STORIES

“We are all relatives”: Native designers on connection, responsibility and interdependence

CULTURE
DESIGN AT META
18 MIN READ
NOVEMBER 15, 2021
The three panelists stand side by-side, smiling.

SUMMARY

Boozhoo! Osiyo! Halito! Hau! Yá'át'ééh! Da'anzho! Hello! And Happy Native American / Indigenous Peoples Heritage Month to all.




This November, Meta honors the cultures, traditions and histories of Native American people in the U.S. The theme—“be a good relative”—for this year’s collection of company events celebrates our interdependence—on each other and on the world around us.



As designers, we’re interested in how things are made and the intent behind that making. So we talked with a few folks in our design community who participate in our Native employee resource group—Kevin C., Vanessa C. and Alexander W.—to find out more about their work at Meta, their Native heritage, and what “being a good relative” means to them.



Land Acknowledgement

Meta’s headquarters sit in Menlo Park, California. We acknowledge that this land is the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Ohlone and Muwekma Ohlone people. We remember their connection to this region and give thanks for the opportunity to live and work on their traditional homeland.



A triptych shows each panelist with their name. Left: Alexander W. Center: Vanessa C. Right: Kevin C.

Q: “Designer” can mean a lot of things. You each probably do something more specific.




Kevin:

I’m a design manager supporting augmented reality media experiences within Reality Labs. Our product team most recently launched Ray-Ban Stories. We’re all excited to see how that helps people stay present in the moment while also helping them capture those moments for later.



Vanessa:

I'm a content designer and product lead for an area within our Business Integrity organization called Authenticity. We work to protect our platform against inauthentic behavior and ensure that when you make a claim about who you say you are, particularly if you’re a business or other organization, that we’re verifying those claims.



Alexander:

I work as a content strategist (similar to a content designer, with a focus on writing and content management) on the Community Help and Education team. We manage and maintain all of Meta's consumer help centers. I’m on the Reality Labs team, so this includes the Oculus Help Center and the Ray-Ban Stories Help Center. I also write support content and messaging for Meta Horizon.



Q: How do you each relate to a Native heritage?





Kevin:

It's still early in my journey. My potential connection to my heritage was cut short when my grandmother was removed from her community in Alaska and placed in an orphanage in Montana at the age of 4. If you’re cut off from your culture at that age, you can’t remember or bring a lot of your culture with you.



I've always known it was a part of my life. My mother made sure that I knew about this part of me. But I didn't have a rich culture to pull from as I matured through life, and I guess, frankly I did okay. But I’ve always sensed an awkward hole of wondering what a deeper connection would feel like, that maybe there's a richness that I missed out on.



It hit hardest when we registered our kids for public school. We made sure to include their Native heritage in their demographic information, and that empty hole felt even more empty once I realized that if I don't strengthen my connection to my Native heritage, I can't pass that on to my kids, and then it ends with me. That was a heavy realization.



But I struggle. I don't quite feel like I belong yet because I wasn't brought up in that community, and community is a two-way street: You have to want to be a part of a community and give that community an opportunity to welcome you in. I don't feel that I can just claim that community as my own, but I want that reciprocity in order to feel authentically connected to it, and to be able to celebrate and promote that culture and hopefully pass it on to our kids.



Vanessa:

I'm Anishinaabe and a descendant of Turtle Mountain in North Dakota. I grew up in a family where I was not connected to my culture. This is due, in part, to my ancestors likely having been put into boarding or residential schools, which were tools of cultural genocide operated under the philosophy to “kill the Indian, save the man.” My ancestors were taught that in order to survive, they had to kill that part of themselves, and that was what was passed down to me.



The lasting impact of these policies and institutions meant we didn't talk about our Native heritage all that much. We didn't acknowledge it except here and there, even though my grandmother, my mom, and all of my aunts and uncles are registered members of the tribe. But they were the last to be able to register because of blood quantum limits, which are federally imposed mandates that, in effect, systematically wipe out the existence of Native nations. Because of this, I’ve always felt, “Do I even have the right to claim this identity?” But I was always asking questions and trying to learn more, even as a little girl.



Over the last several years, especially through our Native employee resource group and other communities, I've been reconnecting with my culture by learning the Ojibwe language and teachings.



Through the process of reconnecting and becoming more publicly open about it, I've seen more of my family members begin to embrace and reconnect to this part of themselves, too, which has been pretty cool. It's largely been through our Native employee group that I've finally found the ability to outwardly reclaim this part of myself. And as Kevin said, it’s the ability to stop the erasure of our existence. Because if I don't stop it, it ends with me.



Alexander:

I am Tlingit on my dad's side. We're based out of the Pacific Northwest, where the Tlingit tribe originates. My family comes from the southeast coast of Alaska, and because my Tlingit lineage is on my dad's side, with which I haven’t been too familiar, I didn't have a strong connection to it growing up. However, there's a lot of integration with Native American culture in that area, so just by going to school, I learned a lot about the Tlingit and Haida families.



Later I started to get more interested, and I reached out to family members to go deeper into our heritage. The Native employee resource group at Meta was actually a huge catalyst for that. I started at Meta around five years ago and thus was able to see other Native Americans in the group discussing their heritage and their history, and it felt like a huge spark because I don't know a whole lot of Tlingit folks. I thought, "I want to learn more about this."



Q: What is the Native employee group and how did you get involved?




Kevin:

I first found the Native employee resource group through Vanessa. I don't even know how it came up. But I realized, "Oh, shoot. I actually have a connection here," and started to pepper Vanessa with questions here and there. I slowly warmed up to the idea of being open, revealing myself and participating.



But the crazy thing that I did not expect was that the Native community at Meta is the first place that I've felt like this part of me was actually valued or significant. It's easy, when there's not anybody else to connect with (through that part of you) to just push it aside and not cultivate it.



Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, reminders of Native culture are all around. I do love that and anytime I see those reminders in my environment, I feel good about it. But that may be me feeling an illusion of connection: It’s a bit satisfying, but it allows me to be a little apathetic to my actual connection to my culture.



Joining the Native community at Meta has made me realize how much responsibility I have to learn about my culture, celebrate it or to give back, even if it’s in tiny ways that I slowly warm up to. It’s important to keep the culture healthy, because a culture doesn't automatically survive on its own. People have to work on it.



This has been said many, many times in many different contexts, but representation matters. It’s taken me this long in my life to find people who I can connect with through this unique part of myself, and I'm grateful to have been able to do that here at Meta. It makes me want to explore my Native heritage a little further.



Finding even just a handful of people who you feel like you can connect with and relate to a bit just blossoms this motivation to understand more. I just don't have that anywhere else in my life. I don't come across these people, or also, these people just, like me, haven't revealed that part of themselves, and so, it's hard to make those connections.



Joining our Native group, I didn't feel like an imposter. I felt safe relating my journey and my story, and I’ve seen that other people have similar experiences.



Vanessa:

I'm one of the leads for the Native employee resource group, which means I volunteer to drive diversity and inclusion initiatives for Native employees and allies. Together with the other leads, I also often represent the Native perspective in conversations with company leadership to raise awareness about issues that impact our communities when it comes to the policies we create or the products we build. This is in addition to my role as a content designer.



The Native employee resource group started several years ago. When I first joined Meta, I discovered all these resource groups for employees, including one for those who identify as Native. The group had a welcome lunch for me, and I’ve been involved ever since.



We represent those who identify as being Native or Indigenous to Turtle Island -- which today is known as North America. We also have a sister chapter for those who identify as being Indigenous to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. We have a shared history of resilience after centuries of attempts to eradicate our existence. Many people think of these atrocities as being locked away in history books, but they are actually very recent events that even continue today.



I think what makes the Native employee community special is that some members who have a strong sense of their Native identity—who grew up connected to their culture— are helping those of us who didn’t, on our journeys back to reconnecting and reclaiming this part of ourselves. The community provides healing and a space to exchange shared histories, regardless of teachings from a particular tribe or nation.



We've found during COVID that geographic boundaries have sort of disappeared, and we've all been able to connect virtually, which has brought us even closer. It can feel pretty alienating when you're the only Native employee in your office or one of very few, or you don't know who else might be Native because, well, identity is pretty complicated for a lot of us.



Alexander:

I came across the Native employee group early on in my career at Meta. There was one other Native employee who was on my team as well. I saw one of his group posts and was like, "What is this group?"



I saw that the group was a blend of outreach and community engagement, as well as a place for people to share stories, some about them learning about their history for the first time, and it made me feel like I wasn't the only one who felt disconnected. Because, again, that gateway to my life was through my father with whom I didn't have a relationship.



From there, I reached out to family members who I do know. I also reached out to an old friend who teaches Tlingit language in Ketchikan, Alaska. I asked him, "Do you have any resources? I'm just now dipping my toes into this huge and lifelong journey, which is understanding my culture." He replied back immediately with a list of resources, and I shared a couple in our Native employee resource group.



But it was our group that sparked my excitement and that brought down this internal wall. I think a lot of us put this wall up between ourselves and things that we want to learn or understand. We almost act as our own gatekeepers. We're like, "Well, I don't have enough community," or, "I don't have enough historical context to explore that part of my life." Seeing people just do that anyways within the Native employee group, I was like, "Yeah, what's holding me back except for myself?" And so, I just hopped right in.



Q: People of color sometimes bear the responsibility and burden to represent an entire community in certain environments or contexts. How has this impacted you and your work?




Kevin:

I've come around to thinking of it as a privilege to take part in this responsibility. When I began participating in the company Native community, I never thought that I would be one of so few designers in the group—“responsibility” never dawned on me. But I suddenly realized that because there are so few of us, it might be our responsibility to take the slightly uncomfortable step “out” and give others the opportunity to relate.



Doing this hasn’t been natural for me, but I hope that by being in the group, I can help promote the culture and help find more people who want to participate and explore with us.



Vanessa:

Being asked, “What does being Native mean and look like in your work?” is always a weird question to get. I remember somebody was planning a diversity panel and I said, "That would be like me asking, ‘What does being a woman mean to you and how does it show up in your work every day?’ Or, ‘How does being a (insert X minority here) show up in your work every day?’ ”



Being Native is an integral part of who I am; it’s not quantifiable. Similar, though, to what Alex and Kevin were saying, it’s a great responsibility because there are so few of us. I grew up in a very rural community where the thought of working at a place like Meta is so unheard of. It's so intangible. If I can be any part of helping somebody like me see themselves being able to work at a company of this magnitude, then I take great responsibility in that.



Through the employee resource group, we’re actively working with our recruiting teams to grow our pipelines of Native talent. We even go all the way into high schools, helping kids realize that working in tech isn’t an intangible dream, especially within design. I loved how Alex said that communication is so deep in many of our cultures. It’s how we share not just our stories, but our teachings that are embedded in our language—design helps you represent that.



Alexander:

I've known about my ties to Tlingit culture for a long time, but I haven't explored them as deeply as I might have liked. On one hand, I feel like now is my opportunity to delve into this space for myself, in a way that some aren't allowed or aren’t given the opportunity to. On the other hand, I try to keep in mind that there are many kids in a similar situation who have these ties to their culture, but the waters are muddied, and it might seem unclear to them.



I always think back to this quote from Ayesha A. Siddiqi: "Be the person you needed when you were younger." I cling to that when I think about what I want my impact with our Native employee group to be. It's to motivate kids in middle school and high school who are wrestling with their cultural identity and wanting to find their place in the world.



Design and arts communities, in general, have historically been open and welcoming to many different walks of life, but I think that generally, Native American identity is not as represented as it could be. As Kevin said, it is an honor to be able to have one little piece of that and try to help amplify the voices of people who are extremely talented. All they need is a microphone, and then they can take care of themselves. But we need to make sure that they get that resource.



Q: Our theme for this year’s Native American Heritage Month is “be a good relative.” What does this mean and how did it come about?




Vanessa:

The Native employee resource group leaders in different offices across the company regularly connect. Every November, we choose a theme, and this year, one of our founders, Jessica P., suggested it, mentioning that the line had resurfaced itself to her throughout the year. The rest of us agreed that the message is an important one for our world right now.



Being a good relative is not just about being good to your family members. It’s about thinking of yourself as a relative to everything and everyone. We want people to think about the importance of this idea right now, especially with the pandemic. What does it mean to be a good relative, ensuring that those around you are safe and taken care of? Or to be a good relative to coworkers during this time in the world and show up for each other?



We also think about how it translates to the climate crisis. How can we be good relatives to Mother Earth, so that she sustains us and provides for future generations? Also, it’s about being a good relative when we design our products—we have to think about what they mean in the daily lives of the people who use them. To be a good relative has many meanings and different facets in our lives.



Q: “Be a good relative” seems to be about interdependence. How does that play out in your lives or in your work?




Kevin:

For me, “relative” is a keyword in “being a good relative.” It's a reminder to think about our work and partnerships over a longer time horizon. It's not like, “be a good buddy,” it's “be a good relative.” It means you're investing in each other over a longer term, and it takes great discipline to see the value in investing in other people's success over a longer time horizon.



In the short term, you may not get back, dollar-for-dollar, everything you put into somebody else. But if you can contribute to the success of others regularly, you start to lift the whole community up by each individual act. The example will rub off on others, which will create a positive, supportive culture in which we build each other up.



When I look at the design community within Meta over the course of my career, I've seen it grow a lot. You'll work with somebody and then you'll move to something else, and you'll cross paths with these people constantly throughout your career. We’re all responsible for making sure that our environment is positive, and that we contribute to each other's success for the long term, rather than having a short-term view.



Vanessa:

If you think about the construction of the word “relative,” it's similar to “relationship” and “relate.” When we start at Meta, we’re encouraged to build strong relationships with each other, especially in design. But partnership doesn’t just happen within the design community; we build and design with engineers, product managers, and all of the people who we work with in a given day. In partnership, we need to assume good intent, that people are doing their best in a given moment.



We strive toward a culture of learning, not of blame. If something big goes wrong, like a platform going down for several hours, it's not about whose fault it is. It's about, "Okay, what happened? How can we learn from that?" And rallying together to solve the problem. That is what makes Meta special—it’s going back to those words: relative, relationship, relate. They're all important.



Alexander:

Community has always been a huge focus for Meta, both externally and internally, and we're seeing it become, more and more, the center of everything that we do. Within the company and in the platforms we build, we’re interested in building places where people feel safe and have the creative freedom to express themselves.



That is so clearly tied to this idea of being a good relative, because when I think back to relatives who positively impacted me, they enabled those things, like my grandparents, who created a space where I felt safe to pursue the arts. So, let’s take that idea and apply it to the work that we do now. This is especially relevant for me, because I work on help and support content. We want people to know they’re in a space where they can expect to feel taken care of and walk away with clear understandings of our products and features.



Q: You each have different ways of affecting the larger world through your roles and the products you work on. What does interdependence mean for you in your design work?




Kevin:

As designers, we're trained to connect with and have strong empathy for others, especially the people who we consider in our work. The work we do is incredibly complex, not just from a technical standpoint, but just from a human perspective. There's a lot of nuance and perspective from different parts of the world, different parts of culture that play a role in how we execute on some of our projects.



We show up as designers every day, thinking about ways to help people and how to make a difference in people's lives. But really, we come in with our own particular worldviews that are built upon only our own personal experiences, and we only have the capacity to experience what we've experienced, and that's all we can bring to the table. That's why it's so important that we seek out collaboration with people who have different perspectives and different expertise than our own, which is a huge part of what our user experience researchers do. But all of us need to learn and bring an open mind to how we solve problems.



We will fail in the long run if we think that we can solve greater human needs as individuals. We don't have all the answers bottled up inside. And so, it's really important as designers serving a global community that we approach our work from an interdependency-first standpoint, from which we understand that we can’t solve problems on our own. My work requires that I proactively seek out other perspectives.



Vanessa:

In the user experience space, we talk a lot about “user-centered design.” At Meta, we like to think of it as “people-centered design” because really, we're always designing for people. When it comes to interdependence, my work as a content designer and product lead impacts people around the world.



So in design at Meta, what we bring to the table is thinking about the people who use our products and injecting as much empathy and care into what we build and release into the world.



The other “interdependence” element, especially in the integrity-oriented work I do, is in protecting the platform so that people make trusted connections with each other. It's so important right now. When you operate anonymously, in a global community, bad things can happen or bad actors become emboldened. We need to help people feel safe interacting online, not just with each other, but also with organizations and businesses. That trust is the foundation of having any type of connection.



Alexander:

When I think about even just the word “interdependence,” it's a requirement, right? In order to proceed, you need to include all of these other people, whether they’re engineers or other designers. You also have researchers who, for a space like Help and Education, are crucial.



Interdependence is always at the center of that. We have to try to be mindful of every person of every walk of life who could possibly come across our content. Inclusivity and accessibility are at the center of what we do—they’re not just checkboxes or things on the backburner.



Q: If you could connect with someone from the past, who would it be?




Kevin:

I would want to meet the artists and innovators of our Native community, pre-colonization. I think about all the knowledge developed over thousands of years that has either been contained or washed away. I would want to go back and work with the people who were thinking about how to solve unmet human needs the way I think about design today. I’d be interested in witnessing how these societies thought of innovation before colonial influence. On the subjects of land and wildlife management, culinary arts, and structural engineering, my mind starts to race at the thought of the immense originality from which these people were inventing. I think about the distinct aesthetic of Native art: Imagine creating such a rich and complete visual language without the influence of an entire planet of craft that today’s artists have at their fingertips. Imagine a community that held its craft in such high regard that they traded a large proportion of their communal time and resources to create it. I would love to feel what it’s like to see the world from that point of view.



Vanessa:

Last year, I started tracing the story of my ancestors. A few years ago, my grandmother, who is almost 100 now, gifted me the family binder of historical documents and partial family trees. I took this gift with great honor and responsibility, understanding that it is on my shoulders now to record the story of my ancestors for future generations.



While a family tree is a list of names, I wanted to know their stories. I was inspired to start researching them after hearing a teaching about the Ojibwe word “aadizookaan” by James Vukelich “Kaagegaabaw,” who is also a descendant of Turtle Mountain and recognized as a leading voice on the interconnectedness of language and culture. Every Thursday evening, James goes live on Facebook to teach an Ojibwe word or phrase. I learned that this word, aadizookaan, means a sacred story or a spirit, but can also mean a legendary ancestor. In his teaching, James reminded us that we are the ancestors of tomorrow, and that we are inextricably interconnected to the generations both before us and to those who are coming.



The family tree I received from my grandmother goes back six generations. That’s an important number, because I represent the seventh generation. And for Anishinaabe, we are taught that our actions today will have lasting impact seven generations from now. And so one person in particular from the past who I would love to connect with is my sixth great-grandmother, Angelique Assiniboine. She was born in 1773 in the Northwest Territories of Canada. I still have some digging to do in piecing her story together, because of conflicting dates for her marriage and death, but her son, Joseph Pierre Ouellette, who is my fifth great-grandfather, died in the Battle of Batoche on May 12, 1885. He fought alongside Louis Riel on behalf of the First Nations and Métis against Canadian authorities. The rebellion was fought to protect our rights and the land itself to ensure the survival of generations yet to come. They lost the battle, and Riel was eventually captured and hanged for treason despite the protest of many across Canada asking for his clemency.



I'm sure over time I'll learn that more of my ancestors fought in this rebellion and others. Both sides of my family have deep French Canadian ancestry as far back as the 1600s, and my mother's side has a patchwork of mixed Anishinaabe, Cree, Métis and Assiniboine ancestry. I would love to sit with my sixth great-grandmother, Angelique, and learn how she raised her son in a way that, even in the face of death, he was brave enough to fight for the survival of future generations. In that conversation, I might learn ways to grow that courage within myself, so that I can continue the fight for the next seven generations to come.



Alexander:

February 16 is a special day in Alaska, known as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. It honors the civil rights efforts put forth by activist and Tlingit family member, Elizabeth Peratrovich. She's well-known throughout Alaska as being one of the first Alaska Native voices to take a prominent stance regarding anti-discrimination laws in the 1940s.



Her efforts across the civil rights space gave Alaska Natives a seat at the table and paved the way for Indigenous people to speak for themselves on matters of life and work. I would love to meet her and talk through her experiences. Sitting down and having a conversation with Elizabeth would certainly prove to be insightful. I'd love to have her see the progress we've made and provide guidance on how to achieve our goals that can sometimes seem out of reach.



We know that the work behind civil rights is a laborious one, and there is more than enough work to do still. Looking toward the courage, bravery and the advocacy of people like Peratrovich should inspire and motivate us to look for ways we can help make sure that all people are heard, and given a chance to speak for themselves.

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