Taking “Diversity and Inclusion” to the Next Level: An Interview with Leslie Stevens, MCC Weber Shandwick Scholar

Leslie Stevens at her Weber Shandwick residency.

Leslie Stevens is a recipient of an MCC Media Diversity Scholarship at Weber Shandwick, a global communications and engagement agency. Her interests lie at the intersection of social media, culture, race, identity, and power. As an undergraduate, she published her first academic research paper in the ​Howard Journal of Communication ​in 2017, examining Black Twitter as a space in which users could articulate and negotiate black identity through historical modes of communication, such as the Black Vernacular Tradition.  A graduate student in the Media, Culture and Communication Program, Leslie hopes to blend the worlds of academia, culture, and industry to help social media users understand their agency and help communication industries understand how to responsibly cultivate social media communities.  We asked her about her research in media studies.

Why did you decide to  pursue a degree in Steinhardt’s Department of Media, Cuture, and Communications?

As an undergrad, I decided to take on an independent research study in the spring of my senior year.  I found the work energizing. The project was to design a brief qualitative study, using any method under the qualitative umbrella. I chose to do a content analysis of several tweets under the hashtag #AskRachel, in reference to the public outing of Rachel Dolezal, as a white woman pretending to be black. As nerdy as this sounds, I fell in love with the concept of doing research. I was fortunate to have a professor at the time who supported my desire to do independent research work. Eventually, that class project became a co-authored study with that professor. We took it to conference and had it published in the Howard Journal of Communication. I say all that to say, that I knew that I wanted to continue doing similar work in my career — in-depth cultural analysis and communication studies. Pursuing a masters that encompassed these was the next logical step.

What sold me on NYU was the willingness of the faculty and staff to say, “here’s what we’re doing well, here’s what we need to work on.” They were also really enthusiastic and invested in my interests and passions early on.  A lot of other schools that I looked at were either too heavy on the academic track or too reliant on industry. NYU has the perfect balance of both.

You published a paper about role of Black Twitter in our culture. Could you talk about the importance of including “other” voices in our current media landscape?

 I think it’s really important to be critical about how cultural institutions are constructed and maintained. This is what we have been exploring so far in the program. Many of the pillars of society that we assume are a given are really constructed by specific systems that allow one entity to dominate. The media, for example, is perceived as a societal pillar that is composed of many public opinions, interests, and experiences, when in reality, it often privileges white, male voices. In being critical, we should seek to expose how certain stories are silenced, amplified, passed over, or repeated. In shedding light, we find ways to get better at representing all the stories that come together to create our culture. I think black voices are those that often get silenced, but there are Brown voices too, non-gender binary voices, women’s voices, voices of those who are disabled, and intersections of all of these. Including “other” voices outside of the dominant (white, male) voice help to contextualize and complete discourses in the media.

In the end, we all want to have our stories told and represented in media; from news to entertainment to sports and politics, we want to see ourselves reflected in whatever kind of media we’re consuming.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve just submitted a proposal for my final paper in a class called “Communication Processes: Race, Gender and Cultural Identity.” I want to explore the silencing of black women in the context of the #MeToo movement. In the shadow of the Blasey-Ford/Kavanaugh hearings we saw the voice of an assault victim be silenced; this dynamic is what gives the #MeToo movement life — women moving out of the shadow of silence to form community. In spite of this, certain voices are again privileged. Alyssa Milano received early credit for coining the phrase “me too,” despite the fact that Tarana Burke had founded Me Too in 2006. As the movement resurfaced in 2017, white victims were placed front and center. To explore this dynamic, I’m naturally drawn to Twitter as a medium of analysis to focus on a character that captures the frustration and hopefully interesting responses.

Bette Midler shot out a tweet after it had been announced that Kavanaugh’s nomination would be sent to a full senate vote. She tweeted out that “women were the n-word of the world,” quoting a particularly sticky statement from Yoko Ono. This is the sort of sentiment that silences black woman–leaving them in a limbo space between choosing to be the woman or “the n-word.” I’m hoping I can flesh out all of this in the responses to Midler’s now deleted tweet.

Could you talk a little about your work this semester as a recipient of a Weber Shandwick diversity residency?

The NYU at Weber Shandwick Masters in Residence program is an exciting opportunity for both NYU and Weber. There is a lot of energy, from both sides, in making the relationship as fruitful as possible. As scholars, we are a level above interns.  So, we observe high-level meetings, are given substantive projects, and have been incorporated into the Weber Shandwick team structure. We glean insights from various business decisions and conversations, are given platforms to provide feedback.  We are also encouraged to incorporate our academic study into our work at Weber.

I have been assigned to the Corporate Reputation practice at Weber. This team does a lot of independent (non-client based) research work. I am working on mapping out white space for a new research study and developing related survey questions and topics. We are also mapping business responses to the death of Jamal Khashoggi. I’m looking forward to seeing how these topics and projects expand throughout the remainder of the year.

I’m grateful that Weber is invested in having me here, and that I can work on projects that allow me to exercise some of the theories that I’ve been exploring in my coursework.

What kind of change would you like to see in the media?

I’m interested in seeing a widespread commitment to diversity and inclusion in a true and meaningful way within the media industry. It matters so much that every voice is valued, respected, and amplified as equally as possible. It’s a huge task but I think the benefits outweigh the challenges. We’re still in that weird post-racial place (not just in media but across sectors) where “diversity and inclusion” is a token phrase. The commitment of a lot of media companies is shallow. I think particularly given the past year, that diversity, as represented by race, gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity, is still a divisive topic. We have also seen that diversity and inclusion have far more benefits than challenges, for personal and business development. So, in media, I’d like to see all the voices at the table in a truly collaborative way. I’m hoping we will see a shift soon that takes diversity and inclusion in media to the next level.