DC-born Briana Pegado left the US for Edinburgh in 2010 and hasn’t looked back. Some eight years later, this honorary Scotswoman is making headlines for her noble endeavor to rescue Scotland’s withered creative industries, which have suffered from severe neglect in recent years—particularly following Brexit.
Pegado endures insidious misogyny and racism as an outspoken African-American woman in this traditionally white, patriarchal nation; but her personal and professional investment in the Scottish capital drives her unflinching determination to help the city’s quirky creatives thrive. Pegado talks to Unearth Women about her mission to rejuvenate the arts through funding, diversification, and innovative thinking; her experience as a minority expat; and ways that women everywhere can elevate one another.
Unearth Women (UW): Tell us about yourself! How does a DC-born woman find herself in the Scottish capital?
Briana Pegado (BP): I’m a 26-year-old, Harry Potter-obsessed social enterprise leader who spent the first decade of my life in the suburbs of Maryland. When my parents separated in my teens, my mom and I moved to downtown DC. I went to the Montessori School at a young age and was raised by pretty incredible parents. My dad—from Angola, but who spent a huge chunk of his adult life in London—worked from home and often looked after me. My mom worked in PR, Telecoms, and international relations.
I was surrounded by people from an international community. It was the combination of Edinburgh’s links to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, the reputation of Edinburgh University, the relative affordability of a Scottish university degree, and the fact that in 2010, the United States saw the highest number of college applications in the country’s history that influenced my decision to move to Scotland. Combined with the fact that the American higher education system was designed after the Scottish system, Edinburgh felt like the perfect place for me. After being elected President of Edinburgh University’s students’ association, setting up two companies (one of which is a social enterprise), and spending my entire adult life in Scotland—I’m still here.
UW: In 2014, you became the first black woman president of the Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA). What was your experience as a double minority leader?
BP: I knew my election was an achievement, but I faced so much opposition because of my politics (non-party political and radical left) that I was just relieved to be in post. In my year as President, I was responsible for a £10 million charity, 150 staff, a CEO almost twice my age, and 33,000 students; and I would experience sexism in a way I never had before—sexism that I knew existed but certainly had never experienced first hand. The misogyny came in the form of being teased and bullied, or by having my sentences repeated verbatim by a man to a roaring reception not 10 minutes after I had said the same thing. My ideas were literally being stolen from me.
The first time it happened I was in disbelief. I was silenced and ignored. I had to fight with my own press officer to share good news about the work I was doing. So I went into survival mode. The role was an incredible fit for me; I loved campaigning, advocacy, governance, and public speaking. I know I’m a born leader, but that year as President is something you couldn’t pay me any amount of money to repeat. The stark contrast in treatment between me and my straight, white, privileged male successor (who happened to be my partner at the time) highlighted the subtle racism and sexism—with a tiny hint of xenophobia—I faced. It was a wild microcosm of the political world, and the perfect training ground for me.
UW: How did the role of EUSA President influence your next steps as an entrepreneur?
BP: In the year I was President I set up and piloted a project that I would go on to run as a social enterprise called the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival (ESAF). This festival came out of a year of conversations with students from across the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art, alongside my own frustration with feeling creatively stifled. My degree was in international relations and, ultimately, sustainable development. I had signed up for some student clubs and societies that felt too competitive or clique-y, and I felt that my creativity was becoming increasingly inaccessible. Some of it was the social climate, some of it was because my priorities had shifted, but I also noticed many of my friends were feeling the same way.
A perfectly-timed merger between the art college and the university, alongside my role as President of the student union, allowed me to pitch the idea of ESAF to the principal of the university, who happened to be on the board of one of the largest arts festivals in the world. He loved the idea and gave me the money. From there, I put a call out for students, and we put on Edinburgh’s first city-wide multi-arts festival for students. In our first year, we had about eight venues over a week and gave a platform to 275 artists/creatives. In three years, the festival expanded into a social enterprise open to any emerging creative. We provided opportunities for aspiring artists to gain skills, expertise, and experience by running and programming the festival while we worked in partnership with the City as well as major arts organizations in Scotland. We won a number of awards for our social innovation and creativity. In three years, we supported over 1,000 artists, engaged over 7,000 members of the public, and worked across 15 venues with over 22 partner organisations. Without the experience of running a major charity and member organization as EUSA President, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this.
UW: How are you working to revitalize the arts in Scotland?
BP: ESAF’s funding was dramatically cut in March of 2017, which foreshadowed the declining funding landscape to come. The public sector is massively underfunded in the UK, but particularly in Scotland. A number of galleries and arts venues have closed since 2015; and at the end of 2017, Creative Scotland—the nation’s premier arts funding council—received a budget cut. I knew that the ramifications of all this would be carnage for the arts. While social entrepreneurship, tech, and IT startups are thriving here, the arts are facing a very difficult period. Festivals are often financially unsustainable because people so drastically undervalue the arts. Unless they draw huge audiences, they tend to barely break even. ESAF survived solely because of partnerships, volunteer time, and in-kind support.
Over the last year, I’ve put the festival on hold to think about how it should evolve. We want to work in schools to raise the profile of the arts, act as an agency to broker work for emerging creatives, and do more policy/advocacy work. After a year of reflecting and freelancing on two big projects that explore the barriers young artists face in Scotland, I’m clear on what needs to happen next: ESAF 2.0 must support emerging artists and creatives into viable careers with funding, advocacy, and resources. We need to leverage our skills, expertise, and resources to make the creative industries more accessible, because the situation at the moment is dire. I don’t want the next generation of creative minds and thinkers to become extinct. The barriers for emerging creative people— writers, designers, makers, chefs, artists—are heightening. Financial privilege is becoming the prerequisite for survival in the arts and creative industries, which I think is unfair.
UW: What is Povo, and how will it help creative minds think differently and more efficiently?
BP: I had gotten together with one of my long-term creative collaborators, Katherine Snow, who had just been accepted to a year-long designer-in-residence at Edinburgh University’s School of Design Informatics. She was working with Linda Ma, another product designer she had collaborated with for years. Katherine and I had worked on projects ranging from podcasts on creativity to innovation portfolio reviews for art students and live art installations, and Katherine was convinced we needed to work together formally. What emerged was Povo, a process-led creative collective that makes and does in Edinburgh. We are a collective in three parts: a lab where we make, build and prototype new things; a research arm, where we look at our process and explore new ways of working; and a consultancy arm, where we work with clients on a range of topics from designing websites and products to helping them think their ideas through.
We are, in part, anti-design thinkers, though we use elements of the design thinking process and incorporate principles of play into our work. It’s hard to pin down an amorphous thing influenced by three people with very different interests. We’ve struggled to describe ourselves because we’re many things to many people. We’ve worked with clients from designers to data scientists and churches to gospel music platforms.We encourage people to engage in divergent thinking that allows creative ideas to come to the fore. By not predefining the outcome and trusting the process, real creativity can emerge. We’re exploring the central question of how we bring our full selves to work, and what a 21st century consultancy should look and feel like. But if you ask Snow or Ma, they may tell you we are doing something entirely different, and that they have an entirely different focus. It works for us. It keeps things interesting and it gives me an excuse to work with two people I love working with. Povo will continue to morph into whatever we want, but it’s mostly an innovative creative process that emerges as we work.
UW: In your opinion, why is diversity so paramount to the creative industries?
BP: Creativity allows for social commentary, new ideas, and reflections on our ways of working. Creative people have always been rebels, radicals, inventors, and innovators. And for these reasons, diversity is a no-brainer. We need diversity of experience, diversity of thought, and diversity of perspective to be truly reflective on the human experience—otherwise we are not tapping into our potential as a species. But more importantly, we misrepresent, misunderstand, and harm each other by not empathizing, sympathizing, and understanding experiences different from our own. If art and creativity only comes from one group, things become inaccurate and stagnant, not to mention boring. We would no longer be truly creative.
UW: How would you say your myriad projects empower women in particular?
BP: Directly and indirectly. Team Povo is all women. I currently do freelance work for all women-run organizations. I sit on the board of YWCA Scotland – The Young Women’s Movement. I’m a mentor for a community called The Collective, an offshoot of The Noisy Girls Club and She Is Fierce Magazine, founded by Hannah Taylor. I write guest blogs for a queer, feminist independent publisher, Monstrous Regiment, women’s rights organisation Engender Scotland, and feminist magazine Fearless Femme. If I’m not writing about, speaking about, or working with women to help elevate our voices, I make sure to mentor and support women. I feel the future is for women, non-binary, trans, and genderqueer humans—and by rebalancing power, it will be for everyone.
UW: Who are some of the notable women that drive your cause?
BP: In the year ESAF’s funding was cut and I burnt out, I took some time to rest and heal. Part of my process was working with a shaman who was an illustrator and architect by trade, but who specialises in theta healing (a bit like Reiki but requires no hand movement).
During this period, I also started to get into astrology. I could easily list off historic figures that have inspired me, but my modern feminist heroes are all alive, and many of them are astrologers and healers. Three of my favourites are Chani Nicholas, a queer woman of colour; Jessica Lanyadoo, a queer Jewish woman; and Spirit Daughter, an incredible woman who has helped revolutionise modern astrology by making it accessible through her moon workbooks.
I follow all of them religiously and love their messages of self love, intersectionality, inner work, deep work, and care for others. The community of third wave feminism has expanded into the mystical (though I believe in the mystical sphere women have always been at the forefront).
UW: You’re a black woman making waves in a predominantly white nation. Have you encountered any pushback to your success, covert or otherwise?
BP: This is such an important question. I have not experienced any direct pushback, no. I attribute some of this to the fact that I’m American, which in some ways supersedes everything else in Scotland. I’ve been recognized by multiple Scottish sectors for my work here, but what I have noticed since Brexit is a rise in microaggression, which I experience on a daily basis. I’ve also noticed that fewer people advocate for me. Fewer angel investors invest in women, even less in the arts. I don’t have an old boy’s network to fall back on if I run into difficulty.
UW: How would you like to see Scottish society evolve to better support women in the coming years?
BP: Scottish society is making strides, and the women in the creative industries in Scotland are a force to be reckoned with. The last Social Enterprise Scotland census revealed that 60 percent of social enterprises are run by women. That percentage may be even higher when it comes to arts organisations. But Scottish society needs more women investors and more people investing in companies run by women.
We need equal pay, more sexual health services, better sexual health education in schools, more body positivity, better male allies, and a society in which men define masculinity for themselves to combat harmful gender stereotypes that leave men, particularly of age 15 through 35, dying by the UK’s number one cause of death for this age group: suicide. We need to embrace a feminist society that empowers women to make their own choices, and for all genders to feel supported and welcome. When I say this I am including my trans, non-binary and genderqueer humans as well.
UW: How can we women assist your endeavors to empower creative ladies everywhere?
BP: Support other women, put them forward for roles and positions anywhere and everywhere, buy products and services sold by women-owned business, vote for candidates that understand women’s issues, check on your lady friends, and constantly elevate women with you.If a weekly check-in with friends, a walk, a book club, or a phone call is your way to do this, then please do it. We also need to do the inner work. I am still dismantling a lifetime of internalized misogyny (and racism), but this work allows me to no longer feel threatened by other women and tear them down. These stereotypes of women being mean and catty are a result of all the insecurity and inadequacy we feel when we’re lined up next to other women. Let that shit go. I’m happy to say I am so supported by the community of women I’m around.
UW: What advice can you give to women considering the entrepreneurial sphere?
BP: I recently heard an entrepreneur say this and I couldn’t agree more: hold on to your naïveté about what you’re about to get into and go for it. It will be hard, particularly in the first three years, and you may wake up every morning asking yourself why you decided to be an entrepreneur—I certainly did. But if you have a good idea—or any idea—get your thoughts down on a business model canvas, work out your business model and the resources you need, then get started. It can start out as a side hustle. We all know we need to start somewhere, and starting from your kitchen table or your bed is fine. This is the age of side hustles, and a hustle it will be. You will work harder and longer than you ever have, but when you wake up every morning excited about what you have on your to-do list, know that you are doing the right thing.
UW: What’s next for you?
BP: Since February, I’ve been working on a long-term project. I’m setting up a wellness company called Unfolding Abundance Co. We will offer services that incorporate theta, energy, and somatic healing. I currently have one client who I’ve been working with since April. The company will focus on personal healing and women that have experienced trauma, but it will be for anyone. I want the company to be very much grounded in Edinburgh from an aesthetic perspective. I am currently working with three of my friends—a photographer, a designer and a digital marketer—to develop the company’s identity. It will eventually have a physical space for a restaurant, studio for movement, including yoga, and a shop selling things like crystals and kombucha. I won’t say too much more, but it will become a healing brand and collective, and will help me work with all of the healers, creatives, and astrologers I admire. It’s what I’m fundamentally passionate about: sustainable, healthy living in an increasingly unsustainable society.
Amazing story- I’m based I Glasgow, so it’s great to hear about other women doing sich great work across the other side of the country! We have a super thriving arts scene here – yes, money is short and the arts definitely deserve more value – but there is also a lot of collaboration to maximize the impact of funding and reach as many people as possible. And Scottish audiences are so engaged! couldn’t think of a better place to be working in the arts!
While I can not totally understand the struggles and challenges you endure, but I understand the isolation. In both my career and social environments I am the only African-American female. Normally, I am ignored or dismissed without getting to know me. Recently I shy away from functions because i don’t have the mental stamina to deal with the lack of respect. I am glad next generations are using their voices and not being pushed behind the curtain.