Across generations, storytelling has served as a powerful means of illuminating the lived realities, struggles, and triumphs of marginalized communities. For Martin Ricard, the founder of Community Symbol, storytelling has been a transformative tool, cultivating empathy and providing a platform for people of color to be heard. By harnessing his experience as a community activist and journalist, Martin works with social entrepreneurs and changemakers to use storytelling to dismantle barriers and advance racial justice.
In this interview, Martin shares how his upbringing influenced his approach to creating an effective communications strategies for organizations seeking to advance racial justice and equity.
Can you speak about how you grew up and who influenced your understanding of social justice?
Family history is a complicated thing for many Black folks in this country, so knowing exactly where I come from is challenging. On my dad’s side of the family, a lot of my family came from Louisiana. They were more fair-skinned, and—due to the harsh circumstances they faced—some of them chose to deny their Blackness in order to survive.
They moved to Los Angeles but still carried the idea that denying their Blackness was necessary to make it in America. It wasn’t until my dad’s generation that my family began to break away from that pattern and chart a different path for my brother and me to follow.
On my mom’s side, my family came from Jackson, Mississippi, which was deeply segregated during her upbringing. When she was young, they moved to Northern California and were one of the first Black families to establish themselves in the city where my mom and her siblings grew up. This experience, combined with the broader societal shifts during the ’70s, played a crucial role in shaping my parents’ understanding of their identity and commitment to social justice.
My parents met in college at San Jose State at a transformative time for Black people in the United States. San Jose State was already in the national spotlight because of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, two Olympic athletes who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics in a demonstration that is widely regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympics.
At the time, the Black Panther Party had an immense impact on Black people, and both of my parents embraced activism and the idea of collective organization. My brother and I grew up with stories of our parents attending political rallies, attending Black Panther Party meetings, and listening to speeches from figures like Stokely Carmichael.
Since the ‘60s and ‘70s and following the Civil Rights Movement in America, how do you think that this country has evolved politically?
The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act marked a turning point in our history, dramatically changing the landscape for marginalized communities and subsequently opening up opportunities for other people of color.
However, today there is resistance and backlash by those who believe that enough has been done and that the push for civil rights should cease. Predominately (but not exclusively) white populations argue that marginalized communities should now be satisfied with the advancements they have achieved and question any further struggle for equality. People of color still face structural barriers and systemic discrimination, and there are persistent disparities in various areas such as education, healthcare and criminal justice.
Today, the political landscape is a mix of achievements and setbacks. We can acknowledge the progress that has been achieved since the Civil Rights Movement, yet it is equally essential to recognize the challenges that persist and demand further attention and action.
What has your experience been as a community activist?
My experience as a community activist has been deeply rooted in my upbringing and the environment I was surrounded by. I grew up in a Black church and was heavily involved in my grandma’s historical and cultural society focused on educating people about Black culture, which instilled a sense of community-oriented activism in me from a young age.
However, it was during my time as a UC Berkeley undergrad studying history that my activism took a more focused and organized direction. UC Berkeley, known for its political activism and historical significance as the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, was a campus where protests and demonstrations were pretty common. Initially, I was somewhat resistant to getting involved in protests, feeling overwhelmed by their frequency and fearing their effectiveness might diminish over time.
But my perspective shifted during Black History Month when the student newspaper published a racist ad, which was met with strong opposition from Black students. This incident galvanized many of us to take action, especially given the diminishing representation of Black students at the university after the passage of Proposition 209 in California.
I found myself in meetings with other students, discussing ways to address the issue and make our voices heard. Eventually, a group of upperclassmen organized a protest that I felt compelled to join, despite my earlier reservations about protests in general. Those involved in the protest dressed in all black and wore masks, and went into classes to distribute information about the challenges Black students were facing. Another group blocked the main gate of the campus to bring attention to the situation. Additionally, a group of us confronted the student newspaper, demanding a space in their publication to express our perspectives.
This experience was transformative for me, as it allowed me to channel my frustration into constructive action. It was also when I wrote my first journalism article for the same student newspaper that published the ad. For me, it felt empowering to work from the inside and create a platform from within that space to unapologetically uplift Black voices.
How do you feel like your experience with community activism informed your approach to communications today?
Community activism has helped me understand the power of storytelling as a means to influence people. I understood the importance of making our voices impossible to ignore and realized that merely complaining from the outside might not be the most effective thing to do. Therefore, I decided to work from within the existing structures to affect change.
Joining the student newspaper provided me a platform to have my byline, enabling me to share stories that mattered to me and my community. It was essential for me to take up space in places where representation was lacking. This approach allowed me to share stories that might not have received attention otherwise, and I saw it as an opportunity to challenge the status quo and inspire change.
How do you believe your journalism and community activism background has uniquely prepared you to help businesses and organizations advance racial equity and social justice?
It’s always interesting to see how organizations that began with roots in social justice have evolved over time. Many organizations don’t adapt to current needs and lose connection with their original purpose and vision. The NAACP is a perfect example of what can happen when an organization doesn’t adapt.
The NAACP is one of the oldest civil rights organizations in America, and during the 90s, they took a big issue with the emergence of hip-hop culture. It felt isolating and divisive to see them hold rallies where they would smash the CDs of prominent Black hip-hop artists. However, the NAACP has since evolved, and that’s also meant going back to their roots.
Witnessing their transformation and shift in strategy has shown me the importance of staying relevant and adapting with the times when tackling social justice issues. This understanding is especially pertinent in today’s world, where businesses and organizations are also engaging in discussions about social justice and climate change. Stepping outside your organization’s perspective to understand the needs and experiences of the communities you serve is an often overlooked but important component of an effective communications strategy.
Sometimes, organizations are founded by people who belong to the target audience of the company. However, as these organizations grow and evolve, they must recognize that their audience might change or expand, and new challenges will arise. Communicating effectively requires putting themselves in the shoes of their current audience, fostering empathy, and adapting their messages accordingly.
What is something that you think organizations often overlook when it comes to promoting racial justice and equity in their communications?
Creativity also plays a crucial role in promoting racial justice and equity in communications. Relying solely on traditional tactics or outdated methods can limit the impact of their message. To effectively address the sophisticated challenges of today, organizations must think outside the box and explore innovative communication strategies. Embracing technology can be powerful in highlighting racial injustices and rallying support. Simultaneously, drawing inspiration from other cultures and incorporating fresh approaches can help breathe new life into their advocacy efforts.
For example, during the Black Lives Matter movement’s peak, protesters demonstrated creativity by organizing different forms of protests beyond traditional marches, such as die-ins, alternative music performances, and graffiti art displays. By embracing creativity, organizations can inspire and motivate people to take action, making their efforts more relevant and compelling in the contemporary context.
What steps do you take to educate yourself and stay informed about current issues related to social justice and racial equity?
I’m always reading and I actively seek out material that challenges my own beliefs, including viewpoints from both liberals and conservatives. Following individuals like Tim Scott, a conservative politician, allows me to better comprehend their viewpoints and the reasons behind their stances.
Moreover, I think community involvement is an important part of keeping up on current conversations and discourse. I’m involved with several community-based organizations including my fraternity, which recently created a STEM club for predominantly Black middle school students to introduce the students to careers in STEM. Being active in the community helps keep me grounded and formulate more well-rounded and empathetic views.
What are you currently enjoying in terms of TV shows and music?
Currently, I’m enjoying the “Black Mirror” series on Netflix. It’s one of my favorite shows, and I appreciate its use of the sci-fi genre to explore the impact of technology while not shying away from topics like race and gender.
As for what I’m listening to, I’m definitely a child of the hip hop generation. But, lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of indie artists like Sault and Tame Impala. I’ve also been exploring and finding myself drawn to house music. Some of the music I listen to incorporates musical traditions from the southern hemisphere, including influences from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. A lot of soulful house music reminds me of some of the stuff my uncle plays as a percussionist, blending traditional sounds with modern beats.
In terms of house music, I’ve been listening to a lot of Disclosure, and I love anything by South African DJ Black Coffee. And, of course, having grown up in the church and being an active member today, I listen to a lot of gospel music.
My preferences have definitely evolved over time, and I’ve become more open to exploring different types of content. For example, in high school, my friends introduced me to Linkin Park and Rage Against The Machine, and I especially enjoyed how groups like Rage Against The Machine used their music to speak out against injustice. I think that’s why I’m starting to warm up to a lot of the alternative artists that you might see at the Afropunk or Roots festivals.