Welcome to the HUMANITE Peace Collective. We're so glad you're here. Hopefully this short story about the origins and meaning behind the HUMANITE brand will help you feel at home.
By the end, we hope you find yourself saying, "This is the community I've been looking for!"
How did HUMANITE get its start? What's your origin story?
We gotta be honest, HUMANITE was not born out of a rainbows-and-unicorns desire to unite alone. HUMANITE was actually born out of failure.
We'd recently been through some hard times. Two of us had just been fired from another organization we founded. The rest of us were protesting and looking for other jobs, because the firing of our founders ignored the desires of locals, like us, living and serving on the frontlines.
So if we were going to all leave together and build something new, it needed to be different. We've lived through coups. But we couldn't go through this again in the context of humanitarian work.
What prompted a rethink of the entire model you'd been pursuing for the previous 15 years?
We read that only 1% of all foreign aid goes to local organizations. Which meant foreigners controlled 99%.
Having just seen what it meant to work in foreign aid for the first time, we knew that merely helping the Americans start a new American organization, same as the first, was not an option.
We needed a new model. With updated values. And a means for keeping more decisions in the hands of the local people who actually live and die for peace.
This is how the HUMANITE collective was born.
Having a crown for a logo is certainly an interesting choice for a humanitarian organization—or a peace collective—perhaps especially after the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the global conversation about what she represented to those colonized by that crown. So, why the crown? Where did it come from? What does it mean?
As we started looking for a way to visualize our values, a few things stood out. We've always loved logos and imagery where the meaning is layered.
We love the intersection of differences.
The discovery of sameness.
And the power that comes with knowing things are always more than they seem at first glance.
I love the colophon on your website that pays homage to Burger King and Basquiat. Can you say more about that?
Well, after designing and auditioning scores of different logos, there was one concept that stood above the rest.
So in the end, inspired by the power we felt during childhood visits to Burger King; the artistic crowning of the underdog in Basquiat's paintings; the daring dignity of Biggie Smalls in his plastic King of New York crown; and the efforts at inverting power made by Princess Diana, this crooked, three-point crown became the best way to visualize our desire to unite humanity.
Now, the crown in the HUMANITE logo is not really ours. It's a crown for the people. As a peace collective, we use it to remind each other of the dignity, honor, and intrinsic value we each have, no matter our past. We try to stay focused on looking for what makes each other good—or what could make us good—not what makes you bad.
The crown reminds us that shame and exclusion are no way to peace. Pathways for forgiveness and reconciliation are essential.
But the crown sits crooked because none of us are perfect, and none can bear up under the weight of the expectations we often place on each other.
We've made a lot of mistakes on this journey as founders, as leaders, as colleagues, and friends. But we'll never stop growing. That's at least one thing that is always under our control.
But HUMANITE is really going beyond just repurposing or inverting a familiar symbol in the crown. It feels like you're challenging the entire way the aid sector communicates. Is that intentional or am I reading too much into it?
Times have changed. Heck, we've changed.
With the chance to start over and dream anew, we asked ourselves, "What can we uniquely bring to our friends around the world?"
Most logos in the humanitarian aid world exist as avatars for foreign power, standing guard over buildings, spray painted on tents, constantly reminding refugees and poor people "we did this for you!"
As refugees ourselves, we've eaten that food and lived in those tents. People don't want to be branded.
We didn't want our logo to stand for the organization. We wanted a symbol for the people.
So the question wasn't "what would look good among the aid logos in the refugee camp?"
No! We came to the place where we said "what symbol could actually unite us as people? What would change us from the inside? Could a logo be a tool to help us see each other and treat each other better?"
Suddenly, the crown was not just a crown. It was a vehicle. A shield. A bulwark. A beacon. A place to belong.
It is our hope that our community will take some of the vision and possibility that we've built into the brand and run with it. Build on it. And decide for themselves what the crown could mean in their context.
Who needs to be reminded of their dignity? What would unity look like in a world where everyone rises?
I heard that the first draft of your website showed a mass grave. Is that true?
Well, it was an internal pitch session only. But... yes.
Look, the founders of HUMANITE have lived most of our lives under the spectre of war. We've been targeted in airstrikes. We've survived suicide bombings. We've watched as our family members have been killed in genocide. And yet, for all that refugees and war survivors like us actually go through, it seems most foreign aid organizations hedge their bets when trying to communicate the actual horrors of war to their donors.
So we found ourselves wanting to show more.
But then we recoiled, too. The human psyche can only take so much. And subjecting more people to the pain we've experienced won't necessarily bring anyone closer together.
In your experience, do refugees and war survivors want more people to understand what you've been through?
Everyone wants to be understood, right? It's like a fundamental human desire. But we also recognize that you cannot really empathize with something you've never expereinced.
So we're left asking "how can we communicate what it feels like to survive an airstrike? Or what it feels like to grab your children in the middle of the night and run for your lives.
Knowing there are things we just can't show with photos, we settled on incorporating much more illustration into our brand visuals than is common in the humanitarian sector.
It's interesting because we see graphics and illustrations a lot in commercial brands these days, but rarely in the humanitarian and charity sector.
Perhaps our peers are rightly afraid that representations will take away from the visceral pain. Perhaps "cartoons" and illustrations can come off as less serious than the subject matter truly requires.
But these are heavy days, and we are all inundated with difficult messages about war, economic collapse, and disease. It seems to us that a little levity, and a less literal medium for conveying the message, is something that could do us all some good.
OK, so lastly, and maybe we should have started with this, but let's talk about the name—HUMANITE. What's going on there?
We spent a lot of time dreaming. We'd be embarassed to show you some of the ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor. But we were reaching for an essence that took us some time to capture. Most of what we threw away were literal renderings of the work we care about—references to refugees, peacemaking, love, war, etc.
Frankly, we've done that. Furthermore, at this stage of history, finding literal names that aren't already taken is difficult. So we began dreaming of neologisms—new words, made up words, that evoked certain ideas.
And that's how we landed on HUMANITE.
There were three big things we'd been exploring in our work together for years and they all just came together in one of those "aha" moments.
1. Our intrinsic/explosive power as humans (e.g., dynamite)
2. Our belonging to a common philosophy or people
3. Our desire to unite humans from every walk of life
It all feels very—and I'm probably showing my bias here—youthful. But the old fundraising maxim says "kids don't have money." Are you afraid you'll alienate traditional donors and come up empty handed?
Ha! That's funny. So, a couple things. First, our team ranges from college students, to twentysomethings, to thirtysomethings, to fortysomethings. And two of our founders have teenagers who have been very actively involved in creating the brand identity. So, already, in making something we love and believe in, we've managed to cut across generations.
But, really, we were pursuing something more strategic than just "following our heart". Look anywhere and everywhere in the world and who is it you see on the nightly news marching, protesting, and risking their lives for change? Sometimes there are forty-year-olds in the mix. But you've probably never seen a revolutionary sea change that wasn't driven by the youth.
If we want peace, we have to enfranchise high schoolers, college students, and recent college grads. We must. If we fail to do that, nothing else matters.
We're working off the thesis that our photographic documentation of war and its impact—or charity and its impact—is not going to be enough to change our cultures of bias, exclusion, judgement, and violence. Many of us were never more kind than when we were children. So why not embrace cartoons and story and metaphor? Literalism has only taken us so far. Maybe it's time for humanitarianism, indeed peace itself, to get a little more creative.
Touché. I love that! So from imaginary words to illustrated imaginary worlds, what are you hoping your donors remember about HUMANITE?
You actually nailed it already. Imagination is the point! The mind that cannot dream up (or embrace) new words like "HUMANITE" cannot dream up new worlds, like the one HUMANITE envisions. And the mind that cannot dream up new worlds, is a mind that cannot see beyond the way things are—or worse, the way things appear to be.
Additionally, we should say that we didn't set out to build HUMANITE for donors. We built HUMANITE for everyone. For nearly two decades, we've been trying to build a world where refugees and war survivors are seen as more than "recipients", but valued for what we have to offer; and where donors are seen as more than "providers", but are loved and cared for in our need, as well.
The way we've experienced it, we all have something to give. We all have things we need. We're all donors and we're all beneficiaries. And we all want to live in a world where we have the opportunity to keep rising... together.
Never underestimate the power of symbols, story, and reminding others of who they are inside. We all tend to rise to the ceiling of what we ourselves think possible. Why not set each other free to fly?