This Year Marks 50th Anniversary of Voting Rights Act. What’s Your Vote?
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Do you remember the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of theVoting Rights Act? The 54-mile march swelled to 25,000 people – of diverse ethnicities, religions, ages, geography – protesting for the rights of African-Americans to vote. But what most of us may not recall is that there were two previous marches – smaller in number and filled with protestors just as determined — that advanced only several blocks before being blocked or called off.
Perhaps the PR industry can heed that lesson. According to PRSA, the industry’s professional association, only 14% of its 22,000 members self-identified as Hispanic, black/African American, or Asian/Asian American, in 2010 []. For the passage of the Voting Rights Act, it took more planning, more focus, more outreach – and more evidence of national unity (federal, state, and local commitment) before the call was heeded. Once that concerted alignment of people power was in-place, Americans from all ethnic and even political backgrounds could march together for change. And, it took people who didn’t look like those denied the vote to stand up – and show America that change was good for all in our nation.
Indeed, there is reason for optimism in the PR industry. For instance, the percentage of PR professionals of color quoted above is double the percentage 5 years earlier, in 2005. Another example: In 2007, PRSA issued an update to its “PRSA Diversity Tool Kit,” providing the industry with a framework and tools to change PR agencies and other workplace settings to create more diversity in our profession. One key element of that change is understanding the difference between “affirmative action” and “diversity.” This differential is about helping all PR practitioners see that creating change, creating diversity is not about settling for less but, instead, is about undertaking a really smart business practice. This chart shows the major components of diversity vs. affirmative action:

Initiated by government
Legal aspects
Importance in quotas/numbers
Stemmed from problem
Assimilation to mainstream
Human resource focused
Importance in quality
Stemmed from opportunity
Integration of multiple cultures
Multi-function focus

In 2012, the leader of PRSA’s Diversity Section penned an essay entitled, “Diversity in the PR Field: Some Progress, Though Challenges Persist.” She noted the following:
“In a report given at the PRSA Educators Academy Conference, Bey-Ling Sha, Ph.D., and I noted that ‘a very real possibility exists that minorities are not entering the public relations profession because the industry has failed to explicate to professionals the viability of this career option.’ As a professor, I encounter students of color who question whether there is room for them in this profession because they do not see others who look like them in the places where they wish to work.”

On Monday, January 19th, all 50 states celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ’s birthday. Most Americans reminisce about the past and speak of hope for the future. We also ask, “Have we realized the Dream?” Forty-seven years after this great man’s 1968 assassination, our nation’s people of color are still troubled with high unemployment, unequal access to education and disparities in health care; and their communities are ravaged daily by crime and police brutality. The 1960s iconic rallying cry for change, “We Shall Overcome,” has been replaced today by “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Our hopes and dreams brought us to a place of realizing some dreams, but now we are ever-more cognizant that we still have a long road to travel.
And, so, I challenge public relations agencies and corporate America to “vote” for change. Create a diverse staff of talented people and be affirmed by the change you can bring to your business, the PR profession – and our nation. As PRSA tells us, in today’s world, diversity is the only way to business success.