Shanita Baraka Akintonde on Her D&I Vision
By: John Elsasser
Oct. 1, 2019
Name: Shanita Baraka Akintonde
Current status: National chair, PRSA Diversity & Inclusion Committee
Career highlights: Associate professor at Columbia College Chicago; Media relations writer, Illinois Institute of Technology; Account supervisor, R.J. Dale Advertising and PR
Favorite downtime activity: I like things that create bubbles: champagne cocktails, bath bombs and slightly off-center people.
Any three dinner guests: Harriet Tubman, John or Bobby Kennedy, and my late mother
Favorite film: “The Godfather Part II,” “The Wiz” or “Pulp Fiction” — it depends on my mood.
Best career advice that you have received: "You are enough."
You refer to yourself as a “firecracker communicator propelled by love.” How does this inform your teaching and consulting?
A great deal of what I do is guided by principles I learned during summer visits to the home of my maternal great grandmother, Lucille Jones a.k.a. “Great Grand,” in Brinkley, Ark. Brinkley was such a small town that I nicknamed it “BLINK-ly.” I did this because if you blink while driving past, you could easily miss it.
Great Grand was a caramel-colored spiritual tsunami who doled out wisdom and snuffed tobacco in equal parts, mostly while seated in her rocking chair on the massive front porch of her Southern home. She passed away in 1987, when I was at an age between Barbie dolls and boys.
Interestingly, she never told me that she loved me; but as I grew up, I realized that she had shown me. Her love was draped in the collard greens that she patiently cooked, the tobacco she snuffed and the way she sat proudly and neatly pressed in her front-row church pew each Sunday morning. I channel her spirit in every space I enter — from the classroom to the boardroom.
What inspired you to get involved with PRSA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and how is the committee making an impact on the profession?
PRSA had me at “hello.” As the first recipient of the Multicultural Diversity Scholarship awarded by the PRSA Chicago Chapter when I was an undergraduate, I knew that this organization saw me.
What they didn’t know was that my receipt of that award allowed me to complete my undergraduate studies debt-free, land my first PR job before graduation, with an employer that subsidized my MBA degree, and led me to meet my husband, Jimmy, with whom I share two amazing sons.
It also made me realize that PRSA believes, as do I, that diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive. And that when support is provided in the form of a hand up, and not a handout, great things can happen for people of color — which, for me, means having an amazing PR life.
I had no choice but to pay it forward with the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Under my leadership, D&I is charged with putting wheels on diversity rhetoric, in three specific ways: outward-facing diversity initiatives at the National and Chapter levels, including panel presentations, webinars, white papers, podcasts, Twitter chats and “Diverse Voices” profiles; PRSSA recruitment and retention efforts to help implement the diversity imperative for the next generation of PR leaders; and a significant research study that unpacks best practices needed for the future of our profession in the D&I space.
Why do many businesses struggle to cultivate a diverse workforce — and what are some ways communicators can be more inclusive in the workplace?
Businesses need to connect with the heart, followed by the head, of employees. This can only be done if leaders have a clear vision of what diversity feels and looks like, and if they are able to communicate that to their teams.
It’s like Great Grand told me: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I call it: “On the Front Porch Leadership.”
What trends do you see on the horizon for diversity and inclusion?
I don’t speak about diversity and inclusion in terms of trends. Trends are for things like fashion or food. What I do speak of in terms of diversity is its inherent need, implicit benefit and imperative nature to those organizations that wish to thrive, and not simply survive, in the next century. Diversity is not akin to a decision about whether to buy a little black dress.
Diversity is about leaders making intentional decisions to hire black, brown, female, disabled and LGBTQ people whose diverse perspectives, commitment to excellence and overall passion for the PR profession will greatly affect their companies’ bottom lines. Research shows that D&I positively impacts return on investment.