“The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity”

Viola Davis said this in her acceptance speech when she became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama series.

Speaking from her unique perspective, she exposed a hard truth: unequal access to opportunity can define the course of a persons life.

This month we would like to give you another unique perspective.

One that illustrates just how powerful opportunity, and seeing things from a fresh perspective, can be.

Dhatri Navanayagam, a third-year WPP fellow, has a beautiful story to tell.

She comes from a low-income family and grew up in public housing in London.

But when she turned 11, a world of opportunities opened up for her.

This post is about how her vision of A New Way of Seeing has shaped her work, the initiatives she’s started and the difference she has made along the way using communications.

Keep reading to see the power of new perspectives….

A New Way of Seeing

When Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama series, she said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity”. This strongly resonates with me and I would like to explain why.

I’ve always cared about social issues, in particular those related to inequality and social mobility. This is in large part due to my background. I come from a low-income family and grew up in public housing in London. At the age of eleven, I won a full tuition bursary to attend a private secondary school, and from there I went on to study at Oxford University where I graduated with a degree in History and French. The bursary opened up a world of opportunities for me and placed me in a nurturing environment in which my self-confidence grew and my aspirations broadened. My exposure to both ends of the socio-economic spectrum has provided me with a greater awareness and a nuanced understanding of the inequality and un-level playing field that exists in our society. This is why I am passionate about empowering young people from underprivileged backgrounds through education and mentorship. I believe the lack of confidence and the lack of access to opportunities amongst people from disadvantaged backgrounds is a universal problem and it is something that communications can help solve.

As a WPP Fellow who has spent the past three years working in three different communications disciplines globally, I have strived in each of my Fellowship placements to spearhead initiatives that utilize the power of communications to address social issues. In my second-year rotation at The Futures Company in New York, I was inspired to set up an original, company-wide initiative called “The Big Debate”, which continues at the agency. This was a series of monthly discussion groups aimed at inspiring a “new way of seeing”. The forums examined socio-economic inequality through different lenses – exploring topics such as cultural fit and unconscious bias – and involved a mix of guest speakers and stimulus led discussions. I wanted to expose my colleagues to different ideas and encourage them to consider issues relating to inequality with a fresh perspective, and to think about how they could use their awareness, communications expertise and network of clients to tackle such problems.

I launched The Big Debate with a discussion on cultural fit, of which unconscious bias was a key subject debated. This was a timely topic given the release of the book “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs” by the American sociologist, Lauren Rivera. The book reveals the growing perils of the use of the cultural fit criteria by elite firms – highlighting how employers from these companies are increasingly applying a class-biased definition to “cultural fit” when making recruitment and hiring decisions. Our discussion explored the issues raised in Rivera’s book along with the difficulties of defining a company’s culture and the pros and cons of creating a sameness culture. In particular, we reflected on what cultural fit meant to our company and how this played out in our staffing decisions. This culminated in a discussion on the signification of cultural fit for our clients and the implications of this for their business and communications strategies.

A different discussion explored the role of education in social mobility. For this forum, Mandeep Singh, founder of FLIP (First-Generation, Low-Income Partnership) at Columbia University came to speak to us. FLIP is a national student-run movement that has sprung up across elite colleges in the US over this past year. Mandeep drew on both his personal experience as someone who is from a low-income background and the first in his family to go to university, along with the work carried out by FLIP, to provide a nuanced understanding of the unique challenges and pressures that these “first-generation, low-income” students face.

It is precisely a nuanced understanding, which is at the heart of The Big Debate. People are blurry, murky, and ambiguous. People aren’t easy to define. But it’s easy to retire to safe, neatly packaged personas when describing that target audience. It’s easy to view things from our own vantage point. It’s not so easy to pause, question our preconceptions, and challenge them to see if a finer layer of nuance can be applied.

The Big Debate aims to create a culture of conversation within the workplace. My hope is that these types of discussions at agencies across our industry will encourage us to pause and reconsider what we think we know. I believe inspiring a “new way of seeing” amongst those in our industry and our clients is a crucial first step for communications to drive positive social change.

Dhatri Navanayagam is a third-year WPP Fellow and is currently a strategist at Blue State Digital in New York. Dhatri works with a range of clients including non-profit organizations, advocacy groups and brands. Passionate about shaping the future of higher education, she enjoys working with her main client, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dhatri spent the first two years of the Fellowship working as a strategist at Maxus London, the fastest growing media agency in the UK, and as a consultant at the strategic insight and innovation firm, The Futures Company, New York.