A Pledge For Change: Q&A With Three's A Crowd Co-Founders Reonna Johnson & Justin Polk
Jordan Kelley, Content Director, BrandStorytelling.tv
In the last several months, conversations about race and inequity in American society have been prevalent and pervasive, forcing every industry to take a look inward and reckon with the sad reality that internal corporate spaces are not an accurate reflection of the breadth of diversity that exists within this country. It is a sad reality well known to the people who have experienced it for entire careers, forced to operate within a system that demands conformity to its standards with little to no regard for the BIPOC experience. And although flash points of injustice have sparked countless conversations before, this time, the confluence of difficulties plaguing the nation have afforded the issue an unobstructed spotlight, and for the first time in a long time, people are asking, "what can I do?"
The answer is to connect and have conversations with the very people most affected and most moved to enact change; People like Reonna Johnson and Justin Polk, founders of Three's A Crowd, a community of LA-based Black creative professionals from all backgrounds, disciplines, and levels in our careers within advertising, marketing, entertainment, production, fine arts and entrepreneurial spaces. Three's A Crowd is behind the In For 13 Pledge, an initiative to actionably stomp out systemic racism and create equity in the advertising industry by raising the percentage of Black bodies in leadership positions to 13% (reflective of the percentage of Black people in the country) by 2023. Brand Storytelling caught up with Johnson and Polk to learn more about Three's a Crowd and the action plan as it relates to In For 13:
Justin, you’ve had a robust creators’ journey at the intersection of television and brand. Can you tell us more about that?
Justin Polk: My time working/interning in film and television at places like Village Roadshow and Broken Lizard (shadowing director Jay Chandrasekhar) was not as long as I wanted but it definitely informed my career in advertising. I always say that the advertising system/structure is on par with a fast-paced mini-studio system in film. So, starting in film definitely made me aware of the way things have to be approved, the creative process, along with how to best collaborate in advertising.
What did you experience along the way that gave rise to thoughts about the need for creative and professional black empowerment initiatives? Or did thinking about and involving yourself in those initiatives come later?
JP: While working at Deutsch LA I noticed that the number of minority employees, specifically black employees, were extremely low. And, a lot of the work that was coming out of the agency tended to deal with black culture, if not wholly appropriating black culture. I tried to make change within the agency and quickly noticed that was not going to happen on the inside because the problem was bigger than one ad agency- it was an industry problem. From there I realized that creative is king in our industry and the change and mandates would need to come from the creative side. With that in mind, I left to create Invisible Collective and also helped start Three’s A Crowd with Reonna Johnson. Within each of these collectives we deal with creating change for POC within the ad industry - specifically black people in Three’s A Crowd.
Reonna, what was it that catalyzed the founding of Three’s A Crowd?
Reonna Johnson: As a Black person working in the advertising industry, I typically didn’t see many people who look like me. The more I climbed the ladder within the industry, the less black faces I saw. I’m sadly very familiar with attending industry events in NYC and in LA and always seeing the same few Black people in the crowds. When seeing the same people, who I identified with, we gave each other the standard head nod of “I see you”, as a sign of acknowledgement to a fellow Black person in the room. The three or maybe even five of us, eventually built a rapport with each other and built a level of safety, familiarity and confidence within our tight little group. So, in 2018 we decided to start our own collective network for Black people and by Black people.
Once the group was formed, we realized the desperate need Black creative professionals had for a safe space to talk about how they felt working in predominantly White career spaces. Members wanted to be unapologetically Black with fellow Black colleagues. The feeling of being alone was real. The feeling of not being seen, valued or heard was real. Folks started to come in groups and told others to come. Eventually, our members list grew from five people to over 150 people in two years.
In what ways does Three’s A Crowd empower black creative professionals to unapologetically embrace their blackness?
RJ: Three’s a Crowd is a community of LA-based Black creative professionals from all backgrounds, disciplines, and levels in our careers within advertising, marketing, entertainment, production, fine arts and entrepreneurial spaces.
Our mission is to empower Black creative professionals to unapologetically embrace their Blackness in their careers. We encourage no more code-switching–show up and be your whole and complete self. We want each member to know, there’s nothing wrong with them or how they present themselves, and it’s time for Black professionals to stop measuring their Blackness through the lens of Whiteness. We’ve inherited systemic racism that subconsciously forces Black professionals to believe somehow they are inferior to their White colleagues. Systemic racism isn’t something that’s easily identifiable, it’s an ideology and hegemony. It’s an expectation of Black people to be a person who presents in a palatable manner in which White people are comfortable. It’s part of the system and part of an unpublished rulebook that we unconsciously adhere to. Most people from marginalized or oppressed groups understand what those undisclosed rules are.
As a community, Three’s a Crowd wants to:
Cultivate the talents–and careers–of our members.
Tell It On Our Terms
Create and share powerful stories from our own perspective.
Live Our Legacy
Champion the next generation of Black creative leaders.
Own Our Destiny Curate a space in the industry for Black voices, not just Black faces.
IN FOR 13 aims to create equity in the advertising industry by raising the percent of black bodies in leadership positions to 13% by 2023. How is phase 1 going? What kind of response are you seeing to the initiative?
RJ: We’re actually quite surprised by the number of pledges. Our goal was to get at least 20 agencies, and we more than doubled that to 53. We pushed out the campaign on Juneteenth (06/19/20) and received this response in one month. It’s also interesting to see the range of agencies in size and locations. We are aware that smaller agencies are nimbler and don’t have as many layers to manage versus the larger holding-company agencies, and it will be telling to see how we net out with each.
We’re planning to do further promotion to see if we can get more pledgers. What if we continued to promote on social networks and at events for two or three months? Just imagine how many pledges we would receive.
What has been most surprising — folks want to support but can’t speak on behalf of their agency. Although we have over 100 pledgers that represent 53 different agencies, they can’t all commit to the pledge without agency leadership buy-in.
At launch, we were trying to speak exclusively to senior leaders (and still are), but we have come to realize all the internal politics, buy-in and decision-making by committee that it takes to get an agency on-board, so it won’t be so cut and dry.
Although we didn’t plan to make a toolkit in STEP #1 The Acknowledgement Phase, we now need one. This toolkit walks pledgers through the conversation with senior leaders and offers steps on how to get buy-in, how to manage concerns and address them early on and how to get full commitment. Although we may have wanted the senior leaders to immediately step up, it's ok that we’re pivoting to empower the pledgers and/or allies to speak and lead for IN FOR 13.
Being that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and most senior leadership are busy trying to keep their agencies' doors open and managing budgets, how do we keep this top of mind to create action? Until agencies feel confident and can actually actionably commit, we may be in STEP #1 for a while,
For people in positions of power within the industry who take the first step by signing the IN FOR 13 pledge, what comes in phases 2 and 3?
IN FOR 13 plans to develop toolkits to assist each agency with our Six-Step plan to help each agency achieve the 13% goal in three years. Below is an image that outlines steps #2 and #3.
The second and third phases (or steps) focus on getting smarter and really understanding the problem. STEP #2 Research and Development, is about getting real about the actual data (or lack thereof) of Black advertising agency employees in leadership roles. How can an agency fit a problem without accurate data and information.
STEP #3 is Learning and Development. Since most of us never really learned about racial disparities and we all are living in the manifestation of a racist history, let's dive in deep to truly understand what systems we all have inherited. This is about building empathy and clarity around this topic.
The anti-racist movement, protests against injustice and police brutality, and the Coronavirus pandemic have coalesced into an unprecedented version of a long-sung outcry for the fair and equitable treatment of Black people in this country. Do you think this is a watershed moment?
RJ: We do. With the pandemic going on, folks are feeling more vulnerable about themselves, their families and their health. Anyone can get Coronavirus. It doesn’t discriminate, which proves we are much more the same, than we are different. We’ve all been forced to wear masks to show regard for not only our own lives but for the lives of others we encounter.
With society feeling more vulnerable, stuck in their homes and uncertain about the future, to witness the police brutality and long overdue injustice in the Black community, shed a lot of light on what’s been going on for over 400 years. We all have been mandated to slow down, stay home and pay more attention to how we interact with each other.
If the pandemic wasn’t going on, this moment may have passed as just another killing of Black people, so we do think it is a watershed moment. Which is somewhat unfortunate. It took a global health crisis for White America to seriously pay attention to systemic racism AND want to use their voice to change it. But in all honesty, everything happens for a reason and in the timing it needs to.
Take the Pledge today: https://www.pledgeinfor13.com/pledge
About Reonna Johnson (Co-Founder, Three's A Crowd)
Reonna is a Marketing & Business Development Director at an advertising agency. She started her marketing career nearly 15 years ago at an executive recruitment firm, where she managed a global talent magazine. She later switched to a creative agency in NYC where she learned new business and agency marketing. You can find Reonna in Leimert Park gardening with her neighbors or visiting Art + Practice art gallery.
About Justin Polk (Co-Founder, Three's A Crowd)
Justin Polk is a Director with a thorough background in content production for TV & digital, while also having directed content for brands like Volkswagen and Sprint. He worked in film production before applying his skills in advertising at agencies including Deutsch LA and Zambezi.