“...get big but don’t get close.”

In many Minnesotan spaces, where most of the occupants reflect dominant identities, saying words and phrases like white supremacy and privilege often create discomfort, fragility, and possibly anger. The term “Minnesota Nice” is applicable as long as whiteness and other dominant identities are comfortable — upholding a facade to maintain the culture behind the friendly phrase, “Oh ya sure you betcha.”

Though many Minnesotans, specifically those in the Twin Cities Metro, like to believe that the Land of 10,000 Lakes is an amazing place, Minnesotans who identify as BIPOC may believe otherwise. The state continues to have some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. And, although it would be shocking to some when using the word segregation to describe the “Bold North,” it is visibly and historically true for cities like Minneapolis. Tactics like housing covenants, redlining, and the construction of interstates that destroyed Black neighborhoods, continue to impact lives and create disparities that Minnesota has a hard time confronting.

In an essay called Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller by Marlon James, he repeatedly imprints the phrase, “get big but don’t get close.” This expression sums up why fighting for change can be a struggle in Minnesota. To progress and transform the state would mean to get close. But, getting close would mean acknowledging and being aware of the issues. Unfortunately, many Minnesotans prefer comfort at a “safe” distance. 

The design industry in Minnesota is not immune to the troubling realities that impact the state. Much of the industry operates in insular circles, and even when entering those circles, it can be difficult to feel free to openly discuss topics like diversity — or the lack thereof.

Design + Diversity in Chicago, IL

Before attending the Design + Diversity Conference in Chicago on August 1–3, 2019 on behalf of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee of AIGA Minnesota, I had no expectations. It was my way of providing some room for optimism, but also preventing myself from being disappointed. Too often, the term “diversity” is used at its most superficial form. But after spending three days at the conference, I felt energized, empowered, and excited to bring what I had heard and learned back to Minnesota. 

It was a space where people were unafraid and unapologetically calling out white supremacy, patriarchy, and all systems of oppression. Coming from Minnesota, where most spaces hesitate to even whisper such words, it was uplifting to have discussions and feel like I was a part of making progress.

It would be impossible to recount exactly every word of the amazing speeches and discussions had at the conference, but here is a recap of what was said.

Day One

August 1, 2019


Presenter Types

  • Suezette Yasmin Robotham


    Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Program Manager at Google Search

    Suezette was the first speaker, and started the conference with a relatable topic — imposter syndrome. She told her story about interviewing for Google, and then during the Q&A she talked about things like holding the tech industry accountable, building empathy and relationships, and diversity being a muscle that needs to be trained. Suezette’s final advice for people to take action. She told the audience to get active, because if you don’t then no one will.

  • Tatiana Mac


    Independent Inclusive & Accessible Designer

    Using a variety of pop culture reference throughout her speech, like Mean Girls, Tatiana spoke about privilege and how working with people is a technical skill, as opposed to being seen as a soft skill. She spoke about capitalism and how it scares people with scarcity; how meritocracy was originally a satirical concept; and the idea of replacing empathy with trust. My favorite part is when Tatiana quoted Verna Myers — “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Tatiana added to the quote with “Justice is having someone else throw the party.” Towards the end of her speech, Tatiana told the audience to lift as we climb, and resist relentlessly.

  • Dawn Hancock


    Managing Director at Firebelly Design

    Dawn talked about the lessons learned from being an entrepreneur and running her own business. Her lessons include: hire people smarter than you and who truly give a damn; believe in your employees and co-workers, even when they mess up; lift each other up; take the risk; it’s ok to not be ok; celebrate and reward; and focus on work that moves the needle. Overall, Dawn’s message was to work together, because she truly believed that together we are unstoppable.

  • Sadie Red Wing


    Assistant Director of Native Student Programs at University of Redlands

    Sadie spoke about her design work to revitalize Indigenous perspective. She shared work she did for Standing Rock, and how her work had deep meaning and symbolism. Sadie also talked about how Indigenous cultures are in a crisis of extinction, and how it’s essential to create visual sovereignty and decolonize Native American design. Much of the stereotypical designs of Indigenous cultures lack understanding and respect of the 567 different tribes. One of the most thought-provoking things that Sadie said was that in Indigenous languages, there are no words for owning or claiming — those words came from Manifest Destiny. Instead, Indigenous languages say share.

Day Two

August 2, 2019


Presenter Types

  • Rich Hollant


    Principal and Design Director at CO:LAB

    Rich talked about how everything is personal, and how dismantling the dominant system is critical. He stated that design is constructed by people, and that we should not be strict servants to the process. Oppressive systems were designed, and it created conditions that crossed generations and eventually resulted in complacency and an acceptance of the status quo. But, it’s important to break those cycles. Rich’s three main advice was to build relationships, be in community, and simply care about people.

  • Terresa Moses


    Creative Director at Blackbird Revolt, LLC

    Our very own Director of Diversity & Inclusion of AIGAMN was a speaker at the conference, and Terresa was truly energizing. Starting off her speech by telling everyone that her leadership style was the warrior-type, Terresa inspired the audience with her work and how she integrated Blackness in design. She also shared important advice on how to get started in social justice work, including: get woke; be flexible; know who you’re talking to; understand language; seriously get serious; build your squad; and step your game up. 

  • Jennifer White-Johnson


    Assistant Professor of Design and Visual Culture at Bowie State University

    Unplanned and completely spontaneous, Jen started off by singing and sharing her voice with the audience. It created a beautiful experience that became more heart-warming as she talked about being not only an educator, but more importantly a mother to an autistic Black boy, Knox. Everything that Jen did was with Knox in mind, not only through her art activism but also through her teaching to transgress.

Day Three

August 3, 2019


Presenter Types

  • Maya Bird-Murphy


    Founder & Executive Director at Chicago Mobile

    Maya was a past Design + Diversity Fellow, and she spoke about her journey of being an architect and starting her own nonprofit organizations, Chicago Mobile Makers. Even though the majority of the audience understood that many design fields like architecture are not very diverse, the statistics that Maya shared — 85% of architects are white, 64% of architects are male, and only 0.3% are Black Women — was still shocking. But, even with those daunting stats, Maya has accomplished a lot and her nonprofit has worked with 340 youths — helping them learn about design-thinking, architecture, and place-making in Chicago communities!

  • George Aye


    Co-Founder and Director of Innovation at Greater Good Studio

    “How we’re seen affects how we see ourselves” was George’s main message, and he supported it by talking about the history of photography and how white supremacy culture was integrated even in film. George also talked about a lot of relatable topics, such as code-switching being a survival strategy and how showing up in white supremacy comes with a cognitive tax. George works to make sure BIPOC see their melanin-riched selves with better lighting and to elevate the voices of people with the least power.

  • Sarah Sandman & Nikki Juen


    Co-Directors of Brick x Brick

    Sarah and Nikki talked about how why dissent matters and how to use design for activism. Sharing not only their designed dissent they shared 5 principles: 1. Designing for reducing barriers of entry; 2. Designing for accessible replication; 3. Designing for unified individualism; 4. Designing for spectacle and media dissemination; and 5. Designing for collective joy. During the Q&A, they gave advice that was applicable to both design and activism — put the bold first.

Conference Showrunners

Antionette Carroll
CEO & Co-Founder at Creative Reaction Lab // Co-Founder and Co-Director of Design + Diversity Conference

Tim Hykes
UX Consultant at World Wide Technology // Co-Founder and Co-Director of Design + Diversity Conference

Dian Holton
Senior Deputy Art Director of AARP // Mistress of Ceremony

Timothy Bardlavens
Product Design Leader at Zillow // Speaker and D+D Fellowship Program Manager

The Work is Never Done

Leaving directly to the airport after the conference, there were so many thoughts in my head. With all this knowledge and energy, I was excited to bring what I had learned back to Minnesota. Waiting to board my flight at the gate, news of a white supremist shooter in El Paso, Texas finally entered my consciousness. My energy was quickly sobered.

Fighting for diversity, inclusion, and social justice can be exhausting. And when tragic events like the shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio happen, or even when receiving microaggressions on a frequent basis, it can feel like change is impossible.
Without a doubt the work is never ending, but because of events like Design + Diversity, there is a great sense of hope. I learned a lot of great things at the conference, but the greatest takeaway is seeing and knowing that there are people, a community, and a movement to collectively work to dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, and all systems of oppression. Although the energy might ebb and flow, the fight is always there.

Contact Leadership

Diversity & Inclusion
Director of Diversity and Inclusion