Mark Harrison’s ‘Aboveground Railroad’ Approach to Advancing DEI

February 1st, 2023 | Darren McAlmont, Manager, Communications & Content, Association of Canadian Advertisers

image of railroad track Marketing. Posts. Ads. Tributes. They are not enough. The marketing community needs to get into their communities, into the systems, and fix things.

For the past few decades, just like clockwork around February 1 each year, Black people saturate the media when brands and companies unveil campaigns to amplify Black representation, inclusive of people (past and present) who have made (and make) indelible impacts in this country.

But let’s face it, marketing is all about selling products and companies are all about making a profit, which makes it harder to distinguish between authentic allyship and targeted multicultural marketing.

The dark history and positive contributions of Black people to Canada have systemically been suppressed, while more undesirable narratives abound in media.

That’s why the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) was excited to speak with Mark Harrison, Founder of The T1 Agency (among others), whose brand treats Black History Month as every month of the year.

Be the change you want to see

If your company has ever wondered how to turn corporate social action into real action, Harrison’s brand is a good case study. The studies have been done and it is well documented that the Black community in this country is underserved in many essential areas, but how does your brand help to fill the gap?

As co-creator of the Black Talent Initiative, Harrison is part of a movement dedicated to offering mentorship, internships, and creating opportunities for young, Black Canadians in the marketing business.

Having also co-founded Park Street Education – the first non-profit school of its kind – the school offers experience-based, hybrid learning and works to provide accessibility and remove all barriers to children’s education.

The ‘Aboveground Railroad’ Approach

To get an idea of how Harrison centers diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at T1, he quipped about an approach he dubs the Aboveground Railroad, in honour of the 30,000 enslaved people who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, including his own family.

The framework, he added, is made simple by following five steps whenever he talks to corporations. He remarked that he is consistent in his messages when he encourages them to…

  • Create Equity: go against the grain to give opportunities to those who deserve it.
  • Amplify Voices: speak up for those with different circumstances or abilities.
  • Reimagine ecosystems: move past the expansion of recruiting practices and look at issues such as Black kids getting expelled 4 times as often as white kids in Toronto, and focus on developing new schools.
  • Demand Results: speak boldly for the Indigenous communities in Canada that still do not have clean water on a full time basis.
  • Protect Belonging: create a world where no matter what you look like, your last name, who you love, how you move, or your identity, you feel you can be in a safe space in our company and our society.

A problem bigger than the marketing community

The lack of representation and inclusion is bigger than the marketing community – a point Harrison was sure to make clear. The systems around us were not built to be inclusive of other perspectives and people; however, the marketing community needs to rectify diversity, equity, and inclusion at its core.

“Marketing. Posts. Ads. Tributes. They are not enough. The marketing community needs to get into their communities, into the systems, and fix things,” Harrison emphasized.

Harrison also made it a point to clarify that the change required will not be immediate, but it can start today when the marketing community starts to focus on lending support to the school system, rental support, livable wages, advocacy, government policies, etc.

Now, the question is, what is your brand’s cause? And how do you help to create the change for a more equitable and just society?

Led by the ACA’s DEI committee, this article is second in the ACA’s new blog series titled Mission Possible: Championing DEI. The series aim is to provide tangible tools and resources to help drive systemic change for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the Canadian marketing landscape.

Darren McAlmont headshotDarren McAlmont, Digital Marketing Specialist, Association of Canadian Advertisers

Darren is an award-winning writer who focuses his work primarily on matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. His writings have often trended on social media and have been picked up and reposted by respected figures doing DEI work. Darren holds a master’s degree in Rhetoric and Communication Design from the University of Waterloo and a bachelor’s degree in English and Professional Writing from York University.