Inclusivity is essential: A conversation with Grace Bonney, author of “In the Company of Women”

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Over the 12 years of her work within the creative community, Grace Bonney has allowed herself to evolve and encouraged her creative community to grow alongside her. Her website, Design*Sponge, which reaches nearly 2 million readers a day, has long advocated for female small business owners, but in recent years her most dedicated readers may have noticed a bit of change. “I decided to take responsibility for what I had created and committed to including more perspectives,” said Bonney over the phone. Suddenly, expensive homes featuring works from high-end designers weren’t the rule. Eventually, they became the exception. “We focused more on rentals, on people living in a small space or with a lot of people in a small space. It’s been an ethical change but also a practical one. We shouldn’t only offer aspiration but practical insight and inspiration,” she says.

Bonney’s embrace of inclusivism is particularly showcased in her most recent book, In the Company of Women (Artisan Books – Workman Publishing, 360p). We spoke with Bonney by phone in advance of her panel at SCADshow on October 13, where she’ll be in conversation with some makers, entrepreneurs and thinkers showcased in the book, including Rebecca Wood, Cheryl Day, LaRonda Sutton and Ashley Woodson Bailey.

Grace Bonney. Image by Christopher Sturman.
Grace Bonney. Image by Christopher Sturman.

ArtsATL: You’ve been trumpeting and advocating for female entrepreneurs and the maker movement through your work with Design*Sponge for over a decade now . . . What motivated you to bring this into being at this moment in time?

Grace Bonney: Problem-solving has always been my biggest motivator at work. It was the reason I started the blog — I didn’t see the types of people and work I wanted to see, so I started a blog to fill that niche. Then I met the women running those small-scale businesses. We started to meet for coffee and drinks, and I realized that we all needed this support system, to talk and figure things out together. That’s how Biz*Ladies came into being. In paying attention to the resources available to those women — books and magazines — I started consuming them and attending all sorts of events and conferences. There were a lot of great ideas circulating, but it seemed like the same woman kept being cited and promoted over and over again. Usually, it was a thin, straight white woman. We’ve all seen stories about this woman, and we’re not getting the benefit of all of the different perspectives that exist. I kept waiting for someone else to write the book, but nothing was happening.

There are great books out there for women in business, but for me, visibility has always been really important. When I came out publicly in 2013, I suffered from not finding anyone I identified with. When I did, it was powerful. That descended through race, age and sexuality, I realized how amazing it would be to see all of these women together as a reminder of all the possibilities that exist no matter who you are or what stage you’re at in your life.

ArtsATL: How has your perspective on the importance of inclusivism changed since you came out in 2013?

Bonney: To be honest, it completely changed the way I did everything in life and at work. It was the first time I felt what it was like to be part of a community that was other. That felt very profound for me. It extended beyond the LGBTQ community and into people of color and disabled people. There are so few differently-abled women, people of color and older women represented in our media. No one gives them space to tell their stories in their voice.

Once I had that light turned on it was impossible to unsee those things. The change started to show up in Design*Sponge. I implemented an almost overnight change, to make sure our content represented these underrepresented groups. We had more home tours from LGBT couples and people of color and people who are differently-abled than us, and it trickled down throughout the site and changed my friend groups, the issues I get involved in with social justice issues.

ArtsATL: Having moved to upstate New York somewhat recently, how has that shift in lifestyle informed your vision of the future? Has being exposed to a more rural, less diverse community than that of Brooklyn, where you lived before, shifted your vision for Design*Sponge and yourself for the future?

Bonney: As I get older, having now moved, gone through a lot of personal changes, and being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, everything I’ve gone through in the past few years has been an exercise in compassion. There’s so much world outside of New York City. Every place and everyone has its own thing going on. It’s informed the way that I talk in Design*Sponge and the types of projects we do. The lifestyle community in itself can be very exclusive about idealizing this one version of how to live. At one point I was perpetuating that, and when I got outside of that world I realized how isolating that must have been for a lot of people. It felt isolating to me, and I created my Design*Sponge community. I decided to take responsibility for what I had created and committed to including more perspectives. Even something as simple as featuring fewer properties that were very expensive or have high-end designer contacts. Instead, we focused more on rentals or people who were living in a small space or with a lot of people in a small space. It’s been an ethical change but also a practical one. We shouldn’t only offer aspiration.

We’ve lost a portion of our audience, but it’s been replaced and is still being replaced by a different type of reader. It’s changed in every possible way: from race to socioeconomic status, to age to education level — that’s something I’m proud of. From an advertising perspective, people focus too much on numbers and volume of your audience. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how important it is to have people with whom you share a core group of ethics. A lot of things could still be very different, but I feel very strongly that if we’re a place talking about home, it should be a place where everyone feels welcome and represented. We weren’t doing that.

I’m a lot happier with what we’re doing now, but we still have a lot of work to do. I’m very much a minority in the lifestyle community. If you’re in this mainstream bubble, no one understands the logic in shaking that up to focus on things that might take more time to find. For example, a house tour with someone who understands what it’s like to design around the restrictions of a wheelchair and what does that mean for design and decorating? I find that fascinating and important to represent. It’s not spread across the community yet, but I’m hoping that it will.

Decatur artist Sarah Neuberger answered her interview questions via illustration.
Decatur artist Sarah Neuberger answered her interview questions via illustration.

ArtsATL: After doing so many interviews and features over the years, what was the process of deciding who you wanted to include in the book?

Bonney: That was the hardest but most enjoyable part. I’m a natural editor. I love making huge lists and then cutting them down and making hard decisions. It was a reminder of how easy it is to default to who you already know. I made a list of over 100 women from the beginning of the book and realized that still, the majority of those women were close to my age and white. I thought, “Wow, this is what happens when you keep reading the same websites and blogs — you get a lot of the same names over and over again.”

I sat down and thought harder and researched more deeply. Another step, an important one: I asked other people for help. Through those contacts, I found so many amazing women, almost 250 women were listed at one point. There was no way I could fit them all in the book. We cut it down to 120 and then 107. There were women I wished I could have included, but they all came from a similar background and had a similar story. 

ArtsATL: So you had your women selected, but where did you go from there?

Bonney: Originally I was commissioned to write a DIY book and . . . I just couldn’t write it. It just wasn’t reflective of where my passion is right now. I was about to accept defeat, to give my advance back, and I spoke to my wife. She told me to pitch the book I wanted to write. She helped me write a proposal. They loved it, but they gave me the same deadline. I had their blessing, but I also had only two months, it was due in July.

It turned out to be the most fun summer project ever. I hate traveling and flying, but I booked 15 flights without blinking an eyelash. I took plane after plane to meet as many of these people as possible in person. It was the greatest summer adventure ever. Ninety-eight percent of the photography is original. The majority were by Sasha Israel who kind of went “on tour” with me. Some of them were so far away that we couldn’t do it in our budget, so we hired freelance photographers for those. Two of the images were licensed.

ArtsATL: Was there anyone you felt was essential to this collection? Did you wake up one night and think, “I have to have Kathleen Hanna for this to be correct?”

Bonney: [Laughs] That was exactly the name I was going to say. Kathleen and Christine Schmidt were the two people with whom I began. This book started as a sticky note on my computer that said, “BOLD WOMEN.” I had found a vintage magazine that said it and the title stuck with me, to me that was what was missing from the lifestyle community and business books. There was a particular type of woman prized in lifestyle right now — a quiet, soft, waify and waspy woman. That’s totally fine, but it’s not me, and it felt imbalanced. I like loud women, women who aren’t afraid to take up space and aren’t afraid to be controversial. I made a list of women who represented that to me. Kathleen Hanna was the first person I wrote down.

The second person I wrote down was Christine Schmidt, whom I already knew — she runs Yellow Owl Workshop in San Francisco. She tells it like it is and isn’t afraid to take risks with her business. I love that; it’s rare in design.

ArtsATL: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who want to become more inclusive in their practice?

Bonney: Learning the most from the largest amount of people. No matter what industry you’re in, you’re missing out on a lot if you’re only speaking to the same person over and over again. For me, that was a huge realization. I’d worked in my line of business for a decade and thought I knew every group of people, that I had the community covered. But I had my eyes opened — this was only one particular niche of our community. If I just looked around a little bit more, there were endless opportunities to learn. That’s inspiring and invigorating. Otherwise, I’d get bored. I was bored — and no wonder, it was the same thing over and over.

It’s so important to let people share their stories from their perspectives, though. It’s not our place to frame other people. The more space you give, the more authenticity there will be.

ArtsATL: What are your goals for the conversations you’ll have onstage during the book tour?

Bonney: The reason I wanted to moderate these and not lead the talks was to ensure that we covered things that people aren’t willing to push themselves into on their own: the discussion of vulnerability and when things don’t work out. So many business talks and conferences focus so much on our successes. We’ll talk about that, but also when things didn’t go well and how they recovered from that and rebuilt their ego. So much is learned in those moments. They’re when we’re made human. And particularly with women that we look up to, we put them on a pedestal and assume they don’t make mistakes. This book taught me that we all continue to make mistakes. It will be a collective sigh of women cutting themselves some slack. I want us to focus more on course-correcting and learning from those moments than never making a mistake.

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