Nicole McKinney: Focusing a lens on systemic causes of unconscious bias

—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—

As a passionate entrepreneur, Nicole McKinney‘s latest endeavour as founder and director of Waking the unConscious, is by far her most important.

Her motivation is to continue the legacy of her father Dr. David W McKinney Jr.’s work, which spanned more than 70 years and centred on anti-Black racism in both the United States and Canada.

For several years now, many organizations have been publicly discussing DEI plans and initiatives. To McKinney, these well-intentioned programs often focus on telling people how to behave, versus showing them how to be open to other perspectives and create meaningful connections.

“The thesis for my work is: if we truly want to find common ground and Wake the unConscious, relational change has to start with the individual,” she says. The core premise of “Wake the unConscious” is to focus a lens on both the systemic and relational dynamics of issues such as anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and unconscious bias.

When she began in 2018, it was easy to get meetings with organizations, although most were not willing to commit to the work. But in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, many companies decided DEI was urgent. That changed the landscape for her organization, though there continues to be a challenge with organizations only committing to a performative aspect of this work.

“In many cases the traditional approach to DEI training hasn’t worked in creating a more equitable, inclusive and opportunistic place for leadership and growth for BIPOC employees,” McKinney says. Wake the unConscious’ work takes a different approach, focusing on the mindset of those of privilege who need to look at their biases and identity to be able to understand the barriers they create for others, but are unaware of.

For lasting change, companies must realize that not doing this work will equate to a huge financial loss, including a decline in innovation and creativity, as well as workforce attrition, says McKinney. The workforce is changing, and 75% will be millennials by 2025. This new generation has a different sense of humanity and will be intolerant to the exclusionary behaviours that discount all those who are other.

Her advice to younger generations is to recognize they have already demonstrated their power and leadership in the global BLM movement.

“Your voices matter,” she says. “And the best gift they can give themselves is to use that voice in any and all situations to showcase their abilities.”

Reflecting back to her great, great, great grandmother, Gracie Bragg, and a certificate which documents her freedom as a slave in 1865 from her slave owner Samuel B. Bragg, reminds McKinney of the shoulders she stands upon as she continues to carry the baton for her ancestors.

“We all must be the change we want to see in this world,” she says.

This POCAM BHM 2023 profile was written by Aleena Mazhar, SVP and managing director, partner at FUSE Create, and a steering committee member of POCAM.