weekly feature | Sep 15, 2021 |
Marie Cloud is High Point x Design’s first diversity and inclusion officer. Here’s what she wants to do

High Point by Design, an organization with the mission of making the North Carolina city a year-round destination, has tapped Marie Cloud, principal of Charlotte-based Indigo Pruitt Design Studio, as its first diversity and inclusion officer.

“These topics have always been part of our narrative, but to be honest, there weren’t specific actions behind them,” says Tom Van Dessel, the chairman of HPxD. “We began having conversations with Marie earlier this summer, and she displayed her passion for being a spokesperson and an ambassador for diversity in the industry. Those talks led to us eventually asking if she had time to serve on our board and to help us develop specific, intentional actions around diversity and inclusion.”

High Point x Design (HPxD) was founded in 2020, born out of like-minded showroom owners and local industry entrepreneurs meeting amid the cancellation of that spring’s High Point Market to chart a path toward opening the town’s showrooms in a more consistent manner. Initially a consortium of fewer than two dozen businesses, the organization’s membership swelled to more than 50 companies in February, when it merged with the High Point Showroom Association, which had been hosting its own events to drive showroom traffic off-Market.

The relationship between HPxD and Cloud began at a panel event earlier this summer. The designer, who started her business in 2017 after a four-year stint at Sherwin-Williams, has always made community engagement a priority in her work. “I want to branch off with my business so that my hands and my talents are actually contributing to the community in a way that is tangible,” she told Business of Home in an interview for the 50 States Project series in 2020. “During COVID, I’ve been dreaming and journaling about what that looks like—and how I can turn that into actually bringing awareness of these issues in the Black community, not just through talking about it on social media, although I’ve been very active in that regard, but also: What do we do with these hands of ours?”

High Point x Design’s board of directors has been taking shape in recent months, with the appointment of fellow North Carolina designer Don Ricardo Massenburg, who joins as design chair to focus on establishing deeper partnerships with the interior design community. But the announcement of Cloud’s appointment also comes just weeks after the High Point Market Authority and Esteem Media faced a public outcry upon revealing a campaign highlighting 10 design influencers, all of whom were white. Though High Point x Design and the HPMA are separate organizations, their audience of designers and showrooms is largely intertwined. “It was really unfortunate, but it also proves what we’re talking about in our organization—we need more communication, more intention and more action to affect change,” says Van Dessel.

BOH spoke with Cloud to discuss her vision for the role, why she accepted it and how the design industry can create meaningful, lasting change when it comes to race and inclusivity.

How did this role come to be?
I attended a panel discussion in June hosted by High Point x Design at the Universal Furniture showroom. At the end, they asked for questions, and I raised my hand and said, “I’m very excited about all that you’re doing. But I have to ask: What intentionality is being placed in this organization in reference to diversity and inclusion? What efforts are you guys putting in place to ensure that is addressed and valued as you continue to grow?”

There were various responses and a little dialogue. Afterwards, Kathy Devereux, the communications chair of HPxD, approached me and expressed her appreciation for me asking about that. We stayed in contact and had a phone call where we got to know each other. I wanted to convey the urgency of bringing diversity and inclusion to the table. It’s a priority now for a lot of organizations because it’s trendy and cool, and companies are feeling the pressure. I want to ensure that these organizations are genuinely valuing the importance of diversity and inclusion and understand that diversity means creating a more interesting tapestry for your organization. It is not a trend.

Creating meaningful change, not just checking a box.
Absolutely. And honestly, when Kathy and I had the conversation, we weren’t even talking about a role. She just seemed intrigued by how passionate I was, and she introduced me to HPxD chairman Tom Van Dessel. We spoke several times, and he conveyed to me that he’s a part of a board full of changemakers. Outside of the fact that they want to open these showrooms and create opportunities for designers, [he knows] change has to be deeper than that, which aligned with what I was trying to convey from the start. I’m all about community and [asking] how we can reflect the community in what we’re doing. If you go outside of the downtown area in High Point, you’re going to see Black people, so it’s very hypocritical for us to come to High Point two times a year and ask people of color to hold the doors for us as we mosey in and not welcome their opinions and experiences. I said all of that up top, and Tom was very receptive to my thoughts.

As a result of those conversations, we agreed that there needed to be a board position dedicated to this. But I made it clear that if I was to be a part of this, it is not a project. This isn’t a little committee where we’re going to get together and check a box. This needs to be an intentional focus, and we have to start from the leadership down—I said, “I need your board to be reflective of the diversity that you want to bring. I need your meetings and the people that you’re bringing to the table to be reflective. It has to look like the future. It has to look like where you’re going.”

I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like in the future, but if you know anything about me, you know that there are going to be a lot of hard and difficult conversations, both inside and outside of High Point x Design. My hope is that we will partner with other organizations and hold them to the same fire that we’re holding ourselves to. We’re going to get very uncomfortable and spend time with people who don’t look like us and who don’t have the same experiences. I think it is going to be very hard for me to stay within the parameters and boundaries that are probably expected of me, but there’s a lot of work to do.

One thing that’s interesting about High Point x Design is that the organization is as much about the High Point and North Carolina communities as it is about the design community. How are you thinking about those audiences?
One of the things that really intrigued me when I went to the panel discussion during Market in June was all of the newness that is coming to High Point as a city. There’s a lot of new construction—hotels, restaurants, the baseball stadium, and they’re going to do a food hall. And the first thing that came to my mind was, “What does this mean for the locals?” I can see where this goes: There’s going to be a lot of gentrification, and I foresee a lot of people being overlooked.

My hope is that High Point x Design is going to stretch their arms far and wide beyond the design community, and that there’s going to be a presence of change for High Point, North Carolina, and the people that live there. What does that mean? My hope is that we’re going to spend some time with school administrators, that we’re going to partner with organizations that maybe aren’t directly tied to the design community. It’s very nuanced, but at the same time, it’s very simple once you put community and valuing people at the heart of it. It makes decision-making very easy.

Diversity means creating a more interesting tapestry for your organization. It is not a trend.
Marie Cloud

Have the recent conversations about High Point Market and Esteem Media’s all-white influencer tour changed how you view this new role?
It’s interesting that it happened, because it gave a prime example of what happens when you don’t have diverse voices in the room making decisions. That is what happens—and to be honest, I don’t think they realize the impact of it. They’re going to see the impact of that decision for a while. There’s a whole community of influencers and bloggers who are calling for—for lack of a better term—a boycott of High Point Market, because it does not lend toward Black and Brown faces. And it’s unfortunate, but that’s why these spaces have to be created.

I’ve been connecting with various friends that play some diversity and inclusion roles in corporate America, but I feel that I’m probably going to be a rebel compared to how these roles typically play out. Because I’m going to give it to you straight with no chaser: We’re talking about people’s lives and the impact of decision-making. It’s crucial, and it’s so much bigger than design. That’s what I want to keep telling people. And if you don’t think so, then you should not be in the room where decisions are made.

Were those discussions disheartening in terms of the change that diversity and inclusion officers are empowered to make?
Completely. Based on conversations that I’ve had, it just comes up as a check box, like, “Let’s throw this in the policy—let’s tweak this to meet a quota or to appear more liberal.” But you know when it’s right and you know when it’s wrong. Or at least, marginalized people do. I know when I feel welcome in a space. I know when my perspective is heard. My hope is that I can create a different feeling and actually cause change. Worst-case scenario, I’m going to rock the boat.

What are the basic changes that High Point as a town and design destination needs to make so that it does feel safe and welcoming to all?
There’s this word that I use pretty consistently, and that’s intentionality. You have to put effort into inclusion and not assume that things are just going to happen organically. In this world, diversity and inclusion do not happen like that. If High Point Market does not root itself in being intentional, creating representation and diversity, and ensuring that the decision-makers are a diverse group, change won’t happen.

For example, if you host an event and you’re only marketing to the typical white designer, as a Black woman, I don’t want to go, because all of your marketing and content is geared toward that particular profile. That’s why it’s not going to happen organically—it’s because we don’t feel welcome. So you have to intentionally market toward those people. You have to have conversations with them. And I’m not just referring to race, color or creed—experiences matter, as well. We have designers from the full spectrum. You have designers showing up to Market for the very first time, and you have some coming to every single Market. How do you speak to every person and every experience? Some would probably say, “It’s so hard,” or “We can’t.” Yes, you can. That’s what you signed up for. Put the effort in, get the team together and make sure it happens. There’s no excuse.

What is your experience having those kinds of conversations in the design world?
I’ll give you a specific example. After I asked that question back at Market, there were two individuals that approached me. One was Kathy, and the other one was an individual from the furniture manufacturing world. Between calls and emails when we connected after the panel, I felt as though there was a lot of fluff in their responses—a lot of, “Yeah, yeah. I hear you. That was great. We really need to do this.” And after those conversations, I was given many promises about following up, but I have not heard from that individual in the four to six months since. That is typical, and it is a practical example of what I mean when I say taking advantage of people—people of color—to utilize what they can produce for your advantage.

You have to put effort into inclusion and not assume that things are just going to happen organically. In this world, diversity and inclusion do not happen like that.
Marie Cloud

There’s something so complicated about the position that puts you in—not to speak for you, but I’d imagine you want them to take action after your conversation and follow through, but getting there also seems to require a lot of one-sided giving.
It’s very transactional—even if I can step outside of the discriminatory pieces of it, that’s the world we live in. It’s very transactional. You do something for me, I do something for you. It’s, “Let me get as much as I can out of this situation to move my chip forward.” Look, at the end of the day, I’m not responsible for what you do with what I share with you. I can only own my portion of it. In the end, I know it’s never going to be fruitful when it’s not rooted in truth and honesty.

I’m so excited to follow what you do in this role.
Thank you. I don’t really know exactly what this role is going to morph into. What I can say is that I promise to ask very hard, challenging questions and consistently advocate for marginalized people within the design community and advocate for the people of High Point as best as I can. I think I have to ensure that I am creating a pathway for individuals that have not gotten a chance or a seat at the table—to ensure that there is space and a comfy seat for them at that table, that they have space to advance within the industry, and that they are compensated equitably for their expertise and skills. I want to put it all in writing, and then partner with other organizations and encourage them to do the same.

I genuinely believe we’re better together. I don’t want to be in a space that looks just like me. My music, my friend circle—they’re diverse, because I feel like I’m lacking if I don’t stretch myself far and wide across new experiences. Besides the fact that I’m a minority, that’s where the passion comes from: There really is an appreciation for unity paired with my advocacy for the betterment of my people. It’s a topic that is hard for some, and I get why it’s hard, but the worst thing you could do is not have the conversation. Let’s figure this thing out, and let’s figure it out together. And it may be hard, but doesn’t it feel good when you go through something hard and you get through it? It’s the best feeling ever. I don’t think we’ll ever get [all the way] there, but we’re going to work our butts off to make sure that we care about people along the way.

Homepage photo: Marie Cloud | Courtesy of High Point x Design

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