Shawna-Kay Thomas listens first, so she can be heard

—It is Black History Month, and every day this month, The Message will be sharing short profiles of Black professionals from across the industry: marketing, advertising, PR, media and production. Written by POCAM members, the profiles are a way to “fight invisibility,” an exercise in representation for an industry where representation must get better—

Shawna-Kay Thomas developed a love for the communications industry while growing up in Jamaica, because she wanted to provide a space for people—especially those with less privilege and power—to be seen, heard and valued for being who they are. She has been in the industry for more than a decade, and is currently director, corporate communications and culture at the Indigenous-owned public relations agency pipikwan pêhtâkwan.

“I wanted to create a space for change, for thought-provoking opinions and ideas to come from some of the people who are often systematically sidelined because of made up markers and indicators,” she said. “I wanted to provide space for people to receive information in a way that makes sense, and would be most useful to them.”

Looking to make more of an impact, Thomas made a strategic pivot from journalism to communications. “Starting in journalism allowed me to see first-hand where some of the gaps are in terms of communication planning and information sharing. That experience and knowledge made the transition to communications planning and public relations quite easy,” she said. “This provided me with greater opportunities to participate in more relational practice, where I’m sharing information that is informed by listening.”

One of the most amazing things that has happened to Thomas since continuing her career in Canada has been working at pipikwan pêhtâkwan, where decolonization is the daily theme and she works with employees, community and organizations to challenge and break down systemic barriers.

Coupled with her lived experience, she hopes to also use this experience in spaces where decolonization is a goal but implementation is a challenge. She knows when people feel seen, heard and valued in the planning and execution of strategies that’s the greatest reward.

Taking the responsibility head on, Thomas challenges racism by becoming involved in the community and showing that Black people are more than negative stereotypes and tropes. She is opening doors and leaving them open for others to enter, and taking an extra chair to the table so others like her can have a seat. If she continues to do this and others are doing the same, inclusivity will be the reality. The industry will be better for Black people, and all people.

Thomas has a guiding principle that grounds her while she is taking on this work. “As I serve, I nurture relationships by listening to understand, and act with kindness in all interactions.”

Her advice for Black people going into communications and public relations: “Let your lived experience be a compass, providing a gut check for communication planning and implementation. Don’t be afraid to stand up and say no. Ask questions, take up space, and challenge those around you to do better to actively stop racism.”

This POCAM BHM 2023 profile was written by POCAM steering committee member Natalie Bomberry.