A Night of Storytelling
The Joan Foundation for Diversity, which is founded by creative agency Joan Creative, hosted a Diversity Panel at the agency’s headquarters in NYC labeled “Finding Your Place: Representation and Womanhood” alongside Unity in Color on June 8, 2017. The panel consisted of 5 inspiring and insightful women: Dee Poku (WIE Network), Arpana Rayamajhi (Jewelry Designer), Abrima Erwiah (Studio One Eighty Nine), Nadia Azmy (Minaazine), and special musical performance by the oh-so-talented Abir. It was a night that celebrated women in every respect.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
One of the first and most pressing issues covered at the discussion was the topic of cultural appropriation- specifically in relation to the Dapper Dan x Gucci controversy. Abrima Erwiah is the brains behind Studio One Eighty Nine, a social enterprise that uses fashion as an agent for social change to turn challenges on the ground into social opportunities. She pressed the crowd (showered with diverse and beautiful women) to think of the issue in a more broad sense, and consider the underlying problem with these kinds of situations: REPRESENTATION. In regards to cultural appropriation, what we should really be asking is “Who gets a seat at this board table? Who is making these decisions?” This idea can be translated to other instances, as well, such as the off-putting image of a large group of white, middle-aged men sitting at an executive table, deciding the future of women’s reproductive rights. The unsettling reality is that decision makers are sometimes very out of touch from the real concern at hand.
Arpana has her own views on cultural appropriation, and they do not necessarily comply with popular opinions. Being born and raised in Nepal, she came to the States to originally pursue an art school degree and future in the creative realm. She has always been an expressive individual with a deep interest in design, and the jewelry she creates is wonderfully bold and original. Arpana owes the shaping of her views to her roots and upbringing, as she frequently stresses the marginalization of women in Nepal and their specific identity-related experiences. She does not shy away from expressing her views on varying social issues, (you can find coverage on her Instagram stories @arpanarayamajhi) but she is particularly passionate about voicing her outlook on what cultural appropriation means. Some highlights from the panel on her personal exploration on the matter are as follows:
“Look at the language: cultural appropriation is cultural ownership. By definition of culture, nobody owns it. We are all simultaneously culture. Nobody has ever existed outside of culture at any time. Culture only happens when a bunch of people get together and make it happen. It’s always changing. It’s never going to stay the same. The meanings that we’ve attached to anything back in the day have already shifted now….I think because I was born and raised in Nepal where power dynamics are very different (again I’m taking power dynamics into consideration) and because there’s a bunch of ethnic cultures mixed in all the time, which is what Nepal is, we always considered mixing cultures and people- exchanging things- to be one of the highest forms of respect. That’s how I was born and raised. It’s not necessarily because of the culture I think this way. I think my experience living in the West has made me see things in a larger perspective. So, in regards to cultural appropriation, I think there needs to be a thorough investigation of the artist in question, their practice, who owns a culture, and what culture means in the first place.”
Female Relationships in the Workplace
The next question addressed an extremely relevant issue: women and the “Collaboration vs. Competition” dynamic. A speck of insight shared by Dee Poku, who knows the ropes of the corporate world, is that it is important for women in business to have sponsors as well as mentors. The two are not the same, and both are necessary for advancement in a historically male-dominated system. Sponsors are those who support you and will be eager to put in a good word for you for future endeavors. Mentors give advice and guidance throughout the stages of your personal and professional life.
The common thread laced in between all the panelists responses touched upon the need for women to recognize the call to action: connect with, work with, and empower your fellow women co-workers instead of perpetuating the myth that men play a more dominant role in the workplace. [Keep in mind, though, sometimes being bold and over the top is not always the answer, sometimes it is just by creating bonds with your fellow female friends that slowly but surely makes a difference.]
All of the -isms
A followup question for the panelists was on their experience with all the deep, dark “-isms” that plague mankind: racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. Although the women did not share specific instances (they collectively agreed there were too many to count), they shared valuable insight on how to combat these toxic systems of inequality. Abrima’s answer stuck with me most; her concern lies within the invisible laws that are not protecting all people, which begs us to ponder “when do we speak out?” She feels that younger girls in the workplace do not feel it appropriate to combat such heavy issues, but discrimination does not always happen in a top-down system. It could just be the underlying nepotism that occurs in the process of interns sorting through resumes to be evaluated. Abrima wants us to remember: you do not necessarily have to be in some big place of power to make a difference.
One Young Woman’s Creative Vision
Nadia, creative genius behind Minaazine, operates with the goal of creating a platform that explores the cultural aesthetic and lifestyles of Middle Eastern and North African cultures, as well as those in the diaspora, to showcase people of her background as real people- totally separate from politics. She does not even like to label herself: “I’m just Nadia and I make cool sh*t.” It is sad that the social climate we live in has come to such depths, but she feels the need to defend and in turn REPRESENT herself and her culture as a Muslim woman in the current global environment. “Those people [carrying out terrorist acts] are not true Muslims. We need to share the reality and educate people on the ones who are not doing such extreme acts.” Her relatable and cool tone was easy to understand and relate to, and the concept of Minaazine is a progressive and inclusive fusion of art and culture.
The beautiful thing about panels such as Finding Your Place is the opportunity for panelists and attendees alike to gain a range of perspectives on a particular topic in an open-minded environment free from judgement and/or disagreement. Everyone’s opinions are respected and admired. The aim of this discussion was to highlight the experience of women navigating the muddy waters of representation and womanhood led by inspiring figures from around the globe with different angles and experiences. The energy of unconventional and daring views are what breed insightful conversations and make waves in this world. Our future looks bright when magical women at the forefront join forces.
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