Diana Muendo CA talks about having the courage to be curious, the diversity of art and big hair.
During her childhood in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, Diana Muendo always felt that one day she would be living in London despite never having visited the English capital.
Years later, having achieved her childhood dream and speaking from her flat in London, she recalls how her family first moved across to the UK when she was 13 because of her mother’s job working with what is considered to be one of Britain’s favourite drinks as a tea taster and blender.
“It’s a very niche job,” Diana admitted.
“Because tea is a crop, it’s like wine, its taste changes during the year so you don’t get the same flavour profile from the same crop. You have to keep blending a different mixture of teas to achieve the same taste.”
It was during a ‘culture training session’ facilitated by the company her mother was working for that Diana started to discover how life in the UK differed from what she was used to back in Kenya. The lesson covered everyday activities which long time UK residents may take for granted, but to her and her family were a very different way of doing things.
“So, things like how to use a knife and fork,” explained Diana.
“In Kenya, you mainly ate with spoons or with your hands. Another cultural example was how you should book a time when you visit someone, you don’t just rock up to their house. Where I grew up, you just turn up! I can turn up for dinner and you have to feed me and it’s not a big deal.”
Although Diana jokes about learning what ‘popular music’ was in the UK during the session by being given a Gareth Gates CD, she found value in these insights as it prepared her for entering an environment where, for the first time, she was a minority.
Big hair parade
Joining a school where she was the only black pupil, Diana’s found her classmates had a lot of questions for her, particularly about her hair.
Her hair is a big part of her identity, Diana explained, and it was something she felt she had to suppress when she qualified and started her career in the profession.
“A big part of being black, and especially a black woman, is that you change your hair a lot to fit your mood and your style because you can.”
“I used to wear braids a lot, but when I first started [in the profession], I felt that the subtext was that was unprofessional hair and I needed to have it straightened.”
Diana explained this feeling came from being the only black woman on her floor and that, at the time, she felt that she had to imitate the style of the majority of her colleagues.
“You just want to fit in,” Diana said.
“The images that you see of people working at big firms looking a certain way, you think, ‘This is the company look and this is how I have to look’.
“But that’s changed so much, and I’ve definitely noticed how much it’s changed even though I don’t work in that industry anymore.”
It was these experiences, coupled with a desire to educate people about and normalise these differences which led Diana to publish her first Children’s picture book – Big Hair Parade.
It is the story of Aisha – a little girl struggling with feeling good about the way she looks and embarking on a journey with her friends from different cultures to learn that people’s differences make them beautiful. There is a unique power in that difference.
“I think it is a reflection I’ve had as an adult. Growing up everyone wants to change something about themselves, but why? We are all amazing, we are all miracles, and we should all celebrate that.”
Before Big Hair Parade hit the shelves, Diana had already made the move from the corporate world into the creative industry when she co-founded M.Y.O (Make Your Own), a creative space for people to come and learn new skills and flex their artistic muscles.
Having spent time in these two contrasting landscapes, she found that both had merits to their approach to ED&I that the other could benefit from adopting.
“In the creative industry, being different and unique is really celebrated. It often informs somebody’s art or their identity as an artist. It’s almost a tool that can be used. But access and opportunity to participate to be an artist or a maker, I think there is an underrepresentation of people of colour.”
“Contrasting that to the corporate world, there is a lot of work being done in terms of making opportunities more equal. There is a more conscious effort to open up to those groups. But I don’t know if that diversity is celebrated as much.”
“Imagine how powerful it would be to get those two worlds together. It would be a blast.”
Be curious, be open and start a conversation
Although there is a strong creative vein that runs through Diana’s approach to life, when it comes to improving equality and diversity, she thinks the solution is a relatively straightforward one.
“From my perspective, and maybe it’s a simplistic view…but I think ED&I means treat others the way you want to be treated. Everybody wants to be understood, listened to and included.
“From a practical point of view, I think that means unlearning any biases you have about somebody and trying to understand the world from their perspective.”
It is then, Diana said, that people can feel comfortable to have an open conversation to discover how those different to them experience the world and discover how disparities can be addressed to create a more equal and inclusive society.
“The issue is understanding,” said Diana.
“It’s about learning and understanding as many different experiences as possible and then it should become normal to talk about them and ask questions.”
For this approach to work, it is not enough for people to open up and share their experiences for the conversation around diversity to be successful. Diana wants people to be brave and tap into their curiosity, to be inquisitive and explore difference, and in her opinion, art is a medium that can spark this conversation like no other.
“Art tends to be a reflection of peoples experiences and their perceptions,” Diana explained.
“Then you can ask more about that. If you show a picture or a painting, you can ask what it means and what feelings went into it.
“It takes a lot of courage to make or create something and then share it with the world, because you are literally sharing a piece of yourself.
“When it comes to ED&I, people are so scared of getting it wrong or asking the wrong question. But ultimately it doesn’t matter because you are striving to learn and get to a place where you make all people who want to work with you or for you feel welcome.”