In the summer of 2015, I began conversations with the producers at WNYC Studio 360 about our team working on their latest project in their redesign series — imagining a symbol to represent the modern South.
This invitation arrived in the wake of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, which reignited the debate about how the Confederacy is celebrated and memorialized.
In many ways, we were the right team at the right time to take on this challenge. A team led by two creative directors directly descended of civil war veterans from both sides of the conflict. Both genuinely driven to bridge the divide of rancor and try to start a conversation that might begin to have people to listen to each other and heal old — generationally old — wounds. No small task. Some might say, and did say, we were foolish.
The result of the project was electrifying. Starting on September 23rd, the radio program about the project aired to millions over the course of a week, to NPR affiliates across the United States and to a global online audience.
We earned praise from Fast Company, Brand New, and even AL.com, the largest news site in the Deep South state of Alabama, and provoked distain from the Tea Party, Dixie Outfitters and from a most unexpected, that I learned about from an old friend via Facebook:
Rush Limbaugh and his 16 millions listeners. Each time a news story ran, in the social media verse we would get a new peppering of applause, criticism and the occasional threat. One local woman even threatened us with a boycott.
Back home, the Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze wrote a cover story about our adventure, one that I found to be the most thoughtful analysis of not just the project but the south and its struggle with its past.
Without a doubt, we were proud of the work. We were proud of the conversations the project provoked. But there was a new energy permeating the office — fear. We’d had a couple of phone calls come in that were concerning. We were locking doors that formerly didn’t need to be locked. We were engaging our building’s security guards for additional vigilance. We had a tension between wanting to shine a spotlight on the project and that same spotlight illuminating a team of people that could potentially be targets of neo-Confederates.
The following year, after giving a presentation about the project at the AIGA National Conference in Las Vegas, designer, author and activist Mike Monteiro attended our session and asked why we stopped pushing the project. We’d struck a nerve and had an opportunity to make an even bigger impact by stepping on the gas, instead of hitting the brakes. My answer? My team didn’t sign up for activism. We’d increasingly felt like targets, and it’s something that I wasn’t comfortable imposing on our people and their families. One person expressed fear looking into their backyard at night, wondering if someone was looming in the shadows and interested in registering their disapproval with an act of vandalism or violence. It was enough.
To date, this project is something I’m the most proud of. Proud of the team and the small impact we’d made on the discussion of race, history and justice.