Social justice and inclusion in art, design and tech, and film with Rasu Jilani, Rafael Smith Sergio, and Dahkil Hausif

Dahkil Hausif is making social-justice based VR films aimed at increasing dialogue in educational institutions and exploring the possibility of teaching through entertainment. Rafael Sergio Smith is a designer at IDEO.org using design thinking and tech to address issues around poverty and mitigate bias. Rasu Jilani is the Director of Cultural Diversity and Strategic Partnerships at NEW INC and on the Board of Directors at The Laundromat Project.

Diversity as a concept

Dahkil brings up how quickly things change and how staying abreast of new sensitivities can be a process of learning and adaption: “Give thanks and appreciate that we’ve come very far in our generation in doing the work — it’s also been work trying to adapt and not stay in a stasis.” He also makes a point about how changing the direction that VR projects can take is a challenge.

“VR is best when it’s really targeted. Now there’s so many people doing things — if you want to get a write up or into a film festival there’s ways to do that. But how do you get these experiences in front of people who are making policy and planning decisions for the city?” — Dahkil Hausif

Rasu replies, “Yeah, in 1996 ‘diversity’ wasn’t a term, it was like ‘this is your community, and this is my community.’ And New York City was a very diverse place. When you get into the marketplace and you start to see that there’s not much representation; you then become the exception. You make a choice whether to make your story around ‘I made it and that’s it so everyone can make it.’ Or you take a stance of ‘I made it and there’s not much of me here and I have to make sure I create inroads for other people like me to be here.’ People of color have to be on their toes and keep up with the new language to articulate themselves and qualify themselves to the majority.

Rafael adds to that by pointing out that organizations prioritize stasis. Inclusion is destabilizing and true inclusion is not a head-counting, box-checking exercise, it’s a cultural shift from “I get to be here” to “I get to be myself here and voice my concerns.”

“Getting to be here” and cultural fluency

I asked my guests to comment on how they felt about the fact that I asked them to speak about diversity as POC working in predominantly white industries. They remarked that the person who is giving the invitation matters. Dahkil says, “I’m not going to be the only ‘POC plant’ to speak about our people. They’ll ask you to get in where they see you and it’s your opportunity to be where you think you’ll be effective, but don’t be a token. Show up as the same person in any situation. Mine was a process of learning how to understand how to assimilate but not be overpowered by dominant culture.”

Rasu adds that people of color often “have to learn the ability to code-switch,” and asks how language itself can become more inclusionary. Rafa points out that being able to code-switch or navigate cultural fluency isn’t broadly distributed and that corporate America is a culture of white affluence that disadvantages lots of people. Rasu adds to this that “internships are pathways for poverty — free labor is more beneficial and sustainable for those who can afford to participate. If you pay your interns, then people of color see those and develop muscle memory for internships to be viable options. Otherwise you’re perpetuating systems of oppression.

“Get on as many boards as possible. When they’re funding projects, get on that committee so you can identify where the emerging minds are and gift them and advocate for them in ways that others can’t. We talk about privilege, especially when we talk about white privilege, as a bad thing, but privilege is a cultural and social context. I use mine to try to be as inclusionary as possible.” — Rasu Jilani

Numbers don’t lie but you can make them lie

To the point of looking at diversity initiatives from one of head-count, Rasu brings up a mandate from The New York Office of Cultural Affairs Diversity that states cultural organizations cannot include people working in maintenance or security in their diversity stats. In tech, a staffing of 30% diversity is a great number but after this mandate we see that numbers dropped dramatically. Without context, numbers mean nothing. “We know that inclusion is good for the bottom line but biases fight against that. To be truly inclusive we have to let go of our capitalistic, oppressor and oppressed narrative. We say we want something but we sing in a different tune. I think socially we’re not ready yet, and institutions uphold these social practices.”

How do we change diversity from an optic thing to something that’s fundamental towards driving innovation?

Rafael is working on a platform and product for a data-driven approach to diversity. “Diversity and inclusion practices are often too theoretical. What gets measured gets managed out here. Here’s an analogy: it would be unheard of for an internet company to make decisions without Google Analytics, but diversity is not treated with this level of rigor. It goes beyond headcount to understand nuances of diversity; I want to pinpoint bias and offer specific policies. Diverse teams have stronger teams and more innovative outputs.”

I ask him about the idea of “love” when working on his project, and crafting a team that he feels upholds that, and how it feels to be the only person of color in the room.

“The thing that kills me is not that I am the only POC in a room, but more that no one notices or is paying attention. Everyone wants to be seen and that’s the rudimentary point of our whole discussion. When you don’t understand the issues of race in America, you don’t see me. I want to be in an environment where I see other people and other people are seeing me, and to me that is love.” — Rafael Sergio Smith

TRYTOBEGOOD is an iTunes podcast!

Subscribe on iTunes and appreciate on your commute or during your contemplative strolls.