When thinking about community-based or nonprofit organizations, in particular those that work with marginalized groups, it’s easy to stir up pity as the default emotion. The individuals these organizations serve face a wide range of challenges, from a lack of access to proper health care to economic hardship and more.
But Jamila Black sees an opportunity to flip the script — and she’s been working hard to change that narrative in her role as communications officer at Mother Cabrini Health Foundation in New York for the last few years.
She points to her recent work with a production team on a film that will showcase the lives of refugee and asylum-seeking individuals through the lens of the social determinants of health, or the environments people are born into that impact the health and quality of their lives.
In learning more about the migrant community in upstate New York through this work, Black has seen firsthand how biases can be challenged and how communicators like her can reshape the narrative to spotlight these individuals from a place of empowerment.
“We’re not telling the story of the immigrant population from a place of pity,” she says. “We’re sharing that when we help provide opportunities within the social determinants of health, we’re making a huge difference in small increments.”
A Career Centered on Uplifting Others
Black has always known she’s wanted to give back to the communities she’s been part of. Her journey to nonprofit communication started in school, studying corporate communication and PR in undergrad at the University at Albany (SUNY Albany) and later in graduate studies at New York University (NYU).
“I took one class at NYU that changed everything: Communications and Advocacy, led by Professor Stephanie Mattera, academic director and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies. She left such a beautiful impact on me,” Black recalls. Through this course, she learned how communication professionals could be part of advocacy efforts, and Black saw an opportunity to align her passion with her skills.
Since then, Black has served at impact firms and government offices, working her way to Mother Cabrini. She uses her communication and storytelling skills in the philanthropic space, focusing on grantmaking and helping fund programs for smaller nonprofits that offer direct services to communities.
“I’m able to not only be a representation of my own community, but also do the storytelling for them,” Black says, noting there’s a strong personal connection in the work she does.
“I come from things as an Afro Latino woman — and there’s a lot of stigma with that, right? So when I think about that every day, that challenges me to ask, ‘Who’s talking about me?’ If they’re writing a story about my circumstances, the things I’ve had to raise myself out of — I have to give that same respect to others. And that’s the challenge I give myself when I’m learning about other cultures and other communities,” she says.
Focusing on Delivery and Authenticity
Beyond challenging herself to become immersed in other cultures, Black knows her role as a communicator in today’s tech-forward landscape is to find the best medium that makes the story resonate.
“I ask myself, outside of using this as a write up, how am I going to challenge myself to do something visually? Am I going to take a snippet and convey it to my audience in a way that makes them feel what I felt when I heard it — all in 20 to 30 seconds?” she says, noting the diversity of platforms and mediums available today is just one challenge communicators face.
There’s also the matter of producing content that’s authentic to your audience. “We’re not writing fiction, we’re telling stories of lived experience,” Black says. “Your audience knows when you’ve made a mistake. Especially with marginalized communities, we know whether it’s genuine. We know when we have an advocate. We know when we have an ally.”
When reading her own material or the work of others, Black asks a handful of key questions: “Do I feel that this is sincere? Do I feel that this person actually cares about my culture? What happens to the advancements of my community?”
If the answer is no to any of these questions, it’s a clear sign to go back to the drawing board — but it doesn’t mean the end of the road for your organization.
Black shares an example from a recent exchange she had at a summit with other nonprofit communicators. One individual was concerned with the lack of support they had given to the LGBTQIA+ community as of late. As she and the group processed the concern in real-time, they helped this person take a step back, asking them to walk through how the situation came about and where there were gaps in their approach.
Ultimately, the group agreed that sincerity should win out. “Don’t evade what you did, but make your community feel that you’re genuinely apologetic, and share how you’re going to own up to this on a crisis communication level — and advocate for them in the long run,” Black shares.
An Empowered Future
Looking to the future of nonprofit work, and communication in particular, Black shares a message of hope and positivity. She recognizes the stereotype around nonprofits selling stories for pity or simply fundraising for a cause. There’s some truth to it, but it’s more nuanced than that. It’s a matter of “yes, and…”
Yes, you can feel sympathy for marginalized people and know they have a compelling story to share — and therein lies the role of the communicator.
Black points to another individual featured in the upcoming film as an example. “There's one woman whose family married her off to someone who was a refugee, so she had to live in an asylum camp,” Black says. “From there, she was able to leave that asylum from Nepal and make it to Syracuse, New York. She was able to get resources to provide for her children and now works as a translator. As new migrants come along, she trains them and helps them learn English as she’s learning the language herself. She’s a domestic violence survivor who’s now able to have her freedom. Her story is very touching.”
“We’re sharing the actual, valued experiences of people who are survivors. We’re sharing the lived experiences of people who are trying to do their very best,” Black says. Though it may feel as if new social issues and forms of corruption arise with each passing headline, Black firmly knows there are still people and organizations committed to doing right by others.
At the end of the day, the communicator plays a role not just in telling stories of those who need their voices amplified, but in sparking reflection outward. “Let me give you something that gives you empathy as an audience member,” Black offers. “Something that hooks you in and says — ‘There are things going on in the world that I don't even know about, that now I'm connected to, because I didn't know I was living in a sense of privilege and freedom.”
“I think those are healthy reminders,” Black says. “I don't think that it condemns anyone to acknowledge those things, because it gives people the opportunity to care about and be knowledgeable in things they weren't before.”
More About Jamila Black
As a proud New York native hailing from the vibrant South Bronx, Jamila Black brings a rich cultural background with roots in both Puerto Rican and Jamaican heritage. Black’s educational journey took her to SUNY Albany for her undergraduate studies and culminated in 2020 when she earned her Master of Science degree in Corporate Communication and Public Relations from NYU.
Throughout her career, she has cultivated a diverse skill set and a passion for making a positive impact. With a focus on event planning, healthcare and DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) communication, Black has honed her expertise in crafting compelling stories that resonate with communities in need.
Presently, Black serves as the communications officer for The Mother Cabrini Health Foundation, where she now leads both traditional and digital communication strategies. Black’s current forte lies in social media management and content production, leveraging these tools to amplify meaningful narratives and uplift the voices of marginalized groups that the foundation serves through their grant-making.
Driven by a desire to empower and uplift communities, Black is dedicated to using storytelling as a catalyst for positive change.
Kristin Frankiewicz is the IABC content manager, based in Chicago.