Some of us have discovered Paola Mendoza as the artistic director of The Women’s March. Well, as an opinionated and brilliant artist she is also an actress, film director and the co-founder of the SOZE agency. I’ve had the pleasure to meet with Paola and Daniel Leon-Davis at their office in Brooklyn, New York. We discussed the important role of artists in critical political times, leading a business based on compassion and equity as well as feminism consumed by pop culture.
In countless interviews and speeches, Paola shared how she felt the night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States: devastated. She was born in Bogota, Colombia, and that election filled with hatred and bigotry was particularly hard on her. As a leader born-creative she decided to take part of the Women’s March in Wahsington. We all know how it turned out: one of the largest protests in the world and led by an extremely diverse array of women leaders. A March turned movement that has inspired millions globally… including ReSisters founder: myself.
Here I am, in The Soze agency offices in Dumbo (Brooklyn, NY) waiting for Daniel and Paola to arrive. I was quite early… Not that I’m particularly the type of person to show up on-time, nah, but because I get lost pretty easily -even on straight lines- and I wanted to avoid that to happen on this particular occasion. Their offices are decorated with beautiful artwork mostly made by immigrant artists and a stack of the Women’s march book « Together we rise » that Paola needs to sign.
Sakina : at the Soze agency how do you articulate activism with your creativity ? Do you feel that certain boundaries refrain you from being fully creative ? Or perhaps it’s part of your core business to break the glass ceiling in people’s mind ? Can you tell our community more about the work that you are doing ?
For a long time, projects were often times limited by the funding and the ways people where asked to show up. What you often see is that funding for arts and culture as a tool for activism isn’t always the most funded because people would be like « why don’t we just fund the lobbying? ». So for us it’s important to think about a theory of change, to change the narrative which means being able to use our creative work as a way to touch and change people’s hearts and minds. Our way of doing this is by pushing people’s creative curiosity to get involved in different issues.
I’m currently working on a portrait series (editor’s note: of immigrants) that we have created and that has 170 pieces of artwork. 30 of these pieces where showcased at the Smithsonian. We are being intentional about the fact that we, as young people of color, get to create and curate what the content is that is being put on around us.
In this moment of great political distract we particularly want to give a voice to artists who are critical and leading a path of work for citizens. The worlds that artists are able to imagine are important because sometimes they give people the energy to strive for what they believe in. The role of arts and artists, during this time, serves to learn, to fight, to love when the norm becomes actually the hate. So I think that’s the critical role that artists have.
S: At Soze agency you promote a business plan based on compassion and equity, among other values. How do you translate these values practically onto your work and at the workplace?
For us, the values piece actually came out of not just our work but the way we are building our company. So many times what you’ll see is that companies or organizations will create values that are pertinent to their work but not necessarily apply them internally. When we were thinking about building the company one of the first piece that came up is that we actually, as of January 31st 2018, became a workers co-op. So, currently Paola and Michael (Skolnik) are the owners of the company and over time their are giving a part of the company away to be able to be owned by its employees.
When talking about authenticity, what does it look like to have artists, creatives, producers in the room who are also impacted by these issues? What you see, is agencies that are hired to do the work around minority groups often times don’t have any one on their team that showcases that. For example, Paola and I are both being immigrants have this lead on our immigration clients because outside of our work it’s also in which we activate in life.
For compassion we talk about that around the stories we create but also in the way it shows in our company. Thinking about the culture of our company. How is it that we structure ourselves not to be like corporate company that only focuses on bringing money in and sort of having the biggest profit ? How do we actually make additions to the culture of our company to ensure that people of all types and no matter what you’re going through are able to show up at work and have the ressources to show up at work properly. I think one of the more ambiguous but makes sense on the cultural piece around compassion is, like, for example, we have an unlimited vacation policy and you see that in a lot of organizations now, but the concept of what is it like to be self-managing. Also being able to show up at the company and say I need support on this and focus to work around that as a team.
In the last piece around equity, ultimately we are trying to create a more equitable society. And all of our work is centered around that. Internally we are also working on equity. Currently, we have this idea that rather than doing performances based bonuses, we do an 8% increase salary on the first year and then 10% increase on the second year. At the end of the year we do profits sharing with the employees and the employees themselves are allowed to decide how they want to divide this money.
Outside of this, we are building other structures to push for these values. One of it being the Soze foundation in which we are hoping to build a structure that through our work and the money we are able to bring in are also able to fund and provide ressources for organizations outside ours.
We couldn’t be truthful and honest activists if we weren’t applying the values in our everyday lives and in particular when we have the ability to create a company. It gives us greater understanding of how difficult it is to dismantle our current system of oppression. Our instinct is to go to those systems because they are the only ones we know. So, dismantling those systems to create another business setting is a learning process for everyone working at Soze.
S: Minorities have always been able to organize themselves economically, socially and politically. Sometimes they have even been demonized for doing so. Now we see major brands and mainstream media promoting feminism and diversity as well as resistance as if they suddenly realized that a good chunk of the population if not the majority of it is diverse in all sense not just gender and race wise. What is your take on the « sudden » interest of mainstream society, media and companies for diversity and feminism ?
I (Paola) think it’s great. There is no reason why a feminist should stay to a small and confined space. Feminisms should be « consumed » by the mainstream media and culture. Young children and adults consume it and understand it. I grew up in a time when in an elementary school the idea of being a feminist was horrible and we were ashamed of being a feminist. It took a lot of will for a children of 12 to say « I’m a feminist! ». Now, a young girl at the age of 9, 10, 11 years old can proudly say that she’s a feminist and no one will criticize her. On top of that, young boys are saying that they are feminist too and that’s the point of a feminist movement.
It doesn’t help the concept of dismantling the system if we want to remain amongst the most woke people. I don’t believe in closing the door on individuals. Are there people who will not understand the struggle and what intersectional feminism is? Yes. And feminism in general still focuses on White women, yes, a hundred percent. But, when I meet those people I try to educate them on why intersectional feminism is important. On why being a feminist in this country is also standing up for black and women of color. We have to have a conversation in order to grow and just looking at it as not a beneficial thing for the movement is wrong. The more people are involved the better. I think it’s instrumental for our larger goals.
And just like that I had a very enlightening conversation with two people who walk the talk and push for equity for all through their work ethics. Oh, and I also got a signed copy of the book *trying not to brag* Get yours!
Written by @sakinagm
Featured picture: Paola Mendoza/Facebook