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History Factory’s Erin Narloch, senior director of business insight and performance, sits down with Brigette Jones, public historian, consultant and researcher, to discuss the current state of brands leveraging or adopting inclusive practices to better connect to their customers while also acknowledging their pasts. Via the “Journey to Jubilee” tour she created conveying the stories of enslaved people at Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee, Jones ended up consulting with one of the top fashion brands of our era, Tommy Hilfiger. According to Jones, the simple act of showing more empathy not only creates a bedrock for an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion practices but is also good for its bottom line. Tune into this episode to hear more.

Brigette Janea Jones is an influential figure in cultural preservation and interpretation, currently serving as assistant executive director for the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area in Stonecrest, Georgia. She is also the founder of Bridge Builders Historical Consulting, LLC. Her expertise encompasses the diverse social histories of Tennessee’s communities, including its African American, Latino, Native American and Middle Eastern populations. Jones, a Memphis native with a BA from Tennessee State University, is certified by the National Association of Interpretation and the Smithsonian Institute to interpret the African American experience. Previously, she worked as director of equitable partnerships at Belle Meade Historic Site and Winery and as curator of social history at the Tennessee State Museum, focusing on the legacy of American chattel enslavement and reparative actions. Through her consultancy, she offers historical research, interpretive design and DEAI workshops for various organizations, aiming to improve cultural competence and address biases, especially in the American South. Her impactful work has garnered recognition from prestigious institutions and media, and in 2019 Garden and Gun Magazine named her as a “Southern Hero.”


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brands, company, people, work, empathy, communities, history, empathetic, black, meade, interpretation, industry, belle, reebok, talk, plantation, consumer, point, tommy hilfiger, tour


Brigette Jones, Erin, Erin Narloch


Erin Narloch  00:11

Welcome to the History Factory Podcast. In today’s episode, we’ll be chatting with Brigette Jones, founder and principal of Bridge Builders Historical Consulting, as well as system executive director at Arabia Mountain Heritage Area and alliances outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Brigette since 2018. At that time, she was an interpreter at Belle Meade plantation outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Her work specifically focused on centering and interpreting the lived experiences of enslaved people at that plantation site. This work really was quite revolutionary. It was picked up by different media sources across the country, including NPR. I have since marveled at her career, the way she’s pivoted from historic site interpretation to State Museum to creating her own consultancy that works with large brands like Tommy Hilfiger and beyond. Her work has even expanded into documentaries like facing north, and she has been featured on NPR and PBS. More recently, for her work with the moth. Alive storytelling event. Her work really includes and centers on the preservation and interpretation of a variety of social histories of many diverse cultures and communities that have made their way into the American story. During today’s episode, we’ll talk about her career, her learnings along the way, and how she has continually evolved her perspectives in the space. She’s also very knowledgeable on the state of D and AI initiatives at different companies. We’ll get into that as well. We’ll talk about the role of empathy, and emotion in historic interpretation, as well as how brands and companies can inject empathy into the work they’re doing. We’ll also discuss reparative actions that can take place, as well as the work that needs to be done beyond performative work that we see very commonly within the world of D. and I. It’s always a pleasure and a joy to talk with Brigette, and I’m so excited to share this with you. So let’s get into it. Here’s that interview with Brigette. Brigette, thank you so much for being with us today. We’re so excited to talk with you. Could you just give provide us like a you know, a brief introduction on who you are, what you’ve done in your career and what you’re currently doing?


Brigette Jones  03:31

Yeah, how much time we got now. So, I come from the history world, obviously, I got my career as an entry level interpreter at what was then called the Belle Meade Plantation that is now known as domain historic site and winery today, and I’ll kind of work my way up the ranks there. So full disclosure, it is actually a plantation owned 136 enslaved people by 1860, owned by the Harding and Jackson families in Nashville, Tennessee. So I gave costume tours of a plantation, and probably the best introduction to the public history where that I could have had. So I spent quite a bit of time there. I worked my way up, I became the first African American director ever at the site, not the executive director, but just the director. And I eventually got the title of not only director of African American studies, but also served as Director of Equitable Partnerships. So in my time there I spearheaded the curation of an exhibit called Journey to Jubilee. Journey to Jubilee was a research project turned exhibit, turn read exhibit, who was we were able to really like talk about Belle Meade’s role in the institution of slavery for the state of Tennessee when they were honestly ready to discuss it. We did a re envisioning of it and that’s why I came in it. That also turned into a tour. So The Journey literally tour experience where you could come to bill me and take a tour, they focus only in specifically on the last of the enslaved. And that’s kind of where my career really began to bubble. So that goes viral in 2018. And I did that for about a year and a half. And then I became a curator for the state of Tennessee. So I was curator of social history for the Tennessee State Museum for a little over a year, which really broadened my perspective, from more of a Middle Tennessee local view to statewide and looking at all three of the grand divisions. And my focus was primarily African American history, but definitely diverse histories, because there’s not enough representation across the board for everybody that exists. And I ended up going back to Belle Meade focusing again on enslavement. I did a lot of work with reparative action, which looks at how sites of conscious like Belle Meade, plantation museums in general, can be beneficial to the communities that they disenfranchise to the institution of slavery. So we created a scholarship that goes to Tennessee State University to incoming freshmen students that major in history with a specific focus to African American Studies. And that is to increase the number of black people who choose history as a career path. We did lots of other cool things that just really focus on the inner city of Nashville. And then I recently left there about six months ago, and I’m now in Atlanta, and I’m the Assistant Executive Director for Arabian Mountain Heritage Area Alliance, which is the nonprofit arm of the National Park Service. And we oversee the cultural, social, and natural history of DeKalb, Henry and Rockdale counties, which is right outside of Atlanta, Georgia. And that’s the short version.


Erin Narloch  06:46

And all along the way. You also, you know, you have your own consulting group. So can you talk a little bit about how you, you know, from your position and the experience you had, you’ve then parlayed that into working with some big brands, and some big institutions, I would say across across the US.


Brigette Jones  07:10

So when I was at Belle Meade, and we were doing the journey to Jubilee thing, and it’s getting really good. One day, I get a call from our director of marketing, and he’s like, Hey, Tommy Hilfiger, is about to come here and do a tour, but they specifically requested during the Jubilee, you know, like, like the Tommy Hilfiger or just the company. It was like just the company relax. And they were doing essentially diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion training. And they were using Bellel Meade as a way to kind of give them more or less melanated people an idea into what Black history is foundationally and I’m a black American history is foundationally. And they chose by me, it was great. The tour is amazing. I give my most riveting rendition of my tour. And after the tour, people are in tears and sobbing. And their VP one of their VPS walks up to me and she’s like, Hey, can we do this? With just you? I was like, What do you mean, just me? She was like, like, Could we just pay you to do this for us? And I was like, Sure. And that turned into about a year long consulting opportunity with Tommy Hilfiger brands. So I did some, like monthly calls with them for quite a while. But it’d be like company wide. So I have a lot of great love for Tommy Hilfiger. But that’s when I decided I was like, Okay, I guess I’m here. Like, there’s, there’s a way to capitalize on this work that I’m doing within within empathy and history. And from there, the ball just kind of kept growing. And I did some documentaries, most notably, facing north which tells the history of Jefferson Street in Nashville, Tennessee, historic black community. That turned into some work with HCA the insurance, the health care company, and man, it’s honestly snowballed. And now, I don’t think I should take on any other project. Like I think I’m booked. Yeah.


Erin Narloch  09:17

How did you you know, and I think you and I were connected. Back when Journey to Jubilee really went, like went viral. It was picked up by I think a lot of different news outlets, and that’s when we we first connected. How did you how did you see the transition from utilizing like that public historian role, and then coming into a corporate setting and kind of level setting adding value doing doing that work? What were what were some of the steps you took or the differences you saw?


Brigette Jones  09:52

Mm hmm. Great question. I the thing that I realized that works for me was Journey to Jubilee was the empathy part So there’s a portion of that tour where I repeatedly asked how does it feel? How does it feel? How does it feel? And I’m asking that in several different kinds of concepts. So looking at the role that enslaved women must have played, and how they must have felt, especially those of them, who were having these intimate relationships with the men who own them. And then how does that affect the family dynamic? How does it feel, to have to go to work every single day and bear the brunt of someone’s anger and aggression and resentment for a situation you didn’t ask for, but can’t control in regards to how his wife may not feel about this enslaved woman? How does it feel? So really trying to put people in those shoes, how that translated into corporate was because everybody got feelings. And I could use that feeling, I could use that desire for empathy and for connectedness and understanding of another human being, to get brands to look at how they connect to their audiences. Because your archive is one of your strongest assets. It’s, it’s your company, it’s the history of it, there’s a story here, and stories are what connects people. And once I realized that, and I was able to pull off of that empathy, I could find the history of any organization and make it relevant to not only the company, but to the audience, to your consumers. So yeah, man, that empathy piece working on Belle Meade and really having to really hone in on because really, how does it feel?


Erin  11:31

Mm. Let’s hold space for that. That’s a really impactful statement. And just the way you frame that, I think, has incredible value and framing those narratives. Why is it so important that companies contextualize their history? How, especially those right that intersect with various communities?


Brigette Jones  11:59

I think that when you sell me something, I, as a consumer, first have to trust what you’re selling me. in American history, a lot of these companies have not always been equitable and access for people of diverse groups. So I think it’s extremely important for brands to utilize their archive, to tell both the good and the bad of their story. Especially in this modern era, where everything is hyper analyzed, you cannot shy away from your history, we remember what you said, and 95, and 85, and 72, and 62. And for some companies 1864 and 63. In the size that you chose in some of America’s greatest moments, the best thing that you can do is own it, and then rectify it. And that’s where the reparative action work comes in. I think not only is it important for you to actually to realize the actuality of your history, and to be held accountable for it and to acknowledge and accept that that’s great. But now, how are you giving back to those communities that you may have heard through your branding or your marketing? Or through, you know, the political side that you chose? Your history is that is your brand. And people don’t forget?


Erin  13:29

And it’s not new? Right? It is, it is it’s not something that has been just recently revealed or discovered. It exists in that like I call it receipt keeping of time. So I think to your the point that you made, it is the most powerful, it’s the most effective when these companies can own that right? And navigate some uncertain waters. Right. But I think to the point you made earlier, Brigette it’s it’s about empathy and understanding and connectedness, especially to consumer communities. That you mentioned. So thinking about this and the importance and why why companies should be doing it. From your your, your point of view, what’s the value? What’s the business value in doing that interpretive work?


Brigette Jones  14:23

Because everybody wants to feel seen, everybody wants to feel understood and acknowledged when Beyonce dropped. Honestly, anything I am always like, she’s talking to me. And that’s interpretation. I mean, her interpretation is just the music. There’s so many ways to do this type of interpretive work to your consumers, you want to interpret something that they can understand against that feeling. They gotta be able to feel it. They need to look at this and see themselves that’s why representation is so important. And through the lens of history, we want to see Like, how did you help? Speaking for myself? How have you empowered black women? How do you empower black people? Have you empowered Latino people? Brown people? What have you done through the crux? What’s the arc of your existence as a brand? That makes me look at your brand and say that this is something that I could wear, and I could wear it proudly, or I could consume and consume it proudly. There are some brands and our colony names, but we all know a lot of these brands, especially some of the more expensive ones, are not always the most interpretively inclusive. Which is fine, if that’s your market, that your market. But you can’t you can’t market in this way. You can’t interpret your brand in this way to the consumer audience, and then wonder why they’re not your audience. If that makes any sense.


Erin  16:00

I think it makes sense. I think it does. So okay, if we’re not going to name names of the brands that are or companies that are maybe not not getting it, right, who is getting it right? We’re in the midst of Black History Month right now, where like, from your point of view, what brands really understand the value and are contextualized saying their experience or their audience’s experiences, especially those those contributions or the communities that like, you know, that they they choose to market to who’s doing it right.


Brigette Jones  16:38

Yeah, really doing the work right now, as a In this connection, I was super grateful for you Pyer Moss, I mean, obviously, he’s a Black man, but the Pyer Moss brand is doing amazing work with the reclamation of Black history and the Black story. And using that through fashion, I think that’s awesome. Um, of course, Hellfire is super in the mix right now with representation and making sure that products are not only accessible, but accessible, socially accessible financially, like you don’t got to be rich to have a Hellfire bag and still be fly and you’re the your favorite celebrity still has one on. If I crossed the line, I would I would think that adidas is doing pretty good. You know that they’re making some really great strides. Levi is I’m really impressed by them lately. I follow a lot of their people on LinkedIn. I’m a big supporter of LinkedIn. Tommy Hilfiger, obviously is doing their best right now. Ben and Jerry’s. Ben and Jerry’s a session advocate and an ally. I don’t eat ice cream, but I’m here for Ben and Jerry’s. Their work in the community. So yeah, I think they’re my favorites right now. That’s what I’m paying attention to. I love I’m from inner city, Memphis, Tennessee. I was a kid in the 90s So I mean, I love the big designer brands. I think that Gucci is doing a great job performatively hmm,


Erin  18:12

I’m gonna leave that there leave some room for that space. So we’ve we have just discussed a few fashion brands and sportswear brands, what industries do you think have the opportunity to interpret their histories and reflect these communities especially those of you know underrepresented audiences contributions by you know, of Black and by Black Americans? What industries do you see that could benefit from this work?


Brigette Jones  18:51

Oh, I mean, obviously, fashion fashion is an I want to say fashion, high end fashion could benefit the most. I think I mean, obviously high end is meant to be exclusive. That is, quite literally their brand. But there are rich people of color tune who can afford your clothing can afford your materials. But also don’t want you clocking them the minute they hit the door and follow them around the store when they come in. So I mean, everybody knows it’s about fashion. So other than that, let me think. Cheese, food grocery stores, man, I wish that Whole Foods is more accessible. And I know this is something that they deal with on a lot because they come up a lot in conversations about environmental racism and food deserts, things of that nature. And we get it, business is business everything is about the bottom line but it’s 2024 and there are so many neighborhoods where like the the freshest grocery store they have I was like, Save-A-Lot. And you know, respect to save a lot for serving those communities. But why can’t we in these communities get organic food, fresh organic food, like, I mean, I know there’s systemic issues and reasons I get it. But I think the grocery industry could really benefit from some of this too, because they got their own history, and not always they’re the most inclusive. And last but not least, I want to say the haircare industry, I think that we see a lot of black hair brands come up. And they are these locally sourced, home grown, grassroots like things like wood, Honey Pie is a great example. And they build up these brands, they do amazing, some big conglomerate is gonna come by them. And then you start to see the people in the commercials either live in lighter skinned, the curl pattern gets a little straighter. And before you know what the brand that was marketed to Black women, like me, and my cousins, aren’t the women that we see represented in the ads. And you know, if I could tell these big conglomerate industries, anything is that we see it and we noticed.


Erin  21:22

I think that’s a very, very valid point is, you know, thinking of the founder story, and how powerful the founder story can be, and maintaining some of that narrative and representation, right, even through acquisitions. And, you know, these portfolio companies managing that brand. Agree. So thinking of where you are, and where industry is going, and I would say, through this next year and beyond, get through 2024. Where do you see this work evolving in the future in your work, especially the work with with brands and interpretation? I would say you’re also inhabiting public space, and of interpretation with your work currently.


Brigette Jones  22:13

Yeah, ironically, there’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter. I’m a big Twitter fan. But that’s what is not professional. If you follow me on Twitter, I swear to God, you cannot judge my tweets. But I’ve been seeing the conversation happen about the AI positions being cut in several across the sector in every sector. And you know, a lot of these positions were created as a result of George Floyd, Breonna, Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery murders in 2020, during the pandemic, and we know that there was this mass, like, we’re gonna be hyper conscious and empathetic, and we’re gonna have townhall meetings I’m telling across industries. And now I fear that it was what Black people thought it was to begin with. We knew it was performative to a certain extent, we know it’s because you wish you knew that Black dollars are very impactful. The Black folks not doing this, we’re gonna spend some money, we might have no money to spend, and are we gonna spend the money. And because of that, we don’t want to lose you as a consumer. But we don’t want to do the work to be surely equitable. Actually empathetic, because that takes time that takes patience. And when the thing about big business is time is money. So it means for me to take the time to be empathetic, that means I got to lose a little money. And that’s the American way, right? What I see happening is this continuing, sadly, I until the next, George Floyd. You know, I think that America is a reaction is country, where we love to react when something happens and we react in these big ways. And it means so much in the moment, but that follow through is short lived in many cases. And I think that until we recognize that these issues are long term, they’re systemic, there’s not enough band aids that you can pull out of a box to cover it. We have to do the continued work. It’s like, if I go get lipo today, like Yeah, I’m gonna look good for the next six months. But if I go back to eating cheeseburgers every day, I’m gonna be chubby again. So how do we continue to activate this muscle of empathy? I don’t I’m not I’m not super hopefully.


Erin  24:44

So Brigette I would love to get your perspective on performative DE&I at companies, especially considering its prevalence after the murder of George Floyd.


Brigette Jones  25:01

Yeah. I think that what we saw post George Floyd was, what needed to happen, there was a response. And it was a necessary response, we needed to begin to look at how race impacts every industry, from material industries, to the history, industry, to marketing, you name it. Race impacts how we view the world and how we view each other, particularly here in America. And what we began to see is that everybody seemed to take notice of that, right after George Floyd was killed. Everybody said, Okay, maybe we’ve been approaching this the wrong way, maybe we should be more empathetic, maybe we should be more open minded to these new ideas and ways of viewing and understanding people who don’t look like me. But that was great. For a while. After so long, though, it seemed like DEI became a buzzword, it became a trigger. And people would say it to sound really woke quote, unquote, it’s a sound really empathetic, but the work was there. So now you’ve hired all of these individuals, you’ve hired very qualified people to do these very important jobs. But most of the time, it seems like people didn’t really believe in those departments. It was so they won’t get canceled. We don’t want our company to be canceled, we want to keep bringing in Black dollars. But we don’t want to actually do the necessary work continuously to ensure that Black people have an equitable stake in this company in this industry. And now you’re saying those things be rolled back? Because, you know, George Floyd has been gone a while now. And everything’s okay. So we think it’s the farthest from the truth.


Erin  26:54

Yep. What are some? What would you consider some of the performative DE&I activities of companies? What would what would qualify them as being performative, versus the doing the work?


Brigette Jones  27:10

So the big thing that was really popular after George Floyd was killed was the changing the profile picture on Instagram to black? I get the purpose of it. But what does it really do? That was probably the biggest IQ that I had was that black profile picture, um, but also, Black History Month, Juneteenth, all these posts, when you have Black employees who are working at your company, that are usually laughing at these posts, because you post, you post the post, you write the caption, it sounds great. But you have someone over here who has been looking for a promotion for the last four years, but is your top earner. And then also, you have the hiring of all of these people, you bring them in to do this work, this DE&I work, and then you don’t give them the agency that is necessary for them to do the work in a way that really changes company culture. And I think that’s probably the biggest one of all of them, the rest of them are just small, little things that got on my nerves, but you bringing people into your company to do the type of work that your company actually needs, but then not allowing them to do that work. That was the problem.


Erin  28:22

Yeah, I agree. I also feel like the DE&I work that’s necessary, or DE&I and B that’s necessary is work. Right. It’s not a marketing campaign. And I think maybe like to the point you made earlier, it felt very much like a signaling that, that the work was being done in actuality. To your point. Maybe it wasn’t right, or the the individuals who are in positions that hold the title don’t have to the point you made the agency to make the change that in everybody wants change, right? Everybody is so willing to stand behind change, but it is hard work. And it’s a long journey. And it is not finite, right. It’s not like you do it. You’re done. It’s continual.


Brigette Jones  29:19

It’s a continuous process, yeah. And I think that’s the thing that companies have to realize is that this isn’t something that you’re just going to do one time, you don’t get to hire the Black person or the Middle Eastern person or the Latino person and say, Okay, we’re diverse now. That’s not how this works. You have to actually listen and understand if you’re, if your company was 98.9% white and you hire five people of color that doesn’t make your company diverse. It’s not diverse until the thoughts in the beliefs of various cultures are represented within the motto in the creed in the mission of the organization. That’s true diversity.


Erin  30:00

I think being very mindful of who your consumer base is. And do you reflect the people that you’re serving through your products and services, right, and being very mindful of that, like inclusion, and not letting that go by the wayside?


Brigette Jones  30:19

I think that Reebok did an amazing job with that when they hired Pyer Moss for creative director. That was a wonderful move. But was it? It was Reebok.


Erin  30:30

Yep. So Kirby Jean Raymond. Yeah, he’s the Creative Director for Pyer Moss. And then he also acted as Creative Director at Reebok. Yep. And I would say now at you know, at Reebok, we, you’re also seeing opportunities for previous athletes to hold leadership roles. So both Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson both have leadership roles within their basketball division. Right, so both former, you know, both former NBA players Hall of Famers, and and they, they now can help direct the future have of that category? So I’d say yes, reflecting and including the lived experiences and expertise of former athletes of your consumers of your, you know, of the, of the collective in the future of a company. For sure. So you talked a little bit before about the importance of injecting empathy into work, if that’s the work of interpretation? Definitely, I think empathy has a place within corporations and in business in general. How do you recommend companies inject empathy, both within the interpretation of their history, as well as just day to day work?


Brigette Jones  32:06

Hmm. Listening, I know it sounds really simple, listening, active listening, whether that be anonymous survey, I personally prefer non anonymous survey. For companies who are looking to do this outside of their inter company, community, if you’re just looking at your audience and the demographic that you serve, I would say town halls. Anything that really allows you to engage with the community, whether that’d be public programming events, and then actually listen to the things they say, and you have to be okay, when they say stuff that you don’t like, that is the biggest part. You can’t come to a culture or community and say, Hey, how can we be better, and then when people give you the thing that you would need to do to be better? You say, Oh, I thought we were already doing that. Or, oh, that just makes me so uncomfortable. You know, the point of empathetic interpretation is understanding that you might not like it when you are a part of the majority, giving people an opportunity to really speak from their heart and say what they feel about your organization. And then not only listening, but working towards fixing what they said fix that is how you do it. And it seems really simple. But for some reason, it can be so difficult for organizations to implement that,


Erin Narloch  33:39

I’ve been in situations where I’m very aware that someone is listening to respond, instead of listening to understand. So I think that that is such a good piece of advice is to listen to understand and not, not take it. Personally, you know what I mean? I think there’s so much value and creating space for someone to share their lived experience. And maybe you don’t have the the right quote unquote, answers or know what to do. Immediately following hearing some feedback or community engagement or market research, but allowing for that space, right and validating them. I would say my by doing the work.


Brigette Jones  34:35

Yeah, that’s it, listen, and then go do the work. It’s the thing your teacher taught you in like third grade, it’s who knew that it would be this important in our adult career lives? Yeah.


Erin Narloch  34:47

And very much is it is there anything else you would like to add or discuss or talk about as it relates to your work or the work the work of empathy, the work of DE&I, just the work that you’re doing?


Brigette Jones  35:00

I think we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I know, my story on The Moth just went live on the radio. And one of the things that I keep hearing back via my email in my DMs is that this made me so uncomfortable in the best way, thank you so much, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable, but that was the only way you’re gonna grow. So if I can encourage companies and organizations and individuals to do anything else, it will be to become comfortable with being uncomfortable as we push harder for DE&I to become a commonplace in America. 

Erin Narloch  35:40

Great. And when I leave it with that that was such a powerful ending. Brigette, thank you so much for your time today. It’s always a pleasure. And I’m so impressed with all the work that you’ve done, and you’re continuing to do and in all of the spaces that you inhabit. Thank you. Thank you to Brigette Jones, principal and founder of Bridge Builders Historical Consulting, and Assistant Executive Director at Arabia Mountain Heritage Area Alignments. I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I did. incredible insights, great perspectives, and a way for all of us to think a little more deeply about representation in the work we do. Until next time, stay well.

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