8 ways to be a writer activist

My heart has been heavy over the last several days as I’ve watched the civil unrest back home, in the United States. It took me several days to process what I wanted to say or do, how I could best support from afar. I wondered, How can I be an ally and advocate for my Black sisters and brothers?

For the past decade plus, my work has focused on supporting equality in the workplace and beyond, at all levels within companies (not just in leadership, though that matters—hugely). In 2019 alone, I delivered more than a dozen inclusion trainings across the United States, as well as delivered women’s leadership trainings. My client work last year also focused largely on supporting authors of color who are contributing to the greater good, sharing their stories to lift others up.

So as I reflected on how to be an ally, I realized: I’ve been training for this day. I have strategies to share with you, that don’t require you to be physically present at a protest or even in the United States. We all have a part to play in creating an equal world, one that doesn’t discriminate based on skin color or gender, but sees each person as equal.

Worthwhile. Valuable. Human.

These strategies aren’t just for white people. If you’re a person of color, I have some ideas for you too—not on how to educate or advocate (that’s not your burden), but to make your voice heard. I encourage you to add your own advice in the comments, and to share this article with a friend who wants to help but doesn’t know how.

And finally, a note: my personal form of activism is not meant to be divisive. I’ve been published in places like HR.com, advocating for open conversations between men and women, and to welcome all people to the leadership table. But I also see that the implementation of that advice often falls short. Having one woman or one person of color isn’t enough. More than 50 percent of the population are women. People of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population; black people alone make up more than 13 percent.

I want men—yes, including white men!—to be part of change. If that’s you, I welcome you to this conversation and invite you to try out some of the strategies below. And please, share what you are doing to be part of the effort toward equality.

With all that said, here are my eight ways to be a writer activist.

#1 Quote people of color and women—and especially Black women.

Do a quick Google search for a quote on nearly any topic, especially related to business or leadership, and you’ll see that most are from men. Case in point: in this list of 100 Best Leadership Quotes on Success.com, 86 are from men, and three of the quotes by women are by one woman, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Finding great quotes from people of color and women takes more time. This is especially true for Black women, who are severely underrepresented in the leadership and business space. You’ll have to scroll a little longer, even use search phrases like “leadership quotes Black women.”

Visibility matters, and the more often people of color and women show up in our work, the more we normalize them as leaders, experts, and people of influence. Because they are.

#2 Use non-white names.

There’s a tendency in writing, especially when fictionalizing case studies or providing examples in business and leadership articles and books, to use white names. There are a lot of reasons for this, and one reason is that it’s easier. Everyone knows how to pronounce Kevin, James, Becky, or Karen. Readers won’t mentally trip over names like Deja, DeShawn, Ximena, or Elian.

Instead, include names of color alongside white names. And not for menial or stereotypical roles in your book, article, or case study; give them leadership positions, put them in places of power. The effect is subtle but powerful.

#3 Include case studies and stories about Black people and other people of color.

Likewise, when looking for examples or case studies to include in a book or piece of content, spend a little extra time to balance out your examples. If you’re including true examples from your life, or from people you know, dig a little deeper. Talk to more people. Spend more time researching. Click past the first page of search results on Google.

This is something I realized in my own writing a few years ago: I was defaulting to white male case studies and stories. I don’t know why this moment of awareness struck me that day, but it did, and I scrolled through the book I was writing. My jaw practically dropped to the floor when I realized I had used almost all male, white quotes and case studies in the business book I was working on.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense why this happened: the vast majority of leaders in the US are white men. On the other hand, I was disappointed in myself: here I was, a woman who deeply believes in equality, not showing up equally on the page. I vowed that day to do better—and then went back and replaced a bunch of the quotes, case studies, and stories with people of color and women.

How about you? Are you doing the same? If you are a white male, could you use your power to uplift others through your writing? Don’t dwell on past oversights; instead, ask, “What can I do differently next time?”

#4 Use a balance of female, male, and gender-neutral pronouns.

For so long, the default has been “he” in writing, as if “he” represents all of us. And again, it makes sense why this happened. The US has its founding fathers, we’ve had only male presidents, and most churches have male priests and pastors. So of course men represent all of us!

Look, I love my dad, husband, and son. They are amazing, intelligent, brave, curious, loving people. I want to see them, as white males, represented in writing. I don’t want to obliterate them, or to make them not feel seen, the way so many people of color and women have for so long. But does maleness really represent the entire population?

Absolutely not. Not even half of it.

Language is a powerful tool we have to communicate with each other, to demonstrate the value of another person, to say “I see you as a full and equal human being.” When we use language that excludes an entire population of people (women), we communicate that they don’t matter. That men can take their place on the page, in government, and in leadership.

Again, compound being a woman with being Black, Latino, Asian American, Arab or other Middle Eastern American, Native American, Native Hawai’ian and other Pacific Islander, or Alaska Native. This layering is known as double discrimination, and the compounding effect of a lack of representation in writing is why it’s so important to represent diverse voices along with varying genders. Add in sexual orientation, disability, and other aspects of a person’s identity, and the impact of being excluded becomes even more pronounced.

So here’s what I suggest when it comes to gender on the page, and what I strive for in my own writing: balance pronouns.

  • Use “their” as singular possessive (it’s now an accepted grammar rule!): Someone left their towel on the beach.
  • Alternate pronouns when not referring to a specific person. For one chapter of a book or article, use “she,” and for another, use “he.”
  • When you’re using both pronouns, list female first at least half the time: “her or him” and “she or he.”
  • Do the same with nouns: “women and men” and “wife and husband.”

The goal isn’t to remove men. It’s to add women. To make us seen, part of the conversation.

#5 Include empowering imagery of people of color.

We’ve all heard the adage “a picture says a thousand words.” Just look at the thousand words expressed by this search I did for the word “leader” under the “business” category.

Yes, there are women. Yes, there are some people of color. But if I take an honest look at the images, I see that almost every photo shows a white person or male as the focal leader. (On the bright side, I’ve done similar searches over the years and am encouraged by the difference in gender representation.)

The pictures we use in our articles, books, social media posts, and other content matters. Again, including imagery of people of color normalizes their position in places of power and influence. It also shows non-white children what is possible for them.

#6 Encourage Black voices and other voices of color—and listen to them.

If I’ve learned anything over the past decade-plus in the publishing industry, it’s that people often need a nudge to share their words with the world. During the initial call with nearly every new client, they say something like, “I hadn’t thought of sharing my [story/idea/expertise] until my friend mentioned how powerful it could be for others.”

No matter your race, encourage your friends of color to write articles, share their ideas, publish their books, and make their voices heard. Reach out to a phenomenal woman you know and ask what her next big goal is, and how you can support her. Then, connect your friend with someone who can help them make it happen. Do what you can to help them too.

If you’re in a place of privilege, being an advocate and activist often means using your privilege to lift others up, and encouraging them to write, speak, and share is one way to do so.

And then absorb. Read and listen to voices of color and women—people who look, sound, live, or think differently than you. Have conversations with people who are different than you. Listen well. Do this regularly, not just once or twice. Make it a habit to immerse yourself in the ideas and voices of people who are different than you.

#7 Make your voice heard!

If you are a person of color, be loud. Share your thoughts. Write them down. Record them. Publish them. Make your voice heard, because the world needs to hear from you.

Write and speak about the things you care deeply about, your expertise, and your story. Create a platform—a website, podcast, public social media profile. Show up as the expert, writer, leader, musician, entrepreneur—the whatever you are, as you are.

If you feel called, if you feel brave, if you feel compelled, show up and share, because your voice matters. Don’t think your message has to be limited to people who look like you, because your ideas deserves to echo across humanity.

A big challenge in content creation is that people of color and women are often followed by people of color and women. I partially understand why. It’s exciting to see someone who looks like you speaking up and out, living boldly, and sharing their ideas or expertise with the world. It’s inspiring.

But the other side is that these powerful voices end up in an echo chamber. White women and men need to be influenced by Black women and men, and by other people of color too.

But a post-racial and post-sexist world (which probably won’t be in our lifetime, but I can only hope will happen someday) can only be achieved through communicating across demographics. We have to talk to each other, and we have to listen to each other.

Are you called to start the conversation?

#8 Be vulnerable.

The topics of racism and sexism aren’t easy to tackle. I’ve had my fair share of face-to-face confrontations over the years as I’ve advocated for people of color and women to have seats at the leadership table. (And not just one seat. One woman of color at the leadership table with seven white men is not equality.)

But in every situation, I’ve strived to be empathetic and open, to welcome the hard conversations and to engage people in conversation rather than dismiss them as prejudice. Open conversations—not defensiveness—are the pathway toward changing hearts and minds. We can’t kick white men out of the board room and call it equality.

And to be frank, that’s not going to work anyway. They’re in power right now. We need to influence them, not shout them down. Many will just yell louder.

One of the best examples I’ve heard of vulnerability, openness, and influence was on an episode of This American Life. In it, Daryl Davis, a Black man, befriends a member of the Ku Klux Klan. They developed a close friendship, and the member began to see Daryl as a human being, as someone who mattered, as an equal. The Klan member eventually gifted Daryl with his robe.

That’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the power of conversation and openness. I see part of my calling in this world to take on those hard conversations when someone is willing.

Vulnerability and conversation is powerful. Vulnerability is a journey. And it starts where you are right now, today.

I hope these eight strategies have illustrated the power of writing in social justice. You can use the skills of researching, interviewing, and storytelling to bring about important change in the way people show up in articles, books, social content, and more.

I don’t expect any of us to end racism or sexism. But could each of us make subtle changes in our writing and content creation to help create a better world? I believe so. And I believe our collective effort will make an impact.

What can you add to my list? What are additional ways we can be advocates and activists on the page, or on our social platforms? Please share with me in the comments. I love learning from you.

6 Comments

  • Gray Seele Reply

    #9. Tell people THE ANSWER.
    In the book Blight Ideas: How Statism is Destroying America’s Cities, author David Wilens explains how the three most racist letters aren’t KKK; they’re either FDR or FHA, because Franklin Delano created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA then redlined black neighborhoods, turning them into the ‘hoods – poverty stricken, crime ridden, economically stagnant urban deserts that held back the black community economically for generations. And nobody knows about this the way they’d know about a Klan lynching or a Jim Crow law that turned black victims into martyrs and heroes. FDR’s FHA worked covertly behind the scenes. President Trump refers to the coronavirus as an ‘invisible enemy’. Well, for American blacks the real invisible enemy was FHA redlining from 1934 until 1977. Unlike Jim Crow and the Klan, FHA redlining was like an invisible poison gas, forcing banks to make mortgage loans only in all-white neighborhoods and kill home values in neighborhoods with any black residents. (And yes, the FHA kept meticulous records of black migration in cities, always ready with the map and the red pen.) Remember pictures of Jimmy Carter standing in the South Bronx in the 1970’s with all the burned out buildings around him? Why were those buildings burned out? Because, without the ability of anyone to get mortgages to buy any of the residential units there, the property values in the area plummeted. Virtually nobody walks around with enough cash to make a 50% downpayment, which was the only way to buy anything there. Properties became unsalable, so landlords and homeowners, with no other way to earn money with their properties, burned them and then made insurance claims.
    But unlike with the atrocities of the Klan or Jim Crow, the cause of the ‘hoods wasn’t self-evident. It was government involvement in the economy where it didn’t belong, but not self evidently so. What resulted from FHA redlining was the idea that some mystical, magical evil “The System” or “white privilege” or “white supremacy” was at work as the result of innate institutional racism in whites that just somehow uncontrollably targeted blacks. As the riots we just saw prove, the fury seethes to this day.
    Racism is evil because it’s an injustice. All human beings, regardless of race, have the ability to pursue happiness. The Klan, Jim Crow and the FHA deny blacks this ability. But the FHA is the worst of them because it has been so insidious and hard to fight. (Sort of like the invisible monster in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Predator).

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Thank you for this detailed and thoughtful comment, Gray. When you really dig in, it becomes more and more evident how many systems of oppression are at work in the US (and really, in so many countries around the world). While I absolutely believe in possibility—the ability of individuals to create different lives for themselves—these types of systematic barriers make growth and success so much harder for so many people. They are not just “annoying”; they should be criminal. I appreciate you spending the time and energy to outline one aspect of racial oppression in the United States.

  • Christina Del Villar Reply

    Thanks for this Stacy. These are great tips. As someone who develops a lot of content, these are things I need to keep top of mind. I have leveraged stock photo companies in the past like https://tonl.co/ and https://www.flickr.com/photos/wocintechchat/ to help show diversity.

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts, Christina—and for these practical additions! I’ll be sure to bookmark these websites for future use.

  • Linda Wolfe Reply

    Thank-you, Stacy, for this fabulously insightful article! You inspired my latest post on my blog, “America’s New Direction – The AND Movement.” How does Mother Nature teach diversity and acceptance? Here is my post: linda-m-wolfe.com/blog/. Thanks to you, I researched for quotes from three very wise and inspirational black leaders. As you, I believe quotes can greatly enhance one’s writing by sharing the wisdom of others. Thank-you for speaking up for humanity!

    • Stacy Ennis Reply

      Thank you for the generous words, Linda! But more so, THANK YOU for showing up for the Black community by being a writer activist. I appreciate you sharing your insights and how you’re making an impact.

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