The Black and disabled Black artists creating new opportunities for inclusion

From left to right: Model wearing a black mid-length dress, green boots, and a red puffer scarf around their neck. Two models wearing white and light blue on the seashore. One is resting their head on the other's chest.   A model with the lower half of their body submerged in water. Seven models with seven different hairstyles look directly into the camera. A model in a pink flowy gown looks off to the left.  Model stands atop a giant brown rock on the seashore in khaki colored pants against a blue sky.
From left to right: Model wearing a black mid-length dress, green boots, and a red puffer scarf around their neck. Two models wearing white and light blue on the seashore. One is resting their head on the other's chest.   A model with the lower half of their body submerged in water. Seven models with seven different hairstyles look directly into the camera. A model in a pink flowy gown looks off to the left.  Model stands atop a giant brown rock on the seashore in khaki colored pants against a blue sky.

How Diversify Photo and Black Disabled Creatives used Google tools to build resources for equity in the creative world

5-minute read

Photographer credit (left to right): Imani Khayyam, Jermaine Jackson Jr., Kendall Bessent, Da'Shaunae Marisa, Lauren Crew, Ike Abakah

The power of technology to create new opportunities was never more evident than in the summer of 2020. As the world was undergoing pandemic lockdowns and demands for racial equity echoed, two organizations – Diversify Photo and Black Disabled Creatives – were building public databases of the artists and innovators often left out from the creative world because of the color of their skin and/or their physical abilities. These databases, built by word of mouth through Google Sheets and Google Forms, have grown into incredible resources to help amplify and ensure these voices are heard.

Below are highlights from a conversation between the founder of Black Disabled Creatives, Jillian Mercado, and the co-founder of Diversify Photo Brent Lewis. The conversation was led by filmmaker and producer Crystal Emery who helped discuss how creative industries can work to ensure systemic biases don’t lead them to overlook incredible talent.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and is accompanied by audio recordings and transcripts for accessibility.

Jillian Mercado, founder of Disabled Black Creatives in their wheelchair wearing a teal silk shirt.

Jillian Mercado, founder of Black Disabled Creatives. Photographed by Erik Carter.

Diversify Photo co-founder Brent Lewis in a red sweatshirt.

Brent Lewis, co-founder of Diversify Photo. Photographed by Lelanie Foster.

Spotlighting overlooked creative talent

Listen to the conversation
Screen reader accessible transcript
Listen in on Crystal, Brent, and Jillian’s conversation
Screen reader accessible transcript

Crystal Emery:
Welcome to this discussion about Hire Black Creatives. And tonight we have Jillian Mercado, a model turned advocate-entrepreneur. And we have with us Brent Lewis, who has started his own website to profile and encourage people hiring Black photographers. Brent, I want to talk about, you know, your bringing voice and visibility to these Black photographers who have been around for a while. It’s not like this is a new thing – that Black photographers just appeared. So where do you feel that we are at as artists or, particularly, as your medium of photography?


Brent Lewis:
So Diversify started from literally a spreadsheet, me really wanting to know who was out there. Who are the Black photographers that I could hire, that I could work with to tell amazing stories? And so for me I wanted to make Ebony and Jet of 2016. Nothing but Black photographers doing nothing but Black stories. And so for me, one of the big things that I’ve seen over my time of being a photo editor is that everyone is always like, “Oh, we don’t know where to find x, y, z photographer,” or, “We don’t know where to find their work.” And it’s, like, it’s here now. You can’t escape it. You can’t say you couldn’t find it, because I put it in this beautifully nice, neat package with a bow on it and delivered it to your doorstep.

Jillian Mercado:
Having the platform that I have and not doing something really bothered me. So I was like, okay, I’m gonna take this moment, as you said, Brent, we’re like in this moment right now. And so I sat with myself, and I’m like, okay, what can I do? How can I get all these people hired? I personally know a lot of people, one being myself, who was rejected for working at a place because I couldn’t access it. One out of five people have a disability. So that’s a huge majority of people that you’re not representing. I was like, I need to find a place where I can not only show other disabled folks that they’re not alone, that there is a community out there, specifically in their field of what they love to do, but also brands and companies to know that there is a lot of us out there who are willing and ready and available to work long hours, to put the work in to make beautiful masterpieces.

The tools for creating a movement

Listen to the conversation
Screen reader accessible transcript
Listen in on Crystal, Brent, and Jillian’s conversation
Screen reader accessible transcript

Crystal:
Jillian and Brent, how did you utilize Google technology to advance the work that you’re doing?


Brent:
For me, everything we’ve done with Diversify Photo, honestly, started from a Google spreadsheet. It was a blank spreadsheet when I started keeping track of all the Black photographers. So I pulled in other photographers, other friends, took their information, added that. And from there, we actually then did an open call, myself and my co-founder, Andrea Wise, literally just let people who were interested throw their information out. And, honestly, from that moment, it’s just been growing ever since. Now we have 700 photographers of color from around the globe.

“One of the reasons why I did Black Disabled Creatives was so that the connections that I do have, or the connections that I have gained, so they can see that there’s a lot more of me out there.”
Jillian Mercado

Jillian:
One of the reasons why I did Black Disabled Creatives was so that the connections that I do have, or the connections that I have gained, so they can see that there’s a lot more, there’s a lot more of me out there. There’s a whole, whole massive community that has been underrepresented, invisible, not because we wanted to be invisible, because they chose for us to be invisible and not give us opportunity because of fear, again. And I think that the beginning of that really kind of solidified the fact that there is a lot of lack of education as far as the disability community goes. And that literally is what kind of fueled me to continue doing it even today.

The path forward

Listen to the conversation
Screen reader accessible transcript
Listen in on Crystal, Brent, and Jillian’s conversation
Screen reader accessible transcript
An illustration of three heads side by side with red, yellow, orange, green squiggles surrounding them.

Jonathan Soren Davidson, artist

Crystal:
I believe that we are at a place where we have to be spiritual warriors. Right? That we have to seek the truth about who we are as creative people, who we are as Black creative people. I’d like to get last words from each of you. Let’s start with you, Jillian.


Jillian:
Every day of my life I feel like it’s a renaissance period, specifically now, for disabled creatives. I think we have been told time, time and again that we have to work in a location, and we have to work in an office, and we have to be outside of our confines. And as soon as this pandemic hit, oh, wow, literally everyone is working from home. So it’s definitely been a situation of realization in how we prioritize hiring, how we prioritize diversity, and what we do with that power. Because that’s all I want is to have every single person get hired here. Every disabled person I know I want them to get hired because I know how hard they work. And everything that’s hindering them is the misconception of what disability looks like, what disability is without asking questions, without actually speaking to the person who has a disability and treating them like a person. I think the fact that we’re literally having this conversation right now just proves your point about how this is still gonna continue to happen. That’s literally what’s gonna continue this conversation from, you know, disappearing. And also we all have to continue these conversations at home, you know, with our friends. I’m very excited for the future, and I’m very hopeful. And look how far we’ve gone through just one year. I’m very happy to see this and feel this in my lifetime right now.

A painting with pink and blue circular shapes.

Merissa Hylton, artist

“Right now in this very moment is the most amazing time to be a Black photographer, a Black creative in general, just because those doors are a little bit more open than they used to be.”
Brent Lewis

Model in a wheelchair with a red top and red boots in front of a pink background.

Styled by Stephanie Thomas for Zappos Adaptive

Brent:
I feel like, honestly, right now in this very moment is the most amazing time to be a Black photographer, a Black creative in general, just because those doors are a little bit more open than they used to be. You can be a little bit more visible than you used to be. For me, this year has been a lot. For everyone, this year has been a lot. What it has shown is that the work that I’ve been doing and Andrea’s been doing, literally the entire Diversify Photo staff at this point has been doing, matters. It’s worth it. People need to know this information. People want this information. And we were there to allow folks to meet photographers they haven’t met before and find stories they haven’t found before, and, honestly, tear down the walls and the barriers that have kept so many photographers of color, Black photographers especially, out of the conversation. You can’t do that anymore. I’m just constantly seeing names of people that I’ve loved for years now popping up places where they haven’t been before.

Crystal:
I love it. I love it. I am so honored to be able to moderate this conversation. It is an honor to speak with you about how do we hire Black creatives. And each of us has the obligation, really, as a Black creative being to bring somebody else along with us. And I will call each of you; make sure you return my email. And my humble, humble thanks.


Buoyed by their passionate members, so far these two organizations have raised the profiles of over 700 creatives from around the world. But promoting Black and disabled Black artists is by no means the only goal. Through travel grants and tuition waivers they’re helping those in their databases get commissions at prominent publications and companies including Google and Coca-Cola. They demonstrate the power that comes from sharing the stories of those who struggle to be heard and show that when we create a space of belonging we can unlock our full potential and expand what’s possible for everyone.

A fashion sketch of the back of a black and red ballgown with a corset bow. Notes in pencil are scattered around the drawing.

Whitney Mitchell, costume designer

Thank you to our contributors

Black and white portrait of artist wearing glasses with their hand resting on their cheek.

Ike Abakah, photographer, Hartford, Connecticut

Portrait of artist in a bucket hat and denim jacket.

Kendall Bessent, photographer, Brooklyn, New York

Portrait of artist in a brown beanie in front of a black background.

Erik Carter, photographer, Los Angeles, California

Portrait of artist in a striped brown and cream scoop neck top in front of a beige background.

Lauren Crew, photographer, Los Angeles, California

Portrait of artist wearing a white hoodie and two long french braids.

Lelanie Foster, photographer, The Bronx, New York

Portrait of artist with their arms crossed wearing a multi-colored kimono style jacket with geometric shapes in front of a black background.

Merissa Hylton, artist, London, UK

Portrait of artist holding their camera on their shoulder under colorful fluorescent lighting.

Jermaine Jackson Jr., photographer, Chicago, Illinois

Black and white portrait of artist with their left hand resting on their chin. 9. Side profile of artist wearing a light top.

Imani Khayyam, photographer, Jackson, Mississippi

Side profile of artist wearing a light top.

Da'Shaunae Marisa, photographer, Cleveland, Ohio

Black and white portrait of artist smiling with their arms reaching out wide.

Whitney Mitchell, costume designer, Dallas, Texas

Portrait of artist with multi-colored individual braids in two buns wearing a pink shirt in front of their work.

Amina Mucciolo, artist and designer, Los Angeles, California

Portrait of artist wearing a red and black top with black lipstick in front of a green background.

Jonathan Soren Davidson, artist, Seattle, Washington

Portrait of editor.

Bill Toles, Editor, New York, New York

Portrait of artist smiling with their hands clasped wearing individual braids pulled up into a bun.

Stephanie Thomas, fashion stylist, Los Angeles, California

Portrait of artist in a caramel colored wool hat with orange and brown geometric shaped earrings.

Jen White-Johnson, Neurodiverse Afro-Latina, designer, photographer and educator, Bowie Maryland

Google’s commitment

A world where we all feel we belong would be a world full of possibility. By building for each person’s full potential we expand what’s possible for everyone.

Get involved

Learn more about these organizations and see how creating an inclusive space can unlock new opportunities.

Related Stories