In Conversation with Annika Hansteen-Izora

Annika Hansteen-Izora is a New York-based writer, designer, and artist currently serving as Creative Director at Somewhere Good, a social platform designed for people of color. Athletics is honored to have recently collaborated with Annika on the design and development of Creative Ecosystems, an online directory that helps Black creatives find resources, inspiration, and connection. More succinctly — and poetically — we like to think of it as a digital garden for creatives of color.

Athletics invited Annika to chat with two leading players in the Creative Ecosystems project — Lorraine Kim (Resource Manager) and Tree Thompson (Designer) — as part of our In Conversation series. Listen to their friendly chat, or read a transcript, below. If you’re curious to learn more about our approach for Creative Ecosystems, read the case study here.


Lorraine:  Hi, I’m Lorraine, resource manager at Athletics.

Tree:  And I’m Tree, designer at Athletics, and we’re glad to welcome you to In Conversation, our series of friendly chats amongst colleagues and collaborators on subjects personal or professional interest.

Lorraine:  In this episode, we’re speaking with Annika Hansteen-Izora, a creative and activist based in New York. Athletics recently partnered with Annika on the design and development of creative ecosystems, a brand and online directory that helps black creatives find resources and inspiration. Thank you for joining us today, Annika.

Annika Hansteen-Izora:  Thank you so much for having me.

Lorraine:  We’ve been super excited to find time to sit and catch our breaths and chat with you, and get to know one another beyond the day to day hustle and bustle of the project collaboration.

Tree:  So first off, can you tell us a bit about yourself, like where you grew up and kind of your journey up until now?

Annika:  Yeah, totally. I grew up up and down the west coast. I’m from East Palo Alto, California, moved to the suburbs of Sacramento for a while, and then lived in Portland, Oregon, for 13 years. And then after school out in Ohio, I have been in New York for two and a half years now. And I started, I feel like so many … Like, anybody working in a design creative industry has a total topsy-turvy kind of journey. But I started in UX research and design as my day job, but as my night job, I was working in a lot of artistic communications that were specifically for black folks, for queer folks. A lot of my art is in poetry and in prose, and in writing.

So, I’ve always been in both the design and artistic fields, and eventually along the way, I was like, “You know what? I’m not feeling UX research anymore. I actually want to be making things all the time.” And so I switched into art direction and design, and moved to New York to do it, and have been in this space since then. So, right now my day job is being the creative director of design at a startup called Somewhere Good, which is creating a social app that’s centered around connecting people of color to the things that we love.

Tree:  Very cool.

Lorraine:  Yeah, very cool. It sounds like your history has been a lot of moving around and juggling through all these spheres. It’s interesting because when we’re scheduling, it seems like you’re always popping up in a new city. It seems like you’ve got a very packed schedule, so we’re curious. Tell us a little bit about what you’re all doing in the present.

Annika:  Yeah, absolutely. Yes, I’m usually traveling between New York and then Portland, Oregon, and the Bay Area. Along with doing day job things as a creative director, I’m also part of a few different collectives. One of those is Black Feast, which is a culinary art event series where we create culinary events based off of and in tandem with black artists’ works. And so coming up, we have a film festival in the Berkeley area where we’re going to partner with different black artists, and having an interview series with different folks out there. So, I’m usually working in that type of space as well, along with doing writing work and doing my own independent poetry work. So, I end up traveling between different areas to host all the different things.

Lorraine:  I’m very impressed how you manage your schedule and juggle all these things. Very cool.

Annika:  Me too. I am putting together every day in the way that it works for that day.

Tree:  So, we’d like to dig in more about Creative Ecosystems. So, Creative Ecosystems was born of a critical moment in American history and culture in the midst of an uprising for social justice and global health crisis. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience last summer, like where you were and how you were processing what you saw in America and around the world?

Annika:  Yeah. Last summer, I was in New York, and that was the combination of both the pandemic and one of the heights of the pandemic, and then the uprisings for black lives. There was so much energy and processing and need for action all happening at the same time, and I felt that there were many different things that were going on. One of them was seeing the different callouts that were happening against many different spaces, people, companies that have failed to do anything to support black lives. And I’m thinking about callouts of, like, Bon Appétit and all of these other different spaces. At the same time, there was incredible organizing work that was happening from black folks, and organizing work alongside healing work, alongside artistic work. It felt like folks were really finding their different role in movement, because that can happen in a lot of different ways, and moving forward with that.

And so, I was in a place where I was really feeling the energy of build your own tables. It’s a phrase that I’m not really sure where it comes from, but it’s pretty much reflecting on this idea of, instead of trying to work within institutions and reform them on the inside, create the space yourself. Create a space that’s already made with blackness and black liberation and black futurity at forefront. And so I found myself not very interested in reforming institutions, and more interested in this idea of building spaces that were by black folks and for black folks. And I also wanted to connect that a little further from the individual to the collective, and I think that’s something that I think about a lot is, how do I … Constantly thinking about, how can I connect my individual efforts to a collective purpose? So I was thinking about how can I connect the collectives that I’m a part of to other collectives that are across the U.S. and also globally.

So, that is where this concept came from, because I ended up trying to find a lot of different collectives and spaces that were invested in black creativity and black futurity, and I ended up making a graphic that shared all of these different spaces, and I ended up making a Google Sheet as well that listed black-led creative spaces and collectives and platforms alongside funds that were raising money for black folks. And that ended up being passed around a lot of different spaces on the internet, and so I was thinking, “Yes, it’s very important for folks to know that these spaces exist.” And I was more drawn to this idea of showing other … I was more interested in the idea of connecting black folks to these spaces so that something can be built in the future. So, that ended up kind of being the journey from the energy of the summer into what this concept is right now.

Lorraine:  I love that. And could you tell us a bit about the journey that came next, about the experience of taking the idea from the spreadsheet into the platform that we have now? Were there any unexpected interpretations of that idea, or do you feel that where we’re at right now is a faithful representation of the initial idea and aspiration? Did your thinking about Creative Ecosystems evolve over the past year as you went through the journey of making it come to life?

Annika:  Yeah, absolutely. I think there were unexpected things and then things that made sense, and I think when it comes to the journey of it … So, this began as a Google Sheet, and it had about 80 different funds and ecosystems on there. And I held the really strong opinion that I wanted this to be a website. I wanted it to stand on its own and be its own tool. And so, I started using social media to connect to folks, and the direct ask was, “I’d like to connect with someone that can help me build this.” And a lot of the feedback that I had gotten at first was people being like, “Oh, make a Notion. Make an Airtable. Use these other third-party things to make this.” And I was really like, “No,” because I felt like that was a misinterpretation of the goal. I think a lot about the terrain of the internet and literally how much space people take up on the internet, and I think of how much black culture has shaped the internet, and yet there’s few spaces online that really are centered in blackness. So, it was really important for me to actually have a tool that was its own online. So, I think that was something in the evolution of it, was really having to fight for the idea that it deserves to have its own space online.

When it comes to the evolution of the term of the creative ecosystem, I don’t even know where I first heard this term from. I know it exists. Like, I am not the originator of a creative ecosystem idea, but I think a lot of my poetry work is in nature and in looking to nature as a source of inspiration and lessons. And so, when I was thinking of this list of creative spaces, I was like, okay, well, collective isn’t right because that doesn’t capture everything that people are doing. A lot of these spaces, they are both music labels, mutual aid platforms, zine publishers, and collectives at the same time. And an ecosystem is essentially many parts coming together with a common shared goal. And so, there was an evolution for me in my framing of what a creative ecosystem is, and just how broad that term can be. But I think the important distinction that I learned about it, and that I’m still learning about it, is that many people … or, not many. People are coming together with a shared investment in futurity in an ecosystem. There’s a really big commitment to sustainability and really looking towards what can come next.

So, I feel like as this project moves forward, there’s going to be further … There’s always going to be this evolution in what a creative ecosystem means, what does it involve. To me, it’s a super new idea that’s very broad, but I think the freedom that that broadness creates is very helpful. So, yeah, still learning what it will turn into.

Tree:  Cool.

Lorraine:  And I love the inspiration from nature to use the word ecosystem. Like you said, ecosystem implies this growth and evolution, and the system can be rebuilt, built anew, evolve. So, that’s a great … I think you settled on a great name.

Annika:  Thank you.

Tree:  Yeah, I feel like also, a lot of the language … I know when we were working on the site, you used this term “digital garden”. That kind of stuff, that just gives me goosebumps because it’s so … Because thinking of it in terms of the internet, which just feels, I don’t know, not as lush as digital garden sounds. So yeah, really like that.

Annika:  Yes, [crosstalk 00:13:40].

Tree:  What’s been the initial response from the organizations that have signed up?

Annika:  Very excited. Very hype. Like, very down to be a part of this, which has been really lovely energy to receive, because I’ve been very much like, “We’re just going to see how this flows. We’re going to see how this comes together.” But folks are very down to explore and be a part of this and what this can be. So they’re hype, and I’m excited too.

Lorraine:  Let’s see. Thinking about your own life and career, what communities or contacts have been particularly nourishing or inspiring to you?

Annika:  I feel like so, so many. I mean, I’m very … All of my work is essentially a part of a collective of all these other teachers and healers and people and artists that I’ve been honored to work with. But I mean, black queer community is essential to me and how I navigate the world, and also the world that I believe in, and the world that I’m fighting for. Black queer world, black trans worlds. Those that are really looking at black liberation through multiple lenses, whether that’s art, whether that’s healing, whether that’s knowledge, creation. All of those have been spaces where I’ve really learned. I learn a lot from poets, and the poetry community has really been a space where I’ve learned a lot about what it means to write, what it means to create a space. Has been really, really incredible. And then my family. All of the grandmothers in my life, very essential. I feel like writers and artists and poets, all of those different spaces, have taught me so much about nature and design, and pretty much everything. So, yeah. I would say those spaces in particular.

Lorraine:  And I love the idea of creating a space, this feeling of seeing from different communities what it feels like to be in their space, like in a safe space, supported. And this idea like through the pandemic, we’ve been able to kind of rethink what that means because we’re all remote. So, creating a space no longer means necessarily being in person, in a room. And so, to be able to translate that feeling of being in a supported space into these just new creations that we’ve never seen before coming out of the pandemic, that’s awesome to see. And that’s awesome to hear that you’ve taken those feelings and inspirations and are using that to create an ecosystem.

Tree:  So, what other projects have you been focusing on lately? I know you mentioned Somewhere Good and Black Feast. Can you talk a little bit more about those, or any others that you’ve got going on?

Annika:  Yeah, absolutely. I mentioned Somewhere Good. We’re a startup that’s trying to reinvent the internet, essentially. We’re a team of people of color that are essentially looking at what does it look like to create a social app that’s designed differently than anyone that’s existed before, which is a big mission with a small and powerful team that I’m really excited about. And then in my other work, a lot of what I’m interested in is spaces that are really thinking about black futurity and also access to healing and access to really connecting to ourselves in order to connect to each other.

A lot of what I’m inspired by is thinking about the collective, because I think so much of … There’s a really big focus on the individual, and I’m really interested on what allows us to really move forward with the collective energy that is supportive to both the individuals and the collective at large. And so, at Black Feast, really while a lot of our work is centered in food because food is such a healing space, we’re also thinking about how can we create this as a platform to really support black artists, and how can we connect the healing that is brought by food to these larger ideas of black creativity and imagination.

And a lot of the other work that I’m exploring, I really love … I talk a lot about friendship in my work, and really interested in how deepening friendships is both supportive to us as individuals, and then also how friendship is really this space where it’s like, okay, if we really are hoping for liberation of a better world, then we need to know how to be kind to one another and work together. And to me, friendship is a place where we’re really playing out these ways that we know how to connect to one another. So, I think and I talk and I write a lot about friendship, and I’m working on an experiments in friendships book and project to come out later in 2022, and it’s going to be specifically working with black trans and queer folks in these experiments on how to deepen our intimacy and friendships, and what it looks like to build deeper relationships and friendships, and what does that mean about our individual selves, and then what does that mean about our collective selves. So, yeah. Those are a few things. Pretty much anything involved in friendship and art and dreaming, that’s what I’m working with at the moment.

Tree:  I’m going to be looking out for that book.

Lorraine:  Yeah, same. When you said friendship, a big smile came to my face, because yeah, so much of the information out there on relationships is a lot about family and navigating relationships with a significant other. But there isn’t that much resources on focusing on the intimacy of friendships. And for me personally, friendships has been key in the development of my identity. Friendships has been the number one influence on how I develop my own personal identity. A family can’t really support … For me personally, my family couldn’t support that. And with partnerships, it’s different. So, I love that emphasis on friendship. And yeah, I’m excited to hear more on experiments in friendship. So, for the future of Creative Ecosystems, how do you hope to see Creative Ecosystems grow and evolve? And is there anything you’re excited to see in the future for it?

Annika:  Yeah. I feel like there is so much possibility for this project, and I really am open to and calling in all the different ways and interpretations it can grow. For now, some of the things that I’m really hoping for in the future is really seeing this grow and see it evolve. Right now, this project is largely focused on ecosystems that are based in the U.S., but I want it to grow to be able to be a global tool that is really connecting folks on a global scale. So that’s like immediate future, really wanting this to expand in that way.

Eventually, I also want to see how it can be expanded to really connect folks to each other. I think it’s interesting that so many … There has been so much necessary critique of social platforms, and I often see … I look at Instagram like my phone book nowadays. It really is like my best directory tool, and I would really like to not use it as the main directory, which is another reason why I’m excited to have this Creative Ecosystems resources. But I’d love to see explorations on how this can be a way that is pulling people into connecting to each other in a way that is not based off of Instagram.

For example, one of the creative ecosystems … In the design, it lists people’s social media links, like their Instagram and their Twitter. And we had a creative ecosystem respond and say that they’d love if they could share links to their Discord and their [Reena 00:23:45], because they’re trying to get folks to move away from looking at IG, and instead connect directly to the platforms where they’re really talking and connecting to each other. So, that is a kind of progression that I’m really excited by, and really thinking about, okay, right now this is a directory that is allowing people to just absorb information, and I’m excited for the point when people are connecting information in a deeper way, and deeper connecting to each other. I’m not sure what that looks like directly in this moment, but I’m really excited to see how people use it, and kind of go where the people are going. Like, see how folks respond and move at the speed of that.

Lorraine:  Do I hear whispers of a future mobile app in development?

Annika:  I know. I’m like, let me not try and make a whole company out of this, but if that’s what people want, then that’s a question for another day.

Tree:  Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about or share that we didn’t ask you about?

Annika:  No, I don’t think so. These were such great question. I feel like I’ve covered pretty much everything.

Tree:  Cool.

Lorraine:  Yeah, it’s such a rich discussion, what you’re working on, where Creative Ecosystems grew from, that it was so awesome to hear you talk about it in person and hear your side of things. We just think you’re such an awesome and chill person. We just wanted to know, what are some of your personal fun hangout spots around the area in Brooklyn or New York? I might try to squeak in, pop in and come say hi one day. But we’re curious, what are some of your favorite stomping grounds around Brooklyn?

Oh my god. Oh my gosh. See, I am like, “Okay, I’m not a shut-in. I’m going to change that answer.” I feel like my spots are so regular. But I feel like a lot … I’ve been so excited that the music spaces in the city have been coming back. So I love nowadays, out in Ridgewood, who does incredible … One, one of the best dance floors in Brooklyn, but they also do incredible film nights, and they show concerts that you really can’t find. Like, they did a screening of one of Prince’s old concerts, and it was just so incredible. They also have bomb food, like, all the time. So, highly suggest that. Also, Public Records is an incredible venue, but also beautiful restaurant, beautiful bar. It was created by soundheads, so it is made for acoustics, which is incredible.

Annika:  I really love flower shops. That’s one of my weekly rituals, is to get myself flowers. There’s this incredible flower and skateboard shop. It’s Park Delicatessen. It’s so beautiful. They have really tight skateboard things that make me want to skateboard. I cannot, and I’m scared to, but it definitely makes me want to do it. So, highly, highly suggest that space. It is incredible.

Lorraine:  I’ll definitely have to check that one out. I also love flower shops, and I love seeing the hybrid flower coffee shops that’s been popping up a lot in the city. So yeah, anything hybrid flower shop, I love it.

Annika:  Truly the best.

Tree:  Okay, we were also really wondering if you can tell us your sun, moon, and rising.

Lorraine:  Dying to know. We’re dying to know.

Tree:  We’ve been dying to know this whole time.

Lorraine:  I’ve been like guessing [inaudible 00:28:14] so many guesses throughout the conversation.

Annika:  That is so funny. Wow, I’m so excited to share this answer, and delighted to. I’m a Pisces sun, and then a Sag moon, and a Cancer rising. So, ceiling’s on fire. Pretty much my personal brand.

Lorraine:  I was guessing Pisces, and I was also guessing if you had a strong Aquarius placement anywhere.

Annika:  I do. My Mercury is in Aquarius, so all the ways I think.

Lorraine:  Okay. So, the sign of intellect.

Annika:  Yeah.

Lorraine:  I’m a sun Gemini, also moon Sagittarius, and rising Scorpio.

Annika:  I love that. Oh my god.

Tree:  I’m an Aquarius sun and a Leo moon and rising, but I have like four Aquarius placements throughout.

Annika:  Oh my god.

Lorraine:  So, we all got fire moons here. We’re a fiery bunch.

Annika:  Yes. I love that. I think that’s a great … I love a fire moon. It’s like, you know, not right upfront, but once you get a little deeper, it shows itself very plainly.

Tree:  Exactly.

Lorraine:  Yeah, not outright, but there is something that just keeps that person going, you know? There’s a drive. There’s constant coal in the tank.

Annika:  Exactly. Oh my god, I love that that question was asked.

Tree:  Lorraine and I talk about this all the time and we’re like, “We have to know.”

Annika:  I love it. Oh my god.

Lorraine:  And actually, before we wrap up, maybe we can take some time to talk about this event that Tree and another co-worker, Ellen, have been planning called … Actually, Tree, I’ll let you introduce it.

Tree:  Yeah. Ellen and I are doing this event called Merch for Mutual Aid. It’s going to be a fundraiser, like a print workshop fundraiser for Bed-Stuy Strong, and we’ve collaborated with a few Brooklyn artists to design some merch that we’ll be printing, and then proceeds will be going back to Bed-Stuy Strong. And then we also have this really great gallery space. It’s going to be at the Living Gallery in Bed-Stuy, and a lot of artists have agreed to donate some artwork to put on the wall, so that’ll also be for sale. And it’ll hopefully be a really cool community time. There’ll be music and there’ll be drinks, and yeah. That’s going to be on August 21st.

Annika:  [crosstalk 00:31:10].

Lorraine:  Yeah, so if you’re around, we’ll definitely be posting it on the … We’ll be sharing news about it through the Athletics channels, like either Instagram or whatnot. Yeah, August 21st. What’s the location?

Tree:  The Living Gallery.

Lorraine:  Yeah. That will be happening. It’s an open invitation for all, and yeah. Annika, this was so lovely to chat with you today. Thank you so much.

Annika:  Thank you so much.

Lorraine:  Thank you so much for joining us. Yeah, we’re really looking forward to the launch, and good luck in these last final pushes.

Annika:  Thank you so much. I’m so excited that I got to talk to y’all, and so excited for the launch. Thank y’all so much for having me.