Written by Sofya Polyakov, CEO & Co-Founder of Noun Project (also published on Medium).
I am a refugee. My family and I came to this country in 1992 to escape the rampant anti-semitism of post Soviet-Union Russia. I am also a woman, a mother, and a tech CEO. I have strongly disagreed with various political positions before, but it has never felt as dire or as personal as the current political climate.
I spent my childhood in a country of corruption, propaganda, widespread political and social strife, and massive distrust. To this day in Russia, “victory” in any and every avenue is sought at all costs. Cheating is not seen as a moral flaw, but rather as cunningness and industriousness over ‘the system’. Although women in Russia are expected to be strong and intelligent, they are not expected to earn the same wages as their male counterparts. Homosexuality is considered sinful, and discussing it with your children can land you in jail. I grew up in a country not ruled by democracy, but by a government bought and controlled by a select few intoxicated with authoritarian power. I grew up in a country where journalists pay the ultimate price for seeking out the truth–where the justice system is bought and afforded only by a few.
My family immigrated to the States because they wanted a life of opportunity, to live in a country ruled by law based on ideals and principles, instead of the whims of those in power. Immigrants know how precious and sacred the values of democracy, personal rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality really are, because in many cases they have experienced a life without them. Today, these very core universal values are being tested in America. And I, for one, am not willing to let my country slip backwards. I don’t want my child growing up like I did.
And so in the spirit of protecting the American ideals I consider the soul of this country, I asked myself, like so many others are continuing to ask themselves, what can I do? The question on so many people’s minds seems to be “Now what?”
Here’s what I know: No matter what side of the American political spectrum you may fall on, systems of propaganda, ultra-nationalism, and a shielding and reshaping of facts is dangerous to us all. Fear-mongering, hatred, and scapegoating of others corrodes our trust in each other, tears apart democracies, and breaks the human spirit.
It is up to every single one of us to stand up for these values, to call out the things we know to be untrue and unkind. All of us have a responsibility to speak up, get active, and remain vigilant. Because that is what it takes to protect our democracy and our principles. As President Obama shared in his final address, “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved.”
I believe that companies are reflections of the people who run them, and that companies have a responsibility to the people they serve. In that spirit, the company I co-founded is taking a step to help ordinary people get involved by giving their message a visual voice.
Over the last 6 years, the Noun Project community has built one of the biggest repositories of visual language in the world. And visual language matters, especially in times like these. Visuals can communicate an idea in a blink of an eye. They are memorable and often universal–and thus they can become iconic representations of nuanced ideas and movements.
At Noun Project, we believe in using the power of visual language to create a positive impact in the world, which is why we’re proud to launch Icons For Change, a site that provides free signs to use for protests, community gatherings, even personal reminders. The themes of the posters are focused on the ideals and principles that make America truly great, instead of the Us vs. Them rhetoric that has become all too prevalent.
I am a refugee. This time last year, this statement might have been pretty innocuous–a “so what?” moment, even. It is unfortunate that in today’s political climate, this is a statement colored by a discourse around what it means to be human, to seek out a better life, to want for yourself (and your family, perhaps) safety, a chance at prosperity, and happiness. With Icons for Change, it is my sincerest hope that we can provide some of the tools to give voice to these rights and to those seeking to create and safeguard a world shaped by love, acceptance, science, and goodness.