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As we continue to honor Women’s History Month, I had the privilege of interviewing a Black founder dedicated to the intersection of art, activism, and business. Daneille Coke, also known as Happy Dani, is a Black woman illustrator and content creator center diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in its work. She has partnered with well-known brands like Toms, Adobe and Comcast to translate their DEI values and initiatives into social justice art with great impact.
Here are excerpts from our conversation about its unique business model and how brands can elevate black content creators with DEI in mind.
Tell us about who you are, your background and the lens you use to present yourself for equity, inclusion and belonging?
I describe myself as an illustrator and an activist. I love using art and words to encourage faith, inspire justice, and help people become better neighbors. It all started with my first piece in 2020. I posted an illustration on social media for Martin Luther King Day. I explained why Dr. King was not a passive peacekeeper, but rather a radical disruptor who challenged the status quo. When I posted this, I was surprised to see people I didn’t know were sharing it. Before my art took off, I was a social media manager and graphic designer working with mission-positive brands. After Martin Luther King Day, I thought I would continue making art for the rest of the month and talking about what it means to be a black woman in America. That’s when my art started circulating and my first work went semi-viral on Facebook. In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter took center stage in our society. That’s when all my work went viral at once. In one week, I gained about 300,000 followers on Instagram. It was exciting to see how my art inspired, encouraged and challenged people by sparking intentional conversations about DEI.
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Who or what else inspires your work?
I am inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison’s writings on the intersection of darkness and creativity. Also, in 2019, I was working at a small, predominantly white company. I was the only black woman there. I remember going to my boss and saying, “I’m going through a lot of microaggressions and outright racism from people who mean well but just don’t know how to treat me. I would love it if we could invest in DEI initiatives, bring in a speaker, and try something new in this area. My boss said he wasn’t passionate about it and didn’t see why he would invest money and time in DEI. I realized that this space was not for me and I didn’t see how I could thrive here. This is what encouraged me to quit, pursue my own graphic design business, and intentionally work with justice-focused, mission-based brands that care about DEI. It was my little way of using my passion for justice and fairness.
I love that your website name is Happy Dani. Why is it important that founding women of color carry out their work with joy?
For me, you see the name Happy Dani and my cheerful disposition, and you might think: She’s happy all the time. But that is absolutely not true. While my joy may feel natural to me, it is followed by a lot of intentional self-care, like investing in therapy and acknowledging the function that racial trauma has on my daily life. I allowed myself to be on a healing journey. What is important for black founders to know is that we cannot separate who we are from what we do. The fact that I am a black woman permeates every aspect of my life. Sometimes as a content creator on social media, people ask me to talk about the tough topics of the day, but it’s not common for black female content creators to get the same kind of engagement. when we talk about love, happiness or joy. I had to make the decision for my well-being to no longer separate who I am online from my holistic self in real life. I am a person, not a resource.
In your stickers, you use a wide variety of skin tones. Why is it important to show the diversity of skin colors in your work?
Danielle: When I first made the sticker that says “worthy” with all the different colored arms, this was a piece I did during Black History Month 2020 about colorism. All of these arms represent different shades of darkness and speak to being worthy and precious no matter your skin tone. In the summer of 2020, the piece resurfaced and was amplified by those who thought the message included more than just black people. Although the original intent of the piece was lost in translation, it was nice to see how it took on a life of its own to encourage all people from all walks of life to embrace dignity. Dignity is not something to be noted and said, rather it is something to be fought for in all places and spaces of our spheres of influence.
Who usually buys your art? What impact do you hope it will have on them?
I create art and words for heart and home. I want families to buy this art and spark conversations with their children and the guests that come. I also want the most inspiring pieces to encourage people to stay motivated in the work they do. It’s hard to start with such a niche with mission-driven brands and then expand my audience to everyone. It’s not ideal for deciding who I want to talk to, but it’s also a blessing. I love how I can inspire the DEI consultant and stay-at-home mom.
What are the challenges, obstacles and obstacles you face as a black founder?
One of the first things I struggled with was making sure I was paid my fair value. When I was just starting out, I was brand new and there were opportunities I said yes to that could have made me more. I had opportunities that I thought would amplify my voice and my message, but turned out to capitalize on the popularity of the current justice issue. I had to remind myself that I’m doing this for the greater good and want us all to achieve equality, but I’m also a small business owner with employees and bills to pay. It’s not selfish to say, “I’d love to do that, and that’s my rate. It’s hard to walk into spaces and get paid less than my white counterparts or be offered to do something for free that others have been paid significantly for. It was an obstacle to be here to talk about justice and fairness to discover that I was working in spaces where injustice was happening. I needed to know my worth and ask for it. It’s common to say I want a seat at someone else’s table, but I also find it helpful to build my own tables.
What is your current business structure and where do you see your brand in the future?
Currently, I have one full-time employee and two interns. We have an office in Atlanta where we fulfill our orders and sell prints, stickers, posters, flags and other home art. I also collaborate a lot with brands and work with brands like Comcast, Coach, Adobe and Toms to help them deliver their message with joy and truth and amplify the voices that need to be heard.
How do big brands typically interact with you and your work?
Brands reach out to us when they want to amplify black voices and creators in a positive light and show they see and recognize us. For example, they may want to communicate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by asking me to illustrate something and then share it on social media. Brands can also reach out when making a decision that changes their corporate social responsibility initiatives. For example, how Tom changed his initiative from buy a pair, donate a pair, and switch to donating to grassroots black-led organizations instead. I work with brands that want to share their internal commitment to justice and diversity with their customers and investors. It’s great for brands to intentionally seek out color designers, ask them to interpret their message in their unique style and voice, and then amplify their work.
Art activism is a growing field. How do you think art can push the boundaries of DEI as we know it?
Sometimes art and activism are opposed to each other where activism involves taking action while art is more about emotion. When you combine the two, you have a really powerful tool because you inspire action by evoking emotion. Art is also accessible. DEI conversations are nuanced, heavy and complex. Often there is a criticism that art oversimplifies DEI, but what’s the harm in taking an idea that doesn’t dumb down a subject, but makes it more digestible and accessible to the average person?
What would you like to know before starting your business?
I wasn’t asking for enough help. I was looking for resources and investing in the business, but I needed help and didn’t ask for it. I would also have liked to know more about inventory and how much to buy for my business. I feel like I’m growing with the company through trial and error. I wish I had known that criticism and criticism is not an indicator of my worth as a person. I also work through perfectionism and wish I had been easier on myself.
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How do women of color break the glass ceiling in this work?
Danielle: I would say don’t let the absence of other black women in this space stop you from fully investing yourself and doing the art that you are inclined to do. If you don’t see it from other women of color, you have permission to do it anyway. I haven’t seen black women doing illustrative infographics on social media. I said to myself, I have something to say and I have a voice, so I will do it.