The S.T.A.R. program taught me well.
Through a contact here in Lausanne, I managed to get some freelance work designing a fundraising booklet for one of the student organisations on campus (I’m keeping it real general so as not to identify anyone here).
The booklet was commissioned by the finance committee - once complete, it would be sent out to potential corporate sponsors to provide funding for the following year’s activities. They gave me a bunch of great photos from past events to work with, and I got going on a first draft.
A couple revisions later (mostly layout and colour changes - they had supplied the content), all parties seemed satisfied and I packaged up the project files to be sent off to the printer. That’s when I got this message from my contact:
This all looks really great Sam, but there’s just one thing. One of the pictures is showing two women in hijabs, and that’s probably going to make some of our potential sponsors uncomfortable. One person on the committee pointed out that it might hurt our fundraising efforts. I think you should swap it out for another picture.
Now, this contact of mine was just relaying a message, and I know this wasn’t his opinion. But I was baffled. Paralyzed, even. I weighed the moral dilemma in my head. On one hand, I was hired to design a booklet according to the specifications of the committee. On the other, this was blatant racism. What made it all the more bewildering was the fact that the organisation’s mission statement celebrates its “international diversity”.
I took a deep breath and wrote a reply, pointing out that the organisation’s core values would be compromised by removing the photo. It would be a concession to the xenophobic sentiment sweeping Switzerland and a step backward for the organisation. I said I was disappointed. Nevertheless, I drafted up an alternate layout where the photo in question figured less prominently. But I refused to eliminate it - that would be like ethnic cleansing via Photoshop.
There was a deeper problem here than simple racism. A structural problem. The finance committee (or, at least, one person on the finance committee) was acting in direct opposition to the values of the organisation as a whole. This is what happens when bureaucracy creates silos. It prevents cross-communication and accountability. The finance committee, tasked with fundraising, had such tunnel vision that it ignored the central goals of the organisation.
The next day, my contact sent me an email:
Thanks for all your work. We’ve decided to stick with the first design after all. It’s not worth compromising our raison d’être for the prospect of more fundraising dollars.
So, a happy ending after all. I’m not sure if it was my email that turned the tables or if the other committee members talked some sense into the guy that was objecting. But I’m glad it turned out the way it did.
I honestly thought for a while that I would have to resign from the project. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that people tend to listen when you speak honestly and stay true to your values. So if you find yourself in a similar situation, at odds with your boss, or your professor, or your client, don’t back down for fear of getting fired/failing a class/losing business. You don’t have to conform, especially not when you find yourself at odds with what you believe in. You’ll be respected for it, and maybe even shift a paradigm along the way.Sam Nabi