In the year of the lockdown, it’s not surprising that the friendship between Keneisha Williams and Ashanti Bentil-Dhue started online. The event specialists met during an #eventproftalk Twitter chat on “changes we want to see in the events industry,” and they connected over their similar hope for more opportunities and representation for Black meeting professionals.
With Williams based in Toronto and Bentil-Dhue in London, their long-distance discussions centered on how they could make a difference and create visibility and community for Blacks in the industry. Fueled by the worldwide outrage over the murder of George Floyd in May, their desire to team up and build a network came into focus. Their nascent organization, Black in Events, launched in August with a virtual educational event and since then has been running weekly social-media gatherings. By the end of October, Williams expects the group’s website to go live, with plans to build out networking resources and more educational events.
Black in Events is bringing together event professionals “who want to say, ‘We are here, and we want to be represented properly in the events industry,’” says Williams, who has 10 years of events experience, most recently with BMO Financial Group and Diabetes Canada. “Our mission is to bring awareness and opportunities to a growing but underrepresented group. We aim to provide our event professionals and our company partners with services to accelerate the industry in a very inclusive direction.”
Here’s how Williams talks about the origins of the group and its goals.
How do you describe Black in Events and what it offers?
Williams: We’re not an association; we’re a network, building a membership base of Black event professionals. There is also an opportunity for people who are not Black but who want to support the network and what we’re doing. We also have businesses involved who want to get in front of our audience.
Ashanti and I hold weekly live Instagram chats on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. ET and a Twitter chat on Tuesdays (#BIEchat). That’s how we’re keeping the engagement going right now. But once we launch our website later this fall, we’ll have newsletters and a supplier directory, giving members the opportunity to connect with businesses, specifically those that are interested in diversifying their partnerships. We’re also building a roster of speakers. When we held our launch event in August, it really showed off the Black speaking talent out there, which we really don’t see represented in the events industry.
We’re planning an annual virtual event yearly to bring the industry together. Also, I can’t talk about it just yet, but we have something really exciting that we’re working on for 2021. It’s going to be a real game changer for what we’re trying to accomplish.
What are the barriers that keep Black event professionals from fully engaging in the events industry?
Williams: When Black event professionals go into businesses and are looking for jobs, we don’t see people who look like us. That is often the first barrier. Oftentimes, there is no malice, but unconscious biases can become a struggle. It can hinder our job growth and job opportunities.
I’ve been fortunate to work in the corporate space and gain a lot of experience, but there are not a lot of people who look like me. While many colleagues talk about mentorship, I’ve never had a mentor as an event professional, and a lot of my peers who are Black say the same thing.
I’ve come to realize that a lot of Black event professionals have launched their own businesses. Barriers cause us to say, “Okay, we’re just going to create our own space, create our own way of earning a living.” Barriers, they’re there. Whether they’re conscious or not, it’s an issue.
This industry has to figure out how to address it and start some type of change, and I think we are seeing that. It’s been a long time, but we’re lucky enough to begin addressing [diversity and equity issues] so that people who are coming into the industry can start taking charge and will have the opportunities that they need to grow.
How can allies in the meetings and events industry show up differently to support Black event professionals?
Williams: It’s about not being afraid to have the conversation. I know it takes a lot, especially when you’re in a job, but if you have that privilege and you can address it, then I believe that you should. That’s the only way change is going to happen. It’s looking around the room and saying, “Something here needs to change. We’re not diverse enough. Who are the gatekeepers making those decisions and how can we get to them?” It’s reaching out to organizations and speaking to them and asking, “How can I help?” For me, what’s important is action. I think that’s the phase that we’re in now—taking action. As human beings, we need to start coming together and asking, “How can we address this and make this change?” This is an obvious issue, and it doesn’t help to act like it’s not there.
Today, I think we are in a good place. We have our voices; it’s time that we use them, and we have social media to really drive the message where it needs to go.
Where do you see the organization down the line? What does success look like?
Williams: I really, really believe in this network. It’s part of change and doing something for the better. I feel that we are going to be able to grow and have members who thrive from what we’re doing, whether that’s finding jobs, getting speaking opportunities, or attending trainings.
I also believe that this group will be a vehicle to connect Black events professionals. I’m really looking forward to seeing members build community. This is not about alienating anyone else in any way. It’s just saying, there is somebody else like me who’s doing this job.
So the goal, really, is to see everybody thrive within an industry that we’re so proud of and that we love, but one that’s even more diverse and more inclusive than we ever experienced in the past.
Voices from the Black in Events Launch
Black in Events celebrated its official launch on August 19 with an educational virtual event hosted by cofounder Keneisha Williams. In addition to sessions on branding, technology, mental health, and how to thrive as a business, the program featured a Black Voices of Events panel that drove home the value of representation, mentoring, and networking. Here are some excerpts.