By Joseph Cerquone
The AM&P Conference ballroom held what is found wherever people go to hear a luncheon speaker: a lectern, tables and chairs, the clatter of food service, the drone of networking.
But there was something else, too: an invisible divider. It arose as the speaker, Julissa Arce, played two videos in succession. On one side drifted the impression created by the first video about rioting sports fans; on the other, the wake of the second one about a disturbance at a Black Lives Matter gathering.
The videos covered similar behavior, but the descriptions, and tone used in them differed sharply. For example, the fans setting fire to a car were judged “a little out of control.” The people in the Black Lives Matter video were called “wild animals.”
The treatment difference may have surprised some in attendance. Yet, it was all too familiar to Arce. “Biases exist in media,” she said, recalling she first noticed them watching American TV as a young girl growing up in Mexico. Characters who looked like her always had parts “as drug dealers and maids,” stereotyping that is a leading worry for Arce now. She expressed concern about the potential effect it can have on the self-regard of young people of color. “If you don’t have role models, it can be difficult to imagine a future for yourself.”
Today, Arce champions bias-free media portrayals, a point she reached after first travelling a very different employment path. At age 11, she came to the United States on a visa. When it expired, Arce was living in Texas where undocumented immigrants could attend state universities. She enrolled, gained an education, and ultimately landed on Wall Street where she did well. However, stereotypes never fell off the success ladder. “When I entered a meeting room, people would think I was bringing the coffee.” Experiences like that stayed with Arce, plus she felt responsible to others less fortunate. “Not everyone had the opportunities I did,” she shared. “I wanted to inspire young kids and change the narrative” about immigrants and people of color.
Arce decided to leave Wall Street and became a full-time advocate, setting about different ways of telling stories that belie stereotypes. They include writing a book, “My (Underground) American Dream,” which is described as “challenging our perceptions of what it means to be an undocumented immigrant”; serving as a media spokesperson for the immigrant perspective; and, speaking out before audiences like the communicators who filled the AM&P Conference luncheon seats.
Arce has a deep well of content through her advisory role with the immigrant community. Drawing from it is powerful. The importance of inclusiveness and diversity converts from an abstraction into real life faces full of concern.
“I help people get ready for the possibility of deportation,” Arce explained. Sometimes, that means setting up steps to prevent children whose parents may be suddenly deported from ending up in foster care. “The conversations are difficult,” Arce said, “but it is better for people to be prepared.”
Though she became a U.S. citizen in 2014, Arce herself is not entirely in the clear. In the course of her work, “go back where you came from!” tweets find her. They don’t change anything, though. Instead of throwing in the advocacy towel, Arce said she thinks now, more than ever, is the time to raise it high. “I believe change can happen,” she said. “Biases are in the spotlight now. They need to be faced head on to move forward.”
Arce offered her audience a number of steps to foster progress. They included bringing to work mindsets that are ever aware “words have impact.” “Who writes the stories, who shapes the narratives can create single narratives that become truths.” She recommended inclusive approaches that “involve people in every part of the process. The more diverse you are, the more likely best practices become.” And she encouraged increasing positive stories of immigrants and people of color, as well as raising inclusiveness and diversity at work as a discussion topic, conference focal point, or both.
Joseph Cerquone is the Director of Public Relations for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.