Versatile is one of many words that can be used to describe Omari Souza. Professor, graphic designer, photographer and author are others, to name a few.
But the most important word to Souza is equity.
A Black designer: He has found that he and his colleagues of color get joy from creating their work but not always the opportunity to make a living from it.
As part of ThirdSpace Action Lab’s Inclusivity Matters: Elevating Voices in the Anthology of Blackness event, Souza will conduct a lecture/book signing Thursday, Nov., 9, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. to discuss “An Anthology of Blackness: The State of Black Design,” a book he co-authored with Terresa Moses, creative director at Blackbird Revolt.
“An Anthology of Blackness” is a collection of 21 essays highlighting the richness that emanates from Black design despite “the centuries of oppression carried by us as a people who continue to strive for design equity.” The book consists of three sections: Black Design: Industry + Organizations; Black Design: Pedagogy; and Black Design: Activism. The essay “So, You Want to Solve the Diversity Problem in Design” is written by native Clevelander and graphic designer Jacinda N. Walker, founder/creator of designExplorr.
Souza, who is an assistant professor in the communication design program at the University of North Texas, said Cleveland played a prominent role in his career. He moved to Cleveland from New York City in 2004 to study design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he received his degree in Digital Media in 2009.
“Unfortunately, my graduation coincided with the Great Recession, leading me to return to NYC due to the challenges of finding employment in Ohio,” Souza said. “While in New York City, I interned at ViBE magazine and took on various odd jobs to make ends meet.”
Souza returned to Cleveland in 2011 after accepting a job at CBS Radio, followed by a design role at Case Western Reserve University. It was during this period that he founded Jazzymae Photography, a wedding photography studio he operated in Cleveland for 10 years. “My work gained recognition and was featured in local publications like Today’s Bride and national ones like Black Bride, MunaLuchi Bride, and Essence Magazine,” he said.
In 2015,he decided to dig deeper into the art. He enrolled at Kent State University, where he earned an MFA in Communication Design. Souza was ready for new opportunities, but the challenges of finding employment in Cleveland forced him to move again. This time, to Pittsburgh.
“My time in Cleveland revealed the absence of a substantial community for Black designers,” said Souza. “However, after leaving the city, I utilized my platform to uplift designers of color, including featuring four local Black designers in the book.”
Walker, one of those featured designers, talked to Signal Cleveland in August about the challenges of creating a community for designers of color. She won a Cleveland Arts Prize for her work with designExplorr, the organization she founded to address the diversity gap in the design industry.
Walker said the first design scholarship to promote diversity was created by the American Institute of Architects in 1970. “So we’ve been talking about the lack of diversity in design for more than 50 years, and we still are at single-digit representation for Black and Latino youth,” she said.
Souza is trying to bridge that gap, too. Next spring, in addition to organizing the fourth annual State of Black Design Conference, which will be held at Tennessee State University in March, Souza will return to Cleveland to serve as the commencement speaker for the Cleveland Institute of Art’s 2024 graduating class.
Souza is still hopeful there will be more opportunity for designers of color in Cleveland.
ThirdSpace Action Lab is located at 1464 East 105th Street, Suite #302. To register for this event, go to Eventbrite. A livestream will also be available.