The Black Bruins: Spoken Word For Those Who Have Gone Unheard

There are times when a message can transcend it’s intended audience. Though inspired by specific events and designed to evoke a response from a targeted audience, a well crafted message has the ability to allow seemingly disparate communities to find common ground and unite behind a shared cause. On November 4th such a message was delivered by a group of UCLA students known as The Black Bruins.

A spoken word piece that was performed by third year UCLA student Sy Stokes and published via youtube, the self titled “Black Bruins” not only highlights the lack of African American representation in the UCLA student body but fundamentally challenges the reputation of UCLA as a diverse institution. An  impassioned presentation of a variety of UCLA admissions, graduation, financial aid and university administrative spending statistics, Stokes makes what was by far the most buzzworthy revelation when he explains that UCLA has more NCAA national championships (109) than black male freshman (48). It is from this damning statistic that Stokes goes on to assert that the make up UCLA’s student body is both reflective of the of the value that the institution places on black students, and detrimental in shaping the priorities and aspirations of future generations of black male students.

uclaThough it is clear that the Black Bruins message was intended for the immediate UCLA community (administrators, faculty, students etc), the words of Sy Stokes and the Black Bruins have struck a cord with individuals far beyond the grassy knolls of the UCLA campus.  Since the initial release of the “Black Bruins” video, hundreds of thousands of individuals have viewed the video on youtube. From this large group of viewers, a smaller subset have gone on to sign an  accompanying change.org petition urging UCLA to adopt new diversity initiatives. Extending beyond digital activism, the message of the Black Bruins has been covered by numerous news agencies and has become the catalyst for renewed national debate surrounding the state of higher education admission practices and the social ramifications said practices hold not only for particular minority communities but for the quality of education for all Americans.

While only time will tell if the Black Bruins’ message will have a  lasting impact on UCLA as an institution, there is no doubt that the “Black Bruins” is already a socially significant media object. More than simply challenging specific policies of UCLA, the “Black Bruins” elucidates the misleading qualities of the institution’s communication narrative and brand. Though the lack of black students may be something that is felt by the members of the student body on a daily basis, there is certainly no shortage of black representation across the UCLA website and literature.  This is not to say that UCLA should not showcase the black students they have, but as Sy Stokes so eloquently explains, “this school is not diverse just because you put it on a pamphlet.” The fact that the “Black Bruins” acts as both a local call to action as well as a digital artifact means that one does not have to be physically on campus to understand there is a disconnect between the UCLA message and the UCLA reality when it comes to diversity.

Blackoutlets Podcast EP2: An Interview With Maurice James

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Film maker, producer, entrepreneur and television network executive, Maurice James has held many titles over his career. But for all of his different roles, there is one that embodies Maurice best, storyteller.  Whether  behind the camera or on the ground floor of numerous emerging media ventures,  Maurice has spent much of his life dedicated to finding the stories that need to be told and bringing them to audiences around the world.

A native of Jackson Mississippi, Maurice’s journey in media creation has been reflective of the independent approach he brings to every facet of his life.  A graduate of both Columbia University and  The University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Maurice has used early experiences working for some of the entertainment industry’s largest studios as a platform to create his own independent production company, mojo pictures.  With credits that range from awards shows and theatrical productions to the critically acclaimed documentary Tropicália, Maurice now finds himself working on one of his most daring projects, launching an independent black owned television network known as Soul Of The South.

A  guest of the Blackoutlets podcast series, listen to Maurice explain how his passion for storytelling has shaped his career and how he looks to reshape the media industry.

Race Forward: A Resource for Understanding Race in Media, In Principal & In Practice

While Blackoutlets looks to focus on the issues that face black content creators of media, it is important to remember that many of these issues have an impact that extend far beyond the production and consumption of media. Issues of framing, access, ownership, gender and race (especially race) permeate through every facet of the American experience. It is in understanding the broad intersectionality of these issues that we can gain a better perspective of how these issues shape distinct areas such as media.

One institution that is dedicated to holistically understanding and addressing the impact of race across society is Race Forward.  Founded in 1981 and formerly known as the Applied Research Center, Race Forward is an organization which forwards the discussion of race through a combination of analytical and social measures. Utilizing a variety of research methodologies, Race Forward looks to quantify and contextualize the impact of racial inequality on large-scale institutions.  In addition to research, Race Forward publishes a daily investigative reporting website called Colorlines which provides a community focused approach to daily headline stories.

Organizations like Race Forward are significant in that they not only provide resources for understanding how social structures interact with race, but they also provide an independent lens for framing issues of race. While many media organizations struggle to tackle race in a way that will not upset the sensibilities of the majority of their audience, Race Forward, as a non-profit organization is not tied to maintaining the same racial status quo brand of coverage. This diversity of perspective is critical as common analysis often focuses on the legitimacy of even considering race as a factor in the social phenomena that occur.

It is because of organizations like Race Forward that sites like Blackoutlets can exist.

Exploring A Diverse Lens

One of the goals of Blackoutlets is to provide a foundation for in-depth conversation surrounding the issues impacting black content creatives. Part of that goal involves listening to the thoughts and opinions of those who are currently facing these issues on a daily basis. With that in mind, I invite you to take a listen to this recent University of Southern California Round-table discussion focusing on the issues of race and ethnicity in Hollywood.  A panel composed of  a variety of scholars and content creators, pay attention to the fact that though many of the panelists represent different communities in their work there are consistent moments where access is critically denied.

Spike Lee Does The Right Thing for Advertising

“You turn on TV today, watch films today, the diversity of this country is not reflected on our tv screen or on our movie screens because the gate keepers do not reflect the diversity of this country.” – Spike Lee,

For many years the advertising industry has struggled with the under-representation of African Americans in its workforce. In a 2009 study entitled, “Research Perspective on Race and Employment In The Advertising Industry”, the advertising industry was  shown to be woefully behind the diverse communities they serve as well as other industries of comparable size. As a result of this and other studies the advertising industry has come under increased pressure to become “more diverse”.  But what does diversity mean for an industry like advertising? Is it simply hiring more  minorities or is it something more?

At its most basic level, advertising is a conversation. A dialogue between brands and consumers, advertising is the transformative vehicle by which commercials become dramas, logos become icons and the products you never heard of, become the partners you couldn’t live without. Yet like any conversation, truly effective, advertising must speak the same language as the consumer. A balance between the artistically excessive and economically pragmatic, advertising must speak to an audience that is defined not by broad labels but by unique experiences.

Today’s global market demands advertisers possess a form of diversity of thought that is on par with the consumer’s. In an age of shrinking budgets and constant competition, diversity of thought will not only set agencies apart but also create work that brings people together. This is the type of diversity that film maker and advertising executive Spike Lee speaks of in his 2009 lecture at The One Club. More than filling quotas or  trying to pander to specific communities, Lee speaks of a diversity that respects the unique qualities of different communities while simultaneously speaking to the common themes that unite us all. This is a process that will not only require change at the ground level but also change at the executive level. So while the makeup of the advertising workforce must better reflect the minority communities they wish to serve,  we must also look for diversity at the highest levels of the institutions as well.