Minnesota Nice?

February 22, 2017

“Diversity gets people of color in the room. Inclusion is what makes people really part of the room and makes people want to stay.”

I believe those words from Duchesne Drew, a Community Network Vice President at the Twin Cities-based Bush Foundation, get to the heart of an issue we’ve spent a lot of time talking about here at Fast Horse: How do we become a more diverse industry and, by extension, how can Fast Horse become a more diverse agency?

To help address the problem, leaders in the advertising community created The BrandLab, which is designed to bring more people of color into our business starting as early as high school. It’s a good start. If we can introduce advertising and public relations as attractive career options earlier, and then surround those who opt in with the resources and network they need to find success, we will go a long way toward solving a vexing problem and a huge black eye for our industry. To highlight the issue, and move our industry along more aggressively, BrandLab last year challenged Twin Cities agencies to double the number of minority employees from six percent of staff to 12 percent in 2017.

But, according to an article in the Star Tribune, “Despite outreach efforts … many industry insiders admit frustration that marketing offices still remain mostly white even during a time when clients are clamoring for more minority representation on their creative teams and in their ads.”

I’m among those frustrated industry insiders.

Like Drew, I believe if we in the Twin Cities don’t address our inclusiveness issues, well-intended programs like BrandLab will ultimately serve only as a band-aid on the diversity issue that is felt throughout the local business community. We may be able to reach 12 percent, but there is reason to doubt that our industry will be able to grow or even sustain that number long-term unless we make some fundamental cultural and organizational changes.

I’ve often heard people who have moved to the Twin Cities talk about how cliquish we can be here. That was backed up in a recent survey by Greater MSP, which is working with more than 150 Minnesota companies to find way to improve the diversity of Twin Cities workforce through a program called Make It MSP. The survey of 1,200 professionals of color found, among other things, that minorities, especially younger professionals, are leaving the Twin Cities in great numbers because they find a lack of cultural awareness and diversity here. Those who analyzed the findings suggested that minorities find it difficult to break into social and professional circles here, and without more culturally relevant resources, they become disillusioned and move on.

In short, we may be successfully attracting a more diverse population to the Twin Cities, but our lack of inclusiveness is only creating a revolving door. We might be Minnesota Nice, but for many, we’re a long way from Minnesota Welcoming. And that experience is not just limited to minorities.

I recently queried a handful of colleagues here at Fast Horse who moved to Minnesota about their experiences. They echoed the findings of the Make It MSP survey:

From colleague who moved here in her 30s:

“I … quickly learned what ‘Minnesota nice’ meant.  So many people said they would love to go to lunch with me, go to coffee with me, have me over for brunch and then never followed through.”  

And this from a colleague who moved to Minnesota from Costa Rica with her husband a couple years ago:

“In my experience, moving to Minnesota is a little harder than the other cities I have lived in. I can completely understand why that is, because if a Minnesotan would move to Costa Rica they would experience the same phenomenon. This is such a great place to live that people never leave. Everyone grows up knowing each other in a tight-knit community where there are possibly two degrees of separation at most. It is the same with Costa Rica, where people stay in their community and usually don’t migrate in search of better opportunities (myself excluded). It is hard to be an outsider and try to break into those long-formed ties that people have, and the dynamic of established relationships.”

If I’m going to be honest, the dynamic of a deeply entrenched and tightly knit community that my Costa Rican colleague and others have found in the Twin Cities is very much an issue at Fast Horse as well. I believe that we cannot be successful long-term if we don’t first look inward and try to identify and call ourselves on the behaviors that might be contributing to an agency culture that may not be inclusive enough to nurture a more diverse workforce long-term. Our efforts to make Fast Horse a more racially diverse agency first have to focus on making Fast Horse a more inclusive agency.

That will take very deep introspection. We are going to have to continue to be brutally honest with ourselves about the unintended barriers we’ve created before we can transform our workforce into one that better reflects society. And it will likely make a lot of us around here, myself included, very uncomfortable.

I applaud and support the work of Greater MSP, Minneapolis Mad Women, BrandLab and so many others who are working to address the issue of diversity in our workforce. It’s difficult and very necessary work.

But unless all of us take a hard and honest look at the individual and collective behaviors that might be contributing to a lack of inclusiveness here in the Twin Cities, and commit to real change, I fear that their good work will be for naught.