“A” is for “Author:” Maya Ealey’s Illustrated Resource Guide

by | Jun 17, 2024 | Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Featured

“E” is for equity and equality, as illustrated by Maya Ealey, author of “The Anti-Racist Vocab Guide: An Illustrated Introduction to Dismantling Anti-Blackness.” Image courtesy of the author.

Maya Ealey, ’14 BFA Graphic Design, believes in the power of a common language.

In the weeks following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery in spring 2020, the graphic designer and artist sought creative ways to explore questions of institutionalized racism, systemic inequality and the historical impact of anti-Black systems in the United States — all while quarantined at home during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Maya Ealey, '14 BFA Graphic Design, has written and illustrated

Maya Ealey, ’14 BFA Graphic Design, has written and illustrated “The Anti-Racist Vocab Guide.” Photo courtesy of Maya Ealey.

Then a senior brand designer and illustrator for the work management company Asana, Ealey soon realized that her professional skills, when combined with her personal experience as a Black woman in tech, equipped her with the unique ability to define and illustrate the very ideas that Americans often struggle to clarify. For example: What is anti-racism? Abolitionism? And better yet, how did historical events like the imprisonment of the Central Park Five reflect ideas like implicit bias?

“This project started out as a series on my Instagram account where I would take a topic, term or historical event and try to create a concise definition or explanation,” says Ealey, who now serves as a brand design lead at Yahoo. Her work was spotted by Sahara Clement, then an editor at Chronicle Books, who proposed that Ealey convert the series into a book. 

“I would also create an illustration that was associated with each term. During that time, there were a lot of conversations [about race] happening and a lot of content being shared in my professional and social circles. I realized that we weren’t always on the same page when it came to our understanding of race in America, or about the Black experience in particular.”

The body of work to which she refers is now “The Anti-Racist Vocab Guide: An Illustrated Introduction to Dismantling Anti-Blackness,” a visual glossary that distills big ideas and offers reflection questions for anyone interested in understanding race in America. Alphabetized and illustrated with terms like “assimilation,” “decolonization,” “Black Wall Street,” “colorism” and “police brutality,” the book opens with a brief introduction that weaves in some of Ealey’s own experiences as a Black woman in the world. 

“I remember feeling like, I may be at letter ‘T,’ while others were at letter ‘D’ in terms of their understanding,” she says. “That’s what prompted me into creating this body of work.”

While writing the book, Ealey dedicated her nights and weekends to researching the history and complexity of each term, with the goal of creating as objective a resource as possible.

“When I was coming up with the list of terms, there were ideas that I had a baseline knowledge of or some basic understanding, but I had to get really intimate with a lot of these details, many of them deeply nuanced,” she says. “So I tried to research and think about how I could make that information feel accessible and digestible and bridge that common ground.”

Illustrations go a long way in communicating complex ideas. Ealey first learned that from her grandmother, a painter who taught her the joy and meditative practice of creating art. In elementary school, she and her friend would watch Sailor Moon cartoons and spend their afternoons drawing the characters they saw on screen. She signed up for her high school’s first-ever graphic design class, then became design editor and co-editor of the school yearbook. When she noticed that San José State offered a competitive bachelor of fine arts degree in design, she knew that she could make SJSU home. 

“Two professors in particular had a big impact on how I approached design at SJSU and how I still think about it today,” she says. “Joe Miller has such an interesting approach to design and walking through the process of creativity. And Julio Martínez was also great in terms of thinking about really impactful work and focusing on image-making. That’s exactly what I did with my book — thinking about what you’re trying to translate visually through the creative you’re making.”

In addition to serving as her design instructor, Miller collaborated with Ealey on a number of projects in his role as president of the board for the Works/San Jose community art center.

“Say Her Name,” by Maya Ealey, courtesy of the illustrator.

“Maya has always exceeded what was assigned or expected — in the classroom and in professional life,” says Miller. “After graduation, she participated in ‘Design in Transit,’ a 2014 exhibition of solutions to rebrand Bay Area transit systems created in an advanced 3D branding course at SJSU and shown at Works/San Jose and Liquid Agency that inspired part of the VTA’s rebrand. In 2020, her work titled ‘We Matter’ was in Works’ exhibition ‘For Mr. Floyd, Ms. Taylor…’ presented online and projected along the side of the San Jose Convention Center. Maya’s work as a retail entrepreneur has been fun and fascinating as well. Within all the ways she’s reached out of traditional design work, it’s no surprise she’s contributed ‘The Anti-Racist Vocab Guide,’ both an important and very approachable work.”

Though the book came out earlier this year, Ealey understands that a commitment to anti-racism is ongoing. The first step to creating real change is agreeing upon a shared vocabulary.

“My hope is with a collective knowledge base and a shared language, we can move past the realities of debating [the existence of] systemic racism and instead start to think about ways we can bring about change,” she says. “When you have language that continues to transform and adapt, we can find ways to name and identify these systems of oppression, which will help us ultimately fight against it. That’s my hope.”

Learn more about Maya Ealey.