Livewire’s Pierrette Masimango interviews Sharlyn Carrington, an award-winning communications strategist, to share thoughts on representation, engagement, and racial equity, grounded in their lived experiences as Black communicators.
As I write this, it is Black History Month. As a Black woman in my agency, I am conflicted as I lead this February initiative, feeling a sense of excitement and pride but also of responsibility, pressure. I reach out to Sharlyn who, in typical Black sisterhood fashion, agrees to this interview right away, as though to say, “Of course. What else do you need?”
Sharlyn is magnetic. As we get situated for a virtual conversation, she and I share the same spontaneous, joyful laugh, one that puts me at ease for the conversation to come. Though we have not spoken in quite some time, our call feels like no time between us has passed.
We come from different but parallel backgrounds: me with my BA in Communication Studies from Concordia University and she with her impressive Master of Communications Management from McMaster University, me in the thick of a strategist career and she with the expertise of government comms and the experience of founding her own agencies, including her current practice Content Strong. Both of us are connected by this vision of racial equity – particularly, racial equity not just as a “nice-to-have” or an “add-on” but as a genuine foundation for all our work.
The conversation that follows is both free-flowing and layered with the personal and the political. Sharlyn calls for the industry to move beyond conversations and into accountability and action. And I believe conversations like the one we were having – two Black women joyfully and unapologetically uncensored – are still necessary work. As we converse, our producer hanging silently in the background, I'm proud that we're revealing to him the unique solidarity that Black women can create when connecting with one another, outside of the typical way Black women have to code-switch in the workplace. We join a legacy of Black women who often have the burden of “fixing things,” of taking on the work of diversity and inclusion even when it's not trendy, convenient, or good for careers. And yet here we are in the diversity space again, making the most of it. This time, perhaps, we speak in a world a little more willing to hear our message.
We are the culture, I think to myself. I step away from this space buzzing.
Our conversation took place during Black History Month in 2023. We have shared the full conversation internally, and in an effort to celebrate Blackness year-round, we are excited to publish this version for our readers.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pierrette Masimango: Hi Sharlyn! When we first connected in 2020, you had recently completed your Master's and were organizing the National Summit on Anti-Racism in Public Relations and Communications Management, a two-day workshop that gathered more than 600 writers, PR professionals, and communicators. Take me through the reactions you got at the time and how much the diversity space has changed since then.
Sharlyn Carrington: Hi! So happy to be here. As you know, my thesis was on diversity in PR and communications, with a lens on the barriers for Black women and Black communicators.
It was 2018, pre-George Floyd. I got a lot of: “Oh, you're so brave for touching on that subject!” Quite frankly, it made people uncomfortable.
The Summit started out because people at McMaster said: “I want to start having these conversations every Tuesday with professionals.” But, quite frankly, the person they selected to run this Summit wasn't the best person to speak about diversity from a lived experience perspective. A colleague of mine and I were like: “Hold on. We have other things that we could say about diversity.”
Then it became: “We need to talk about Shar’s research” – to talk about Black people’s experiences, career barriers, and things that are making them leave the industry.
We know that leaders are looking at us and saying: “Our audiences are diverse. And we're not telling their stories in the right way, and we're not telling our story in a way that is authentic to them or that speaks to their experience and their lives.” Other communicators started saying: “I didn't even realize this was an issue.”
The only downside to this summit was that I think a lot of people said: “Give me a checklist to take back to my organization.” I think the bigger takeaway should have been: We're talking about hundreds of years of ingrained attitudes and beliefs that we have to now unlearn. This is not something that we can give you a checklist for. This is an ongoing process. We're all trying to learn from it.
PM: One of the things that comes to mind is this idea that representation is important. But what about groups that are overrepresented? If they are now realizing that certain racial issues never affected them, then perhaps that is a result of being overrepresented in an industry that has a lot of work to do to diversify.
It's also great that you and your friend could advocate for yourself – that one moment of putting your hand up led to this summit where 600 people could learn. Black women often are in that position to debate: Should I advocate for myself? Should I raise my hand?
SC: I don't know if I would've had the courage if it wasn't for my colleague at the time. It speaks to the idea of not being alone and having somebody else who you can stand up with.
It really is emotional labor. Because we see the reverse now. This is post-George Floyd. Everybody wants to have this conversation. You are almost more empowered, more encouraged to have these conversations in a workplace. But then you feel: I'm still the only one who has to speak for everybody. I'm the one who has to put together the Black History Month event.
PM: Right. You have to contend with: What is that extra work? Plus the hidden work is the emotional labor: Am I doing too much? Am I saying the right thing? People belonging in majority groups may not necessarily walk around with that same burden.
SC: That's something that I actually say when I pick up a job.
I have clients say: “I want you to help me deal with this diverse group. “
However – and this is sadly a disclaimer that I have to make – “I'm one person, you should bring a team of people in. I'll give you my opinions and my expertise, but I am not here to represent an entire, very diverse community of different individuals who may also have different experiences and opinions.”
PM: Should this kind of disclaimer be commonplace in the diversity consulting industry?
SC: I wouldn't say necessarily that it's a “should,” right? But I use it to my advantage. I introduce it before my work: “Here is my lived experience. I'm a cisgender woman with an English-sounding name, able-bodied. These privileges have also affected my experience and perspective.” I try and be very cognizant even within those identities.
I personally find that it brings a different lens or comfort to students. It gets them thinking about themselves and their own biases: “Yes, you’re right. I’m able-bodied too. We have that same connection, and I wonder what that's meant for us in our daily lives or in the office.”
PM: Did you ever think your grad studies would actually relate to your practice today?
SC: Absolutely not. Quite honestly, I feel like I've spent my entire life running away from the diversity aspect. I spent my entire life being like: “I'm not going to be the token pigeonholed into talking about this one thing.”
Deep down, I still feel a tinge of that: Ah, this client is calling me to talk about diversity stuff. I'm actually a trained communicator. I can bring you all of these other things.
But I do see it as an opportunity not only from a business perspective, but to make a little bit of a difference. I want people to look at communications and say, “Oh, you folks are relevant. You make a difference. I see the diversity of our country represented there.”
PM: My hope, too, is that eventually we won't need to have to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and it becomes the basis. It is the basis. We shouldn't have to backtrack and say, “Okay, did we check all the boxes?” No, if you're communicating to different groups of people, you should know your audience and have those considerations in mind.
Do you ever get tired of DEI – always having to have these conversations?
SC: There’s an emotional toll that some of this does legitimately bring on you. When I review my research and I’m building a course, I think, Ugh. This number is so disheartening, and I’m still talking about this.
What's disheartening too is when someone asks the most basic question. Of course, I never make them feel ridiculous. But I do think: Really? We’re still asking that question?
Everybody's on their own journey. I have to remind myself: We’ve lived this journey, so we've been on this journey for as long as we've been alive. But that's not necessarily everybody else's experience.
PM: If you were to run an anti-racism summit again, what would you focus on now? Especially given we’ve somewhat evolved and everyone made these big promises.
SC: Good question. The first thing is accountability. Okay, so you had a great conversation with your team. You put something on your website. Now what do you do? Let’s see some actual action.
Secondly, there are the intersections between race and gender. I'm using gender very loosely because I realize the differences. People who are non-binary, people who are trans, people who are also dealing with race as an issue but are also dealing with race and gender coming together and intersecting in the workforce, and what that means for their representation and their experiences.
PM: We’ve seen, in many ways, leaders are now “forced” to have an opinion on DEI. What comes up in those conversations? How do you help leaders in your practice as you talk about DEI and communications?
SC: This happens in smaller organizations, but I really want to pinpoint those larger organizations where people have been in the role for years and they're stuck in how things were done, and they're having a hard time adjusting to this newer wave of conversation.
These leaders can miss the point. I can get things like: Can’t we just hire some people who look different or some people from diverse backgrounds?
That's not the point. This is about thinking about your entire organization as a whole: What systems do you have in place that helps to nurture people, to mentor them, or to help them grow? It’s not going to help you if you hire 10 Black people to your organization and then you don't have the infrastructure to help them thrive when they get there.
One lasting impression I like to leave with everyone is that I can give you these tools and I can help you and I can provide you with my best advice. Even my best words.
But you still have to go and do the work yourselves. You still have to go and spend the time and think about what this means with your audience. You still have to spend the time to engage with them.
This isn't a one-day fix. You can't build trust in an afternoon by putting up a few paragraphs on a website. It’s really about engagement. And if I think about racial equity and communications, and not only racial equity, but diversity in general – it’s about engaging, creating something that someone can see themselves in.
That's why I think this whole conversation around representation in communications is so critical because we can't do our best work if we ourselves do not represent the people that we are trying to engage with and talk to.
PM: Livewire made a commitment to DEI as an agency, and the first thing you want to do in this situation is go out and tell people. But along the journey, we took a step back and said, how have we worked on that internally first? You’re reiterating that for me: Engage your people first, then think about the flashy external stuff.
My last question for you: if you were to redo your research around the experience of Black women in communications, what do you think would be the evolution in your results?
SC: There was a broad spectrum of Black people I studied who had been in the field from 2 years to 20 years.
99% of them said that they believed they had been discriminated against in some way.
89% of them talked about different microaggressions they experienced.
All of them talked about how they had to code switch in the workforce because they wanted to survive and move up the ladder.
All of these feelings came over and over again: “I couldn’t move up. My manager had a problem with me. This person actually said these words about my hair, my dress, my culture.”
I would love to go back and ask them, “Now that it's post-George Floyd, do you feel braver to raise your hand and say, ‘I actually experienced X, Y, and Z, and I had this problem’? And when you raised your hand, did something happen?” I would love to interview new people, specifically a younger generation, and ask them the same questions, “Have you seen barriers? Do you feel like you can bring yourselves authentically to the office?”
Even right now I'm wearing a head wrap with an African print on it. I would have never done that before in the workforce.
I sincerely hope that the women that I originally interviewed would say something like: “I do feel more empowered to just be myself. Because now they want me to be myself and actually hear my opinion.”
PM: It’s interesting you bring up code switching. We do it so naturally. I imagine the impact of being free from that. Such interesting and relevant research, especially in Canada. Any final thoughts?
SC: We've spent the past two years having conversations. There are many people, however, who feel like they've been having these conversations for decades. They’re beyond that now. I hope we don’t drop the conversation. There’s always going to be something on the news. I hope we find the way to keep up the interest.
But it takes time to do the real work. It makes a difference – it will make a difference in people's days, in people's livelihoods, and in people's ability to thrive in their careers and feed their family.
PM: I think about the concept of “rest as resistance” after this conversation. If all workplaces took DEI seriously, then diverse groups would be able to “rest.” We wouldn’t feel alone in thinking about DEI so actively. We wouldn’t feel like we always have to raise our hands and muster up that courage. And specifically as Black women, we often have the burden of bringing change and fixing things. We all could rest.
Thank you so much for your time, Sharlyn.
SC: Awesome. Thank you so much for making the time.