people that are more marginalized than them in our community and we have to raise us all up. It’s a group booking.
Jennifer Brown: Yes. Yes. I love our fates are bound up with each other and none of us can move forward without the others. It’s just such a different mentality and I think that’s been cemented this past year, Rana, at least for me, and I was going to ask you, even you who I think of as somebody who is constantly ahead of the curve, how have you changed as a branding expert and all the things that you advise brands on, how have even you been transformed by this year? What are you finding yourself thinking about now that you weren’t even thinking about six months ago?
Rana Reeves: I think one thing for all of us and some communities in particular, it’s been really draining and traumatizing. What I’ve been thinking about a lot is abundance and joy, which is the opposite of that, about the narrative of we belong, we thrive, we create joy, we generate abundance and just how that can look so that I’m not always focused just on the trauma, that we have to provide an environment of fertile soil to flourish. That’s the first thing. The second thing I think is that I think when we talked maybe a year ago, I was more in what I would call anger. And where I am now, particularly… I’ve just learned so much and I learned so much from all the different movements that are happening at the moment.
Rana Reeves: Where I am now is this concept of unity and I was really influenced by that film Judas and the Black Messiah. He talks funny, which I’m at rainbows again, but he talked about this idea in the film, and again, I’m not a historian, about this idea of a Rainbow Coaliltion, but what made the guy, the central character, so threatening is that he reached across the isle, he reached out to LatinX communities, black communities, to white working class, et cetera, et cetera and so his idea of a rainbow I really loved, which is this idea of me to we and it is really no person left behind and this idea of unity, but also I’ve had to grow as a person inside, Jennifer.
Rana Reeves: I can be very like, “Oh, well all white people are bad,” and that’s not true. That’s a feeling in me. You’re white, I know you’re not bad. My stepdad is white, he’s definitely not bad. Most of the people I work with are white, they’re not bad, but culture at the moment, it almost makes you try and polarize. If you polarize, there’s no teachable moments. There is right and wrong behavior, but there are so many people doing right behavior that it just becomes… it’s not clear cut and so it is about unity. It’s about ally-ship. This is my feeling around this Stop Asian Hate stuff. So much of what I see is Asians having to come to the floor. It’s like Black Lives Matter, but they’re not the ones creating the hate so why aren’t the brands focusing on educating white people on hate because the root of all of this is white supremacy.
Rana Reeves: That’s where I’m slowly moving to is that these moments like Pride or Juneteenth or Black History Month should be about raising the communities that they’re aimed at; for them, by them, with them. But outside of that, I believe that what needs to happen, we need to educate and arm, which is a loaded word, allies on how to behave. There’s an orginization called Hollaback! and they are doing this thing which blew my mind called Deescalation Training. They do them on Zoom. I think inherently there’s a lot of good people and that’s what I’ve forgotten, Jennifer, is that the vast majority of people and human nature is kind and caring, I believe, but people aren’t given the tools for, “Well, how do you intercede? How should you handle stuff?” There’s so much cancellation and attack going on, but not enough guidance.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah and if people like you and me are noticing the threat of being canceled, imagine… I mean, we’re brave. This is what we do every single day and even I have moments of intense fear of not getting it right. Every time I teach that, I feel it in myself. It is literally the wish I have for myself is to be able to learn safely, meaning that like just show up imperfectly as a work-in-progress. I teach what I most need to learn, which is I’m terrified of that and because I would be causing harm to those that I care about the most, I mean, it is like a deep visceral feeling. I tell myself that everybody, I guess, needs me to say that feeling is not only okay, but it is our world. It is a very intense time right now and the ability to, like you were just talking about, that Hollaback!, that’s the name of the orginization for anybody who doesn’t know about Hollaback!’s work, but they’re excellent, the dialogue skills, the deescalation skills, the way that we could call each other in versus calling each other is something… it’s like new terrain when you know how to talk to each other in this way.
Rana Reeves: It’s crazy. It blew me away, Jennifer, that Hollaback! stuff because they… Again, I’m just learning so much. They gave me a new perspective on hate because what we see in the media are the most extreme versions of hate, which are death, et cetera, et cetera, but the vast majority is shunning, spitting, name calling, et cetera, et cetera, and I’ve been in that position on the tube in London where people have called me racist names or shunned me or whatever, particularly after 9-11, and that feeling of isolation when no one does anything or no one says anything to you and I leave feeling so much shame and if we can arm people with the right ways to handle it… Because what ends up happening is everyone freezes. It’s fight, flight or freeze, right?
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Rana Reeves: Some people will fight and I kind of take my hat off to them if they fight appropriately, but what ends up happening predominantly is flight or freeze. You see these incidents happen on social media where people just walk past and we’re not arming and we’re not educating, we’re not informing. There needs to be dialogue. I am in a privileged position in getting to see other people’s cultures, other people’s actions, other people’s behaviors and I love it and I’m given the opportunity to say the wrong thing because the assumption is that it’s not out of a space of hate, it’s a space of learning and teaching, and there’s always a way, I think, to teach people back to not always come in with a sledgehammer, of you got this wrong, but I’m having to learn that, Jennifer, because I identify with that because I will come at it from a place of anger or hurt or remembered shame that I feel.
Rana Reeves: Things like you do, like we just have to talk more and it’s so polarizing at the moment. To your thing, I made a decision that I just want to… and it’s very informed by a creative artist I work with, Tom Lee, he’s an amazing filmmaker that we work with on Unilver. She just talks about she’s a trans woman of color and she’s just tired of having to talk about how fucking hard it is. I’m sorry. Everyone knows it’s hard, she wants to think about when can she own a property, when can she own a car, when can she thrive and when can she go on holiday, all the things that everyone else gets to think about. That, again, blew me away. It’s so true. Why do we always have to talk about trauma in the marketing, particularly in these moments, when communities are meant to be uplifted?
Rana Reeves: Black History Month, in my understanding, was about supporting the black community to understand the richness, diversity and just creativity and love within that community’s history, so why does that have to be taken over with stop racism? They’re being racist like that. It should be in the other tides.
Jennifer Brown: Right. I want to say, speaking of Amber Hikes, at the ACLU, who was on this podcast, by the way, everybody go back and check out the ACLU episode, but they talked about renaming it Black Futures Month. I loved that.
Rana Reeves: I love that.
Jennifer Brown: The point you just made, that was so excellent. It’s lifting out of that to think strategically about, and I think the companies need to do this now, which I want you to talk about next, is as Pride is approaching, and by the way it’s not a once a year thing, it is a way of thinking and it’s a lens that we need to hold firm. I think it needs to evolve to address equity issues that would enable her to have financial access, to have safety, to addressing the systemic stuff that she had nothing to do with creating, but that is impacting her life every single day. I know you shared with me too that your work is evolving targeting corporate like efforts and voice and muscle, targeting it very specifically to address… It’s not Pride Parade, it’s literally like surgical interventions, which you’re working on your human rights calendar as you’re thinking about where in the country and in the world could corporations apply their might to really address issues at the center of equity and in which states in the US?
Jennifer Brown: Because too, the coastal elites that some of us are and the relative comforts that some of us have because of our privilege, because of where we live in the world, we have the ability to, I think, not think about the real frontlines for our community members and for where is that happening and then to marshal the muscle of giant companies who are basically coming to you and me, Rana, and saying, “Where should we apply this muscle.” Tell us about how are you answering that question now and how does that fly in the face of the traditional way that we’ve approached Pride, which we all know needs to change, but I just love, I love where you’re going with it.
Rana Reeves: Yeah. I think, as with many things around activism, the black community have really led it out of the need to lead it because they’re under such attack all the time, but the election was a defining moment. The polarization of social media was a defining moment and Black Lives Matter was the moment when people had to come off the fence because, for me, there is no gray area on that. As we’ve talked about, Jennifer, the marketing calendar has shifted. It used to be like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, I don’t know what day, and now it’s like Trans Visibility Day, Women’s History Month, Black History Month, Pride, LatinX Heritage Month. All of those things have at their heart celebration, but they’re also about human rights. They’re about equity, all of the stuff that you’ve said.
Rana Reeves: The bottom line is that the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the brand world to having to come off of the fence. Things like equity, fairness, respect are not political concepts, they’re not really stuff you should be debating in 2021, like should everyone get the right to vote? It’s not really a conversation that should be had.
Jennifer Brown: Nope.
Rana Reeves: I think through the lens of this election, people had to come off the fence. They had to acknowledge voter suppression and they had to acknowledge what is being done systemically to the black community. What that did and does is it opens the door because, again, for me to we, you can’t say, “We’re going to support black people for equity and fairness, but we’re not going to do the same for women,” or “We’re not going to do the same for people with disabilities,” or “We’re not going to do the same for veterans,” or “We’re not going to do the same for queer people.” The brands are really, they’ve just had to come off the fence on everything because also you can’t show a rainbow now and then not acknowledge that trans people are under threat. It can’t make sense.
Rana Reeves: What this is about is taking politics out of it and centering fairness, equality, respect, equity and that these aren’t political decisions to be made and if you feel that they are, then Mr. And Mrs whatever brand, stop celebrating Pride, stop celebrating Black History Month because you have no equity or substance in it. So we are having those conversations with brands now. Unilever is far away ahead. They had already been doing huge systemic change stuff in the black community around hair discriminations, stereotypes of black men. I’m working with them on the same approach for the LGBTQ community. I look at Coach. Coach worked with More Than A Vote, Lebron and Maverick’s orginization around black and brown voter suppression. And now, we’re having those conversations around… You can’t divorce the political, human rights, the personal and the corporate anymore. That went.
Jennifer Brown: Rana, is the corporate… Sorry. Is the consumer products companies, like the Unilevers, there’s a very clear business case, as we say, for going this direction and perhaps… I’m sure it’s not smooth sailing, but I would imagine some industries are able to somehow pivot and be extremely strong and definitive and forward and their demographic is changing. Axe Body Spray, I mean, I know it’s something you work on, but interestingly… So they lead the way, but how are the other industries that you also work with playing catch up or don’t have as clear or a compelling demographic business case for their consumer, customers and what they want to see and hear, how can we bring the middle and the rear along, so to speak, behind Unilevers? What do you think?
Rana Reeves: I think it’s getting to a case where you have to because the pack is so big. If you look at the… A defining moment is the Georgia Electoral Law. Delta had to come into the frame. United Airlines have come into the frame. Coca-Cola’s come into the frame. There becomes like a, I hate using this word, Jennifer, there becomes a tipping point and that tipping point existed like… Probably 10, 15 years ago, not every brand did Pride.
Jennifer Brown: True.
Rana Reeves: Probably very few brands don’t do Pride because it hits a level of where you just can’t be on the wrong side of history anymore. I would say the consumer is calling out people that aren’t. And because the sales cycle or the branding cycle has moved into this human rights purpose led area, you can’t have one foot in anymore. I think what you’ll see if what I call… You have the coastal brands that have already moved and then you have the Midwest brands that are basically in the process of moving because they have to and because they will be called out. You can see it in the press, people call out the brands. You see what happened in Georgia and now that’s happening in Texas. I see the queer activists and young activists are looking at the same thing with the wrath of laws that are going out and attacking trans people.
Rana Reeves: It’s almost like these intersections all exist. It’s one community is showing the way for other communities for how they create their form of consumer activism to shift the corporate world. I think the political system, which has been predominantly around black and brown suppression, again, is opening the door across everything now.
Jennifer Brown: Thank goodness. I mean, there’s an Edelman study, the Trust Barometer Index by Edelman, and they talk about that companies are more trusted than government in the US I think, but definitely check it out. Actually, you would love it. It would give you a lot fodder, Rana. But yeah, I mean, companies are corporations, love or hate them, it depends on the day, but the way we create change is through that economic might and you can’t argue with it.
Rana Reeves: OH, 100%. Brands have a grip on popular culture. Adverts, advertising, how people show up, how people are seen, how we use influences, how we use celebrity, all of this is within the brand gift world. If a brand makes the decision to move an agenda, then it begins to move because it’s beamed into people’s homes, it’s beamed on… If you can sell a product, you can sell an idea or you can sell a right way to live. Jennifer, basically it’s human nature. Do you want to be with the mean thing or the happy, welcoming thing? And if they’re both selling cars, you want to be with the happy, welcoming thing. Like you say, 50%, I’m going to get this slightly wrong, but just under 50% of Gen Z is nonwhite. I think 44% of millennials are nonwhite. Out of the top 20 cities in America, 16 of the top 20 are nonwhite, so this sense of what is othered is changing.
Rana Reeves: You see the same with the kids around gender, around acceptance of queer life, all of the… You see it around women’s rights. All of this is shifting and I don’t feel like it’s shifting to the left or the right, I think it’s shifting to fairness and equity and respect.
Jennifer Brown: I love that you keep saying that. That’s such a beautiful reframe and it’s so important when people feel trapped by taking a side and trapped into a political lens on this. We need different language to talk about why this is so important and I feel that that is a disarming way to handle that. I get that political question like every single day in my talks, “What do we do about political diversity in the workplace? When we say inclusion includes everyone, how do we reconcile how many… that the country was basically split in the way it voted?” If you assume those are your colleagues every single day. I mean, those are the people you work with every day and it makes you, for me anyway, I would imagine it makes you distrustful, I suppose like, “Maybe I don’t know this person. Maybe I don’t know what they really care about.”
Jennifer Brown: It almost causes you to go back into your turtle shell, covering your identity, being afraid of bias that may or may not happen. I think it’s a disincentive anyway for me as somebody in the LGBTQ community to think about that because it’s very, I don’t know about you, it makes me fearful and unlikely to trust and then I have to literally, to channel your points earlier, I have to say to myself, but no… Intellectually I know things are changing and somebody who is, like you just said, on the side of love and welcoming and valuing that is the way, the arc of the universe, which is long, is bending towards that outcome. We know that demographics are on our side. We know that it’s changing, but it was really, gosh, such a wake up call to recognize that there’s so much unspoken pollical diversity in the workplace.
Jennifer Brown: I wonder, is it smooth sailing when you, and I don’t know if you’re privy to this, I would imagine you are, but where are the bumps in the road that are being experienced by companies as they extend themselves out there more and is there any weight to thrust or push back or, I don’t know, social media sort of counter narratives, et cetera?
Rana Reeves: We just talked about those demographic shifts. What I see what brands is when we’re doing activity, they get a different response on Instagram than Facebook because Facebook’s skews order. There are ways and means that you can do this without shocking completely your base or your core. It’s in the channels in the way that you speak about stuff. Again, like you said, it’s about equity. All the election stuff we did was around fair voting. It’s very difficult for someone to come back and say, “Well, no, it shouldn’t be a fair election,” right?
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Rana Reeves: It’s slightly more nuanced in the LGBTQ community, but it’s continuing to be navigated, but the thing that drags it along quicker is society. Society is moving quicker and it’s setting the agenda for the brand world. See, because the brand world didn’t have to worry about what was going on in Georgia, they didn’t have to think about, “Am I going to do an Instagram post?” But now, they have Instagram, so consumers can say, “Well, what are you doing?” You have two routes, you can either go dark and not post anything or you have to say something. If you go dark, it’s all about, “Well, when you come back, what are you going to say?”, et cetera, et cetera. It’s now about having that nuance of, “What are the values that you stand for and how are you going to communication those?”
Rana Reeves: That’s not to say that there isn’t debate within companies about what to do, what not to do, when to do it and that there are differing diverse opinions. For me, the general rule of thumb is as long as you’re doing something, you’re on the way. You’re not the news, you’re not CNN, you’re there to sell handbags or cars or shampoo, but you can still do it in a correct way. And also, Jennifer, I want to say to your point about the workplace, and I agree, but it’s like I have to see that there are two sides to everything, that people may have different opinions to me, but I’m continually shocked by my own set of biases, particularly about white straight men and just where they sit on things.
Rana Reeves: I always come back to my General Motors client, predominantly men, predominantly white, talk about sports, all the stuff that young gay boys aren’t really getting into, but we have such an honest equitable working relationship where I really feel like I’m there not just because, “Oh, he knows how to speak to the brown people or he can deal with Gen Z,” I’m there for me and we’re there to sell cars. I come away feeling so validated, even though they’re not directly validating me, they’re just being themselves and my sense of them is they are 100% being themselves. Yeah, we will have conversations around race and we’ll have conversations around diversity, but they’re conversations. If you just never have the conversation, then I fill in the gap with the idea that your racist and you’re going to hate me, right?
Jennifer Brown: Right.
Rana Reeves: And that’s what I mean about abundance and thriving is I’m trying to live, and it is a privilege to be able to do that, but trying to live more in the idea that they can be good to people as well and that… Still, I struggle with it, I’m not going to lie.
Jennifer Brown: Sure.
Rana Reeves: The more successful I get, the more I am in white spaces and the shocking thing for me is I kind of thought, nearly all my clients are women, I kind of thought, “Where are all these men?” The higher up you get in the company, you end up in white male spaces, straight white male spaces, because I never knew they were there when I was a junior. It’s also understanding allies and I see them as allies. Not every client, but most clients that give an agency like mine a job that isn’t about pride or selling diversity, they are allies because they look at me on the strength of the great work we do. That’s all we want, that’s what we want is equity. I want an equal shot where you judge me on the strength of my work.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, I love the optimism that I hear in what you’re saying and the belief in the goodness of people and also the checking of our biases about certain groups, which believe me, Rana, I find myself in those rooms a lot. It could be triggering and I could choose to feel, “I am not going to be treated fairly.” I’m going to make assumptions about who I am looking at, but the discipline I have these days is to say, “I do not know who any of these people really are,” and so much diversity is going on that’s invisible for groups that identify in that way and I have been so… I agree, I feel so gratified by that work. I used to think maybe it was because it was so difficult and I love a good challenge and so I feel it almost sharpens my saw to be challenged.
Jennifer Brown: It takes me to a different level and I feel a sense of accomplishment that in the struggle, I worked harder, but I learned something and I feel even more good at what I do, I guess, when you face an “adversary”, but I don’t get that feeling at all and maybe I just, again… I think both of us are talking about how we’ve evolved, to see somebody’s heart and to open the door to hear the vulnerability in people, the thing they’re afraid to share, the ability to build a container for those conversations is like the ultimate gift that we can give each other. For me to walk in any room and for people to say, “Because she looks this way, there’s no way she could understand this.” I mean, I’ve been on the other side of that and I’ve had to fight through for credibility with certain black and brown audiences, for example, or even LGBTQ audiences, who look at me and say, “Oh, she’s making it up. She’s not really a part of the LGBTQ community.” I’m not lying about that, that has actually has been said.
Jennifer Brown: You talk about biases that we have and it goes all ways, like it’s not just… To hold ourselves accountable, to role model a better way, you’re right, it is a struggle in each of us, regardless of how we identify, really, really hard, but it is such an opportunity to be in this centered, gracious, loving and open place. And by the way, it’s less work because I think if the indignity and the anger is what we’re breathing into, it’s exhausting to live, like you said earlier, trauma. What is the balance between trauma and joy and celebration and focusing on human potential and how we unleash that? It’s like-
Rana Reeves: Yeah. If I hadn’t done that shift, Jennifer, and it’s still something that is very much a work-in-progress with me, like I’m learning it, I think it’s just so draining. It’s just so draining to wade through, I’ll talk on it from the personal, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, to just get to the first step. I had to make a conscious decision and learn from people around me that I have to center from positive. If I try and build everything from hate and anger and fear, which are all things that I have, it will consume me and it’s just not a way to create either. I’m having to learn, just in myself, to be less punitive to myself, punitive to other people, like that progress not perfection, fake it til you make it, the “I have a body of work that is, what, nearly a quarter of a century and no one can take that away from me.”
Rana Reeves: It’s there and to gain… And these are all things that we have to wade through as othered people to just get to the table, but I have a choice and I’m not going to… Someone said something, I’m in Atlanta, Jennifer, and someone said something, which just blowed my mind, they said, “Thank God we don’t look like what we’ve lived through.” That blew my mind because it’s the truth, sister. I am here, I’m getting to have conversations with people such as yourself, I’m getting to learn, I’m thriving and my being of thriving is a transgressive act in itself within the pantheon of kind of hate.
Jennifer Brown: That you exist is a miracle.
Rana Reeves: Yeah. I want to exist for other people. That’s not like I want to take it all on, but that’s where I got to is, “Look, I can watch the news 24/7 and I can be consumed with hate and fear and anger or I can try and be the change,” and that has to start with myself because just as I can find wrong in everyone else, there’s loads of wrong in me, sure not perfect by any means.
Jennifer Brown: It hurts to admit that. It’s true.
Rana Reeves: Yeah. Well, I think it’s actually hard, but it’s I’m relieved.
Jennifer Brown: Right. Right. Good point.
Rana Reeves: I take that language of the heart into the corporate spaces that I’m in. I have nothing left… No, that’s not true. It’s not that I don’t have anything left to prove, but you can take me as I am because I’m damned good at what I do.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, you are. You are.
Rana Reeves: That’s where I come in with that and I just come in with, “I want to know, but also if I don’t agree with you, I’m going to disagree with you.” Again, then we bring in things like gas lighting and that happens a lot in these sorts of conversations, but it’s language of the heart. We get on because, I feel, we talk to each other. Does that make sense? I don’t feel like I’ve got to put on, I call it like my Sunday voice. What you see is what you get. You could be the President of Unilever, you’re getting the same experience out of me, Jennifer.
Jennifer Brown: Good. Thank goodness. I mean, Rana, you just touched on, I hope The Will to Change listeners are noticing, earlier you described what I think is the imposter syndrome for many of us of the not good enough and you said, “I have a quarter of a century of accomplishment, I’ve build this and I know what I’m talking about and I belong here,” and yes, you can speak the truth because that’s what you’re there to do and not fear the reprisal. Yeah, I think that it requires a lot of attention to noticing when we diminish ourselves, noticing when we don’t think we will be valued and then gently correcting ourselves with love, to say… The imposter syndrome, I think, was there to keep us safe. I mean, you could argue it protects, I don’t know, it protects us from over reaching in a world that doesn’t value us and so protecting the ego, protecting the heart.
Jennifer Brown: But the fact is that what I tell, especially young people, is I say, “The world is changing. It’s bending towards you. It’s bending towards who you are as much as it is what [crosstalk 00:55:56]. It’s your lived experience.” Every brand, every company I work with anyway wants so much to keep that talent that is incredibly diverse and enable that talent to feel valued. My message is we’re just so behind and it’s a language that we don’t understand, particularly my generation and part of my demographic for sure, so when you’re in those rooms, I’ll bet the context you have for these leaders is that the world we grew up in didn’t give us this language, didn’t give us permission to be all of ourselves certainly and to have heart and compassion for the limitations of the only lens you were taught to have. I come to it with that and say, “I have so much I can illuminate for people and I want generously to give that.”
Jennifer Brown: And I gree you, you can’t… Creating from anger is exhausting and I don’t know if the creation is… I don’t know if it’s the same kind of creation. I’m not saying you can’t create out of it, but I find it difficult.
Rana Reeves: Yeah. I’ll give you an example. I’ve worked with Coach for like four years and I’m sure they would tell you the same thing. I was brought in by a very senior member of the team. I think the first year when I was more in anger mode, they must have been like, “Who is this angry queen?” because I was angry at every mistake that was being made. We’re in year four of the campaign and we just have a really honest, open dialogue and relationship around stuff and the work is incredible. They’re the kind that I’m down here with now shooting and fashion can be the most backward place when you try-
Jennifer Brown: Oh my goodness, yes.
Rana Reeves: Like the fashion industry around race, diversity because they think they’ve got it.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, totally.
Rana Reeves: But the Coach clients, to your point, Jennifer, it’s about building a relationship over time where you can just trust each other and people can err or maybe not get things in the right way, but I have learned not to be punitive with it. It’s not like they’re sitting there thinking, “How can I be my most homophobic, transphobic self today?” They’re just trying to get the job done. I’ve had to learn that and that’s changed a lot over the last year. I still get it wrong because so much of this style of work, it speaks to my identity, my trauma, my shame, it’s the personal. It’s very difficult too if I’m just coming up with a campaign to sell a handbag. This is speaking to me, it’s speaking to my life, my security, my fears, my shame, my joy, my abundance, all of these things, so I’ve had to also learn to just not be punitive Rana, the “It’s okay if people make mistakes.” Not everyone is racist, homophobic evil and I’m still learning that, Jennifer, if I’m honest.
Jennifer Brown: Rana, thank you for being so honest. You give me permission to be honest too about this line we walk, but imagine the beauty of balancing all these things and you will never lose the difficulties and the challenges of who we are. That never goes way. Just because we don’t perhaps work from them every day literally, it’s still our operating system. I think of it as the humming that underlies all that we do and we will always be informed by that operating system, but we don’t need to live in and be triggered by it on a constant basis because then we won’t survive. It’s the oxygen mask. It’s literally like put your oxygen mask and make sure you preserve you and I need to do the same because it’s long, difficult road and people count on us to carry forward a conversation and be resilient in that way and be breathable with every situation.
Jennifer Brown: The opposite of breathable is rigid and what I hear you talking about is, “I’m letting go of that rigidity and I am bending and breathing and trusting.” I think that would make our world so much kinder. Rana for President everybody.
Rana Reeves: Oh, you do not want that, Jennifer. I can tell you that. I’d be impeached within 24 hours.
Jennifer Brown: [crosstalk 01:00:44] But anyway, Rana, we’re out of time, but I want people to notice your creative work out there in the world and know whose fingerprints are on it. What can you tell people about how we can watch you in the world, so to speak?
Rana Reeves: Yeah. Well, the easiest way is the website is ranaverse.com, Instagram is @theofficialrana and then you can find me on LinkedIn on Rana Reeves.
Jennifer Brown: And if those of you who are listening to this work at companies that need an agency like Rana’s desperately, consider reaching out. Rana, I’m signing you up for a bunch of informational conversations, but-
Rana Reeves: I love it.
Jennifer Brown: There just aren’t that many agencies like yours with founder like you who blends everything together that we talked about today. I really appreciate too, for those of us who are planning Pride coming up and needing to evolve the way that we do these “celebrations” and really evolving and then guiding people around us to think differently about what’s needed with the equity lens that we’ve talked about so much today, it’s a muscle that we will be needing forever going forward. We’re never going back, it’s only accelerating [crosstalk 01:02:06] so let people get on the train and start asking the hard questions and discovering, I think, the voiceless that even though, despite our best efforts and perhaps despite the corporate sponsorship that we’ve had for Pride, it’s just not enough and that’s not a bad thing, honoring the history of those days when, you’re right, most companies weren’t at the parade.
Jennifer Brown: I remember those days, so do you, but that doesn’t mean we need to be grateful, we need to push. We need to push and I heard that very loud and clear during today’s conversation, Rana.
Rana Reeves: Aw, thanks Jennifer.
Jennifer Brown: Any last thoughts for the group?
Rana Reeves: I was just thinking what a joy it is to speak to you and thank you for creating these sorts of spaces because I really benefit from it too.
Jennifer Brown: Oh, well, I appreciate you so much. You’ve joined me several times on this show, so if you want more Rana, go back in the archives of The Will to Change and seek out our episodes together because, actually, each one is a jewel and very different from the other and it all puts this picture together of you and your voice in the world, Rana, and I’m so grateful for your work, so keep on going, please.
Rana Reeves: You take care, Jennifer.
Jennifer Brown: Thanks, Rana.
Jennifer Brown: Hi. This is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.
Doug Foresta: You’ve been listening to The Will to Change, uncovering true stories of diversity and inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.
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