Eda Levenson and Geneva White do not run a charity. They do not run an after-school program, or a mentorship curriculum (the latter of which often feeds what Levenson calls a “paternalistic nature” among older, usually white people). They do not put Black and brown bodies in seats for the sake of putting Black and brown in bodies in seats, and they are not here to check boxes. Instead, with their organization Scope of Work, Levenson and White are arguing for a wholesale revamp in how the creative industry hires young people of color.
That’s why the women behind Scope of Work (SOW for short, pronounced like sow-ing seeds) position themselves specifically as a talent development agency for designers, photographers, filmmakers, strategists, developers, and so on. “Our people, while they are marginalized, are also a viable, employable group and an unsourced pool of talent,” White says. “And honestly, even the language ‘untapped’ is problematic, in that a lot of times these people are being moodboarded. So, really, they’re just not being hired.”
The design industry, like pretty much every other industry, hires and promotes a disproportionate number of white people. In Eye on Design’s own Design Census 2019, 16.2 percent of designers surveyed identified as Black, Indigenous, or of color. Anecdotally, this spring’s racial reckoning brought with it a torrent of creative sector horror stories about how people of color have been tokenized, sidelined, and silenced at supposed “ally” companies. (See: Adidas, Bon Appetit, Reformation, etc. etc. etc.)
Scope of Work intends to undo this. When Levenson and White launched SOW in 2016, they set out to build a direct and novel kind of talent pipeline through which young people (for SOW, that means 17 to 24 years old) can attain not only paid work, but representation and support. This happens via a three-pillar system organized around members, a fellowship program, and a talent agency. Everyone is a member, meaning everyone has access to skill-building tools like the talks and expert-led classes SOW organizes, and any member who is industry-ready also has access to the talent agency. The fellowship program and talent agency resemble traditional internships and head-hunting services, respectively, but with a few crucial twists: SOW has no interest in unpaid internships and they do not engage with companies that aren’t willing to truly, genuinely, dig deep and engage with their own histories in return.
“We don’t shy away from the fact that we’re confronting a legacy of racism and white supremacy,” Levenson says. Scope of Work frames its partnerships within that understanding; the companies who bring on SOW fellows for three months at a time also go through monthly coaching, during which executives examine power, privilege, microaggressions, whiteness, otherness, and so on. They tally up their resources, write them down, and think about how to leverage them for marginalized creatives. “They’re really good at holding us accountable. They don’t just hold your hand, but beat you over the head, to make sure your empathy is directed in the right way,” says Phil Graham, a founder partner at the consultancy Verdes, which partnered with SOW from the jump, in 2016. Levenson and White are highly attuned to red flags, like white executives who freeze up, or worse, celebrate themselves for suddenly—magically!—recognizing that they don’t employ any designers of color. The fellowship program, currently underway with seven partner companies including Verdes, Mother, and Bustle Media, is designed to be intense.
Before Scope of Work, both Levenson and White had careers in education. While getting her master’s at Harvard, Levenson focused on the impact of chronic stress on young people; White worked in higher arts education, first in Pittsburgh, then in New York. In New York, White was struck by the adverse ripple effect that poor arts funding had on young, right-brained people of color. If a high school student was curious about the arts, their public school likely didn’t offer art classes. If a parent could secure access to an arts non-profit, that student still wouldn’t have the portfolio required to apply to a fine arts college. If that student decided to pursue an art degree at a CUNY or SUNY school, they still had to go through general education classes first. “For the type of people we’re talking about, who are motivated by art and arts education, they often drop out before they’re even able to get in,” White says.
The two met while working at a non-profit designed to increase access to the arts. They shared a set of ideas around why young people of color weren’t attaining creative careers, but also around how the industry values (or doesn’t) those same young people of color. “We’d meet young people, they’d leave the program, we’d stay in touch, and they come back to us saying, ‘I can’t keep doing this, can I borrow a camera, how do I keep doing the thing I love?’ ” White says. For the soon-to-be founders, each of whom maintains her own creative practice—White as a photographer and Levenson with a nail art company—it felt personal. “We see a lot of ourselves in the young people we serve,” Levenson says.
In the matrix of diversity pipeline-meets-design access organizations, Scope of Work takes a hands-on, career-driven approach. Youth Design Center, an organization in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, is similarly tactical, offering paid apprenticeships to local young people interested in disciplines ranging from graphic design to lighting. Other hiring efforts lean more directly on pure exposure, such as Where are the Black Designers, an initiative founded this summer in the wake of the empty-gesture mess that was Blackout Tuesday. Named after an AIGA talk by Maurice Cherry, Where are the Black Designers held a conference, launched a newsletter, and created a Slack community. “Everyone has been saying the same thing: You have to hire Black creatives,” says Mitzi Okou, who founded the group. “But at this point, it’s about white employers, who hold the power, unfortunately. So we’re taking the extra step in exposing Black creations and showcasing Black talent.”
Okuo says that Where are the Black designers has already led some hirings and opportunities for speaking on panels. Two of Scope of Work’s fellows from last year were hired for full-time positions. You can start to make out the fruits of this matrix, but you can also see different ideologies bubbling up.
The Scope of Work school of thought pushes against the idea that people of color simply need exposure, or that they should assimilate into “correct” white culture. Levenson and White are coaching members and fellows on how to be young professionals, while simultaneously teaching white employers how to break down and rebuild their work culture. This requires rethinking even seemingly innocuous workplace interactions. An example: A SOW fellow once came to Levenson and White and said that his coworkers kept talking about Greenpoint. What’s Greenpoint? The fellow had grown up in the Bronx and wasn’t familiar with the Brooklyn neighborhood that kept getting mentioned at work. You could excavate the nuances of privilege—popular among young, affluent New Yorkers, Greenpoint is one of many neighborhoods where rising rents and development are chipping away at its working class history—but the problem really had to do with a lack of rapport. “There wasn’t a relationship built where the young person could say, in that context, ‘what is Greenpoint?’ and he felt really alienated,” Levenson says.
Scope of Work now issues a worksheet, guiding executives in how to ask their fellows about their support systems, their commutes, and any familial responsibilities outside of work. The current class of fellows also shared information about their ability—or inability—to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The point, White says, is to introduce each fellow as a full human. Do that, and the fellow can feel safe and take risks. Take risks and exciting work may follow.
Viewed that way, Scope of Work isn’t an agency so much as it’s new infrastructure. Even through the limitations of Zoom, Levenson and White both radiate a savvy kind of energy usually only found in big sisters—protective, tough, entirely self-assured. Fellows participate in bi-monthly group check-ins, but Levenson and White also make themselves available by text to all SOW members, who can ask for help with anything from reviewing contracts to finding housing. (“Last weekend I was literally at an apple orchard, texting with a young person who didn’t know how to calculate their day rate,” White says.) It’s difficult to imagine how they can replicate the level of care they provide, and both Levenson and White know this. They can take on 15 fellows at a time, and haven’t yet decided how that number will grow in the future. They say they intend to scale slowly, preserving the deep relationships they’ve built thus far. Because of Levenson and White, Graham says it’s almost a disservice to call SOW a recruitment or talent firm. “It’s a community firm,” he says.
After the murder of George Floyd, after the Blackout Tuesday mess on Instagram, Levenson and White got 80 emails in five days from companies scrambling to fix race represenation. Some companies weren’t a fit for Scope of Work, and some others went quiet. Other companies didn’t shy away, and three of those emails led to new fellowship partners for this year. People these days love to talk about “doing the work”. This is the work. “We think it’s really good that there’s increased awareness, but what is it really going to take to sustain that energy?” Levenson says. “We’re saying, come with us, we’ll keep this going. We’re in for the long con.”