ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM:  Lighting’s Diversity Problem

By Paul Pompeo

This is the unabridged version, click here to view the edited version.

About 10 years ago we had a panel column in LD+A titled “Women in Lighting.”  As I worked to recruit my panelists, one senior (VP level) professional at a major (big three) lighting manufacturer at first expressed excitement about being on the panel, but later withdrew her name after she had concerns on whether it would negatively affect her role with her company.  With the events of this year, it seemed timely to reprise the concept of our earlier panel, but this time to focus on black lighting professionals to get their viewpoints of how they see our industry and to hear their experiences.  It’s been said that it’s hard to judge someone’s experience unless you’ve walked in their shoes, and with each panelist I found I learned something during our dialogue.  By the time you’ve finished reading this, I hope you have a similar experience.  Regardless of your background or experience, I ask you, dear reader to please keep an open mind and I hope you find our discussion interesting and informative.

Special thanks goes to Karyn Gayle (formerly of Acuity Brands, now VP Vice President of Brand Services at ØPUS United), whose guidance and suggestions were invaluable as I explored my concept for this month’s column; she at many times provided me much-needed direction and context.  For this panel I wanted to get a cross section of our industry, both from segments (lighting design, manufacturing, distribution, rep agencies and the ESCO segment) as well as parts of the country—from the East coast to the West, to the Central and Southern U.S.   Thanks to our panel who were generous with their time as well as their thoughts and feelings!  Our panel consisted of Nathalie Faubert (Senior Associate at Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design [CBBLD]), Laura Dandridge Gaines (Specification Sales Agent, Performance Lighting Systems),  Jean Jacques (Executive Vice President, SDA Lighting), Travis Jones (President & CEO at Jones Consulting Services), Chris Primous (Vice President of OEM Sales and Industry Relations, Maxlite) and Turquoise L. Shaw (President of Blue Lighting Consultants).

POMPEO: Throughout your career, have you experienced any micro-aggressions that made you feel apart or different, or ‘other?’ If so, how did you handle these situations?

PRIMOUS: Sure. In my case, especially since I do a lot of speaking and training sessions, it typically took the form of someone commenting that I was very “articulate” or that I “speak very well.” My approach in response to such statements was typically to let it go and NOT feel the need to call the person out. In some social situations, I may have turned it into a joke and pushed the same comment back on them, but most of the time I wouldn’t call the person out since these are the kinds of things I have unfortunately come to expect when working in mixed culture environments.

JACQUES: I am sure I’m not the only one having to learn new terminology in our current climate: micro-aggression, ally, BIPOC to name a few. To put it plainly, racism surrounds us. I don’t have the luxury of ignoring it, whereas others might, so the answer to your first question is yes, absolutely. The second question you posed here is a complex one.  The question assumes that there exists a certain level of control one might exercise when being faced with racism or bias. It should be addressed whenever possible but oftentimes there is no “handling” of the situation, in some circumstances the situation just is.  To assume a victim at the same time holds power to act or react to some of these offenses is an assumption that is not always accurate. Further complications arise in those cases where those perpetrating or allowing the offensive act are part of the power structure and could be those that you would in theory turn to for support. There are also those scenarios where the transgression is so subtle to the uninitiated that any reaction is seen as an overreaction, now the slighted is quietly labeled as being too sensitive. As I said, it can be a complicated dynamic.

FAUBERT: At the beginning of my career I worked on a project which required doing site meetings and visits.  At those meetings, I was the only woman, the only person of color, and the youngest person.  One of the contractors was very intimidating and would bully me.  Being so young and lacking confidence, I would not react.  One day, someone on the team took me aside and told me that I needed to react by “yelling back”.  It was how I would get some respect.  I appreciated the person telling me but was shocked that I needed to “yell back” to be heard.  I took their advice and finally got the respect I deserved.  In this case, I thought I was at a “disadvantage” for multiple reasons, so I am not sure which of the 3 of the “shortcomings” allowed for the micro-aggression…

I grew in Haiti where 99.5% of the populations is black.  Growing up in an environment where everyone is the same, I was naïve about micro-aggressions.  When I traveled abroad and moved to NYC, if I faced micro-aggressions, I would always think that the person did not like me, for unknown reasons, instead of facing reality.

JONES: Yes.  I have been told black jokes over the phone from callers who were unaware of my race.  I simply moved the conversation on to different topics.

SHAW: The ways I handled it was to make sure I didn’t comply to their preconceived notions or stereotypes of African Americans.  Making sure I was early for meetings, being positive and making sure I’m a team player because often times black women are viewed as angry and aggressive.  Often times you will get an aggressive tone right away mostly from white men and then once they realized that you are polite, calm and friendly they change their tone.

POMPEO: Have there been times when you were ready for advancement, but felt that it did not materialize because of the color of your skin?

PRIMOUS: In my case, if this has been a factor, I am not aware this has been a particular issue.

JACQUES: I’ve been fortunate not to have experienced that in my professional career.  When I first joined Continental Lighting as an administrative assistant 25 years ago, I unknowingly stumbled into my home for the next 17 years.  There I was appreciated, respected and given every opportunity to build a path to ownership. Most recently in my 8 years at SDA Lighting after our merger, I find myself surrounded by an amazing team… it’s been a wonderful continuation of that path, unencumbered.

JONES: Yes.  I have twice been told privately by senior management members further advancement was not possible because of my race.

POMPEO: What role can mentors play for minority lighting professionals?

PRIMOUS: The lighting industry is already one that is not likely on the radar of most people when they are seeking a career.  It certainly wasn’t on mine, and wouldn’t have ever been until a college friend got a job in the industry, and one of the larger lighting companies actively recruited engineers on my college campus.

I think the more that minority professionals are visible and active within the industry, and engaging with alumni, community, and social groups; and making it known what type of work they are involved in,  it will help attract others to pursue opportunities in lighting.  I’m always surprised (when I tell people what I do) at the level of interest that people I meet randomly, or even those connected with me through social platforms are actually very interested in the work that we do.

Also, for those minority professionals that have positions of power high within the industry, it is important to get involved in the referral and recruiting process and actively help to bring more minorities into your company or other companies within the industry.

JACQUES: Mentorship is critical in my opinion but not only in terms of professional mentorship.  I believe we need to expand the mentorship conversation even further. I would propose we flip the equation altogether and look at the issue from the other end.  Let’s engage the youth, plant the seed in middle school 7th – 8th graders and at the high school level. In part this conversation has to do with the access and availability.  In psychology the concept of availability basically suggests that individuals evaluate the probability of an event occurring based on how easy it is to imagine. How can you imagine yourself as a future lighting designer if you don’t know the field even exists and instead lives outside of your reality?  We need to provide access to the lighting profession at the earliest stages through mentorship and outreach programs.

FAUBERT: Mentors can play multiple roles.  One, prove to the younger generation that they will be accepted and respected in the industry.  The lighting industry, in NYC, is welcoming and is international. There are so many people from around the world.  Two, schedule one on one meetings with mentees to discuss their path and answer any questions they may be too shy to ask in public.  Three, introduce them to their peers, by tagging along with them to events.  Networking is key.  That said, I think everyone starting in the industry should have a mentor.

JONES: Mentors are important for anyone in any profession.  While it is more important to find mentors in your specific area of interest, it is also helpful have mentors from the same group i.e. female to female, black to black, etc…

SHAW: Mentors are very important—my current mentor is Asian. We’re both female and minorities so it’s easy to talk with her and were able to chat about similar experiences.  As well as encourage one another and recommend self-help books to read. We speak once a month and I truly look forward to own conversations.

DANDRIDGE: Mentoring is everything.  I would not have moved forward in this career without mentors being receptive to an unknown young woman reaching out for a conversation.  I have always felt very connected to my mentors and still feel a responsibility to not just do well but to succeed.  Strangely enough, when I started in architectural lighting, I worked for two women who were absolute powerhouses, but I struggled to see any black people anywhere.  I remember many years ago, sitting down to google “black lighting designers” and Ed Bartholomew was the top result.  I said to myself, “well, then I am not the only, only one,” and without him knowing it, he became a mentor by proxy.  Reflecting on that moment, I realize the importance of being seen literally, in a photograph, and being seen as a black person when too many willfully practice colorblindness.  There is an unspoken confidence and security in seeing other people that look like you out there.  I realize that may be hard to understand if you are able to look out from your desk and see an office full of similar faces, but the power of inclusion when you’re in the minority should never be underestimated.

POMPEO: What one thing can the industry do differently to recruit, support and train employees of color?

PRIMOUS: The lighting industry is already one that is not likely on the radar of most people when they are seeking a career.  It certainly wasn’t on mine, and wouldn’t have ever been until a college friend got a job in the industry, and one of the larger lighting companies actively recruited engineers on my college campus.

I think the more that minority professionals are visible and active within the industry, and engaging with alumni, community, and social groups; and making it known what type of work they are involved in,  it will help attract others to pursue opportunities in lighting.  I’m always surprised (when I tell people what I do) at the level of interest that people I meet randomly, or even those connected with me through social platforms are actually very interested in the work that we do.

Also, for those minority professionals that have positions of power high within the industry, it is important to get involved in the referral and recruiting process and actively help to bring more minorities into your company or other companies within the industry.

JACQUES: I think my commentary on early outreach and mentorship can in part help to address the recruitment issue in time.   Once hired, I don’t think people of color require anything different in terms of training more so than any other group.  In my opinion, we certainly don’t want the spotlight for being black, I’m not different, I don’t want to be treated differently-I just want to be treated equally. Corporate leaders and ownership need to ensure that there are clear pathways to upward mobility within the corporate structure, free of any bias. Access to leadership has to be equalized. Mentorship within the workplace should also be reviewed and assessed.  If there is opportunity for advancement, we need to make sure all are afforded equal participation based on their contributions.

FAUBERT: This question goes beyond the lighting industry.  It is for all design fields and beyond.  Students from high school (or earlier grades) should be exposed to the various fields instead of them trying figure it out with little guidance.

To put in perspective, I went to university for my bachelor’s degree in Philadelphia where I studied Interior Design.  There, architecture and interior design students had multiple classes together and were in the same building.  If I am not mistaken, between both programs, we were 4 black students out of a class of 50+ students, and none of us were from Philly.  A conclusion would be that the school of architecture did not recruit in their own backyard.

A thought would be for the Lighting organizations to do outreach programs in predominately black (and minority) high schools.  They could go to the schools to talk to students about lighting and promote the industry.  For the students that express interest, invite them to visit lighting studios, to participate in weekend programs at universities offering a lighting education, or attend trade shows where they are assigned to lighting professionals to show them around.  Small initiatives go a long way.

JONES: Hiring attributes such as talent, work ethic, teamwork, creativity, and intelligence can be found in every race, gender, and sexuality.  If the goal is to increase minority participation in the lighting industry, earlier intervention is required for those who might not reach their potential due to difficult circumstances beyond their control.  The industry can help by increasing the number of ELIGIBLE minority candidates for hire.  They could support programs which augment educational, economical, and/or familial gaps in order to establish more qualified candidates.

DANDRIDGE: The answer is simple in recognition but more difficult in practice.  We can reach out to a younger, broader audience.  In order to make a change, we have to recognize that improvements can be made.  As an industry, we should be encouraging participation from all students in an aggressive manner from all areas of built-environment educational fields, not just waiting for the architects who decide which lighting they like better or the electrical engineering students who have a good eye.  We should be stepping out into the world to announce our existence as an industry worthy of all students’ time and that includes reaching out to communities that have regularly been ignored.  As a point of clarification, I believe these communities have been ignored not because of intentional racism, but because there are typically no people of color in the room to steer committees or professionals in the more inclusive direction. However, in order to reach out to historically black colleges and universities, high schools with major populations of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC), and summer camps or internships that cater to minority occupied parts of the city, someone has to raise the question of inclusion in the room when these opportunities are being created and it is hard to make that change for people of color when that perspective is not present.

SHAW:  I think what would have been beneficial to me when I was working for an employer to provide someone within the company (if possible) of color to mentor me. And help you transition into the company culture.

POMPEO: There seem to be very few black female sales/sales management professionals in lighting—why might that be the case?

PRIMOUS: Actually, going back to my college days, there were very few black people in engineering, and among those few, even fewer women. So, much of it starts very early in how much, or how little, minority groups are exposed to certain career paths.

JONES: Judging outcomes can be deceptive.  If there are few black female sales/sales management applicants, then their low representation in this field is logical.  I would have to study data on this issue to know whether or not low representation in this field is actually a problem.

DANDRIDGE: Honestly, there are so few black people in lighting, it just makes demographic sense for there to be so few in the sales division of our industry.  And, unfortunately, I don’t know many women like me, yet that was also the case when I was an architectural lighting designer, and the case when I was a theatrical designer. So, while I can’t answer the exact reason as to why there are so few black women in sales, what I can speak to are the concerns that I have as a black woman in sales.  Like most salespeople, I want to win.  I want to be great.  I want to achieve the next level, get the sale and have the most impact possible.  There is a certain level of aggressiveness that comes with that mindset.  My biggest fear is that I have interactions with people who think of me as not assertive or business minded or even focused, but instead as angry.  I do not want my passion or my sharpness to somehow read as anger because I think the stereotype of being an angry black woman is always lurking.  I don’t work in fear of it, but I do think it causes equivocation while determining how to navigate certain situations.

POMPEO: What is the one question I should have asked you that I didn’t?

FAUBERT: Do you think the industry will be more inclusive in the next year, and next 5 to 10 years?

JONES: What is the goal for minorities in the lighting industry?  My answer:  to get to a place where immutable characteristics are irrelevant.

SHAW: Given the recent events that have transpired over this year and with more people becoming aware of the injustices against African American, how will this affect the lighting industry in a positive manner?

DANDRIDGE: Why is any of this important?  Why is it important to have conversations specifically about black people and why should people care?  I think about that specific question when I am prompted for conversations about race or George Floyd or all the current events with colleagues of mine.  Am I engaging in a conversation with someone who genuinely cares about my opinion, or its context, and is willing to listen? Or are they just waiting for their turn to speak, or even worse, to argue? I think what makes it so important is that there is a collective recognition happening that the unique experience of black people in this country is not the same experience of our friends and colleagues.  I believe that we can start there then we move forward towards an understanding of how to help and use these moments to broaden opinions, practices and businesses.  I try to refrain from making sweeping statements of the status of others or of their beliefs, but from the conversations I have had with allies, the most common position seems to be a general lack of understanding, not ill will.  If we harness the power in acknowledgement and not blame, we can work together to help address inequality.  Our collective progress hinges on expanding our understanding of other perspectives and how simply just reaching out can help lift the invisible weight that often accompanies being the only, the first, or the other.

POMPEO: Any other thoughts anyone else would like to add?

 PRIMOUS: Especially during this constant news loop of black people being killed by law enforcement, continued protests and unrest, and global pandemic issues, there is quite a bit of heavy weight on the minds of many black people at this time. As has been said by others, it is emotionally exhausting at times to be black these days, and sometimes tough to go about a normal workday without your mind constantly thinking about all of these concerns.

Certainly, just about all people have their own personal issues they are continually dealing with while working, but these issues of race and our place in society and in the workplace affects every single aspect of our daily life.

JACQUES: As I have more conversations regarding diversity and inclusion in the lighting industry, what we’re truly wrestling with is a societal issue, so I find it difficult to respond strictly within a lighting context.  The discussion at its center is about the struggle for equality, my having the same rights and privileges as my neighbor or colleague regardless of my skin tone. There is the stark realization that there may be those who are naturally assigned those privileges and may not fully realize the fact that those privileges aren’t assigned to us all in all situations.  In fact, it shouldn’t be a privilege at all–we’re talking about my right as a human being. But that unfortunately is not where we are today as a society…as an American society.   There is a lot to unpack here, this is a very large, complex, uncomfortable conversation. The Civil Rights Acts were passed in 1960s , the year is 2020 and we are still struggling with equality in American society based on the color of one’s skin.  Too much of the grainy black and white violence documented in Civil Rights footage is again transpiring in all too vivid high definition today.  Does that strike you as odd…six decades later?   I do genuinely feel like we are at a crossroads, we can get closer to the ideal.  But it will take continued effort, discomfort and an earnest conviction not to accept complacency and the status quo.

DANDRIDGE: While sitting down to write responses to this article, I realized that I was struggling.  I was struggling with the idea that I was entering into a place of potential controversy, in recognition that there may be personal backlash or commentary around it.  Afterall, I am a theatre-trained lighting designer.  I built a career on standing in the dark, unseen to the rest of production, and working behind the “scenes.” As the pendulum swings the other direction, I feel a responsibility, not just to point out other positions, which people are entitled to, but to also share an experience that I think should be recognized.  It is an almost paralyzing fear of stepping into the spotlight for my experience as a black woman in this industry while trying to eschew any special treatment for my experience as a black person.  My hope is that in participating, I can help open doors for dialogue and progress towards inclusion and selfishly alleviate pressure and self-equivocation about participating in further events like this.