How Recognition Can Empower and Inspire Black Excellence
During Black History Month in the US and Canada, adidas has focused on giving recognition to Black women for their contributions to community and culture. Find out how art director Bernadette Little uses her perspective and position to recognize others.
Historically, women, Black women, have not been recognized for their contributions to culture and to the workplace. Efforts are being made now to correct those wrongs, but it’s so important that people are recognized for the work that they do, and often the vast amount of work that they do goes unnoticed.
“It's important for folks outside of this company, or any corporate space, to be able to see and recognize people who look like themselves, who come from the places they come from, doing things or performing jobs they might not have known existed. ”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
I always tell people I didn’t know my job was a job until I got here. People say “adidas” and you immediately think footwear or clothing designer, but there’s an infinite galaxy of jobs and possibilities that exist.
From dragons to design
When I was a junior in college, I got really lucky when some adidas recruiters came to my school looking for footwear designers. I was studying illustration and product design and my illustration teacher somehow got a couple of spots for illustration kids to meet with the recruiters. I met Lucy Nobles, one of the recruiters, and that meeting completely opened my path to a career I hadn’t imagined.
“At the time I got my first internship, I was just appreciative that someone was gonna pay me to do something artsy on this scale. ”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
I was hired as an intern in Global Brand Design. I don’t think they knew exactly what to do with me at first, but I was fun and had an interesting portfolio full of like dragons and cute illustrations and stuff like that. I was like “yo, I bet I’m gonna be a comic book artist. I’m gonna work for Marvel.” At the time I got my first internship, I was just appreciative that someone was gonna pay me to do something artsy on this scale.
My department was new, and I knew a little bit of 3D design, so I helped out with that, assisted with a couple of event spaces, and did some concepts for ads. As the department grew and I grew, I made my way over into doing more art direction.
Accepted, acknowledged and appreciated
“A mentor, more than anything, is a person who makes time and is present during that time that they have with you. ”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
My internship ended, and for a time I pieced together some other opportunities until I found my way back to Global Brand Design at adidas. The department had grown, and I dove into learning art direction and photoshoots with some great mentors. This is gonna sound really simplistic, but a mentor, more than anything, is a person who makes time and is present during that time that they have with you. Many of my mentors were senior to me, but when the conversation started and the relationships grew, they talked to me as if my perspective mattered. It was always like, “I’m coming to you as a whole person, here are my experiences and pain. I’m ready to receive yours within this strange corporate sphere that we exist in.”
Being able to stay with the same team for a long time and get a second education with folks who are invested in you and want you to grow made all the difference. My experience has been really life changing because I’ve been able to do things and travel to places I never thought I would be able to.
“I'm just a little girl from Baltimore who likes to draw dragons in her little sketchbook. ”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
I think we all want to be accepted and acknowledged… especially in the world that we live in now. You can feel like you’re not being appreciated. I’m privileged to be at this job, sitting on the computer from home, but you know, even in that privileged state, it can be exhausting, so I think recognition goes a long way for morale.
Paying it forward
I’m now in a position where I am leading a team and I try to keep recognition in mind for my team members. It’s super important to acknowledge everyone’s efforts.
“Recognition, even for the mundane things, goes such a long way for people to feel appreciated. It does not have to be difficult to express gratitude towards someone else. ”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
Last summer I had an intern on my team. People sign up to be interns to learn, but in that experience I learned just as much from her. She was brilliant. I’m like “girl, you could take my job tomorrow.” The experience was an opportunity to not only instill information but also gain insight from someone with a different perspective. Similar to how my 3D modeling knowledge was useful to my team during my internship, she was a computer science major and applied her knowledge of information systems for our team. The fact that she was a young Black woman made her contributions even more important.
Creating with purpose
“We’re still working on photo shoots and ad campaigns, but if we take a step back, there’s a grander purpose behind it all. ”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
We have a grand opportunity with the financial backing and platform that adidas comes with to actually have a positive influence and change people’s lives. We’re still working on photo shoots and ad campaigns, but if we take a step back, there’s a grander purpose behind it all.
After the past two years with COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement, I have come to realize my privilege even more so than before. Being in a position to create imagery, create content, create messaging at a global level is really big responsibility. I want to make things that are positive representations of Black culture, accurate representations of my culture.
I got involved with the Honoring Black Excellence (HBE) campaign at adidas in 2019 right when the pandemic was starting. As 2020 unfolded I saw something important happening within adidas with the formation of a Black Coalition in response to the cultural and global awakening inside and outside of our company. Design help was needed, so I jumped in and that morphed into a long-term project to establish creative direction and visual guidance and then working to create the voice for HBE as well.
HBE is all about recognizing the full experience and influence of Black people using adidas platforms and visibility. The goal of HBE is to educate and inspire. Throughout the year, we highlight honorees through the lens of sports or activities celebrating the achievements of Black individuals and Black culture, giving recognition, or “flowers while they’re still here.”
Honoring Black Excellence removes stereotypes. Creative direction for HBE came down to demystifying the whole thing, like, how do you talk to Black folk? How do you approach Black folk? How do you photograph Black people?
“Having the humility to allow folks to present their own stories and capture them in an authentic way is at the core of how we do things.”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
Our approach is to just go to the people who know what they’re talking about, to tell stories, but not try to embed the story. Don’t try to create a story that’s not there. Photograph people and their wholeness, their full colors and light. There’s no reason to play into Black tropes with black and white heavy imagery or some downtrodden story. Stories like those can be true too, but that’s not everything that Black culture is.
Having the humility to allow folks to present their own stories and capture them in an authentic way is at the core of how we do things. One of our campaigns, Welcome to the Kingdom, took this approach really well.
Uplifting colleagues and communities
For Welcome to the Kingdom, the team found people in New York who were doing beneficial things for their community. The campaign featured a basketball coach, somebody in her neighborhood who was exploring design, a small business owner and others. They were all connected to sport or style, but they weren’t trying to orchestrate some crazy big thing.
The campaign celebrated regular people and their stories in full color, with dope videos, interesting interviews, bright photography, and with quotes pulled directly from their stories. The campaign uplifted folks and celebrated the normal. In my eyes, that really met the mark.
It’s always great to be seen and felt for who you are and your endeavors. I feel like I’ve been lucky enough have folks around me who go out their way to recognize me or recognize my efforts.
“I’m compensated for my efforts and my work, but that’s just not the path for a lot of folks.”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
“Make it your business to understand who is there, day after day, putting in long hours making stuff happen. ”Bernadette Little, Senior Manager Art Direction Studio A
So, what can companies like adidas keep doing to provide recognition? Make it your business to understand who is there, day after day, putting in long hours making stuff happen.
I was the only Black woman in my department for several years. It’s critical to continue to remove barriers to help more Black women get to the spot that I’m in, and then invest and grow Black female talent. Recognize the folks who are doing the work and then invest more to grow the pool of Black talent who are growing with your company and getting their voices heard.
It really is like kind of simple. If you have the people in the room, just uplift them. Allow them to speak.