Allyship is Actionable, Silence is Complicity
Iliana Ortega is an Afro-Latina first-generation college graduate with a dual degree in Communications and English Literature from The City College of New York. Naturally curious about the world around her, Iliana can be found deep in thought about everything from the symbolism in a literary classic to the origin of the latest viral meme. Her curiosity and empathy have made for impactful client work, as well as a personal involvement with social justice movements that fight for the rights of marginalized communities.
A Jr. planner at FCB Global, Iliana works on national and global campaigns for clients across the agency. This has strengthened Iliana’s storytelling and reinforced the importance of creating culturally relevant work, no matter the market. Beyond creating great work, Iliana’s goal is to change how agencies attract talent of color and increase access for those with lower-income backgrounds. She’s driven to create spaces where students without brand name diplomas can succeed and overcome advertising’s entry barriers. As a Multicultural Advertising Internship Program (MAIP) participant and ADCOLOR Futures alum, Iliana knows the importance of initiatives for students of color. So, she uses her voice and story to challenge the status quo.
In a world where 53% of white women voted for Trump, it is hard as a Black woman to not be skeptical of white women in positions of power and influence talking about politics and activism.
I went back and forth with how to approach this summary. I would never want to diminish the work someone is doing to educate themselves and others. But, at the same time, seeing a white woman getting a platform to discuss topics that Black women get demonized for is a hard image to disconnect from.
But then, I remembered a line from The Feminist Griote: “Being an ally is not an identity. It is a process.”
Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin introduces herself and walks us through her educational and professional experience: 15 years of experience being a litigation lawyer doing securities and fraud litigation and 7 years of being a CEO for a corporation that is dedicated to women’s leadership. It is safe to say Cronise McLaughlin is someone dedicated to fighting against injustice and for the progression of women.
Cronise McLaughlin graduated from law school in Washington DC, where she practiced law for a number of years before moving to New York State. Her work in DC allowed her to develop a background in congressional investigations and white collar crime, and she shared her knowledge with her friends through Facebook statuses.
Two years ago, Cronise McLaughlin found herself in a strange position. One of her FB status posts had gone viral, putting her in the spotlight for her candor about the state of government and the corruption happening during the 2016 election. Her taking to Facebook to explain what was happening in Washington DC was the result of her friends calling upon her to explain what was happening in a way that was truthful, approachable, and frank during a time where you could not be sure of the impact the 2016 elections would have on our daily lives.
The statuses were helpful but the addition of Facebook Live allowed her to reach a much wider audience. So, one-day in-between consulting calls, Cronise McLaughlin decided to try it out, her first broadcast was impromptu and its audience consisted of her 1100 FB friends.
The news cycle surrounding the 2016 election was nothing short of pure chaos and McLaughlin found herself getting more people asking her to discuss specific topics or answer questions from her small following at the time. One day, someone shared one of her broadcasts to a FB group with a little over 3 million users, her video went viral and from there her story was written. Her team, which normally helped her with her consulting work, was now trying to figure out what this new found following would mean for the business.
Cronise McLaughlin’s COO called her one day to discuss these broadcasts, “…you might be jeopardizing what we’ve all been working to build.” This turning point woke her up to the possibility of what would happen if her consulting clients were to see her on FB Live discussing politics, dropping F-bombs, and pretty much going against what traditional masculine models of leadership expect of those they work with.
“I don’t care," she responded. "If what it costs us is some business, but what we are doing in return is giving people knowledge and skills and activism and language and the opportunity to educate others about what’s happening in our government in ways that can build a better world, we need to do that.”
“We had no brand. We had no plan, but we knew that there was a service that we were offering that was really critical.” For Cronise McLaughlin, it wasn’t about building a brand or a persona around her activism. Instead, it was about doing what she felt was right. She didn’t know where this was going, but she knew she could no longer be silent. She knew some of the risks involved, as a single mother of two children and their sole source of financial support, this could put her and her family at risk.
She later learned that those risks were not just financial. Cronise McLaughlin explained to the audience something that I have seen those doing organizing work continuously talk about: people who will threaten you in the hopes of silencing you. She received certified letters to her home threatening violence, dealt with rape and death threats on social media platforms, and had to find a way to deal with the vile, hateful things people say because they feel empowered by a government that allows for free speech outside of consequences.
Despite her hardships, Elizabeth did not contend that she was perfect and that her activism was without blind spots. She admits to being called out by Black women about whether or not she was considering Black women’s experiences in her activism. Instead of doubling down, she did something that I wish more white feminists did. She educated herself further.
“If I was going to speak truth to power, I needed to find ways to articulate with an understanding of my privilege.”
Cronise McLaughlin was invited to the Black women’s roundtable in Washington DC in March, where she sat alongside 350 of the most powerful Black women activists. But she wasn’t going there to speak. She went with the understanding that she was invited to listen.
“One of the keys I've learned about is that sometimes when we want to speak truth to power and we have positions of privilege, one of the things we need to do first is just shut up and listen to the stories about people,” explained Cronise McLaughlin.
Elizabeth reminded the audience that creatives have a unique ability to tell stories which can change the future, but there is a responsibility on us to do so with an understanding of intersectionality. She shouted out Kimberly Crenshaw, the founding mother of the term intersectionality, and someone everyone should be familiar with.
She called on everyone in the room to not just understand their privilege, but to use it for good. Leverage your privilege to change the status quo. When you see injustice happening, call it out, whether that’s in the world at large or in your organization.
“To me, one of the most critical things we can do from positions of privilege is something that I call holding the door.” She explained that in societies where women were healers there were guardians who would stand and watch outside of temples, holding the door open so women could enter and then standing guard outside to protect them as they did their work. “We must hold the door for others who have historically not had access to power,” urged Cronise McLaughlin.
For me, this critical moment in her keynote was the reminder that it isn’t about being a savior for those from groups of people who have been marginalized. Being a guardian is not about being there to save anyone; it’s about using your power to allow others to do the work they have always been doing without fear. It’s about ceding power, which can feel like a loss for those in positions of privilege. Elizabeth explains that doing this is hard and uncomfortable, but it is a small price to pay for growth and creating an equitable society.
After sitting through the keynote, and having had time to sit and reflect, I’d be comfortable calling Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin an ally.
-Leverage your privilege by holding the door for others.
-Silence is complicity.
-When you are in positions of power, sometimes you need to shut up and listen to the stories of those who are marginalized.