A couple years ago, a friend shared with me the difficulty of finding birthday party invitations for her daughter that featured brown-skinned girls, and asked if I would make her a custom set of invitations. I immediately said yes, but it got me thinking about the bigger issue she’d named.
There is some public discourse about the underrepresentation of minority groups across the mainstream media, including movies, TV shows, commercials, books, magazines, video games, and billboards, etc. The lack of diversity in these images and storylines that we’ve created is jarringly at odds with our increasingly inclusive and open society. It is absolutely crucial that we correct this. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the media shapes our identities and interactions in powerful ways; outside of our own narrow set of lived experiences, it’s how we learn what falling in love looks and feels like, what it means to be beautiful, the ways that different genders dress and act around each other, how to get what we want, and what is it that we should be wanting. It tells us whose lives, insights, and stories matter to us as a society, and what types of individuals, families, and communities are considered “normal” and valued.
The media is powerful because it enables us to insert our real selves into its constructed stories – we get to become the explorers, the lovers, the dreamers, and the heroes. But what happens when there’s no place for some of us in these narratives? What signal does it send to our children who don’t see anyone who looks, feels, and acts like they do? What does it signal to our children who only see those who look, feel, and act as they do? The media influences how we perceive others and what we think we know about them before we even meet. When only some of our identities and life experiences are represented in meaningful and authentic ways, it means that the rest of us are reduced to flat, sometimes harmful characterizations, or worse, sentenced to non-existence.
So why does diversity matter in the card aisle? For the very same reasons. I’ll concede that these other media outlets likely have a greater influence on societal norms and the public consciousness, but the tradition of giving cards is still very ingrained in American culture despite the advent of email, social media, and texting: 9 out of 10 American households buy cards every year, and collectively buy ~7 billion greeting cards annually. Cards are sold in virtually all convenience stores, big-box retailers, and gift shops, and much like TV commercials or magazines at the checkout counter, you can’t help but notice and internalize the headlines even when you aren’t really looking for them.
Having cards that reflect the experiences of people of different races, ethnicities, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds matters not just because it’s frustrating to have to color over your daughter’s birthday card with brown and black crayons, or to resort to buying wedding cards with anthropomorphic animals because they’re the closest depiction of a same-sex couple that you can find. It matters because we send cards when something we deem significant has happened, when an occasion is important enough to demand more than the customary email. Therefore, the occasions for which there are greeting cards sends a clear message about which we think are the milestones and people that are important enough for us to be commemorating, and conversely, which are not. The mission of Kwohtations Cards is to challenge those assumptions, to spread joy and bring people closer together by making cards that recognize, embrace, and celebrate the diversity and absurdity of life.
For Pride Month this June, I worked with my friend Dillan DiGiovanni to design cards that acknowledge and celebrate the experiences of some who identify as LGBTQ individuals. As a heterosexual, cisgender person, I freely admit that I don’t know what it’s like to go through life otherwise. But I know enough to know that it’s full of ups and downs, no matter who you are. I know that as much progress has been made, it can be a pretty narrow-minded, bigoted world out there. I know that it takes incredible courage to be yourself when a lot of people don’t want you to. And I know that change can be hard and scary, even when you know you’re doing the right thing. So I’m continuing to talk and learn and listen, but in the meantime I’m trying to cope with how much further we have to go to become a fully equal and open society by making something. Something small just to say, quite simply, I see you. I see you and I celebrate you, and I’m glad you’re you. I hope it helps a little.
I am not a big fan of Valentine's Day. And by not a big fan, I mean I hate it.
Firstly, it epitomizes the rampant, unapologetic commercialization of everything. It's become a day perpetuated and masterminded by (literally) heartless corporations to condition us into believing that the giving and receiving of love needs to be facilitated through material consumption…etc. etc. etc.
Secondly, it's stressful for everyone:
If you're in a long-term relationship, there's this sudden societal expectation that you'll have this one night of heightened, movie-worthy romance involving a fancy-schmancy dinner, wearing something slightly-to-very uncomfortable, inordinately expensive flowers, and maybe some overly-large stuffed animal holding a plush heart that nobody really wants… when perhaps what you’d rather be doing is snuggling down on the couch in pajamas, ordering takeout, and both falling asleep early while watching SVU. But maybe that’s just me.
It's even worse if you're in the early, ambiguous, "what are we" part of a relationship: What does it mean if they don't propose Valentine's Day plans? Is it presumptuous to make a dinner reservation for two? Should you get them a present? What if they give you a rare first-edition anthology of love poems, and all you got them was a sweater that you found on sale at Marshalls? What if you secretly consulted their friends to get front-row tickets to their favorite band, and they got you nothing? It's a total mind-fuck.
If you're single, it seems like everyone is in a relationship come February: they're nuzzling faces along your running route, sneaking kisses in the canned goods aisle, sharing headphones on the bus. And even if you really don't mind being single, it’s never nice to feel like you’re the only third wheel left on earth. One of the only upsides to the day is seeing kids and old people dressed up in suits and stockings on the way to their dinner dates. Basically, if you're under the age of 16 and over the age of 70, I think your love is adorable. Everyone else needs to keep that shit to themselves.
That said, I am a big fan of making the most of a shitty situation. The saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. So if we can't escape Valentine's Day in all its pink and heart-shaped glory, we might as well turn it into something we can get behind. I propose we re-purpose it into a day to celebrate all the people you love – friends, family, partners. And it doesn't really have to be love with a capital “L” - it can be a time to tell someone that they give you feelings, you're glad you met them, they're special to you and have changed you in some way, and your life is better for having them in it. And while we shouldn't just do this on the one day that the corporate gods have dictated, I honestly could use the annual reminder because I definitely don't do it enough.
So. Instead of showing someone how much they mean to you by buying them something bigger and better, give them a valentine instead. Straight up tell them how you feel. Celebrate them. Say thanks. Buy a card, make one yourself, or just fold a scrap piece of paper in half and get writing. After all, it's what you say inside that really counts.
I became a business owner the way that protagonist girl falls in love in The Fault In His Stars: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.” I never thought I’d start my own business, and didn’t set out to do so. I was just making cards that I found I needed – scratching my own itch, so to speak. In my mind, the title of Entrepreneur was up there with Ultra-Marathoner – I admired others who wore those badges, but they weren’t ones I aspired to or thought played particularly well to my strengths. Nevertheless, this past year, for a number of reasons and kind of no real reason at all, I started taking my business, and by extension it turns out, myself, more seriously. I learned that you don’t have to be wildly extroverted and charismatic, well-connected, or a “visionary” to be an entrepreneur. Hell, you don’t even need to have a plan or a finished product. I started and grew Kwohtations pretty much the same way I do most everything else in life – cautiously with occasional bouts of confidence, varying degrees of thoughtfulness and over-analysis, lots of whining and wallowing, a certain amount of scrappiness, and the unshakeable belief and support of people who love me.
As a staff of one, I spend inordinate amounts of time by myself designing, carving, printing, painting, stamping, packaging, sorting, tracking, shipping, and promoting cards. But I’m never going about it alone; I have a team of people unflaggingly cheering me on and giving me their time, energy, and heart and mind space. They cart my mountain-loads of crap to and from flea markets, keep me alive with food and coffee, and occasionally man the stall so I can pee. They form impromptu and captive focus groups for potential card ideas. They help craft and edit my Facebook and Instagram posts, and then promptly *Like* all of them. They are reluctant models for my photo shoots. They patiently listen to me gripe and grumble, then assure me (again) that Kwohtations is not a dumb idea and gently remind me (again) that this is supposed to be fun. They help me hunt around in our neighbors’ trash for useful pieces of wood, patiently explain the difference between a domain name and a hosting site, and never complain when I’ve covered every usable flat surface in the house with drying cards. Basically, they are there to hold my hand through all of it, for which I am eternally blessed and grateful.
When I first started out, I brushed it off uncomfortably whenever anyone referred to Kwohtations as my “card company.” “It’s not a real business, just something I do for fun,” was often my knee-jerk response. I think I reacted in this way because I felt vulnerable; for me, Kwohtations is deeply personal. In my professional life, I take great pride and ownership in my work, but am always slightly removed from it – there’s really no place in a data analysis to unpack how I feel about the fact that everyone on my Facebook feed is seemingly on Forbes’ “30 under 30” list, and I can’t write “getting out of bed” under the “Accomplishments” section of a grant report, even though some days it really is. In contrast, Kwohtations reflects my voice, my humor, and my reality. It’s what I find funny and how I experience life. Putting Kwohtations, and thereby myself, tangibly out there for others to see and evaluate is scary, unchartered territory. It’s me, not my analytic skills or project management abilities, that I’m exposing for evaluation and potential failure. So, as a coping mechanism, as with so many things that have the potential to affect me deeply, I pretend like it doesn’t matter at all. But really, it does.
I don’t have aspirations to change the world. I just want to minimize the harm I cause and make my little patch of grass as green as possible for those who share it with me. I hope that Kwohtations is one way of doing this, of spreading joy and bringing people closer together by using humor to celebrate the diversity and cope with the absurdity of life.
Kwohtations and me – we’re both constant works in progress. I’m anticipating some incremental improvements and big life breakthroughs in the upcoming year, as well as a good amount of stagnation and making the same mistakes over and over again. And I think I’m ok with that.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the internets. Using twitter to organize protests? Game-changing. Watching videos of tiny animals doing strange things? Hilarious. Scrolling through a hundred happy birthday posts from a random smattering of people I’ve met throughout my life? Unnaturally gratifying.
But as many emails as I send each day (and there are a lot), I find them to be somewhat cold and without personality. They don’t capture the excitement of furious scribbles, the painstaking care behind every evenly penned line, the flourish of double underlines, the refreshing spontaneity of crossed-out words and carrots followed by tiny scrawled afterthoughts. They often are too impatient for crowded meandering observations or funny stick drawings around the margins. You cannot tell how many times an email has been read by the state of its edges, if it has been carried around, cried over, taped up, folded and smoothed over, read and re-read. The best ones usually are. In a time where the truism “time is money” has never been more true, emails are both time- and cost- efficient. But there is no physicality to them outside of the words they carry -- they have none of their own texture, size, or shape. They are rarely treasured (or worth treasuring), have never been saved by another generation to be passed on, stored in drawers and boxes, deemed worthy of their space and weight.
So once a week, I take out a card, set aside 30 minutes to write a note to someone I love (or really, really like), and pop it into the mail. Sometimes it’s in time to celebrate some life event –- birthday, new job, wedding engagement, passing an exam -– or maybe it’s just to let them know that I’m thinking of them and how important they are to me (in more than 140 characters). Because at the end of the day, if time is money, don’t you want the people you care about to feel like a million bucks?