Discord, Disruption, and Discourse — Oh My!

Photo by Vivian Sachs for Goorin Bros

One of my favorite lyrics from a song is ‘our eyes are open when it suits us to see.’ It is profound in the simplicity of it. When I walk within the gaze of someone’s periphery — I expect that their eyes open wide. That is what visual activism is to me in a nutshell.

I am frequently asked what visual activism is and how I live it each day. Like compliments, I believe that when someone asks a question, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, I will receive and answer it in the moment with something of a ‘beginner’s mind’ — a Zen Buddhist attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. But, it can be challenging to talk about abstract ideas and feelings in a way that resonates in the moment. This is my attempt to deconstruct my visual activism.

Mural on Atlanta Beltline by Sanithna Phansavanh

At its core, it is the relationship between visual culture and activist practices. The Atlanta Beltline and Krog Street Tunnel are rich with street art that creatively push conversation around love, racial equality, and justice. It is publicly accessible and a living part of the culture that defines this great city.

I have three D’s of visual activism: discord, disruption, and discourse.

In music — discord is the lack of harmony between notes sounding together. It disturbs, distracts, and takes you on a mind journey. Picture the skyline of your favorite city. The unique aspects of a memorable skyline strike discord, defining a city even in full silhouette. What is the Paris skyline without the Eiffel Tower? Yet during its construction the Eiffel Tower was the subject of artistic controversy by the defenders of “the beauty of Paris that was until now intact.” It is born from the seeds of discord.

Disruption disturbs activities, practices, and processes. Before Uber and Lyft I rarely used a taxi service. Now when I go out (or at least in pre-COVID times), I consider the parking, festivities, and frequently opt for the convenience of a ride share. True innovation and change arise from disruption. In order to evolve the paradigm, I color outside of the lines of life — instead envisioning them as an arc — long and bending toward justice.

In and of themselves, discord and disruption are the Tasmanian Devil of the show. Chaos without a destination is the tantrum of a 2-year-old. It is discourse that brings into focuses the intent that can drive meaningful action and change. I am a messenger participating in the discourse, which frequently lingers long after I’ve left the room. A message wrapped in daily commitment and expression manifests as a personal brand. My revolution is dapper.

As I consider the image I present in this world, I first must explore the evolution of my style and visual activism.

Photo by Steve West

In elementary school my favorite talk show host was Arsenio Hall. His style was bold, bright, and beautiful. For a few of those early years — every Father’s Day and birthday I gifted my dad colorfully evocative ties that he rarely wore. After Mr. LaGrega taught me how to tie my own, I realized that my tie shopping adventures were better suited for me.

Mesmerized by the artistry of Black male style — street, stage, and church — my lewk pays homage, trying not to cross over to appropriation. I suspect this has been key to the intersectionality of my message — the conscious act of questioning and an abiding respect.

Just being an eccentric dresser doesn’t make one a visual activist. It requires intent, purpose, and constant refining/reassessment. It evolves as the message and times do. Most of all, it must be authentic to who you are.

Visionaries like NiK Kacy introduced me to the dapperQ community — “a queer fashion revolution, one of the most stylish forms of protest of our generation.” NiK’s gender-neutral shoe design and company opened my eyes to realize that for too long I was contorting and conforming my personal identity into the gendered shoes and clothing that were readily available. NiK triangulated discord, disruption, and discourse by changing the game and evolve the conversation around ungendering fashion.

SxSW Queer Style panel

In 2016 I decided to go the SxSW festival in Austin, Texas to attend the first ever queer style panel hosted by dapperQ’s Anita Dolce Vita — Queer Style: Visual Activism & Fashion’s Frontier. She shared from fashion critic and journalist Alexander Fury, “Clothes are politicized objects, a sartorial billboard, a manifesto on your back. You can still be arrested for wearing the wrong thing in the wrong place — and, beyond the laws of basic public decency, that’s because people often don’t want to hear what your garments are telling them.” The panel evolved my way of thinking and feeling about my own style and how I participate in this mosaic manifesto. It planted seeds in my soul that took root quickly and grew like kudzu.

Shane Ave DapperQ posse:
Photo by Averie Cole

Thanks to this community in which I am now a vital participant, my activism has twice graced the stage of the DapperQ NYFW show at the Brooklyn Museum. The microcosm of diversity at this event gives life to a spirit of inclusion and belonging. Everyone wants to see themselves represented on the runway — and in life — regardless of size, age, able-bodiedness, race, color, gender identity, nationality, sexual orientation, etc. It has provided a platform in which to grow and shape the needs of a marginalized people to realize what is possible and imagine more. It is that imagination that reminds us that someone has to do something first for others to follow and/or improve upon it. So, we plant seeds and provide the fertilizer to grow those dreams in the heart and soul of young and old alike.

Even before there was a concerted push toward Diversity and Inclusion the work place and before I ever knew about visual activism, I blazed paths in sometimes unfriendly environments.

A favorite story is from my time at Asbury Automotive Group — a company that played Fox News in the lobby and breakroom. There was an office Christmas Party (decidedly not a holiday party). As the Jewish and out queer representation of the corporate office, I thought my best chance of making a statement would be participating in the Best Holiday Dressed contest. In a line of about 10 participants there stood a woman dressed from head to toe in full elf costume, 8 women in varying states of ugly Christmas sweaters, skirts, and dancing hats — and then there was me. I wore black tuxedo pants, a black snap tuxedo shirt, a black tie, and a black tux jacket. Ed McGinty, the contest judge, asked me if I understood that the contest wasn’t ‘Best Dressed’ but ‘Best Holiday Dressed.’ I nodded and hinted, “Wait for it.”

A microphone was passed from one contestant to the next to explain why we deserved to win the contest. When it finally made its way to my hand I said, “By day you know me as Mindy Dawn Friedman, humble eCommerce Product Manager.” I then placed the mic down, untied my bow tie with 2 tugs, and tore off the black snap tuxedo shirt — revealing beneath a bright blue t-shirt with a Superman ‘S’ in the center of a Jewish star. Grabbing the mic once more I said, “By night I’m Super Jew! Able to spin a dreidel with a single snap, able to make one night of oil last for 8. I’m Super Jew!”

Seth Rogan as Super Jew

The next second was excruciating in its silence. I saw heads turn in the direction of our Chief HR Officer who soon began clapping and then laughing. The ensuing cacophony of applause and laughter felt like understanding and acceptance.

Ed walked down the row of contestants to select his top 3. He had chosen 2 by the time he approached me and I now felt confident about my place in the finals. He looked me up and down, shook his head, then said, “I… I just can’t.” He picked the lady in the dancing Santa hat next to me.

Visual activism by its very nature carries risk on the journey to larger reward. If it’s easy – it isn’t resistance. If it’s easier – it’s with gratitude for those who came before to carve a path. Good trouble sometimes takes time to illicit meaningful change.

But something happened that afternoon that I didn’t expect. The crowd booed Ed. They didn’t stop booing until he added me to the finalists, which now were 4 in number. I went on to win the contest. I knew that the discourse triggered by my discord and disruption of the traditional event would carry on as a legacy, making it easier for those who would follow after me. Ironically, the contest prize was a red nosed reindeer pin. But I still wear it proudly sometimes for the victory that it represents.

Working in corporate America I am aware of the responsibility to build and support space for inclusion and belonging for those who have been othered much of their lives.

Summer intern graduate, Rachel Chen

I am proud to be a founding member of InterContinental Hotels Group’s women and LGBTQ Employee Resource Groups, while also being an active member in the Black, Hispanic, and Pan-Asian groups. Diversity, inclusion, and belonging gives employees room to be themselves, safer and more inspired to speak up and bring unique points of view to drive a spirit of innovation. It is what enticed Rachel Chen, a transgender student from NYU, to choose an internship with IHG, a company that regularly achieves a 100% score in the HRC Equality Index. I had the honor of being paired as her mentor last summer as she navigated the corporate landscape. We discussed how her skills and knowledge are the foundation of the gifts she brings to any company. It is her unique experiences in this world that differentiate her value and help evolve ways of thinking.

My friend and kindred spirit JP Michaels recently asked me what advice I would give my 13-year-old self. “Dream bigger,” I responded. The limit of our very own imagination is one of the biggest blockers to living up to our true purpose and potential. I’d like to think that if my 13-year-old self saw this 50-year-old walking down the street her eyes would open wide and know that the journey ahead will be worth each step.

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