I recently took a break from my work at Campbell to lead a breakout session on the arts at the University of Michigan’s second annual Men of Color Symposium hosted by Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs. The symposium is intended to create opportunities for men of color on campus to develop academically, personally, and professionally by learning from each other and from the community. The theme, “Breaking Barriers”, allowed me to share my experiences with using the arts to break barriers to create opportunities and build connections within the community.

As the session attendees and I shared our personal histories during the discussion, we found that we had many experiences and feelings in common. Much of this connection was fueled by our common interactions with music, art, dance, film, and literature. In our case, the arts weren’t merely a diversion as they are so often characterized, but a lens which helps bring into focus the world around us. Though my current work isn’t directly related to the arts, this perspective remains extremely helpful in working with a diverse portfolio of clients and programs. The arts are also a key tool for storytelling that helps both in my work environment and in my passion for breaking down barriers that inhibit our society from coming together in a “harmonious convergence”, as Carlos Santana would say.

Despite the arts being a powerful and useful tool in many non-artistic careers, we identified a significant barrier which prevented engagement in the arts, especially for men of color. Pursuits in the arts are historically seen as less practical, less lucrative, and ultimately less useful than more traditional careers. Men of color often feel an added pressure of representing our communities as we proceed through college and into careers. Thus, we are encouraged to pursue fields more commonly viewed as “successful”, which often serves as a deterrent to artistic pursuits. This attitude comes from a feeling of support and encouragement, but limits opportunities for men of color, and robs the arts sector of diverse voices and talents.

In a traditional business sense, experience in the arts is an increasingly valuable commodity. Numerous articles have been published outlining the growing importance of the arts and related “soft skills” in STEM fields (herehere, and here, for example). As the physical production of technology becomes more efficient, there is a marked increase in the number of people versed in storytelling needed to help companies establish their brand and to sell products and attract investors with compelling narratives. At Campbell, like most in the marketing communications business, helping our clients tell their stories is our bread and butter. Adding artistic tools to our toolbox, and creative voices to our teams can only serve to enhance the great work we already do.

The arts are a gift that often shakes us from our comfort zones, opens our eyes to things previously unseen, and connects us with the world in ways we wouldn’t connect otherwise. Beginning a journey with new and unfamiliar work can be intimidating, but it is not a path that needs be traveled solo.

My takeaway from my time at the Men of Color Symposium? We need to make a point of finding people who are passionate about things we’d like to learn more about, and ask them to share their experiences with us. Like we did at the Breaking Barriers session, need to use love, our knowledge, and our experience with the arts to connect with others outside of our usual circle… and break those barriers, one song, one poem, one person at a time.