How These Women Turned Creativity into Real Social Change

Even if you don’t know Karen Maine, you probably know her work: She’s the filmmaker behind a short film normalizing abortion (which became this beloved 2014 feature) and another, more recent short about a teen discovering female sexual pleasure sans man. Maine makes films that “represent women in realistic ways,” but she wasn’t always the straightforward writer and director confronting societal taboos. When she arrived in New York City from Iowa to attend The New School in 2004, Maine says she was a “much more shy and insecure” version of herself. Over the course of her undergraduate study, she became better able to form and articulate her unique point of view, in large part due to the seminar teaching style at one of The New School's five distinct colleges: Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, which requires participation and encourages critical thinking.
Maine’s experience of learning how to express herself as an artist is not rare; thousands of creatively minded individuals have used what they learned at The New School to design (and, importantly, execute) tangible change. And for students like Maine, school is simply the jumping-off point for a lifetime of problem-solving and civic engagement. Ahead, hear from her and seven other graduates about their experience at The New School, how it affected their current work, and what they’re doing to ensure that art, design, and other related forms of creative scholarship can (and will) change the world. 

Clarabeth Smith

Clarabeth Smith didn’t waste a moment post-grad putting her degree (a master's in fashion studies from the Paris campus of The New School's Parsons School of Design) to work. Almost immediately, she joined the nonprofit Style Her Empowered (S H E), which works to provide new school uniforms; full-tuition scholarships; and year-round training, tutoring, and support to 180 girls in Togo, Africa. Here, she encountered a problem that she knew how to solve: The girls either could not afford the mandatory school uniform or quickly outgrew them, and thus, were consistently missing or dropping out of school. So, Smith designed a uniform that literally grows with each girl — up to six sizes and one foot in length — and also happens to be completely zero waste, a result of the emphasis on sustainability that she encountered at The New School. 
“At Parsons Paris, we thoroughly examined fashion systems and cycles of consumption, and we explored the sociological and ecological damages that they incur,” Smith says. “We were encouraged to reimagine fashion as a benevolent entity. Our hope at S H E is that we can unleash the potential of circular fashion for good.” 
From start to finish, Smith’s graduate study included experiences beyond the traditional classroom environment, with many lessons occurring outside of the institution: in brand houses, museums, archives, fashion shows, production agencies, and the like. Because much of her schooling occurred in unconventional settings, Smith left with a broadened perspective, something that continues to influence her work at S H E: “We were stretched to think deeper and live with an open mind and critical lens.”

Linda Briceño

Linda Briceño pulls double duty as an award-winning music producer for artists in Latin America and a singer-songwriter under the alter-ego Ella Bric. In 2016, she thought she was going to the College of Performing Arts at The New School to study music, but once she arrived, it was clear her education would be much more broad and encompass many different disciplines: “Not only did this inspire me, but I also found myself looking outside the box, wanting to be more than just a musician,” she says. “I was able to find a voice where music is the soundtrack of a bigger goal — creating change for a better world.”
Briceño’s philosophy is rooted in connection: “I believe artists are translators to people's stories, feelings, and needs. Not only do we reflect beauty, but we also have a responsibility to tell the story of those unheard. In a world with many social issues, a complex political climate, and our Earth crying out for help, it is our time to stand and make our voices heard to create change.”

Karen Maine

When Karen Maine wrote the short that would eventually become a critically acclaimed 2014 movie normalizing abortion, she gave the protagonist a happy ending — in effect, celebrating the woman who had an abortion instead of villainizing her — as a way to contradict the more commonly circulated narrative.
“I think film is a really important medium to be able to put ideas out into the world that some people might not feel comfortable talking about,” she says. “By slowly seeping [those stories] in, hopefully they’ll become things not so taboo to discuss, and abortion rights won’t be on the brink of destruction like they are now.”
Maine didn’t always have a penchant for promoting uncomfortable conversations in the name of social progress. She credits her studies at The New School's Eugene Lang College with pushing her out of her shell: “By engaging with other people, you learn how to debate and be critical — even if you’re arguing just for argument’s sake — which I think is really helpful to understand multiple perspectives on a story or a social issue. Being able to think critically gave me the communication skills to become a director, where you have to communicate with several different people at the same time and make sure everything gets done. It opened my worldview.”

Alex McBride

Alex McBride thinks about design differently than most graduates of The New School; in her role as chief resilience officer for the city of Oakland, she’s not working on graphics or web design but rather urban infrastructure: “Building a more resilient city is very much about designing or redesigning systems and/or policies with the user (or resident) at the center. The New School’s interdisciplinary approach to study lends itself well to the way the city of Oakland thinks about resilience,” she says.
McBride’s background in environmental justice led her to the graduate program in Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management at The New School, where “an emphasis on solutions that result in equitable impact, and an acknowledgement of the systematic racism and oppression certain ‘solutions’ have had on marginalized populations historically,” resonated. Now, she’s interested in breaking down problems and offering realistic, tenable solutions for Oakland residents, employing tools like visioning exercises, storytelling, and design to support her community.

Amanat Anand & Shubham Issar 

Amanat Anand and Shubham Issar built their company, SoaPen, to address a lack of accessibility to hygiene products around the world — with a pocket-sized, roller-ball soap dispenser that kids can draw with like a crayon. Notably, for every three purchased, one is donated to a school in a low-income community. It sounds simple, but their invention is helping to solve a global problem that desperately needs attention: Over 500,000 young children die every year due to infectious illnesses that could be prevented by washing their hands with soap. Anand and Issar’s design-based solution won them the UNICEF Wearables for Good Challenge, and many of the skills that enabled them to create SoaPen were acquired at The New School's Parsons School of Design.
“The main skills that we learned in the industrial design program were manufacturing processes, rapid prototyping, ideation, and time management,” Anand says. “The UNICEF competition felt very similar to our college design briefs in terms of the requirements for the submission and deadlines. One of the most valuable and challenging lessons we learned while at Parsons was time management, and that’s been really valuable in our business.” 
SoaPen is the perfect example of how design can shape the future — in this case, the future of healthcare for millions of people around the world. 

Angela Luna

Angela Luna came away from The New School's Parsons School of Design with one very important lesson: “No existing method or system is sacred, and design plays a key role in systems change.” As founder and creative director of her own label, ADIFF, Luna is using her design degree to actualize change in two ways: working to alleviate the refugee crisis by employing resettled refugees in ADIFF’s Athens sewing factory and combating climate change by using post-consumer fashion “waste” as the raw material for the brand's collections. This is the sort of disruption of fashion-industry norms that is so often dreamt of and rarely implemented.
“With ADIFF, we're literally addressing major global issues through fashion, so it's safe to say that we feel design can create change,” she says. “We’re able to create awareness and lead crucial conversations among consumers, while also applying systems design to provide actionable solutions to global issues.”

Mira Jacob

For Mira Jacob, writing isn’t simply a career — it’s a window into another dimension of consciousness, where one is able to see the world from a new perspective. “Can you imagine if our experiences were limited to what we did with our waking, physical bodies?” she asks. “Like dreams, stories allow us an alternate life — a way to imagine situations and even one another with a complexity we might not get to otherwise.” 
Jacob believes this sort of variance in perspective is vital, nowadays, as our day-to-day political and social realities are often less than ideal. Literature helps people cope, but it also allows readers to see outside of themselves and, perhaps most importantly, empathize with each other in a world that rewards self-centeredness and greed. She credits The New School, from which she received her MFA in creative writing in 2001, as key to her success post grad: “It helped me build a sustaining and sustainable writing community. And without that — whew. I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” she says. 
Empathy is central to the author’s actual output, too: Jacob was born in New Mexico to parents who moved to the States from India in 1968, and her graphic memoir Good Talk, released earlier this year, considers American identity through the lens of a first-generation immigrant. “I get a lot of letters these days from people who have read Good Talk,” she says. “Some of them say, ‘This is my story, too,’ and others say, ‘I had no idea about any of this.’ Sometimes, when I’m feeling like absolute shit about the world, I remember how many books are out there doing the exact same thing: helping people see each other just a little bit better.”

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series