If there’s been an upside to this extended “grounding” that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for my normally hustling and bustling work life, it’s been the ability to return to the kitchen on a more regular basis. A life that was frequently reduced to Daily Harvest, more frequent than strictly necessary takeout orders, and the type of fridge and pantry foraging that would help many a chef on Chopped has been interrupted, and replaced with new ways to combine ingredients sent in a CSA or picked by the availability of Imperfect Foods. It’s a kind of creativity that I’m embracing wholeheartedly.
In the earlier days of quarantine, much of that utilization was guided with joy by recipes and videos developed by the Bon Appetít Test Kitchen. I showered effusive praise on this collective of cooks and chefs earlier this year here and here connecting the success of their YouTube channel to the tenets of creativity. But as quarantine has worn on, and the world has started paying more attention to the racial injustice inherent in so many systems – policing, first and foremost, but also journalism and media – Bon Appetít found itself rightly implicated.
In my speaking, consulting, and writing, I talk about heart as the ability to create, innovate, and build with people in mind. I always say or share, if you leave with nothing else from our time together, I want you to embark upon the creative process with three questions in mind:
- who could this idea, when executed this way, help?
- who could it potentially hurt?
- how can I execute this idea in a way that I can maximize the former, and minimize the latter?
As I dug further into the story, a thought kept nagging at me:
This is what creativity without heart looks like.
You have to understand: for Black and Brown folks, it’s not a surprise to learn that the people who made the things you love couldn’t be bothered to think of you. The need to reckon with whether or not to support these entities isn’t new to us. And so, while I wasn’t surprised to learn that contributors of color were asked to do so for far less pay (or for free), were regularly discounted in conversations about what would be “popular” or of interest to readers, and in many cases were doing more work than would be expected of their white counterparts, it did sting to see how much of it was built into the organization’s systems by powerful people.
This is what creativity without heart looks like.
Yes, Bon Appetít built a method of contributor engagement that yielded wild popularity. But they did so while relegating certain chefs to contributions in a perceived wheelhouse, while taking on select international cuisines without proper research or consultation and eschewing entire swaths of culinary tradition for being “inaccessible” to home cooks, and perpetuated a wide pay inequity in their own ranks.
This is what creativity without heart looks like.
I’ve spent a lot of time and done a lot of reading into what happened. And while I may never know the full details of the situation, I’ve been able to glean some insight on what I think happened from that research. In my estimation, the Test Kitchen in its most recent iteration helped many at the magazine build a high profile with readers, making the whole enterprise more profitable and bringing fame (and some money) to the celebrities they created.
In the process, it hurt not only the creators and contributors of color who couldn’t share in that success alongside members of their own team, but also readers who shared cultural heritage or solidarity with those creators. It hurt wide swaths of the worldwide community whose food couldn’t rise to any level of visibility until a white chef “riffed” on it, often without their input. And the system all of this operated under, was built to keep the former going at the expense of the latter.
What can I do, as a fan forced once again to reckon with my part in a fandom that in many ways cared very little about me? I can use it as a cautionary tale in my own circle of influence. And so, just as I spent time exploring how my framework for cultivating creativity built this phenomenon up, I want to spend some time exploring how the same process – conducted without heart – can hurt an organization and the people it seeks to impact.
Allies, Advocates, + Activators
As I noted back in January about the idea of allies, advocates, and activators in the BATK,
By my definition, having allies, advocates, and activators in the creative process means having people in positions of influence who not only support creative ideas, but help you troubleshoot them, advance them with their authority, and present opportunities for creators and their ideas to succeed.
The effectiveness of any endeavor depends highly on buy-in from individuals at the top, people in the organization with high levels of influence. By all accounts, some of the most damning decisions that contributed to this culture sat in editorial roles. Former editor in chief Adam Rapoport and former Conde Nast Video Programming Head Matt Duckor made many of the decisions that guided the direction of BA’s many content verticals, and have had to step down as the full detail of their actions was revealed.
From “microaggressions” (in quotes because their size bears little relation to their impact) like calling employees by the wrong name, to far more persistent inequities in pay (most notably, to Associate Test Kitchen Editor Sohla El-Waylly and Rapoport’s assistant Ryan Hartshorn-Walker) and opportunity, it’s clear that individuals at the top of the organization were negligent at best, malicious at worst, in protecting a certain “look” for the brand.
It matters to talk about this because it may be happening in your organization right now. Certain moves may be made under the stated guise of marketability, popularity – or honestly? Just plain ease. But that doesn’t make these moves right. Organizations that care about creativity – as a whole, but especially a version that prizes equity and justice – need to recognize that if these knowledge gaps persist at the top, willful or otherwise, the effects will be felt at all levels of the organization.
In addition to being a systemic injustice, the product of antiquated thinking, and an inhumane practice, building an organization that is inequitable and unjust is a failure of imagination. And even as BA may have shown itself to be innovative in some areas, its oversights on this front show that failure of imagination in significant ways.
Contributors like Rick Martinez, Priya Krishna, Hawa Hassan and Sohla El-Waylly have all indicated that their cooking talents were largely relegated to cuisines that reflected their ethnic background, in the case of Hawa, she was contracted expressly for three videos for Black History Month. In contrast, white chefs were able to boundlessly tackle cuisines from all corners of the world (when deemed marketable). I think about this often, particularly in the context of a quote I once read about diversity panels – on which I’ve often been asked to serve: “less panels on diversity, more diversity on panels.”
People of color hold far more value than their ability to “diversify” a space. Their skill in a field, trade, or area of expertise isn’t less than, it’s different – different in that it’s informed by a worldview that those in the majority don’t experience. A broadminded viewpoint here would allow everyone the space to experiment, with equal levels of faith that they can get the job done—and, as we’ll get to in a moment, equitable compensation for doing so.
In the Cultivating Creativity framework, I distinguish Collaboration from its near-peer concept Allies, Advocates, and Activators with one word: power. In theory, the former refers to cooperative work that’s happening in a peer relationship across organizational levels, while the latter requires approval and understanding from upper levels. However, collaboration is challenging when there’s a power differential between people or groups who should be equal.
I think about this when considering a part of the testimony that Associate Editor Sohla El-Waylly shared. She discusses being asked to contribute to video content for other chefs in the kitchen, despite being paid considerably less than them and getting no additional compensation for on-camera work. To all outer appearances, everyone involved was on equal footing; in fact, many of her colleagues later remarked that they didn’t actually know of the disparity (and I believe them; given the way we talk about money socially and organizationally, it happens all the time). This matters because arrangements like this—where people of color are continually asked to show up to make others’ work better, with no recognition or appropriate compensation for that burden—only further inequities and injustice. El-Waylly was right to speak up about it, even at great professional risk, and so much of this story hit me as hard as it because I’ve been in Sohla’s position, and it hurt. It was exhausting. It was heavy. And that weight being carried around by Black and Brown members of any organization is (among other things) inequitable and unjust.
Now that there’s some sense of the problems at hand, the second half will talk a bit about what’s needed to move forward in a different way. Bear in mind: these are far from the only things needed, but they’re a start.
Determination + Execution
These are related concepts, and I’ll try to cover them quickly. In my mind, determination is the ability to persist through a tough problem; execution is the wherewithall to voice possible solutions. Successful and equitable creative teams need both to keep hopes up when tackling challenging problems. Why? Because creative problem solving always, always, always takes longer than we think it will. And particularly when the problems at hand are as deeply personal as these, it’s easy to burn out.
Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of answers here. And in truth, a big part of that is that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an organization go about this the right way. Oh sure, a lot think they have. They’ve held listening forums, and formed committees, and put someone in power to oversee diversity efforts for the organization (See my take on that in the Broadmindedness section). It’s not to say that these initiatives can’t work, but what I will say is that I’m yet to see them executed in a way that yields sustainable change. They’re stopgap measures built within an existing structure; if the needed solution is to break that structure down and build anew, they can’t be effective.
What it seems that the team at BA (and their parent company Conde Nast, and their larger industry of journalism and media) needs to prepare themselves for, is the possibility that the whole experience needs to be broken down and rebuilt in a way that allows people to work in a way where multiple mindsets, skillsets, and lived experiences are factored in. Determination means allowing the time it will take to do this, and execution means using that time to develop a culture where more and differing voices are listened to with equal authority. This takes real work beyond talking, sharing experiences, and kicking out a few powerful folks at the top.
As I think about this last piece in the “creativity without heart” part of the puzzle, it feels the most familiar in my day-to-day world. Many have expressed an interest in listening and learning, as those who have been underrepresented, underresourced, and unheard come forward with stories of neglect and pain. And some of those many have legitimately done so. For BA’s part, their weekly newsletter has dedicated what once was a letter to the editor, to updating readers on their organizational progress in this area. But when it’s time to act, the story can often change. Because acting on that new knowledge is fraught with worry. “What if I get it wrong?”
When I talk about this in lectures, I reassure people on this point…by confirming their fears. “Of course you’re going to get it wrong.” That’s how we learn. I still bear a big scar on my knee from when I skidded riding my bike. And I wear a cap on my front left tooth from when, a few years later, I flew over the handlebars and took the brunt of the fall with my mouth. But I learned how to ride a bike, and I’ll have that skill for as long as I’m able-bodied enough to use it. As we seek to build a new version of this world together, those who have been shielded from the harder realities of their Black and Brown counterparts will fall. Sometimes hard, and sometimes injurious ways. This means saying the wrong thing to someone by accident. This means overlooking certain factors that might make a search more equitable and open. This means clumsy conversations, confrontations, and grappling with real pain. All of that is necessary.
To put it in culinary terms: you’ll nick the tips of your fingers. You’ll burn some toast. You might even start an actual fire in the kitchen. But no one ever learned to cook without doing any of that. So if the photogenic and delicious final product means anything to you, you’ll stumble through the learning – and unlearning and relearning – it takes to get there. And if you put your heart in the right place along the way, you’ll find yourself surrounded with fellow cooks in the kitchen to support you on your way there.