Event: Tokenization in Media - A Case Study in Food [Transcribed]
Tokenization in Media is a series of public panel conversations diving into how tokenization manifests within the media industry, and how organizations can move towards more respectful and equitable representation. The conversations are hosted by Studio ATAO and General Assembly.
The very first event of this series focused on the food media industry, based on Studio ATAO's Toolkit For Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization in Food Media. It was moderated by Studio ATAO founder Jenny Dorsey. The panelists featured in this conversation were:
Our working definition of tokenization is from Wikipedia:
The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce.
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File Name: Tokenization in Media: A Case Study in Food
Izzie: Hi everyone, I'm Izzie Ramirez, I am a freelance culture, climate and food reporter based in Brooklyn. I've written for publications like Bitch, VICE, and some other publications and I'm planning on attending Columbia Journalism School for their MA program in the fall.
Stephanie: My name is Stephanie Kuo, by day I am a podcast educator and trainer at PRX, which is a nonprofit media company that supports independent podcasters and public radio stations across the country. My second job is I am the co-host and co-producer of the Racist Sandwich Podcast, which discusses food at the intersection of race, gender, class, and we believe that all food and how we eat it and interpret it is political.
Elle: Hi everybody, my name is Elle. I wear many hats at America's Test Kitchen. Some of those are food stylist, executive editor, inclusion leader, and TV talent, those are the ones that come to me the most quickly. I'm also the host of the podcast called The Walk In, which are informative and personal conversations with people in the culinary industry, food/ beverage, and experiential industry about living the life of being human in the culinary industry. I've done a lot of writing, most recently contributed to the James Beard Foundation blog. I'm a huge supporter of SNAP program and I've done work on a legislative level to support that. And I'm very happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Taylor: Hey y'all, I'm Taylor. Currently, I work as a producer at Viacom CBS, and that is sort of a catch-all phrase for working on food shows, dating shows, but I've done to programming for Tastemade, Food.com and Food Network. I also moonlight as a freelance writer, so I've written articles and essays for Eater, Foodnetwork.com, Healthy-ish, Time Out LA. And I recently finally put to print a wine zine that I've been making for the past year. Wine is my hobby.
Jenny: Awesome. And hi everyone, I'm Jenny Dorsey. I'm the founder of Studio ATAO, that's spelled A.T.A.O. and it stands for All Together at Once. We are a nonprofit community organization that creates content and experiences at the intersection of food, art, and social impact. And tokenization in the food media space has been something that we've been working on. At the beginning of the year, we hosted an Experimental Salon, or facilitated conversation - where Taylor participated - gathering groups of food professionals to talk about what tokenization looks like to them and how it happens to them in the food industry. And, for purposes of this conversation today, we've put together a toolkit about tokenization and how it happens, so this conversation will be more about implementation and how to combat tokenization. So just to make sure that we are all on the same page, I'm going to do a quick definition of tokenization and also of appropriation so that they are two different things and we will specifically be talking about tokenization today. So tokenization - I know people have mixed opinions about Wikipedia, but we did find this definition to be pretty thorough: it is defined as the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic efforts to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. On appropriation, this is a definition I've kind of put together that we've agreed on: the adoption of elements of one culture by another, especially in cases where a dominant culture exploits assets of a minority culture outside of its original context or at the expense of the original culture for personal gain. So, with that, I'll talk a little bit about goals for today. We'd really like to give some context about tokenization and how it happens across the food media sphere. Our panelists come from different aspects of food media, so there's definitely similarities, but also differences. We also want to talk about why tokenization is harmful, because sometimes it is misrepresented as representation or that it's good for the person being tokenized. And then finally spend the bulk of our time about how we can combat tokenization at different levels, whether that's personally, professionally or putting in systematic changes within a company or an organization.
So, our first question today for the panelists is what are the ways tokenization has played out in your area of the food media industry? Whether it's something that has happened to you personally, or something that you have witnessed, and this can be in content, or perhaps like within the organization.
Taylor: I'll start. Specifically in video, it can look like casting one person of color in an ensemble cast full of non-POCs. It can look like where you're sort of tucked away in the vault of content that's specific to a demographic and only airing it on Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. And what we're seeing I think right now is we're seeing a lot of companies airing a lot of Black-focused content in response to the protests and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among countless others, so we're seeing that. In addition, we're also seeing sometimes only casting a person of color in programming if it's related to their race or their marginalized status. I watched religiously Food Network when I was a kid, and I would have loved to have seen someone who looked like me that was making 30-minute meals or was living it up in the Hamptons. and there were probably tons of people that pitch those exact ideas, but perhaps exactly whatever media company they pitched it to was like "you know what, can you write about soul food? Can you write about barbecue, how is your peach cobbler recipe?" So it's those types of ways that you can find tokenization sometimes in the food media related to video.
Izzie: I think also on that note, like video's not just TV. I mean, the news of the day, if we're gonna go into it, is how Bon Appetit's test kitchen, three of these six people of color have decided to not renew their contracts or to renegotiate because it ended up seeming like they'd still be getting less compared to the white folks who work there. And something that really resonated with me today going into this was Priya Krishna's statement where she talked about how she voiced numerous complaints about how non-white members of the test kitchen were tokenized, carelessly framed as monolithic experts for their communities, used as props for white talent, and not given equal opportunities to be featured. Most of these were brushed under the rug or actively ignored, and you could see that from the test kitchen to just writing in general where you know, as Taylor mentioned, you're kind of corralled into an area that seems representative for your culture.
I'm Mexican and Puerto Rican, I cannot tell you a regional cuisine for all Puerto Rico or all Mexico. I can tell you what my family did, I could tell you what I'm familiar with in terms of Tex-Mex, but to tell someone, "oh, you are of that ethnicity, or oh, you're of that background, why don't you just stand in for everyone from that place," is the number one symptom, at least in terms of writing in the food industry. You're funneling people and pushing them into a corner and it's exhausting.
Elle: I also think tokenization can show up when you're hiring people for freelance positions, as opposed to bringing them on as full staff. I see that happening in so many different media outlets. You see people of color on their YouTube channels, on their Instagrams, but they are not part of the core team that does day-to-day work and I think that leans very much towards what Taylor was saying about only seeing talent for Black History Month or Kwanzaa or culture-specific holidays or occasions. I noticed that when I was interning at Food Network, all the people that I saw who were usually more full time were not the BIPOC community, right. Those are people who would come in, do stints, and then they would leave. So I think that if you're just having people for show, which is very common, you're definitely benefiting from the work and culture of Black and Brown people.
Stephanie: And I think in podcasting too, as a medium that's not considered a legacy medium at this point, I think we're already seeing some of those patterns emerge already just by a lot of people feeling that podcasting is the new frontier, where all the trends can be bucked and the rules can be bucked, but we're actually seeing those patterns arise unfortunately. I just did a presentation today about podcasting and one of the slides that we had was the ethnic breakdown of podcast listeners. And surprisingly, actually podcasting is a closer representation, like ethnically speaking, a closer representation of the American population, which is really exciting, especially when compared to public radio or newspaper readership or whatnot. But I will say that specifically what stands out to me is that Asian listenership still remains one of the smallest portions of podcast listening.
And so when you're in my field and we're training and we're putting on programs and we're putting on conferences and figuring out who we want to feature, very rarely do Asian podcasters make it in the mix, and I have definitely been in the room once where I heard someone say, shouldn't we have an Asian one in there or something? That's what that conversation gets reduced to in the worst case scenarios where it's like, "shouldn't we just have one of them, just to cover our bases?" And that's where the difference between tokenization and genuinely wanting inclusivity and diversity, that's where it diverges, right? Like we're not a quota to reach, we're not just some check mark. We're not a check mark, a checkbox to check off, but so often because white leadership or the people in those positions of power don't know how to actually communicate and interact with people of color. That is about the depth of their understanding of how to actually be a supportive person in this industry. So as much as some of the early data shows that podcasting is more diverse than other media forms, again, I've been in the rooms, at the tables in the decision rooms where all that same dialogue, all that rhetoric is coming back up all over again, because the same people run the world.
Izzie: And I think a thing to note about the idea of like, get someone to cover that base, to get one Hispanic person, one Black person, one whatever, is that you're setting them up without a system to support that person to succeed. You're just tossing them to the wolves. You're saying, "Oh, we're going to hire this one person, so we seem quote unquote diverse," but will we actually let them produce the stories they want to produce, will we actually let them cook the food they want to cook, that remains to be seen when you just decide to hire someone for looks.
Taylor: And also to your point, your first point and then to Elle's point about the hiring of people of color, so often I see people of color being hired in more entry level positions versus being hired as the ultimate decision maker. And so it is like they're affirmative, like "well we checked off a box to hire said person," but what's the impact that that person can make and if it's held by traditionally white gatekeepers, that's really to be determined.
Jenny: I think that's a really relevant point and Izzie and Taylor, both of you brought it up during our previous pre-panel conversation, is the sustainability aspect of bringing on a diverse workforce because especially right now in the wake of a lot of protests, people are saying, "Oh, you know, let's get our diversity writers, let's get our freelance people." But at the same time, those are not being paid sustainable rates for them to really continue existing in this industry. So I guess thoughts on, how can we make this a real lasting change versus kind of a quick reaction to what's going on around us right now?
Elle: I think one of the things that we can do as, I'll refer to myself as young people, coming up in the media industry is that we don't have to take jobs just because they're offered to us. I think the best way to start to deconstruct the system is when we're going in for or applying for and going in for interviews, we need to make it very clear, or at least find out the company's plans and intentions for you, like are you applying for a position that is eventually going to lead to a leadership position? Is it your desire to be in leadership position, knowing that you're going to be potentially in a company that has a homogenous culture? You don't have to just take the first job that comes your way.
It would behoove us to be particular about who we work for, knowing history and background. I knew very well coming into America's Test Kitchen that I was going to be the first Black woman to come onto a show, and I knew that with taking that role, there would be a lot of assumption about tokenization, but I definitely came into this role advocating not only for the rate of pay that I thought was appropriate, but finding out and thinking about what I would like my career to look like long-term and finding out if that is in alignment with what they are thinking that they would like for me to do. And because I know that if there are no people of color in leadership, no other people of color will come into the company, odds of that are slim to none, because people just hire who look like them, right, who went to the schools that they go to.
So I knew when I came in that I had a mission, not that they needed me to be the person to create diversity there, but as my personal responsibility, if I'm coming into a position anywhere in this media world, I'm bringing someone up with me, and as long as you know that that's my MO when I come in, then we can work together. But if you don't, if that does not align, then we don't have to take the job. You know, there are lots of outlets out here that can be in alignment with your principles and the sooner that we start rejecting those who don't, stop giving them our time, stop giving them our community's dollars, then they will get the message. Let's say no to them, we don't have to wait for them to say no to us, or treat us, put us in a corner and call us their one Asian quota, their one Black woman, male quota, you don't have to do that. You don't have to settle for that, we can stop it right there.
Stephanie: I want to add onto that too. I think when I was first starting out in journalism, there's just this belief when you're a young woman of color, that you do not have the right to choice because, and I think you're so keenly aware of that structure and that the people who are in power also are keenly aware of that, which is why they treat you as if you should be grateful that they gave you a job and that they should not be grateful that you are there doing the work for them. And you're putting yourself in that position and so, you're right. There's that personal responsibility I can take, like my goods and everything that I'm good at somewhere else and then if you are an employer, you should also question, what is the mentality and the mindset and the attitude you're going into hiring people of color?
Is it that you are doing them the favor by giving them the job to work at this great place and do the great work, especially in public radio, you should be so honored that you're doing such a public service for people. That's a lot of what I was fed when I was a young journalist. Or rather like, maybe you should approach them with gratitude that they would even consider working for you. And I've seen that happen, especially with some under-qualified white male employees that get hired. They approach them with such gratitude, I'm so honored for you to work with us, we're so excited that you're here, and I don't get that when I walk into newsrooms, I don't get that when I walk into meetings. So yeah, I think mindsets need to shift and I don't know that with the kind of bias that's been built up for generations, if it's ever going to if the same people stay at the top.
Izzie: To add on to that, like two points, one about this idea of gratitude, as you were mentioning Stephanie. When right before things started closing down, I was applying for jobs, not to like reveal how young I am, but I did just graduate college and I was applying, I was getting second interviews, edit tests, whatever, and I was speaking with my journalism professor and I told him I really want to be in a workplace that does like X, Y and Z thing, that pays me this amount, this is what I'm trying to build for myself, and what I want to do. And she says "Oh, you're going to be a diversity hire anywhere, you don't really have the room to ask for things as an entry level person of color, you have to pay your dues." And, you know, there's a lot of structural and systemic inequities when you perpetuate that system, which is why I decided to go freelance the past year or so, because why should I accept something that I know that is going to treat me poorly?
And the second point is, and we talked about this during our pre-panel discussion, was the past two months, I've never seen my friends and I be so booked and busy, editors calling left and right, "Hey, can you write this up? Can you write this up? Oh, like, what are your thoughts on this, or on this?" For stories that we would pitch or just talk about like on a normal basis or even things that are top four timely and a lot of that has to do with oh, seeming diverse.
And the thing is you're going to see rates are like oh, a hundred dollars for like a big newsroom, which if you're going to commit to being quote unquote diverse and trying to step up and seem like you have an equitable workplace, perpetuating a pay scale that isn't going to help these people continue their work, like paying someone 50 bucks or 200 bucks for a really long article is absolutely toxic. So I think that a lot of it is knowing when to say no, like Elle said, but also talking to other people of color in your industry, horizontally networking, because, you might not know that that's not their rate or you might not know that that is the situation that's going on, and unfortunately we are our best protectors. We have to keep talking to each other and figuring it out, and it's work, but it has to be done.
Taylor: Yes, salary transparency is a big one, ask around, ask about rates, know each other's salaries, I'm very pro that. And I think there's a lot specifically here in California where you can share salaries amongst your coworkers without repercussions, but Jenny, what was your original question? Was it how can consumers or organizations combat tokenization?
Jenny: Yeah. I guess making sure that the fervor that we're seeing right now is happening for longer than the next few months, longer than the rest of 2020. And something that I believe Stephanie said in our pre-panel was tokenization happens both in the backroom as well as in your content. So how do you address both simultaneously and with some ideals towards sustainability?
Taylor: I think, this might be a roundabout way, there's so many avenues that you could take with this, but the thing that I see in video a lot, and I'll pick up on this when it comes to hiring, you know you hire people that look like you. So many times in video, especially when you hire talent to be on your video, hire below-the-line crew such as your grip, your gaffer, your camera operator, people sort of just throw their hands up and say, "I don't know anybody. I don't know any diverse, I don't know a Black female sound mixer, so there must not be any." And it's taking the time to do the work so that we can put people in those positions, so that they'll know to identify them, they'll know like, hey, "Taylor's a great sound mixer, I'm going to use her again and again and again." So it's combating that people are lazy, can be lazy.
Another thing is to look outside of the people who traditionally have the power in the role. So look at the admin assistant who is working next to you, they might have ideas about show ideas. Look at a person working in, I don't know, marketing with a person of color. That's something that I've been witness to in the organization I'm at currently, ideas can come from any place. It doesn't have to be the producer or the director or the development exec.
Jenny: I also want to talk a little bit, now that we've been talking about making sure that you're not just filling a quota system but also looking across the spectrum of getting more inclusive hires, of how sometimes tokenization can be weaponized and create wedges between different groups of people and how that plays out in the workforce and, I guess, specifically how we can start addressing that sort of mentality where it's a scarcity mentality of hoarding resources against each other. Like how does it happen and how can we stop it?
Stephanie: I can speak a little bit to that, in that I am someone who benefits from the model minority myth as an Asian woman and I strive every day in my life to combat what that means on a personal scale and on an institutional scale as well. I definitely have felt in my life that people expected me to put my head down and work, to be a workhorse in workplaces, and should just not question, not rock the boat, that was expected of me a lot and it still probably is. And I definitely have felt that employers, when they're given the opportunity, will say, "well, Stephanie will do the work so she can do it."
And it's just like a combination of understanding of a stereotype that I don't wanna rock the boat, I don't want to challenge power systems, so I will do things without question and therefore that can be used against others who may be more willing to speak up for themselves. And I think that that is something that I have tried to combat in my life as of recently, that I will not let myself be weaponized in any way, in the same ways that the Asian population has been used on a broader scale for several generations. I don't know if that actually answered your question, but I can say that that's something that I've been talking about with a lot of Asian colleagues recently, about the moments that we feel tokenized in our office and how that gets weaponized against other people of color. Because there's an expectation that we will not speak up for ourselves, so we will just keep our head down and do things. And I think that actually that isn't true and we are actually actively trying to fight that every day at the office.
Elle: Jenny, I think one of the things that I've experienced and witnessed deeply is this invisibility, right? I think that in my experience in bringing other Black women into the media realm is that we actually deal with invisibility. I remember working on a TV show, I was a production assistant, I was the lead production assistant. And I remember hearing someone tell another person about me, "Oh, you need someone to do this thing, I think Elle will be really great for it." We've been working on the show for three months and as a lead PA, I was doing all sorts of food things, I was purchasing, I was basically doing associate culinary producer work. And I actually heard that person say to her, "Who? Who are you talking about?"
I'm like, what do you mean who? I've talked to you almost twice a day for the past three months, you don't even know my name? It's insane. I experience it just on a day-to-day level, I've been standing in line and I've had people come walk right in front of me as if I'm not even there. And that same thing happens in media. I was working on another set, I was food styling and it was in the morning and I was getting myself ready for the day and getting my food laid out, and this producer kept coming over asking me what was for breakfast. The first time, I think I probably just said I don't know, I don't know what's for breakfast.
By the third time he came over, he's asking me what's for breakfast, when's the food coming, and I said I'm the food stylist, I'm not the PA here, I'm not the craft person. Those sorts of invisibility tactics are the things that also lead to there being little to no representation on sets or in writing rooms, in journalism, and in movies and media and TV shows, because first you have to even acknowledge that we are there working our way through the ranks, right? You have to even see us. You don't even see us, you have tunnel vision or whatever you want to call it, but to me that is how invisibility starts. We're not just invisible in the workplace, we're kind of invisible in the world.
And I don't have the answers about how to combat that, but if you are working in a space and you see that there are people of color in positions that are potentially low ranking, you should best believe that they are not planning to stay there. And you, as a company owner, as someone who's a stakeholder, I think it is your responsibility to be actually investigating who is working where and doing what and making sure that you're making educated decisions when it comes time to promote people. But I don't know, I'm not even really sure where I was going with that point, but I do want to give people examples of how invisibility can be subtle and how it can be very extreme. And if you are an ally, then you should be aware of those behaviors.
Jenny: One of the things I know that people have been kind of talking about recently is there's a lot of this pressure, that oh, we want to fix all the problems, oh, let's hire that one diversity lead and they will fix the problem. And it's usually a woman of color and suddenly all the weight of dismantling systemic racism falls on that one person. So my question to everyone is what are ways that organizations who say that they want to get behind combating racism, combating tokenization, can actually implement real systems for change instead of saying that, yes, we all have personal responsibility to do better? What are things that at a structural level you would like to see organizations, that you are working in right now or organizations you are affiliated with or have worked with before, to implement in the next or, hopefully, this year?
Izzie: You know, that's hard because when you put the pressure on one person, in some cases you're making an enemy in a way with the white male perspective. It is a huge hurdle to combat a structure that is festering in very insidious ways and it's hard to say, it's not just the people. People perpetuate it, but you could talk about, you could talk about pay, you could talk about style guides, which are a major form of oppression in my mind. You can talk about the way that you write about certain foods, just even the choices you've use in SEO headlines. There's a lot there. I mean, you could talk about auditing recipes, you could talk about, which I think is a good idea. If you have a problem, auditing your recipes is a good start.
You could talk about auditing everyone's pay, see how long they've worked there, what's going on? Like, why were people passed up for certain promotions? Why were certain freelancers paid a certain amount or why were stories rejected? I know a lot of people were thinking in that sense, why was the column killed? I'm thinking about Illyanna Maisonet from Puerto Rico. She was the first Puerto Rican columnist in this country at the San Francisco Chronicle, and apologies if I'm mispronouncing your name. And you know, her column was killed because she disagreed on a little detail for her column that particular month. They wanted to include something about the earthquakes, but the earthquakes didn't affect the piece and it just felt really weird. She was like, "I don't think this belongs in the story. I would be happy to do a column, like a sidebar for the page, or something else about it more in depth, versus just throwing it in there when it seems random," and then she was told that she was unprofessional when she stood up for herself.
So I think checking: why were certain things denied? Why were certain ideas pushed? Is it unprofessional to really do right by your culture? But it's hard, it's something that not everyone's going to participate in, not everyone is going to believe in. So I think starting there might be a first step, but again, it's a multi-tiered, complicated situation. I worry.
Taylor: Yeah. I'm seeing a lot of companies come out with diversity and inclusion handbooks and groups and ERGs, and they're missing a very important quality, which is equity. You know, diversity is, while well meaning and needed, it means you have a diverse population of people. Inclusion is having those people feel welcome, feeling that they feel heard and a part of the team, but there's no action in that step. But equity means that your employees have the same access to opportunities, the same access to mentorship, the same access to growth, and it also acknowledges that people come with privileges to that job and disadvantages. And so you're sort of helping dismantle that system once you truly have an equitable workplace. And what having equity in a company could mean is making sure that people have mentorship opportunities in every step, whether they're entry level, mid manager or executive level. It means having growth plans. It could also mean, and definitely it means, having pay equity amongst certain groups of the company, so making sure that one entry level person isn't coming in $20,000 below another person with the exact same experience. So those are just some examples.
Stephanie: I agree with all of that, and I think that all of those things work when they're the right people behind those initiatives, right? I think there were some studies that I had seen that the majority of people who attend all the voluntary diversity trainings and the seminars at work actually are people of color, and it's not the white men, it is not the white women who are going. And so what's the point if all that training and all of that reform is happening in an echo chamber of people who already know what needs to happen? And so I believe that all of that, assessing pay equity, all that stuff is possible and all those initiatives are possible, all that reform is possible when the right people are empowered.
So I'm at the stage where right now, how about all the toxic power leaders step down from their jobs? I like a hundred percent believe that right now. Some people might say that's a bit unfair, Stephanie, some people need to have jobs. Probably not these people though, they've been CEOs, CFOs, CCOs for several years and they probably make a lot of money. And other people, if we're talking about who stands to lose the most leaving their position at work, it's the people at the bottom who actually the ones who are constantly leaving and jumping from job to job, actively choosing to be unemployed, to not be making money, to sacrifice their career stability and their career goals to escape toxic bad managers and bad leadership, when it's actually the leadership who probably doesn't need the job, but they're there and they're inflicting harm on people who stand to lose the most from it. So I would say, yes, let's do all of those things. But first, in order for all that to actually land, let's get rid of the people who have created the bad structures to begin with. All of this is always top down. And so the people at the top have to take accountability and responsibility for what they've perpetuated in their organizations and I would hope that they had the sense and the empathy and the compassion to realize what they've done and that it's time to go. But probably not.
Elle: I completely agree with you, Stephanie. I think the buy-in from the top is most important. I became the inclusion leader at ATK in mid, almost close to the end of 2019, and one of the things that I had to be certain of before I accepted that position was that, no matter what, the company was going to support the initiatives, right? I needed to know I was going to have support and have full buy-in and that they were actually committed and ready to make the change. And once I got all the nods that I needed to have to feel comfortable to take that position, I moved forward.
One of the other things that I did, one of the other ideas that I had that turned out to be very fruitful and successful is then getting the company, the employees' buy-in. So, I created a Diversity Council, which has representatives from every team in the company. So everyone gets all the information and also now everyone who works there becomes stakeholders and the result of creating this equitable environment that we want to create. And we're creating it on our own terms, very little has actually come down from the top. Most of it has come up from the bottom, and we've also created subcommittees that focus on, we have a subcommittee for the editorial team, we have subcommittees that focus on style guides. We are auditing everything that we have in the social media world. I won't say we're hitting every single thing from 20 years, but we are definitely doing audits to make sure that the language that we're using and the way that we're respecting food and culture is being looked at, examined, and reformed in a way that we're showing respect to cultures.
And again, these are the things that ideally the leadership in the company wanted to see, but it was really the buy-in from those of us who work there and to be given the autonomy to figure out what change looked like for us and how we want to implement it. A perfect example is that we have been for some time working on a cookbook that was inspired by Asian cuisine, and when we say Asian cuisine, I think we all here know that that is a vast representation of foods. And after doing an internal audit, and looking at the book and the way that we had done it, this book was almost ready to go to print. Once the audit was done and we really assessed what we were getting ready to put out in the world, we decided that this is not done in a way that we feel would best represent Asian communities and cultures. So we scrapped the book.
I'm not telling this story to get a pat on the back, but what's important is that the company, whoever it is, cannot be dollar driven, right? You have to really be people driven, because if you are dollar driven, you don't give a damn what you put out there as long as the recipe gets you likes or follows or clicks or whatever people get in the social media world, like generate revenue for them. But they cannot be dollar driven, like they really do have to care about people, and I think only then can you even really open your mouth to say that you're committed to change. If you don't care about the people who are going to see it and read it and have feelings and emotions - you're not just talking about a meal, you're talking about the way someone grew up, you're talking about their grandmother, you're probably talking about their 5,000 year old history of their country. You're not just talking about a piece of protein or vegetable or a cooking method, you're talking about people. And if you don't have a grasp on that, you're not even on the same street as an equitable, diverse, and inclusive environment. You're not even on the block, you're not even in the car. You're not even looking at the map, you're just not.
Izzie: And I think on the level of people driven, if you are the CEO, an editor in chief, a what have you, and your workplace is trying to unionize and you have not let them unionize, what are you doing? Unions are so important for just peace/state of mind in terms of knowing that your rights are protected, knowing that as a collective, you are fighting for everyone's ability to be paid equally, for their ideas to be protected, etcetera. So I'm keeping tabs of every single company that's having problems at the table, trying to ratify contracts or whatever the problems are. We're listening, we're paying attention.
Taylor: I just really want to quickly echo again Elle's point, because for the longest time I always thought it was a little Pollyanna-ish of me, whenever anyone asked me "what can we do to change the power structure of the white gatekeepers, what will make them finally get it?" And there's so many studies about diversity is good for business, diversity is good for innovation, diversity will help the bottom line. But if you don't believe that that is the right thing to do, that is the ethical thing to do, that is the moral thing to do, you're never going to get it. You're never going to get it. And I don't know, I honestly don't know how to teach people that. I think that comes, I don't know, that's actually a great question for everybody, other than, you know, reading books. But it really has to come from your heart.
Jenny: I'll also tag on to that question. Many times you need both this moral, personal incentivization for real change, and then you also need the financial incentivization of your company to actually be aligned with the diversity, inclusion, equity efforts that you have. And many times, especially after movements like what we're seeing right now, there's a lot of this moral heyday, like oh, we've got to do something, but financially the company still benefits from tokenizing people, from taking advantage of POCs, et cetera. So what are ways that you think we could actually align those two incentives too, like the company only succeeds when they are treating people properly? Obviously we can't wait years for it to blow up like Bon Appetit. What are the ways that we can better hold companies accountable now, and also make them want to hold themselves accountable because they see their financial success as something that is directly tied to representing people better?
Elle: I just learned today of a certification and I wish I could remember the name, I think it starts with an E something. But there's a certification that companies can aspire to and they are graded within the certification on how they meet certain company goals as it relates to having equitable workspace, and the rating is public. When you improve and you meet certain percentages and you make these shifts and changes, the more the certification actually puts the company out to be voted like "Best Place to Work 2021." And I think those are ways to incentivize. Like you have to pay for, the company has to pay for that certification, it's under $3,000, but a company can pay to get the certification. I think it's a small investment for A, having some method of keeping yourself accountable as a company and B, letting other people in the world see that you're more than just talk, you're not blowing smoke.
And I think that those sorts of tools, while the company has to pay for it, it is really a great way to incentivize, because when people see that you do good work, they want to come and work for you and they want to come and do good work for you. And when your staff is doing good work for you, you're making money, right? It is statistically shown that companies that are more equitable and diverse make more money. That is not a supposition, it is not a myth, it is a fact. And that's why, because when people can feel invested, they stay, there's low turnover. When people feel invested and they feel celebrated and they feel welcomed, they tell their friends and people are applying left and right, they want to come and work there.
So the money, nobody makes money overnight, making money is a result of an investment, and if you invest in what your reputation is in the industry without being told or probed, you will see the money, that happens. And the people up at the top know that, we don't have to tell them how this thing makes money for them. They know how money's made, they know how money is made, but what they don't realize is that not changing not only stifles your work community, it will eventually stifle you financially. I don't know how Bon App is doing with money right now, but if we had to judge by the past three weeks, maybe it's not doing so well, I don't know. I don't know, but I haven't given any of my dollars, you know, so that's pretty much how that can go.
Taylor: This is not a quick fix by any means, but in video, leave comments, unsubscribe, dislike. Any major media company has a team of audience development managers, strategists, social media managers that scroll through comments, that have to report on how many people have unsubscribed per video or specific videos. So, it's not going to automatically make us lose a sponsorship or ad dollars, but if enough of those negative comments come in, then there is an awareness there that might not happen.
Izzie: And also, in terms of written media, online media, what have you, you could just open up a magazine five years ago, are you embarrassed by it? And I think the work that stands the test of time is work that has passion, is well fact-checked, is clearly rooted in investing in a person and their ability to write and report on something, whether it be their culture or something else. And you're not going to get that if you're - I'm sorry, I'm laughing, because I saw a Bon Appetit recipe that was blistered cheesy peppers. I'm sorry, what the hell is a blistered cheesy pepper? I'm not going to Google that, I'm not going to look at that, call it what it is, jalapeno popper. And that's even just standard American food, I don't even want to know what's going on with Mexican food, with Filipino food, whatever.
So, I think knowing that trends only last so long and knowing that making your marketing, your investment on what seems trendy at the moment, it's not a long-term solution. The long-term solution is investing in your people, helping them grow, branching out your freelancing networks, getting familiar, make sure your editors are studying up, understanding how to edit if they don't already know, hiring editors of different backgrounds and investing in their knowledge and in their repertoire. Unless that happens, you're just going to keep getting articles like that New York Times article that was like "the bubbles in your drink, they're supposed to be there," when boba tea has been around for God knows how long.
Jenny: I also want to talk a little bit about relationships, because a lot of, I think, the worry or the confusion right now is how do we manage the different types of relationships that are happening with different power dynamics, different people, different backgrounds, and have different roles within the company. So, for example, an editor that I worked with was talking about if they do want to assign a story and were thinking about tokenization, do you assign a story that is about Mexican food and specifically seek out a Mexican writer for it? Is that tokenizing, versus making sure that you're asking around? How to even go about changing the classic assignment, assigner, assignee relationship so that it feels more equitable? I don't think that there's a right answer, but just would love to hear thoughts on ways to make that feel more natural, feel like this is something that people are invested in on both sides.
Izzie: I think it's saying yes. In terms of like if you the assigner get a pitch from someone, versus you trying to assign out, that is a much more natural process, when you've already established a reputation that you publish work from all backgrounds. I think Eater New York and the Eater Publications do a really great job of this, in terms of their style guide too, making sure that they're not using words like "ethnic" or other describing words that could belittle someone. But yeah, I think that it is a much more natural process, if I wanted to write about Texan barbecue or tostones or whatever, for me to pitch that to someone versus them assigning it, because then it does feel tokenizing.
I do think that in my experience, I do appreciate a phone call that's fielding "okay, hey, we're really impressed by your work and this is what we're kind of looking for, we're looking for features, we're looking for this, we're looking for that, what are your ideas?" and trying to make sure that's a conversation, not just, hey Izzy, can you write about pico de gallo for Monday? And I'll be like, no, no, I don't want to write about pico de gallo for Monday. And I'm not sure if that's necessarily sustainable. I mean, it would require editors to know people that aren't their typical roster per se, but I think that's your job. Your job is to read other outlets, to get familiar with new voices, and if you're not actively doing that, if you're not going to all the different conventions and seeing who's there, going to state schools, going and setting up booths or setting up pitch guides, you're limiting yourself because then you're going to be in a situation where like, damn, I don't have a single Black writer, what am I going to do? Well then, you're screwed, you don't know anyone.
Elle: I don't think I mind when people pitch direct ideas to me about things. My concern is always more about what is it for, what's the story, are you going to take all the authenticity out of it once I write it, is this legit a story about cast iron skillets, what's the history of it or whatever. I don't mind a direct pitch, because perhaps I might be the expert on something, maybe I'm calling myself the expert at five ways to fry okra, I don't know. But if you're thinking that I am, as long as you're not taking my content and stripping it of all of its integrity and authenticity and the narrative that you're asking me to apply, I really don't mind. It's for me, as I'm sure it is for all of us, an honor to always represent our culture and the way that we do it, but it is up to us to investigate what people are going to do with our work.
And Izzie, I think you're so right because no, I don't want to just write about something for Monday, unless you're telling me Monday is the day for authentic pico de gallo, cause then if you are, then let's get into this history lesson and let me tell you about where it came from, where it's going, and maybe the bastardization of it. I don't know, maybe that's the angle you want to come from, this is how pico de gallo lost its flair. But don't ever ask me to write something when you know that you're gonna strip it of its integrity.
And I think that, again, this goes back to my comment about how we have to be aware of who we're giving our time and talent and attention to. We have to be aware, it is okay to turn down an approach for writing. But also, what I do know is that marginalized people usually aren't typically in a position to turn down things, it's more