CultureCon at Clark Atlanta Shines Light on HBCU Education and Community

Courtesy of Clark Atlanta University

Against a backdrop of vibrant greens and blues, hundreds of HBCU students clad in cropped denims, bolded letterman jackets, and trendy telfars flooded Clark Atlanta University’s campus for the inaugural CultureCon on Campus student conference.

The student-centered event is under the umbrella of CultureCon, a conference that fosters community and connection for Black creatives and entrepreneurs in the film television and media industry.

Dana Ward, a junior fashion major at Clark, said she found out about CultureCon on Campus on Instagram, and she immediately signed up to attend the free event to take advantage of the rare opportunity.

“I think it’s an amazing idea for a big networking event for HBCU students, especially for the juniors and seniors on campus that are looking for those opportunities after graduation,” Ward said about the event, which was held on April 12. “We have nothing like this.”

Since launching in 2017, CultureCon has grown exponentially. This year’s CultureCon on Campus, held at Clark Atlanta University, is the first of its kind created specifically for HBCU students, targeting the next generation of Black storytellers, creatives and media professionals. Each year, CultureCon’s “Creative Homecoming” grows, with previous years featuring panels from speakers like singer Teyana Taylor, actor Jharrel Jerome, and “Insecure” creator Issa Rae.

Imani Ellis, CultureCon CEO and founder, said that debuting CultureCon at Clark Atlanta was a “full circle moment” for the Atlanta native.

“I think back to how I would have loved to have a CultureCon on my campus, so bringing CultureCon back to my hometown felt so right,” Ellis told Capital B Atlanta. “As a company, we are constantly exploring new ways to bring the tools and resources that CultureCon offers to our community, wherever they are.”

Students from the other HBCUs that make up the Atlanta University Center consortium, Spelman, Morehouse and Morris Brown, were also welcome to attend.

“We all like to come together to help each other out and network, and find opportunities to make a better place for people like us in the world,” Ward said.

Aside from the free food and swag bags, students flocked to the event eager to take advantage of the free headshots, one-on-one networking sessions with industry professionals, and a job fair.

The main events featured panels from HBCU alums on money management, networking to land your dream job, and a keynote speech by content creator Reesa Teesa on how to storytell, taking a page out of her viral “Who TF Did I Marry” 50-part TikToks about a marriage gone haywire with soap opera-level plot twists.

During her keynote panel, Teesa, an HBCU alum herself, revealed her secret to pushing out over 50 TikTok videos in the span of just three days: sitting stuck in Atlanta traffic.

In between sessions, recorded videos with words of encouragement from CNN’s Melody Taylor, Kyra Lewis, and other Black media moguls filled the background screens of Clark’s Davage Auditorium.

“Black students don’t get opportunities like this every single day,” Ward said. “It’s important to see representation, and our faces in regular jobs.”

The “Concerning” Black Media Industry

Almost 76% of people employed in the motion picture and video industries in the U.S. identified as white, while only 1 out of 10 employees identified as Black, according to a 2022 Statista report.

April Lundy, associate professor of film and television studies at Clark Atlanta University, says Clark is known for its strong influence in media and communications. In the 1970s, Clark radio stations like WCLK became “a beacon” for how politicians and musicians communicated with Atlanta’s community, and were even used as a central hub for communication during the Civil Rights Movement, Lundy said.

While Clark has student partnerships with several other name brands like Apple and NBCUniversal, Lundy said the expanded access that events like CultureCon brings can be an added benefit for students and for people in the industry to tap into fresh talent that they would not be otherwise exposed to in their New York or Los Angeles offices.

“Even though we have a lot of partnerships, that kind of brings together more players to the table in one event, in front of the camera and behind the camera. And it just provides a more expanded access for young Black students, in addition to bringing attention to HBCUs in general. To have an event like that, you know, on our campus is humongous,” Lundy said.

This, Lundy said, can help address the “rough” challenge of dwindling Black representation in the media industry, only worsened by recent SAG-AFTRA strikes, multiple newsroom layoffs, and waning interest in diversity efforts from companies that were initially spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There are a lot of programs and opportunities for the diversity and inclusion initiatives that were created, and that’s not gonna last forever,” Lundy said. “It’s kind of starting to taper off now, as a matter of fact.”

“It’s important for students to see people that look like them in different roles and in different companies. In terms of representation, I’m concerned,” Lundy said.

Lessons from the CultureCon classroom

Laila Shabazz, a junior at Clark, said she’s well-aware of the importance of investing in Black student education.

“I’m an education major, so I’m aware how Black students are always under the radar,” Shabazz said. “Not everybody caters to Black students.”

Bennett College student Makaela Reed traveled five hours from North Carolina to go to CultureCon after she was chosen as CultureCon’s “Shoot your Shot” contest winner.

“I want to get a lot of knowledge and network with people so that we can build our net worth here in Atlanta,” Reed said, referencing her creative networking space Tha Chocolate Box.

New Orleans native Queenshe’ba O’Conner made sure to make the most out of her class-free Friday at CultureCon by connecting with a fellow Louisiana native, HBCU alumnus Edward Buckles, a filmmaker and director with HBO.

“I’m only 22,” O’Conner said. “There’s no guide to life, and I don’t get to really talk to a lot of older people, so it’s important for me to gain that wisdom and that knowledge.”

O’Conner, a fashion major, also jumped at the chance to seek guidance from Donna Kirkland, vice president of global marketing and events for makeup brand Tarte Cosmetics. She asked Kirkland if she was confident in her career path in the cosmetics industry.

In response, Kirkland confirmed she was happy with her career choice, and gave O’Conner room to promote her own handmade pink-themed fashion line.

“Shoot your shot, sis!” Kirkland said from the stage.

Decked out in handmade “Who TF Did I Marry” T-shirts and signs, Braxton Broady, a Morehouse freshman, said event headliner Teesa was a major pull factor for attending CultureCon. Broady, a history major on the pre-law track, said that Teesa’s impactful story taught him important life lessons for his education.

“Personally with law, a lot of people are so set, like, ‘I want to be in corporate law, I want to be in entertainment law, I want to be in X, Y, or Z.’ But meeting the right person, posting the right video, it might take you somewhere completely in the opposite direction of where you want it to go,” Braxton said.

“And I think that CultureCon was really an eye-opener to the fact that you really can’t plan out your life,” he said. “I thought that really resonated and was very important for college students, because so many of us are coming in without a clear idea of what we want to do.”