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Season 3, Episode 2 – Oliva House: The Art of Activism

Olivia House presenting at her art show

Olivia House, intern at Wingnut Advertising (via Brand Lab), uses design to advance the causes of justice and activism. Through her work, she strives to elevate underrepresented voices, share stories that aren’t told, and promote history that has been erased. Mentors in Augsburg arts and athletics as well as key players in Twin Cities advertising and design have supported her on her journey and helped her crystalize her ambitions to build a brighter future through the power of activist art.

Transcript

Olivia House: I really want to use graphic design to impact the world around me in a positive way. Especially uplifting people’s voices that have been taken away or haven’t been heard.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I’m Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it’s my great privilege to present the Augsburg podcast.

Catherine Day: I’m Catherine Reid Day, host of the Augsburg podcast. Today we speak with Olivia House, graphic design major, class of 2020, as well as some of her academic and professional mentors. She tells us about her path to discovering her calling in design.

Olivia House: I was actually homeschooled for high school, so my path to college was very interesting. I didn’t have any guidance counselors there to push me to that. So it was really me just like looking around and wanting to figure out what kind of school I wanted to be at. I knew I wanted to play soccer in college, so that was a big part of it. So I was looking at schools that I was being recruited from and there were a lot of them in the MIAC here in Minnesota. And Augsburg, Mike reached out to me. And I didn’t know if I wanted to come here, mainly because it was very, very close to home. I reached back out to him and I was like, “I don’t really know, but I’ll come and visit.” And when I got on campus, and I met Mike, and I met the team, I instantly knew that I would be a great fit here.

Olivia House: Being on campus and meeting professors, especially in the graphic design department, I knew I’d find a second home at Augsburg, so that really made my decision.

Olivia House: When I was a sophomore in high school, my home school, my home city school, was Richfield High School and so I just wanted to maybe take a couple of classes there to get some potential college credit and experience in a classroom setting like that. So I saw a marketing class and I was like, “Oh, that would be interesting. I’m really interested in business.” So I took that class and that happened to be the class that was paired with the BrandLab.

Catherine Day: BrandLab is a nonprofit organization that works to diversify the marketing and advertising industries by introducing high school students to these industries, and connecting them to internships in relevant fields. More than a pairing program, it’s also a mentorship program.

Olivia House: They came in for like half of our class and talked about the marketing and advertising industry. And we visited some agencies which was really cool. And then you had the opportunity to apply to their internship at the end of the semester. And so I decided to apply for it and I got accepted. In the beginning they introduce you to different roles in advertising, and one of them was graphic design. I knew that I wanted to do something artistic because I’ve always been artistic, but my parents did not want me to actively pursue art as a career. So I was looking for ways to be artistic but also be able to make a steady income. And graphic design seemed like the perfect fit.

Olivia House: At that first internship, it actually wasn’t for a graphic design position. It was on the other side and project management and account services. But I told them that I was really interested in graphic design. So they had me shadow all the designers at the agency, which was really cool. And they even set up a final project that was based in graphic design. And so after that summer I definitely knew that I wanted to pursue graphic design.

Jim Cousins: I first met Olivia when I was president of Wingnut Advertising.

Catherine Day: This is Jim Cousins now vice president of business development with Augeo.

Jim Cousins: She came in the front doors of the Wingnut space, in the lower in the North loop in Minneapolis, and immediately changed us for the better. She came in as a sophomore in high school, which I wasn’t quite sure about because that’s quite young. But being part of the BrandLab before that, and supported of the BrandLab will support them in whatever they’re up to. And if that made sense for them, it made sense for us. She was beyond her years in terms of maturity and in terms of ability. Quickly she just became a member of the team. We’re a smaller agency and so it was really, the benefit of a small agency is you get to connect with every department. You really have a, you make a mark on the place and that’s how it was for Olivia.

Olivia House: Jim was actually the first person I ever had a conversation about getting a raise. And because Jim is so approachable, we talked about it, and yeah, like yeah, he was very helpful. He really gave me confidence in advocating for myself and advocating for the things that I think that I deserve.

Jim Cousins: Olivia said, “Hey, can I get a few minutes with you?” And I could tell she was about to ask something. I could tell she was acting a little differently than most and so it was something important to her. We sat down and chatted for a little bit, and she asked for a raise, which we were happy to accommodate. And it was time, so good for her. But also I might have had a slight tinge of, “Oh, we should be ahead of this type of thing. Reward great employees before they ask.” But at the same time it’s great experience to recognize your own value, and to ask for it, and advocate for yourself. And so she did a wonderful job at it and got the raise.

Olivia House: He’s been a mentor of mine for, yeah, the past five years. I had lunch with him the other week and just catching up. And he always is helping me network with other people and going to events and things like that. So Jim has been a very influential person in the last five years for me.

Olivia House: Honestly, I think the BrandLab was a stepping stone into me getting more involved in activism, and really being a strong proponent of the idea of diversity and inclusion and equity and things like that. And it’s been an interesting road because the BrandLab is a huge advocate for those things as well. And I started to do it, you know, like in a different way. They were really big about it in terms of the industry, but I started looking at the industry as a whole and how equitable advertising it is in itself.

Olivia House: And so it really opened my eyes to the larger picture, and like the country as a whole, and the city as a whole, and things like that. So I see the BrandLab as a stepping stone into what I’m doing now and what I’m starting to do. Because I think without it, I don’t know how I would have started to think about these things in this way, and thinking about equity and inclusion and making sure that everyone has a seat at every table.

Olivia House: A few years ago when the Superbowl was here, and a social justice group reached out to me. Seeing if I wanted to help organize a conference around it talking about police brutality and things like that. And so I was like, “Yeah. And I ended up designing all the graphics for it. And so that I saw a tangible way that graphic design and activism could come together. And then that next summer I did a whole research project on the history of black graphic designers in the United States, which isn’t talked about at all and you really can’t find anywhere. And that was another example of “Wow, like I can create this big exhibit, or this website, this book layout to help tell these stories that aren’t being told.” And that’s super exciting to me.

Chris Houltberg: I met Olivia House when she was a sophomore studying here in graphic design.

Olivia House: This is Chris Houltberg, associate professor of art and design.

Chris Houltberg: She’s incredibly motivated, articulate, and a really great student. What was really exciting to see is her development over the course of this program. She has found more and more ways to express and access her own agency. There’s this really particular moment when you’re teaching that you wait for someone’s sense of identity to meet a creative outlet. Sometimes we’re fortunate to see that while they’re in the program. Other times we see that very last thing as they’re walking out the door, but that’s a really exciting moment. For Olivia that experience happened in her sophomore year. She found a sense of agency that she could share the things that were important to her through the vehicle of design. And when those two things intersect, that’s when something incredible happens. That’s when the unexpected happens. And that’s when true change happens.

Olivia House: One of my first interactions with Chris, I was very nervous. I was signing up for design class that was… I didn’t meet the prerequisites for it, but it was the only one that fit in my schedule. So I emailed him and I was just like, “Hey, can I get into this class?” And he said, “You know, I think we need to meet and I need to review your resume and portfolio.” And so I was very nervous and yeah, but he did. And he was just like, “Wow, like yes, I think you should be a part of this class.” And I never really talked to him about this interaction until like a year ago. And he was just, he was like, “I knew. I knew that you needed to be in this and that you had so much growth that could happen.”

Olivia House: And that’s been a huge part of our relationship. He pushes me harder than anyone else does. He knows my potential and what I can do. And he doesn’t let me turn in or show him any work that does not reflect that. Which is, I’m very thankful for it. And everything that I do I show Chris because I know he’s going to be honest and I know he’s going to push it to be better and better. Even just the other day, as I’m finishing up my show, he sends me an article and some things. And he’s like, “How? Have you thought about this for it? Have fun printing today.” And it’s just, and I take it all into consideration because I know he cares. He cares a lot. So I’m really thankful for him.

Chris Houltberg: So Olivia took on this project to ask the question where are all the black designers. And she focused specifically from 1945 to 1975. The end product of that project was merely a presentation that was supposed to happen at the end of summer research. But the type of person that Olivia is, she doesn’t stop at the bare minimum of what’s expected. She has expanded this project well past any of those expectations to an exhibit that’s traveled. It’s been in at least four places, installed in four different places. And then she designed an online catalog so that everyone could have access to this information. And even since then she’s gone to continue her research by going to some libraries in Chicago to look, have a deeper dive into the archives of these really incredible designers that are not mentioned in any graphic design books. So I think that as she continues to push this, I won’t to be surprised to pick up the book by Olivia House someday.

Catherine Day: One of Olivia’s favorite designers and certainly one of the most influential for her is Emory Douglas.

Olivia House: He was the Minister of Culture or the graphic designer for the Black Panther party. And his work is just phenomenal. Mainly because an important part of his work was being able to depict emotion and message without using a lot of words. Because then the community that he was reaching was largely illiterate. And so he had to create these really powerful graphics with very limited use of words. And that’s one that I really connect to because I love that about the graphic design that I do. Is that, that’s what I want to do, be able to depict what I want with very limited description or things like that.

Olivia House: Good activism and you can see this in the Black Panther party and even things happening now is the community aspect of it and I don’t think a lot of people see that. Because in order to be effective you have to really be ingrained in the community because those are going to be the people behind these movements. That led me into what I’m doing for my senior show, which is a very personal project, which I’m not really used to. It’s very vulnerable.

Olivia House: Basically it’s a project that explorers my evolution of identity and my struggle with identity, through the lens of the relationship I’ve had with my hair. And a lot of black women go through a very hard struggle with their relationship with hair. It’s very personal, very vulnerable. We really don’t like to talk about it, but it’s something that has been a huge part of my life. And so I wanted to create this exhibit to both show this, and also kind of bring that community of black women together and show that… You know, like we’re all, we’re all going through this and kind of uplift in that kind of way. So everyone else just sees what’s on the surface and it’s just like, “Oh, like I changed my hair.” This, you know. To anyone else it’s like, “Oh. Like she changed her hair.” Or “Oh, she changed her hair again.” Or now she has long hair. Now she has short hair. Like what’s the deal? But underneath so much is happening.

Jen Larrick: Olivia is immensely talented and in many ways. And I think what I’ve seen in her trajectory of time being here is that she’s sharpened or narrowed in on the specific ways that she can intentionally use those talents to impact community, make commentary on society at large.

Catherine Day: This is Jen Larrick, assistant women’s soccer coach.

Jen Larrick: As a first year she went to the head coach and said, “Hey, I want to kneel during the National Anthem.” And to his credit he said, “Okay, let’s do it.” And together they came up with a plan of how can we respect everybody’s individual choice of whether they want to kneel or not and still portray that we are a United team.

Jen Larrick: So they decided that anybody who wants to kneel would kneel. Anybody who wants to stand would stand. But that we would all put our, certainly our right hand on our heart and our left hand on our teammates shoulder in front of us. And so Olivia, as a first year, she’s 18 years old, brought to the whole team why she was kneeling, why it was important to her, and how she wanted to feel supported. And so in that moment, I saw this transition from her own personal viewpoints about the world and how she wants to be in it, translate to how she’s impacting a larger group.

Olivia House: Playing sports my whole life has just helped me be a great teammate, not only on the field but also at work, and at these internships, and self determination, and motivation and things like that. I’ve learned a lot, a lot from sports.

Jen Larrick: I went to her taking the nation event that she like co-created, co-organized, she did all of the design work for, and I was coaching that day and walked in a little bit late. And I got there and Olivia’s at the podium making a really cool speech or introducing other speakers. And she just was so thoroughly in control and so present. Yeah, it’s almost getting me a little emotional. She’s so deeply caring about these real world challenging problems and she does it in this like really beautiful inclusive way.

Olivia House: Activism is very vulnerable work. You put yourself out there. Your face, your voice, what you believe. I don’t think you can be 100% authentic if you’re not putting your most authentic self forward. And part of that is knowing and seeing who you are, and who you’ve come from is a big part of that too. And so anyone who’s had anything in them repressed. History, or repressing their own identity, or themselves, it takes a toll on you. We have a lot of misunderstandings, and a lot of conflict, and so this kind of journey within myself has really helped me too. Being able to put my most authentic self out there has made me more confident and helped me pursue what I want to pursue. It’s given me a lot of confidence and a lot of self worth that I think I can do anything.

Catherine Day: Olivia House is a graphic design major graduating with the Class of 2020. We’ve also heard from Jim Cousins, Vice President of Business Development at Augeo; Chris Houltberg, associate professor of Art and Design; and Jen Larrick, assistant women’s soccer coach. I’m Catherine Reid Day, and this is the Augsburg podcast.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg podcast. I’m president Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit augsburg.edu.