Kristy Chester-Vance Activist & Art Director

Posted on: July 30, 2014 by Pandora Schaff

How did you get your start in graphic design and advertising?

It’s what always made sense to me, I always saw it in a different way. I was lost in art since I was a child. I remember the art in first grade better than anything else in first grade and it kind of progresses like that in my whole life. I had this tree in my backyard with all these swings and hammocks hanging off of it. That was my childhood.

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I loved being in that tree. It got infested with bugs so my parents had to cut it down. I was so mad even though I kind of understood why, I was just so mad. They cut it down and as a symbol of my discontent, I painted the stump with bright and ugly colors. Every time they looked out of their bedroom window they would have to see it. Then my dad had the stump removed. It was really funny actually. I think that was my first direct art action.

Was there a distinct moment when you realized the power that design can have in our world?

I actually studied journalism and advertising in college. I am really interested in words and writing. The problem with journalism was that I wanted to be an activist. Journalism is supposed to agnostic. I couldn’t do it. Everyone said “You’ve got to be agnostic.” I stayed in journalism, and would do art on the side, painting huge portraits of war criminals from the 1996 war in Serbia. I was painting these war criminal posters and writing. It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to be a journalist and an activist. I realized that being a designer and advertiser is such direct communication. It’s these bite-size chunks of information. In the pre-Twitter days it was a way to condense a big amount of information into a very simple concept. That was really appealing to me. I came of age when Nike was doing a lot of big things. That was huge moment to see the power of advertising. Make something out of nothing. I’m struck by that. I didn’t like the consumption piece but I was very struck by the power.

When you left school you were working in a design industry, the more typical commercial side. What inspired you to leave that side of work and move into the more activist, non-profit sector of work?

I partly paid my way in design and advertising school by designing this business to business magazine about working in the kitchen. Then I really wanted to move to San Francisco, so I set up seventeen job interviews. I was really an art director, my degree was in art direction. I went to interview at all these ad agencies, during the “dot.com” boom. It was crazy. People were writing me blank checks to create logos for crazy “dot.coms.” I took a job with a woman because I valued her design sensibility. She had pretty solid clients that resonated with me, like educational services, and then she had Chevron. I didn’t want to be on that file. But eventually, I got on that file. One day they asked me to design the cover of Chevron’s quarterly report. They had this clear cut in a forest, and they asked me to choose the best looking photograph of it. At the same time, I had also started doing design work for Rainforest Action Network and we were fighting against that same clear-cut. In that moment, I knew that if I didn’t take heed, then I might end up doing work on the Chevron side of things. It was great money, great clients, expense account lunches, but I had to ask myself, “Am I going to be doing this so early in my life? Should I let go of my dreams this early in my life?” I didn’t have kids to pay for, I didn’t have a mortgage, so I said, “This is the time.”

What organizations do you currently work with and what are the goals of each of those?

I am the Deputy Director for ForestEthics. I’ve worked there for twelve years. We focus on tracking where the products we use everyday come from. When they come from environmental destruction, we hold companies accountable for that destruction. That can look like Staples or Office Depot, their paper comes from the Boreal Forest in Canada. So we expose that to their customers because we believe the customer is always right. One of the difficulties is that these companies have so much money. When we were running our Staples campaign, they made more money in a single store in one week than our entire organization’s annual budget. It was one of many campaigns that we were running. So it’s not about money, it’s about brands. A brand is so powerful these days. That’s what we do at ForestEthics. We are doing a lot right now against the tar-sands oil extraction. We ask, “Where does all this oil come from? Where does all this fuel come from that we all use?” In particular, we often forget in America, that stuff doesn’t grow on shelves in stores. We ask not only “What is that paper and where did it come from?” But also “How did it get here?” These trucks that transport everything around use a tremendous amount of oil. Most of it is coming from tar sands. So we work on that as well. I also have a small design firm with a friend of mine, it is called Half Full. We have been working together since 2000 with a number of clients. Right now, we’re doing a lot of work for storm water run-off, which is pollution that comes from covering ground, covering roofs, and really hard surfaces. There is nothing stopping these pollutants from running straight into our rivers. So we’re doing a lot of work for organizations that bring awareness to that issue.

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Concerning ForestEthics, what would you consider to be the organizations most successful campaign to date?

We run a cross-border organization, half Canadian and half American. In the U.S., people say “Oh my gosh, you ran the campaign against Victoria’s Secret!” In a certain world, everyone knows that campaign. That is perceived as a huge success and it was a huge success. On the other hand, sometimes it’s the stuff you don’t see in the news that is so powerful. For example, in the campaign to change the way catalogs are made, we worked with Williams-Sonoma. They run a lot of catalogs, like Pottery Barn and many others. They mail out a ton of paper. They worked with us very closely, but there was never a campaign and nobody ever saw anything in the public. However, as a result of our interactions, they made changes that powerfully transformed the entire paper industry. In Canada, we are known for actually legislating the protection on the ground. They may not know about our Victoria’s Secret campaign but they know we’ve helped protect the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of Canada. We work in a place where we connect the dots between the consumption and the places that consumption impacts.

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What is the biggest challenge your organization has run into while fighting the development of Canadian tar sands?

The Canadian government tried to shut us down. That was a pretty big challenge. They tried to shut us down specifically because of our work fighting against the tar sands development. That takes a lot of work to get around.

What kind of actions did they take?

The government has allocated a large amount of money to challenge the non-profit financial status of organizations. Basically, they’ll audit you, which is a huge amount of work for an organization to handle. Then they’ll audit you again the next month, and then they’ll audit you again. That’s one way they do it. Another way they do it is by telling us we have to get rid of our fiscal sponsors or they will shut us down. It was pretty straightforward calls for action. It’s difficult to handle being called an “enemy of the state.”

How do you train yourself to handle that sort of thinking?

Americans are living in such a time of transition, if you think about the fact that the iPhone is not even six years old. Now half of all Americans have smartphones. Facebook is almost seven years old. We are living in transformation but we don’t see it. When we talk about changing the way we drive, what we drive and how we move things around with oil, people think it’s impossible. They think it’s rainbow and unicorns. It’s not. It’s just like the horse and carriage. What’s a car? What’s going from a candle to electricity? We have to think like that. It’s a big challenge. What actions can an individual take to help ForestEthics reach it’s goals, or even just with our general thought patterns? We have all kinds of actions on our website. We have 30 seconds, 3 minutes, 3 hour or 3 day actions you can take. But on a broader scale, re-awakening our imaginations is really important. Starting to look at what’s possible and realizing we need to compete on ‘green’ is really important. After one person does that, things start to shift. We all have to start asking some serious questions. Why? Why do we consume like this? Why is it that I order a cup of coffee and they just give it to me in a paper cup? The default being, your cup, that is reusable. Why are we doing the things that we are doing? Where does this stuff come from? We all know that corporations have incredible power. Corporations live because we give them our money. Voting with your money at the check-out line is incredibly powerful. Of course, voting in elections is important, but we forget that these companies that are so big and are running the world only exist because we give them our money. You should ask yourself, “Who are you giving your money to?”

Can you explain what greenwashing is and why ForestEthics is against the “Sustainable Forest Initiative” campaign?

When I started this work in 2001, we ran a campaign against Staples and there was nobody there that dealt with sustainability. They didn’t know where their stuff came from. They literally did not know. I tell you what, twelve years later, these companies have departments of sustainability. They know the power of green. We ran a campaign against Staples. One of our demands was that they had to market their green products. They said, “Okay, we’ll try it.” They are based in Framingham, so they took their flagship store in Boston and painted a wall green. They put their “green” products in front of it to see if there was any value in marketing products that are ‘green.’ Needless to say, it worked. This was in 2002, think about the market for “green” today. It’s a five hundred billion dollar market at a minimum in the U.S. There’s so much value for ‘green’ stuff. Every single company wants to tell you their stuff is ‘green.’ Greenwash is just a cynical way to take advantage of consumers’best intentions by telling them that what they’re buying is ‘green’ when it is not. It doesn’t mean anything beyond a pretty little label. The SFI (Sustainable Forest Initiative) is owned, operated and run by the logging industry. They wanted in on the greenwashing game. Basically, they were like, “Hey! Are you logging over there?” Then the company says, “Yeah, I’m logging.” Then the SFI says “Okay, Great! you are certified. certified for logging.” The SFI has invested a tremendous amount of money marketing a label like the “organic seal of approval,” but it’s meaningless. I don’t think they’ve ever rejected a request for certification. It’s a scam to prey on your best intentions as a consumer. ForestEthics feels strongly about holding companies accountable for that. We want to move the marketplace towards better products. If someone is out there preying on people, we aren’t going to stand for it. We are running a huge campaign to hold them accountable because the more the SFI label shows up and people think it’s ‘green,’ the more problematic it is. That contradiction is interesting in the design world, where you can use the power of design to expose wrong-doing, then the wrong-doers turn around and use design to legitimize themselves. That’s actually true. That’s a really hard thing as a designer, to see these incredible people and organizations that do such powerful work with so much integrity, but they’re terrible at marketing. Some of the best caliber work out there is so hard to find because the people who do it don’t know how to market themselves. Then you see really shoddy work with no integrity, and they are everywhere because they have money and are really great at marketing. They have big celebrity marketing campaigns to market this stuff and they’re geniuses at it, but the product is garbage. Meanwhile the good products and services go un-seen. We work to balance the scales and challenge that paradigm.

What advice do you have for young designers who would be interested in designing for environmental and social justice?

The prevailing opinion in some design school institutions is that “There are no jobs doing that.” That’s exactly what they told me when I was in design school. I was able to see beyond that though. When I was in school, Jelly Helm came and talked to us and really instilled in me the power of design. He was a genius advertiser, he basically made Nike what it is today. He designed a Nike commercial where a team of soccer players is playing a team of demons in a futboll championship. It is a really cinematic advertisement. At the end, Ronaldo squares off one-on-one against the demon goalie. He non-chalantly flips up his collar and kicks the ball with so much power that it punches a hole through the devil and he scores. Jelly was in London during the World Cup when the ad was airing. He was in a pub and everyone is going crazy for the match. His commercial comes on and the whole place goes quiet. They all watch and when Ronaldo flipped up his collar, everyone watching flipped up their own collars. That was the moment he realized how much power he had. Designers have so much power. So after the match he came home to his wife and said, “Honey, the craziest thing happened. Look at what I did!” She said, “I have a crazy story for you too, I was teaching these inner-city kids in Virginia and I asked them to draw a picture of heaven. I can’t tell you how many of them drew themselves wearing Nikes.” Do you remember when people were shooting each other for Nike shoes? That got him. He asked himself, “What am I doing?” That story spoke to me, and I realized that the things that nag at you and bother you, that’s the core of who you are, what you believe in. But, you might have to abandon it sometimes. There are times in life where you have to, where something happens to your family or financial circumstances where you have to put those feelings aside, but I’ve never heard of anybody dying wishing they had made more money or worked more. That’s what makes your life have meaning. My suggestion to people who feel this inside of them is to not let go of it, but also set yourself up for success. If you say that you are going go all out, and work for free and starve yourself to pursue your passions, you are setting yourself up to fail. You aren’t going to have a place to live and you’re not going to have food. That’s not setting yourself up for success. What does it look like? Maybe, “I’m going to get this job, give myself cash padding for six months and then commit myself to this project.” Or maybe it’s going to be my side project and check in with myself and make it a real project. It’s really important to recognize that there is compromise. When we sit down with these logging companies and we are negotiating, if we say, “No we aren’t going to do this,” and they say the same thing, we aren’t going to get anywhere. There needs to be some compromising.This work needs lifetime activists. We need lifetime activists, we need lives that sustain activism. That means caring for yourself, not burning out, and not setting yourself up to fall on your face.

True that. Anything else to add?

A big part of my work right now focuses around mindfulness and meditation because being an activist is hard and people do burn out. We can’t afford that because the more skill and understanding you have, the more capacity you have to give. We need to become mindful of the connection we all have to one another. If you’re winning and someone else is losing, that’s not a real gain. We have to all move forward together. It’s messy, complicated and so difficult and incremental, but that is where real change happens.

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Posted on: July 30, 2014 by Pandora Schaff