A Pacific Islander design expert reflects on her experiences in the field and shares advice for her fellow underrepresented designers of color.
The best piece of advice I can give to early career Black and Brown designers in tech is to invest in your community. Foster relationships with individuals, and/or organizations that you identify with outside of tech. During the course of your career, you will dedicate a lot of your time to your craft. This will include navigating in-office relationships, and building a professional network; trying to carve a space for yourself in an industry that doesn’t always recognize us, or our efforts. As a consequence of this reality, there will be days when you feel like an imposter, and yet still moments where you feel like you belong.
It is for both of these moments — highs and lows — that you will need a community. Individuals who understand your struggles, and relish in your triumphs; both on a professional and a cultural level. Kelsy Blackwell writes about this in her essay ‘Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People’.
“Imagine that discrimination is like plaque that covered your being at birth — in its stickiness are challenges to your worth, intelligence, and humanity. Over time, as you try to make your way through the school system, find a job, and look for a partner, it gets thicker and stickier. An important way to begin chipping away at this buildup is to be in a space where we can, temporarily, leave that sticky inheritance at the door. This is the point of PoC spaces.”
I know what it’s like to move through this space alone. Over the past ten years, I have held various design roles in tech, at companies both large and small. Pacific Islanders make up less than 1% of the total US population, so although I don’t expect to see many PI’s working in Tech, I am consistently surprised by the lack of Black and Brown representation. For the first four years of my career, I only worked with one other person of color in design. I don’t need to tell you that there is a lack of diversity in tech, the numbers speak for themselves.
That said, the lack of visibility is only part of what makes existing in these spaces alone so difficult. It is also the subsequent cultural insensitivity (and sometimes racism) that can make showing up every day taxing.
There was that time at lunch, someone asked me, “What utensils does your culture use to eat?” I responded, “We mostly use our hands.” Another woman at the table shouted, “Like to hold a burrito!” I didn’t respond.
Then there was that time while working with the UX engineering team, someone said, “You need to get a 2XL onesie for a baby Samoan”. Although the exoticism of Pacific Island bodies is not a new phenomenon, to hear it done to our young was repulsive. Holding back my anger, I calmly replied, “Samoan babies are just like any other baby. They come in all weights and sizes.”
We all have experienced moments like these; sometimes they’re bigger, sometimes they’re smaller. We are stereotyped, sexualized, silenced, labeled, put into a box — all at our place of employment. Yet more and more, we are asked to bring our authentic selves to the workplace. How can we be ‘authentic’when there is no one there to identifyour authenticity? Or worse, respect it? In a conversation with a friend and PoC in design, they confided, “The isolation [in tech] creates anxiety.”
This is why we need each other. In a conversation with AIGA on the ‘Importance of Building and Cultivating Community’, Mimi Onuoha, a visual artist, shared,
Often what I’m searching for when I’m in a community with other Black people or people of color is not necessarily someone who has the exact same experience as me, but rather someone who has an appreciation of plurality and misfit-ness, and blurred lines and spaces… being around people who share that sense of what it means to be in places that aren’t designed for you, and to be there and realize that together we can change these spaces or at least deal with how they don’t fit.
Six years into my career, I found myself resigned to the loneliness and isolation I was feeling at work. In an effort to distract myself from solitude, I focused on a strategy that I hoped would help increase diversity. Reflecting on my career, I found that the most foundational assets to my success were visibility and mentorship. This self-reflection, and a passion for service, ultimately led me to Inneract Project.
Inneract Project (also known as IP) is a volunteer-led non-profit that empowers Black and Brown youth through design education. I joined IP to help build a more accessible pathway for BIPOC to a career in design. To my surprise, what I gained was a community that helped sustain my own career, and growth as a designer. Through volunteering with IP I met other Black and Brown designers. We connected through our love for investigation and bonded over our shared ardor for community and service.
When my dad passed the summer of 2019, my IP community showed up: offering food, and an ear to listen; checking in many weeks later, just to see how I was doing. When I was looking for a new opportunity, my IP community made themselves available for coffee chats, referrals, and portfolio reviews. And when I accepted a new job offer at the end of 2019, my IP community celebrated my success, with all the empathy and understanding of the journey it took to get there. They were there for the highs and lows.
Over the years I have volunteered with many organizations, all with a similar mission of advocacy and mentorship. However, few have given me the same experience of community that IP fosters. I believe what makes a community strong begins with its leaders.
For IP that is Maurice Woods. Mo, as he is most lovingly called by his family and friends, brings his most authentic self to the program. He speaks to volunteers, new and old alike, as familiar friends. He leads with gratitude, always acknowledging every person who has had a hand in bringing IP’s vision to life. He credits our students and sees them as a vehicle for change, rather than something that needs changing. His authenticity and the culture he brings shows up throughout the organization. It’s there in the welcome video calls the staff sets up with every new volunteer — to say hello, and express their enthusiasm. It’s there in the way volunteers communicate with one another, and delegate responsibility, indexing on cultural capital rather than what’s on someone’s resume. And it’s there in the ways in which we care for one another: in and out of the program.
The best piece of advice I can give to early career Black and Brown designers in tech is to invest in your community. Whether that means joining an organization like Inneract Project or creating your own network, having a community of people you identify with and feel supported by, both in and out of tech, is essential to your career and longevity.