Steffon Isaac

Steffon Isaac is an advertising executive who recognized the need to create opportunities for diversity, equity, and inclusion within his organization and beyond. He founded The CLU Studio, an experimental design studio that uses games, structured play, and immersive storytelling to deepen the quality of conversation around unconscious bias and privilege.

A Founding Friend of Fotografiska New York, he joined prior to the museum opening and continues to find inspiration within the Fotografiska community.

Image Courtesy: Desi VillaNueva

You joined Fotografiska New York before even stepping inside. What has your experience been like as a member?

Fotografiska is a jewel box inside of a jewel box inside of a jewel box.

I am continuously blown away by the attention to every detail that was put into this museum – from the galleries, to the building itself, to V Bar and Verōnika.

When you step inside of Fotografiska, it feels like New York. Everyone is beautiful, and they are beautiful because they are living their truth as an individual and being unapologetically themselves.

There’s a new documentary about Bruce Springsteen on Apple TV, and the lead photo of the documentary is the shot taken by Danny Clinch that Fotografiska had on the sixth floor. I attended the artist’s opening party, and I remember looking at that particular photo when Danny himself came up to me and told me the story of that shot. Now, when I see the photo at home through Apple TV, I understand what the photographer was seeing at the moment he took the shot because of the conversation I had with the artist at Fotografiska. That is community.

Image Courtesy: Bruce Springsteen, Central Park, 2018 © Danny Clinch.

Even before founding The CLU Studio you had been leading diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within different organizations. How did you start?

Before entering the advertising industry, I was in education for many years. Making the move to advertising was incredibly exciting, but when I entered the industry, I was surprised that there weren’t many people of color in the field. I realized that behind the powerful images, stories, and campaigns you see on billboards and television were teams of people that did not reflect the way our own country looked. It was a realization that drove me to lead a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within my own organization and industry. 

When you led these initiatives, did you see any sort of pattern emerge within organizations?

Organizations put a tremendous amount of resources behind their diversity equity and inclusion initiatives. They’re committed to building sustainable communities for underrepresented groups, diversifying their recruiting channels, and creating on-ramps for mentorship – but that effectively frames the problem as a structural issue, which it is not. Bias, which diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts seek to remediate, is a moral issue. The problem is not necessarily the way organizations are structured, but it’s the world view of those inside organizations. We’re living increasingly segmented lives and keeping ourselves within our own bubbles.

My goal, like many photographers, is to change the way people see. The paradox of this work is that you often have an individual who supports the idea of social justice and equity for all, but their lifestyle may not be consistent with those ideals. They live in homogeneous neighborhoods, send their kids to homogenous schools, and move in homogeneous circles, making for an entire lifestyle of sameness.

What tools would The CLU Studio use to shake up the way people see diversity, equity, and inclusion?

CLU was founded to help have conversations that weren’t happening in corporate America, and I realized that games would be an effective vehicle to facilitate safe discussions around sensitive topics. These conversations are difficult to have, and if you don’t have a lived experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion, you are not likely to put yourself out there for fear of being judged or saying the wrong thing.

Games are a medium where there is increased risk-taking and a freedom of exploration, discovery, and choice. They allow us to suspend our beliefs, making us more open to examining and interrogating what is right and what is wrong, without the risk of judgment or failure.

Image Courtesy: Desi Villanueva

When you work with people through CLU, do you see a transition or shift within people?

Our first game coming out in early 2021 is a card game called Privilege – An Unconscious Bias Game and is based around identity. Many people don’t know what it feels like to be an ‘other.’ During our testing phases, when people played this game they were suddenly playing for the ‘right piece of identity.’ At that moment, their own bubble was broken, and there was a realization where they literally said, ‘I had no idea it was like this.’ When we understand what it looks like and feels like to be an ‘other,’ only then can we hold the kind of empathy that’s needed to take up this work in a real way.

There are things we inherit from parents and caregivers that shape who we are, and there are identities we step into, discover, or take on through community. We aren’t having a conversation in corporate America about these identities; we don’t talk about them. We need to reveal the nuances of identity, and create a common language that can be used to recognize the humanity in each of us.

How has the founding of The CLU Studio and your work around diversity, equity, and inclusion impacted you?

There have been big moments for me on this journey. There is a deep sense of responsibility I feel in moving this work forward that is greater than a profession. It feels like a calling.

There is a measure of fatigue that is associated with the storytelling that’s needed to push this work forward, and it is certainly emotionally draining. But the more that I speak to people and the more I hear the stories and the pieces of identity that are at the margins of this conversation, I feel a sense of duty to continue to amplify these voices and lift up those groups that need to be seen and heard. This work is a paradox in that it is both an emptying and filling experience. At times you feel you are giving so much of yourself that you have nothing left, but then you are filled by the hope and possibility of fueling change.

The work we do at The CLU Studio is the work of a community across various experiences and backgrounds coming together to help solve our society’s most pressing problems. While I may be the architect, this is the work of a unified group bringing it all to bear through meaningful ways.

Thank you, Steffon, for taking the time to share and speak with us. You can get in touch with Steffon via email steffon.isaac@theclustudio.com or by visiting The CLU Studio.

We host Member Spotlights every month, and would love to hear from you. Please contact us at membership.ny@fotografiska.com to be featured.