In early 2020, I landed a major influencer marketing contract with an internationally-recognized brand – one that has been around for over a hundred years and one that has undoubtedly become a household name. (I’m unable to share the name of the brand due to a non-disclosure agreement.) 

I was traveling to my homeland in the Philippines when I got their email pitching me to join their campaign as part of the “family” working to promote their line of fruit juices. It was a fairly-compensated opportunity and even came with a photographer who would work with me to develop content for one particular story idea. 

Needless to say, I was extremely excited about the opportunity.  

Justine Abigail Yu on a beach lounge chair

More than just the money and the legitimacy of such an established brand as a client, I was thrilled because they hired exclusively Black influencers and influencers of colour. 

The entire campaign was focused on celebrating Canada’s diversity and multiculturalism. Influencers who they were already working with were sharing photos and videos on how they pair the juices with different meals of their cultural cuisines, how the fruits used are actually native to their own lands, and generally sharing pieces of their culture that they hold with pride. 

It was refreshing and powerful. 

The brand even came to me prepared with an entire pitch deck with a storyboard of ideas of how I might highlight not only their product, but also parts of my culture as a Filipina. 

As the founder of Living Hyphen, a community that explores the experiences of people living in between cultures and aims to amplify diverse voices all across Canada, and as a community leader in the Filipino community here in Toronto, it was wonderfully on-brand for me and I just couldn’t wait to share the news and promote the product!

Justine Abigail Yu posing in front of a lush green background holding a tropical juice in one hand

But alas, the brand alignment was a little too good to be true…

When Big Brands Stay Silent on Social Justice

Just a couple of months into our collaboration, the Black Lives Matter movement shook up and dominated the mainstream consciousness. Online and offline, my networks were mobilizing to support the fight against systemic racism and I was right there with them. 

Activism work is not new to me. In fact, I’ve been working in the social justice space for over a decade now, but this most recent wave of BLM felt different. There was an urgency in mainstream society that I hadn’t felt or seen before. 

And so I worked feverishly calling my local city council urging them to defund the police while also gathering resources for my community on how to further their anti-racism work.

In the midst of this, I received an email in early June from my brand partner with their ideas for content for the following month. Every month they’d send me a storyboard of their editorial calendar’s theme and I’d create a number of photos and videos to share on their social channels. 

What was this month’s theme? Quarantine hobbies. 

I was taken aback by the email and couldn’t help but feel uneasy at the tone-deafness of the ask. So I fired off a response: 

“While finding ways to entertain ourselves at home during this pandemic is definitely still top of mind and a priority, I want to express my concern about the levity of [these posts] during a time when so much of the online and offline world are mobilizing around Black Lives Matter. As you’ve seen on my own channel and many of the others in our [influencer] family, we have been focusing our content on sharing information about the movement and how to move it forward. I would ask that you consider putting a pause on [all other] posts…and instead focus on what [Brand Name] will do and share in regards to supporting Black lives. I want to be a proud member of this family and to be perfectly honest, the silence is deafening and disappointing right now.”

It took weeks before I received a response. Even then, there were one too many emails exchanged where I had to explain my stance demanding verbal support and action on the civil rights movement of our generation. 

Long story short, this brand refused to make a statement in support of Black lives.

Navigating Hard Conversations as Content Creators & Influencers

I was infuriated. Here was this brand with this glittering promise of a progressive and inclusive multicultural campaign that I was so excited to be a part of.

Justine Abigail Yu sitting on a teal round chair holding a tropical juice

But when push came to shove, it was entirely hollow. Entirely performative. Entirely fake. 

They claimed to celebrate diversity, but refused to take a stand to protect that very diversity when it mattered the most. And for what? For fear of alienating their consumer base? 

They forgot that a large number of their consumers are themselves Black. They forgot that the whole purpose for their multicultural campaign was to win over more diverse audiences. 

I couldn’t bear the thought of promoting a brand that so blatantly flew in the face of everything I stand for and have worked towards over the last decade. 

Over the years, I have intentionally used my platform to educate my community on social justice issues, to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities, to do the little bit of good that I know is within my reach. 

And so, I made the (not so hard) choice of cutting ties and ending my partnership with this brand. Here’s just a snippet of that email:

“[Brand Name] cannot claim to celebrate diversity without then standing up to protect it when it is under attack. That mission is one and the same and you cannot untangle the two. The Black community, their people, and their culture are under attack (has been under attack for generations) and [Brand Name] is promoting Jamaican and Haitian culture without acknowledging what is happening to their communities here in North America. To be perfectly honest, that makes this entire campaign disingenuous, inauthentic, and well, a lie. 

At the very least, I want to see [your brand] put a statement out on their social media channels to express solidarity with the Black community. What else you do to hold yourselves accountable to your statement is something you will need to assess on your own. I have an idea of what you can say on your social channels but to be honest, I don’t think that’s my job. I would hope your team would be able to think of a way to turn your multicultural campaign into something that speaks to the movement that is happening right now. Without doing so, this campaign that [you’re] running is simply using the faces of Black people and people of colour to push your profits without actually doing anything meaningful for us and for our diverse communities.”

The Lack of Resources and Support for Content Creators

That’s the clean and tidy version of this entire experience. 

The truth is – I felt confused and conflicted as to how to handle the situation. This was my first major influencer campaign with such a high-profile brand and I wanted that leg up for myself. 

But I also wanted to use my influence and what small power I may hold to push for a firmer commitment to diversity on this brand’s part. 

Truth be told though, I’ve never had to negotiate on morality with a brand in the middle of a partnership. 

Usually, I wouldn’t accept a contract like this in the first place, but now that I was in the middle of it, I didn’t know how to have this tough conversation. 

Sure, I’ve had hard conversations about race and justice with friends and family, but I’ve been fortunate up until now never to have had to do the emotional labour of navigating that minefield in a professional capacity. 

Justine Abigail Yu sitting at her laptop in an open-air bar in a tropical setting

I asked my creator friends, many of whom are part of the Wanderful community, if they’d experienced anything like this before and how they handled the situation. There was very little information out there on how creators can hold their brand partners accountable to their promises of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

There were a lot of examples on how to push for diversity and representation before you enter into a contract, but not a whole lot when you’re in the thick of it all. I felt like a fish out of water. 

And so I created my own path. And that meant terminating a contract that ran counter to what I believe it means to celebrate diversity in this country – not just as a marketing ploy but as a true commitment. 

I’m certain it’s not the only solution and I’m sure there are many influencers with much higher clout than I do who might be able to change a brand partner’s way of doing things. But this was my way forward.

Introducing Wanderful’s Anti-Oppression Toolkit

The whole experience highlighted for me how there is a very real need in our creator community for more concrete guides and support for navigating these conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

For many of us, this is new and uncharted territory, but we are committed to treading through it. 

That’s why – in collaboration with Wanderful’s brilliant Ariel Goldberg – I set off to create the Anti-Oppression Toolkit. This hub is full of resources, webinars, and a network of creators who are committed to making the travel industry truly equitable for people at all intersections of identity.

After seeing the impassioned conversations around anti-racism, especially during our own Moving Forward anti-racism town halls led by Karisma Shackelford, I was inspired to move this conversation further and to take it into more actionable steps. 

The gruesome inequities that have been so starkly revealed to us this year not only cut across racial lines, but across all intersections of identity (think: sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, neurodiversity, religion, disability, body size). That’s why I’ve been pushing so heavily for the more accurate keyword of anti-oppression – that is, challenging and dismantling the values, structures, and behaviors that perpetuate all systems of oppression.

This isn’t just semantics. It’s about diagnosing an illness accurately in order to prevent, manage, and cure it. 

We need to move past our narrow lines of thinking and challenge ourselves to embrace nuance, complexity, and intersectionality. 

Cover image for Wanderful's Anti Oppression Toolkit for Travel and Culture Creators

In Wanderful’s Anti-Oppression Toolkit, you’ll find: 

  • A glossary of terms to lay a strong foundation in understanding anti-oppression;
  • A how-to series on practicing diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of your work;
  • And additional resources to keep (un)learning — all through the lens of travel.

It’s an ever-evolving work-in-progress and is, by no means, a comprehensive list of all the things to read about on these topics. Rather, consider the Anti-Oppression Toolkit to be a launch point for your own journey. 

In fact, I’m continuing to build out our guide on “How To Advocate for DEI Practices As a Freelancer and/or in Brand Partnerships and Campaigns” right now! 

You can join our upcoming public event on “Allyship in Action: Creators Holding Travel Brands Accountable” taking place on 21 January. I’ll be speaking to Erin Sullivan of @erinoutdoors, Emily Scott of @twodustytravelers, and Eileen Cotter-Wright of @crookedflight on how they’ve navigated situations similar to what I experienced. 

There is no one way to do this work and I want to make sure we have many examples to help us along the way.

As travel and culture content creators, we have a responsibility to use our platforms to amplify historically-underrepresented voices and stories. We have a role in leveraging our influence to pressure brands that we work with to adopt diverse, equitable, and inclusive practices, too. 

Most importantly, we have the power to help level the playing field and work towards anti-oppression in the travel industry.

It’s a long and arduous road ahead, but it’s one that I’m committed to traveling through. I hope you’ll join me.

Justine Abigail Yu behind her co-created Anti-Oppression Toolkit on a tablet

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