May 21 is World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development — “an occasion to promote culture and highlight the significance of its diversity as an agent of inclusion and positive change.” First recognized in 2002 by the United Nations General Assembly, it is a celebration of culture as a way to promote diversity and sustain human rights within systems of governance.
As a chapter located in a cultural hub and an epicenter for government, AIGA DC invited voices from our design community to create artwork that represents their thoughts on diversity. Five designers contributed their words and work to the project, and we talked to three of them about the project, their personal histories, and thoughts about diversity and government.
Lynn Zarif’s design for Diversity Day. The Arabic text translated into English reads, ” Democracy is freedom, collaboration and equality.”
Lynn Zarif , Lebanese, is a freelance environmental graphic designer who uses wayfinding strategies to improve community engagement. Find some some of her work here.
AIGA DC: You were born in Lebanon and have traveled and lived in many other countries, including Egypt, Spain and now the United States. How has this influenced your design process for this project?
Zarif: When you told me about this project, I thought about the people of my country and the surrounding [countries]. It’s a democracy but there isn’t total freedom. Freedom, for me, is being able to choose your own religion or sexuality. In Lebanon, [religion] is separated into two groups and it is listed on your identification card.
AIGA DC: Do you feel like your view is in the majority or the minority?
Zarif: Unfortunately, it’s in the minority.
AIGA DC: Has living in different places influenced your ideas about government?
Before I traveled to Europe and lived in Lebanon, I wasn’t aware of what my municipality should provide. Democracy should be the government working for the daily needs of the people, like safety or transportation. If people had the opportunity to travel for exposure to ideas and different cultures, things would change. Unfortunately, not everyone has that opportunity.
AIGA DC: Since you’ve been in the United States for a year, what are some things you’ve noticed that are different than other places you’ve lived?
Zarif: One thing that caught my attention is that in DC, there is a program called Inclusionary Zoning. This is good because it helps mix the population. It’s not equal, but it’s not bad compared to other countries I’ve lived in.
However, the gun thing — I am afraid of this. In Lebanon, you never hear a gun at school or a university. Not even in Egypt.
AIGA DC: When people think of the Middle East, people have an idea that it is a violent place. Why do you think that guns are not a problem?
Zarif: It isn’t legal to go to a store or online to buy a gun — you need a special permit. You can’t say you’re getting a gun to be safe.
AIGA DC: You’ve lived in so many places – what would you define as your culture? Where do you think you belong?
Zarif: I don’t feel like I belong one hundred percent to any place, because I love certain things about each place I’ve lived in. I feel like I’m a mix. I’ve always had my eyes towards the outside. I’m never satisfied with the situation. I always look to try new stuff, new countries, new friends and relationships.
Khanh Pham’s design for Diversity Day. The Vietnamese text translated into English reads, “Diversity (in government) is the opportunity to increase intercultural dialogues, which facilitate exchanges of views and understanding among groups with different cultural backgrounds. It encourages us to become more compassionate and empathetic toward others, even though we may not share the same culture, religion, or language.”
Khanh Pham, Vietnamese, is a graphic designer, museum enthusiast, and committee member of AIGA DC’s CreateAthon. Find her work at khanhp.com
AIGA DC: What were your initial thoughts while designing this piece?
Pham: It was very awkward, thinking about it [in] Vietnamese. So I thought of it first in English, then in Vietnamese. I don’t think we have such a thing called “diversity” in Vietnamese, because [Vietnam] is a country where there is only one party, one race, one language. In English it is easier because I am here, and I am an immigrant.
AIGA DC: Why do you think diversity wasn’t an issue when you were in Vietnam?
Pham: Diversity wasn’t an issue and didn’t come to my attention because Vietnam was a very homogeneous society. I wasn’t truly aware of diversity, partly because I was in the majority — living in a big city, going to good schools, having good connections, etc, without difficulty.
In Vietnam, there were cases where people couldn’t find a good job if they had strong accents — because they came from other parts of the country — and I didn’t really understand their perspective until I moved to the States.
Now that I’m in the minority group here, I think I have better understanding about diversity and inclusion. And I hope that one day I could feel more like an Asian American, instead of just a Vietnamese living in the United States.
AIGA DC: Looking at your design for World Diversity Day, it seems like you think diversity can improve government. Can you expand on this?
Pham: If you don’t see someone who represents you in the government, someone who understands what it’s like to be an immigrant, how it is to be a Vietnamese American — you feel detached. You feel that your vote doesn’t count.
It’s exciting to see someone who is like you in government. You feel that you can trust them to represent you and protect your needs.
Bemnet Yemesgen’s design for Diversity Day. The Amharic text spells out “diversity” with the names of ethnic groups in Ethiopia in the background.
Bemnet Yemesgen, Ethiopian, is the founder of Elastic Creative, a design and production company, and host of the Ethios Podcast.
AIGA DC: How did you get started with designing this piece?
Yemesgen: Every project for me starts with a little research … but what I found were the same images of hands holding hands, different colors of people holding hands.
Diversity is expressed in very similar ways, so I had to unsubscribe from this. I started sketching some ideas because I wanted this to be authentic. To express diversity in a way that is not cheesy.
Ethiopia has one of the widest gene pools, with different groups of people that speak and look different. There are over 50 languages spoken in Ethiopia alone. I spelled out “Diversity” in Amharic with the other languages in the background.
AIGA DC: Do you think having lived in both Ethiopia and the US has influenced your perspectives on diversity?
Yemesgen: Cultural impact has been closely related to my personal identity, which is why I’m also involved in faith-based and community-based groups outside of AIGA. Cultural diversity plays a big role in tolerance, acceptance and progress. I’ve worked with different and diverse teams in the past, and they do better with ideas from people who bring something different to the table.
AIGA DC: I’ve noticed with other immigrant groups that sometimes it may take a generation or two for the community’s work to take effect. Do you think that the work that you do will become evident in the next generation?
Yemesgen: I feel like the change has to happen now. Civic leaders never defer change to the next generation. If you defer to the next generation, it will be very different. The next generation is becoming more and more American. With each generation, diversity becomes more skin color rather than cultural.
If you would like to join in on conversations such as this and connect with hundreds of DMV creatives, join our AIGA DC Slack group. Once you’re signed in, you’ll discover channels organized by topics, resources and events. AIGA DC’s goal is to use this online forum as a place to discuss inclusion and accessibility.
Also, as civically engaged designers, remember to register to vote.
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DC: Tuesday, May 29 (In person registration: Monday, May 28)
MD: Tuesday, June 5 (online and postmarked)
VA: Monday, May 21 (online, postmarked and in-person)
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