Professional Speechwriters Association studies repeatedly show that African Americans represent less than five percent of an already tiny speechwriting community.
That means you can practically count black speechwriters on two hands.
And so a significant percentage of those scribes took the stage at the first Black Speechwriters Symposium at Howard University October 23 in Washington, D.C. to introduce their obscure communication specialty to PR majors and other students at Washington's leading historically black university.
Convened by undergraduate legal communications major Michael Franklin with support from the PSA and its members, the panel got off to a fine how-do-you-do.
"What inspires you to write?" came the first question.
"Money?" answered former State Department speechwriter Desson Thomson, before going on to describe some of the intellectual pleasures of the job.
Thomson's similarly frank co-panelists—left to right, Fortune 100 corporate speechwriter Janet Stovall, [Thomson himself], independent speechwriter Cheril Clarke, Ashley Mitchell of We The Action, Andreya Davis, presidential communications chief at Howard and Larae Booker, a longtime speechwriter at the Society of Human Resource Management—told the two-dozen Howard students gathered in Founders Library Browsing Room that speechwriting is indeed more lucrative than other communication specialties.
That's because it's more difficult and dangerous than other communication specialties, so directly and intimately does it serve powerful heads of huge institutions.
But being a speechwriter gives you the unique chance, as one panelist put it, to "sit with people of power and shape what they say … to be the power behind the pen."
"It's not just writing for somebody," another writer told the students. "You're being put on the shoulders of a giant."
And it's about time African-Americans had that chance to have that voice. Long past, in fact. (At a panel the 2016 PSA World Conference, the first black White House speechwriter, Terry Edmonds, realized he was also the last black presidential scribe. He worked in the Clinton administration!)
The Howard meeting ended with a discussion on how to accelerate that change. West Wing Writers managing partner Vinca LaFleur said the speechwriting firm offers 21 annual internships, and encouraged the students to apply.
And of course the PSA is always at work making speechwriting more broadly known, making speechwriting skills more accessible and making speechwriting jobs more attainable and welcoming for all kinds of practitioners—nontraditional practitioners, especially.
That work continues, apace. —DM