Diversity in Action: Interview with Leonie Annor-Owiredu

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Following our interview with Jaheed Hussain, which sprang from a recent article in DesignWeek, entitled ‘Can the design industry’s diversity problem be fixed?’, we approached Leonie Annor-Owiredu, who also contributed to that piece, to find out more about her organisation, Diversity in Action.

With your background in design management and branding, what was it that led you to found Diversity in Action, and what are its aims?

I quickly learned through university placements that the lack of diversity there and also within my course meant it was going to be difficult to get in and stay in. The discussions and approaches to diversity made progress seem impossible. Diversity in Action exists to provide a more expansive approach to diversity.

On the Diversity in Action website, you describe three types of diversity that shape our identities – how do these three types fit together when building an inclusive organisation? 

They enable us to see that DEI (diversity, equality and inclusion) is not a one-layer problem, and though this is our current approach which is reducing it to just demographic diversity, it’s also got to do with our cultures where racism and discrimination are deeply intrenched into workplace culture and ultimately keeps thinking to be more of the same.

Can you tell us about the way brands use black culture, and whether they give credit for the cultural capital they take? 

I cover this in detail in my article ‘Black Lives Matter: The revolution will not be commodified’, in Creative Review.

Are there any examples you can share with us of brands that celebrate and lift up Black culture in an appropriate way?

I would say TONL, a stock image company which provides a range of imagery of people from all walks of life and backgrounds to help show everyone doing everyday things. I also think brands like Ethel’s Club, a POC-led membership club which completely debunks the myth that members’ clubs are for the socially elite and is providing brilliant programming that focuses on community in a way that’s incredibly welcoming. Finally, No Signal has been amazing to watch grow as they rose to tackle the lack of Black night events with the launch of their radio show and even further catching the attention of Spotify and showing that brands can learn from Black people, as they’re the ones making popular culture and would be best to learn from and collaborate with.

In the publishing industry, people of colour are under-represented, both as staff members and authors. What steps would you like to see publishers take in order to make the industry more representative?

Do not limit gathering or learning from new/undiscovered writers to schemes that run once or twice a year. I think there are far more creative ways to engage new writers that help them on a more developmental way. Many of these schemes rarely offer room for error and are looking for a very particular type of person. This means that candidates are having to prove if they are disadvantaged enough in some kind of oppression Olympics that leaves a sour taste.

I’d like publishers to also be open to new ways of telling stories when it comes to commissioning works from Black people; the industry has the tendencies to publish a particular style of literature i.e. we’re in the WOKE phase right now and have been for some time. I feel that we’re robbing readers of the chance to be exposed to other genres, and limiting ways of Black expression in one of the most expressive art forms. Hearing a story that you’ve not come across before should excite because at the end of the day, so long as this is compelling, people will want to read it.

Leonie Annor-Owiredu is a writer of cultural criticism and fiction, a cultural strategist and a D&I consultant, She has worked for companies like Havas and M&C Saatchi and is currently writing a novel.