Intentional Allyship and Diversity in Design with Dwell with Dignity’s Ashley Sharp

Growing up in a multi-cultural household and having diverse experiences shape her life, Ashley Sharp was shocked to find that artwork wasn’t very diverse and was made pretty much for the elite – and that didn’t sit well with her.  Now as executive director of Dwell with Dignity, Ashley is trying to end poverty and homelessness through design.

Transcript

Jackie Ferguson:  Please welcome Ashley Sharp to the diversity beyond the checkbox podcast. Ashley is the executive director of dwell with dignity, a nonprofit group of interior designers and volunteers dedicated to creating beautiful and comfortable homes for families struggling with homelessness and poverty.

Ashley, thank you for joining us today. 

Ashley Sharp: Thank you so much for having me. 

Jackie Ferguson: Of course, Ashley, let’s begin by talking a little about how you got into interior design. 

Ashley Sharp: So that is a very interesting journey. So I am technically not an interior designer, so I don’t have any background or trade. However, what I do have is a very story, nonprofit management background.

So I began working my first nonprofit job at the Dallas symphony orchestra here, obviously in Dallas, Texas. And I just absolutely. I fell in love with arts management. I had always been a dancer and I grew up thinking I’m going to move to New York and be a rock hat. Uh, that, that just wasn’t the lifestyle that I wanted to pursue.

And so. Being able to positively impact the arts in another way was really important to me. And so when I realized that that was a career path that I could pursue, I just jumped into it. So I had the privilege of working, not only for the symphony, but also working for the Nasher sculpture center, which is a beautiful public sculpture garden here in Dallas.

And I just absolutely loved being able to influence people and impact them through aesthetics, through art and, you know, really just. Finding that way to connect and inspire others. But then I realized that there was something missing. And so I left the organization and started looking for ways to get more personally involved with making a difference.

And I found myself working at a social services organization, uh, helping women transition out of homelessness and poverty by providing career counseling, job coaching, parenting classes, asses. And I realized that. The world that I have been exposed to in the arts was not the real world. Um, and so I was really shocked to find out that Dallas has poverty problem was so pervasive and that there were people living in their cars and that, you know, when you go to New York or San Francisco, you expect to see people on the streets.

And it’s just, that’s part of. The city, but in Dallas, I, we realized that there were so many people in need. And I think the biggest thing that shocked me was what we call the working poor people who are working three jobs and still cannot make ends meet. And so that’s really when I felt called to pursue this more, uh, not just as a, as a job, but as a career path, as something I wanted to dedicate my life to.

And then of course, I found myself at 12 with dignity and it was the perfect combination of art and design and. That X, but also really using that background to empower people, to break the cycle of poverty and to become self-sufficient and reclaim agency. And so I just kind of felt like everything I had done led me to this job, 

Jackie Ferguson: Ashley, that is such a great story.

And so inspiring. Thank you for sharing that. Tell us a little more about dwell with dignity and why you’re so passionate about that work. 

Ashley Sharp: Dwell with dignity is just incredible. I don’t know any other organization that tries to end poverty and homelessness through design. It’s an idea that seems so foreign.

I mean, we know all the other ways, obviously housing and job training. Like everyone talks about that, but design is just something that people don’t really think about. And so it really makes sense when you go down to the core of it, because what we want to do is provide families with stability. That is the number one thing that you can do to allow them to be successful in life.

And really what we do is almost a reward for these families who have put themselves through so much, they have gone and they have humbled themselves and said, I need help from someone else. So all of our families come through transitional living situations where they’ve been living. Either at a nonprofit campus or adjacent to one for maybe up to two years.

And so they’ve done what work they have career coaching, they have the job they’re ready to go be on their own, living in their own home. But then they open the door to the new apartment and it’s completely empty. And it’s just so heartbreaking to think that you’ve overcome trauma and abuse and so many obstacles, but then yet you still don’t have anything to show for it.

And so we wanted to take that burden away from them. As a working mom and I’ve been a single working mom, I understand that it’s impossible to get everything done that you need to, and you want to take care of your children, but you want to provide for them as well. And so things fall between the cracks.

And so we want to make sure that we provide them with absolutely everything they can need. So, yes. When they move in, they have bedding, they have decor, they have custom made art. They have extra sheets and towels and blankets. They have food groceries, any appliances that they might need. And so that way they can just focus on their family and we’ve seen amazing results because of our work.

We have a 0% recidivism rate, not a single person has gone back to living in a transitional shelter. 

Jackie Ferguson: Wow. That is amazing. That’s such amazing work. And you know, when you think about it, Ashley, they might have a safe space, but not a home yet. And you helped make it a home, 

Ashley Sharp: right? Yeah. And I think that’s something that we’ve noticed more during the pandemic, right?

This whole shelter in place, these families, first of all, They feel this isolation that we feel all the time, this is something that’s a constant companion for them. So it was even more exacerbated during the pandemic, but they also don’t have the type of place where they can shelter at home. And even more than that, they don’t have the ability to provide their children, which is our big focus.

Right. The resources that they need to succeed in school remotely. And so that’s something that was really difficult for us is how do we provide any type of connectivity or additional stability or care for families who are trying to work as essential workers and also parent it’s so difficult?

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. That’s, that’s such amazing work. Um, Tell us Ashley, if you would, about one of the families or a story, um, that really pulls at the heartstrings, something that, you know, makes you feel like this is why I do what I do. 

Ashley Sharp: So there’s one family that really stands out for me. She was. She was pregnant and her husband abused her so greatly that she lost the six month old child that she was carrying.

Um, she fled obviously from him with her six-year-old son. And it was just one of those situations where, when she came to us, she was so broken that she didn’t know what her favorite color was. I mean, we sat down with all of our families and we do a complete design consultation. Like you would get if you hired.

An interior designer personally. And, you know, that’s, that’s usually the one question that they could answer is like, what’s your favorite color? She didn’t even have lunch. She had no, no opinions, no thoughts outside of survival. And so when we finally did her installation and she came in and she just absolutely burst into tears and her son just jumped on the couch couch and the bed.

And he just, I mean, the joy on their faces was just so. Prevalent in that room at that moment that everyone felt it. And what was so amazing is that that woman became a coach for other women at that shelter. And so she was able to use her strength and her success to help motivate other women. And so that I think is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard of is that if someone in that situation can, can be so resilient and so empowered that they go and empower other women, that’s a beautiful cycle and a beautiful, uh, Community that we’re building.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely actually, thank you for sharing that, you know, for the majority of states between 10 and 15% of households are housing insecure and that’s, uh, you know, a statistic that many of us don’t realize. And I want to talk for a moment about the assumptions that we make about people who are struggling or dealing with, um, you know, food or housing insecurity.

So often we put the blame on them and their decisions. Right. But what are some of these families and some of the reasons, um, that people need programs like dwell with dignity? 

Ashley Sharp: I think this is such a great question. I just started reading the book poorly. Understood what America gets wrong about poverty, and it’s the systems that are created in our country.

That don’t allow people, especially individuals of color to escape their current situations. And it’s just, you know, again, a lot of times you think, well, people are in control of their own future. And that simply isn’t the case. And I worked obviously with the government and helping people get housing.

And what you do is that you. Don’t enable them to rise up because you keep caps on them. And so if you make a certain amount of money, then you don’t get funding from the government. And if you make a certain amount of money, then you don’t get free daycare and you don’t get assistance with food. And so you’re encouraging them to stay where they are and to keep the status quo instead of helping them as.

They achieved their goals and successes, especially for single working mothers. I mean, are you supposed to afford childcare when it’s up to $1,300 a month? That’s right. Our families can’t afford rent and childcare and utilities. It’s impossible. And so these systems are just so terrible and I think it’s gotten even worse, honestly, during the pandemic, because now there’s fewer facilities, rent prices.

Skyrocketing. I mean, just to be able to buy a home in Dallas is impossible nowadays. And so I think it’s important that we have organizations out there who are able to come alongside these families and say, Hey, I know that the system isn’t going to help you. But I’m here to help you. And so through our work in the community, we’re able to connect our clients with tech services, with free food, with school uniforms, all of these services are already out there being provided by other nonprofits and we’re the conduit for it.

So we really want to be the go-between to help our families achieve even more success. And so we use our resources and our connections to stay in touch with our families and to be able to build that. Uh, pipeline for them to be able to get the resources that they need in the community. But most of our families come to us because they’re escaping trauma and abuse.

Right. And it’s interesting because there’s some affluent counties out here that we’ve started working in and people say, well, we don’t have poverty out here. We don’t have single mothers living, you know, in these types of situations. And I say, yes, he did. And something that we see so common in those type of, uh, counties and living situations is.

Women who’ve gotten divorced. They don’t have any skills because they haven’t had to be a working mom. And so suddenly thrust with three kids out on their own, into the job force and they just don’t know how to handle it. Another thing that we see is illness. Again, the medical system, we can talk about that for hours in our country.

Yes. Families who. Become sick and they don’t have resources to be able to provide for themselves while also taking care of these insane medical bills. That rack up another one that we’ve really started to see a lot in Dallas is veteran women. And so we’ve worked with a few organizations to serve veteran women because they come back, they don’t have a job.

And they don’t know how to connect with their children. You know, their entire life has been regimented. They’ve been told what to do when to do it, how to eat. And then suddenly they come home and they’re in charge of a household. And so they just don’t know what to do. And they really do need that accountability and that coaching.

And to be able to connect with their family, they need space, that’s safe and secure. And so that’s something that we’ve gotten really passionate about as veteran women here. 

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. And you know, one of the things that we do in, in the work we do with the diversity movement with veterans is really understand that what are the skills that translate between what you’re doing in the armed forces and what you can do in the workplace?

Because it’s not a one-to-one. Right. You, you haven’t been a marketing manager. Right. But what are your leadership capabilities? What are your, you know, ability to, to lead, to, um, be disciplined, to be responsible, um, that make you a good leader. Right? And so. One of the things that we teach that’s so important is, you know, it’s not a one-to-one, but you have to understand how these skills translate into the workplace.

So I love that. That’s part of the groups that you’re helping. That is so fantastic. Ashley, what is your ultimate goal with dwell with dignity? 

Ashley Sharp: So the big goal is to eliminate poverty. I think that that’s all of our goal right now in this work of homelessness. And I think that the reason that dignity has been so successful is because we focus on families with children.

And so we really believe that it’s that generational. Impact, right. It’s important to, of course, take a single woman or a single man and get them out of poverty and homelessness. But the fact that you see by serving children is so great because what you’re doing is you’re not just impacting that immediate family, you’re impacting grandchildren and future generations.

And what we also see is that you’re being able to touch the, the remote family members or. Community members who maybe were living the way that this family was living before. And now they see the positive changes that have happened and they want to know how they can have that. Right. They want to say, okay, what happened?

How did you get this beautiful space? Like, why are you so happy nowadays? Why are you so successful? And they’re able to talk about all the amazing work that they’ve done, right. And they can say, well, I went to this program and then I was. Able to meet well with dignity, and now I’m doing X, Y, and Z, and they have so much confidence.

And so then we see their neighbors want to emulate them and their family members want to be able to have that same level of confidence. And for kids, I mean, just being able to see increased graduation rates is so important to us. And we’ve even had some of our kids graduate from college and, you know, have reached back out to us and say, Hey, like here’s my life path.

A woman just sent me an email yesterday. And we served her, I think back in 2014 and she just got her own hair salon. So now she’s an entrepreneur because she was able to focus on her family, provide for them. And then she was able to reach that level of fact. Self-actualization right. Like, I think that’s so amazing is that she can take her inner strength and couple it.

With the stability and security that we provide by giving them a home. And then she uses that to empower her own family, her children, and then hopefully her community 

Jackie Ferguson: that is so amazing. And you know, you think about the cycle of poverty, right? It’s you, you can’t do better. When you’re just trying to survive.

Right? You can’t think about the future. You can’t think about what your aspirations are when you have to make sure that you’re eating or that you’ve got a place to stay that night. And so I think that’s where we miss the mark as a society is rusting. Not it’s really a cycle that we. As a community have to break.

And so that’s, that’s such amazing work that you’re doing. Ashley, thank you for, for sharing that, that piece. Um, that’s so great. Let’s talk a little about, um, your background in your family. If you don’t mind sharing. 

Ashley Sharp: I am happy to share, so I am. Haitian Swiss and American. My father is half patient, half Swiss grew up in Haiti and Switzerland.

So had a very, uh, interesting upbringing, Viguerie, uh, wide reaching. And he didn’t even learn English until he moved to the United States at age 19. Uh, so it was really fascinating that his experiences growing up were so different than anything that. I could relate to, um, and it was just kind of exciting for me as I got older to learn more about my heritage and my background.

And it’s something that I’m so excited about because I want to share that legacy with my family now. And I think a lot of times growing up that that being mixed wasn’t celebrated, right. That was something that people didn’t really talk about. And I pass for white. Right. Which is fine. Um, but it’s. A huge part of my, my background, my heritage, my culture.

And so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to connect with that side of myself. Um, because I just didn’t know how to navigate as someone who is mixed and who doesn’t really know which community in which culture I belong to. Right. Like, is it Caribbean? Is it European? Is it Tennessee? Like where my mom was from?

Right. It’s it’s interesting. Cause at first I thought it was, I thought it was bad, but I didn’t have one single identity. And then the older I get, I realize it’s a blessing to have all of these backgrounds and to be able to touch so many different groups because I can share a little bit with each of them.

And so I think that’s even more fun as I get older. To take little bits of myself from different people in places and to put it into one unique person. And so I’ve just really loved getting to know more about my ancestors and where I’ve come from. And you know, my dad, I think we’ll always have this really strong relationship with Haiti.

And I think he shows it a lot through the art in our house. And I think that’s so important, right. Uh, you know, you walk into my house at my parents’ house. It’s like very shabby chic, right? Like a very like. I don’t know, I’m very like just American, but then you go into my dad’s office and it’s all like black art and it’s so amazing.

It’s something that I always grew up with. And so it’s something that I’m really excited to develop through 12 with dignity is as we work with designers of color, I want people to see themselves in design. And I think that’s so important, uh, because now I seek it out. If I hadn’t been surrounded by that as a child, I wonder if I would have ever.

Done that for myself, you know, I don’t think that that’s something that. A lot of people do is, is seek out representation in their home. You know, immediately as you walk into my house, there’s posters up of black artists and pictures from the island. And I just think it’s so important for my family to know that part of me.

Right. I think it’s just, it’s such a varied background, but it’s something that we need to carry with us as a legacy. And we need to share with others around us. 

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. And you know, a couple of points there. One. You know, I love that you shared that your multicultural background. And I think that our society is becoming more and more multicultural.

And so as you think about diversity and inclusion at large, You never know who you’re talking to. Right. Just in that interaction, any assumptions that you make about who a person is or who their family is. And so it’s so important to really have an eye out for how you should speak to people. Being respectful of people at all times, because we do make assumptions right.

About people. It’s not what we’re looking at, what we think we’re looking at. And it’s so important to just be, uh, encompassing and embracing of, of all people. So I love that. And you know, as you think about art for your home and we’ll get into in a moment, just my experience and recently remodeling a home, but you know, I love what you said about, you know, the art in your home and how your home reflects you as a person and you as a family.

And can we talk about that a little bit? Um, with regard to, um, the consumer perspective, you know, what do we need to be looking for, um, in a designer as we get into this, this industry, in this space as homeowners. 

Ashley Sharp: I think that. What you put in your home is as important as what you put in your body. I think that as we’ve gotten more mindful about food and farmed table culture and where things are grown and embracing local cuisine, that that needs to be carried on to local design as well.

And I know that’s something that people probably don’t think about, right. I mean, they go to target and pick up a pillow to go to Amazon. All the people who are artisans in your community, that’s how they make their life. And I think it’s so impactful. If you can support a single other human you’re increasing their success in their livelihood.

And that’s right. Especially is important for designers and creators of color. And when I say that, I’m not just saying African-American or black, I’m saying Asian, Hispanic. I think it’s so important for us to be inclusive and for us to seek out design from all sources and walks of life. And I think it’s important too, to realize that.

It’s okay to mix, right? Like I think people get a little precious about design and they don’t realize that it’s okay to have a piece from Asia and then a designer from Africa who came in and made this beautiful piece of art for you. And then maybe a poster of your favorite band. Like you don’t need to get married to one thing, like have more fun with your design and be more relaxed about it.

But I think that there’s going to be this really big movement towards local. Support of artisans. And it’s something that, you know, you see in major cities as these kind of small mom and pop stores start to reappear. And I think the big barrier though, is the cost. It is more expensive to be able to support local, but it’s kind of the same thing as sustainability in your clothing.

You buy less and love more. And sustainability is a big focus of ours at 12 with dignity because we’re taking pieces that would have normally been burned, broken, thrown away, and we’re selling them to the public at discounts. And so sustainable design is something that I’ve gotten really passionate about lately.

And, you know, again, in the fashion industry and the food industry, that’s something that they’ve already addressed, right? Like sustainable fashion. Like that’s obviously like a buzzword people understand that clean, sustainable eating, like you see organic plastered over it. Everything, but what about organic sustainable design?

Like where, where is that going to come in? Uh, and I’m hopeful that we’re going to start seeing that more in that as an organization, we can use that as the platform. 

Jackie Ferguson: I love that and buy less and love it more. That is, that is so important. That is so great. Ashley, let’s talk about the diversity among interior designers.

Um, you know, like many people remodeling their homes or buying new homes after spending more time, um, at home, through the pandemic, um, I recently bought a home and needed some, some remodeling, uh, in here and I got several referrals, but none of them were diverse and. You know, because I was in such a, you know, quote, unquote, rush to get to the next level.

You know, I I’m embarrassed to say, even in the work that I do, it was my husband that said. Do you have a diverse selection of designers? And I said, I don’t. And so then, you know, I had to be really intentional about going back and saying, okay, let me make sure that of the designers that I’m evaluating to do this really significant work in this house I bought.

That I’ve got, you know, people of color designers of color that, that are at least in the mix too, from where I’m choosing from, because there weren’t any, um, and so I ended up choosing a, an interior designer of color, um, and loved the results. Um, but you know, it’s, it’s too easy just in general to choose.

That employee or that, you know, colleague from your network to, um, you know, run your. Part of your business or promote from, you know, your group of friends or your internal network. Um, you know, and in the same, if you think about vendors and suppliers, um, businesses that you support, you know, how do we begin to be more intentional about how we’re thinking about that and, and how do we elevate.

These designers of color and just diverse designers in general within the space because, um, you know, I think it’s 2% that are designers of color. Is that right? As kind of 

Ashley Sharp: correct. 

Jackie Ferguson: So how do we, how do we start to begin to think about that and change that Ashley? 

Ashley Sharp: That is such an amazing question. And I’m really proud of you for working to find diverse designers for your own home.

And you’re right. It is incredibly difficult because what we see is that these designers, I guess we’ll start at the very beginning. So the biggest thing is that they aren’t. Individuals of color going to design school period. So this is just not something that happens. We had a conversation with a university, maybe two or three days ago, and in their 14 years they have had one person was African-American go through their program.

Wow. I mean, it’s, it’s shocking. And a lot of times it’s because these individuals are first time, college attendees. And their parents do not support them going down this career path because they don’t see it as a viable option for them to be successful in life. They want them to do business or accounting, something that they know their child will be able to have a sustainable job at.

And there’s so many amazing things that you’ve learned through design, right? Supply chain management and negotiation, communication, project management. But. They’re not promoting that when they go to recruit. And so I’m actually going to go start speaking to some high schools about how to get their youth involved in some type of design program, as they go into college ready courses.

And just seeing that it’s a viable option for individuals of color is to be a designer and to help their parents understand all of the valuable skills that the learn through it. And I think it’s kind of goes back to what you were talking about, about working with veterans. It’s not a one-to-one. But there’s so many things that you learned from it that even if you don’t end up being a designer, you have learned how to work with other people under tight deadlines, with limited resources, just wonderful things that will carry you on throughout your career.

But that’s the first step is have you even get kids accepted into programs. And then we also need to talk about funding because they need to be funded. They need to have scholarships. They need to have the backing of the university to be able to pursue this path. But then we’ll say you do become a designer.

Well, we’ve had designers, who’ve gone to HGTV and B E T. And what we’ve heard from them is that black people don’t like design. And this is just absolutely shocking to me, uh, because I thought that black people owned homes and apartments too, and that they, in fact, didn’t like to put things in their houses.

And so closed minded notion is just so shocking, just because. Everyone likes design. Everyone wants to have a space that is beautiful and inspiring. And it’s so important that you lift up these designers and not go ahead and cut them off at the knees. Before they’ve even gotten started. We found through our conversations as we started doing focus groups around design and diversity, is that what our designers needed was exposure, marketing and press.

And so we created something called, uh, design or diversity through design. And this is something that we’ve used through our pop-up store, where we are committed a hundred percent to just promoting designers of color. And so we’ll have an individual of color come in and design an entire store about 1200 square feet and they use their vendors and they use their artists.

And. They bring them all together in this one, beautiful, diverse, melting pot, but then we don’t stop there. Then we have press come and interview them. We have professional photography done. We share it with all the major magazines and publications. We have them on CBS and ABC morning programs because we want them to be the face, right?

Like it’s not. Enough for them to come and design it. Then we want them to go out and share it with the world because we want them to get that recognition and that notoriety. So that way, when someone says, oh, I need a good designer. And they’re Googling. They see this beautiful black designer who is perfect to inspire their space, or they see someone who is Asian American.

And so you just start getting more and more diversity and it doesn’t become difficult to find it. It becomes the norm. It’s like, we don’t want it to be okay. Let me find someone who’s diverse. It’s like, oh, look at all these amazing options. And yes, half of them are diverse. 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s exactly right. Ashley, I couldn’t agree more.

And you know, back to your earlier point, you’ve got to be able to see it to be, it is something that I’ve been told again and again, and so. You know, for culturally diverse young people who are looking for a profession, if, you know, if that’s not something they see then, um, you know, that’s not a lane that they think they can go down.

Right. And so it’s so important to amplify those voices and make sure that. These diverse designers have an opportunity to, to have a spotlight. Um, and that is, it’s so important. It’s so important. And you know, another thing is people who are looking for a designer, people that have the money to invest in a designer, Um, especially for significant spaces are looking for designers with significant experience.

Yes. And it’s tough to get that experience if you’re not being given an opportunity. Right. And so it’s, it’s, again, back to that cycle of, you know, you’ve, you’ve gotta be able to get the opportunity. That you know, that one of the opportunities that are available or some of the opportunities that are available so that you can then bid for bigger and bigger jobs.

Ashley Sharp: Well, and I think something that’s really interesting is this whole DIY culture. Right? And so people would rather. Not hire a designer and try to figure things out on their own because they don’t see designers as professional entities like doctors or lawyers, right? Like if you were sick, you wouldn’t go diagnose yourself.

Some people don’t have the ability to create a space or the time or the desire. And so I think that also another thing is that we want to make design accessible at many levels. Right. We don’t want designers just to be elite. And that’s something that it is right now only the creme de LA creme get to hire a designer.

But what if it was something that we could make more accessible to people? And so they could have a designer come in and consult, but make it more affordable or even a virtual consultation that we’re doing nowadays with our doctors. Like, there’s gotta be some nice for us to innovate in this space and make it more egalitarian.

Jackie Ferguson: Love that Ashley. When you think about hiring a designer, how do you ensure the right fit for you? 

Ashley Sharp: That is a wonderful question. I think the big thing that you need to do is actually spend time with this person because it’s such a personal connection and. You’re making a big investment, right? I mean, obviously this is something that isn’t going to be taken lightly, especially in your case, if you’re doing any type of like renovations and remodeling, that’s a very intimate process and they’re going to be with you for a long time.

So obviously client referrals are wonderful just to be able to speak to people that they’ve worked with in the past, but even more than that, I think something that’s great. It’s just go shopping with them, you know, go out for an hour, go to crate and barrel or a home goods or target. Right. Who knows where you want to go, but just get to know them in their eye and see if you aligned, because I think you just want to have.

A similar concept of what you need in your life. And you also want to make sure that you talk to this person about how you’re going to live in your house, because it’s so different for each person. And that’s something that we actually talked to our families about before we, uh, Do our installs, how do you use your house?

Do you have your nephews here every weekend? Does your grandmother come and stay with you during the summer? And so it’s important to get the answers to these questions because then maybe we need an extra day bed, or maybe we need some tools for the kids to play with because they’re going to be helping to babysit them.

And so it’s so important to figure out. How you want to live in your own space, because if you don’t have any kids and you love a lot of like China and figurines, that’s one thing. But like for me, I have two kids and washable and I can’t have anything that’s going to be too precious or like ruined by a marker.

When you’re working with your designer. To be super honest with them and say, this is how I’m going to use my house. And then just get to spend some time with them as a person. And you’ll either click right away and they’ll get it and they’ll get you, or it just won’t be the right fit. And you say, thank you so much for your time and you go look for another one.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. That’s great advice. Thank you, Ashley. Tell us about some of the pieces in your home that are important to 

Ashley Sharp: you. Oh my God. What a wonderful question. So I am a very eclectic, uh, design fan. I love thrift shopping. It’s my great passion in life, which is hilarious that I run a store called Paris studio now, but I think it’s so much fun to find these little gems and treasures.

Uh, so I actually have a lot of Scholes in my house. Uh, my mother is the largest collector of voodoo artifacts in the world. And this is my grandmother. And so she has exhibited before at the field museum and she has gone on tour all over Europe. And so it’s something that makes me feel really connected to my Haitian heritage and that voodoo culture, uh, which can be a little off-putting for people when they come in my house and they see lots of skulls, not, not real skulls, mind you, but it’s just.

That’s kind of a interesting choice. Uh, my grandparents, uh, were in the air force and so they lived in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and all over the world. And so I think that this beautiful gold vintage tea set that my grandmother got. Oh, Saudi Arabia. And it’s just one of those pieces that I’ll, I’ll always share a dish because I love that collected feel of a house.

Like I don’t want to go somewhere and get everything from one store. I like the idea of piecing it together as part of your story and kind of the same way I approached putting my house together. I approached jewelry too. Like I want everything to have. Story and a purpose. Like, I don’t want to just order a bunch of stuff.

I want to kind of hand pick it. And you know, our house is covered in guitars and pianos. My husband is a musician. And so, you know, we pick these up on our travels. We have vintage sewing machines from family members, so it is a funky home, uh, but it makes us really happy. 

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. I love that. Wow. The largest collector of voodoo art in the world that is incredible.

Ashley Sharp: He has an entire separate house in Haiti, just for the art and the keepsakes. I know I’m just, I’m in all of her 

Jackie Ferguson: can love that. That is really, really cool. Ashley tell us how does a family or a designer get started with dwell with dignity? Tell us a little about the process. 

Ashley Sharp: Great. So I’ll talk to our family process first.

So our families come to us from other nonprofit agencies. So everything has been recommended by their case manager. This is to ensure that the family is ready to take the next step because it is a lot. Yeah. They’re suddenly leaving the protection of living at this transitional shelter and they’re on their own for the first time after facing some, some big traumas in their life.

And so we want to make sure that we set them up for success. And so these families have jobs. They have first and last month’s rent and they’ve been trained and prepared and they have. We all have the confidence to go tackle the world. And so we’re really just like the cherry on top of the ice cream for them.

Right. And we’re the glue that keeps them on that path because otherwise it would be so easy to fall into despair and to lose that confidence that they had gained because they aren’t able to provide that sense of home for their families. So we have some really wonderful nonprofit relationships and we’re always growing.

And so we. Welcome any nonprofit out there to reach out to us. Not only do we do family homes, but we also transformed community spaces. Because we know that it’s the same token for them. They want to keep their employees feeling safe and inspired. And also if you’re a single mom and you have all of your possessions in the world, in your hands and you walk into a space to get care and that space is dilapidated and run down, you are not going to, they feel well cared for you are going to go vulnerable and opposed.

Instead, we want these families to walk in. To the place where they’re receiving services and just feel like they have given a warm hug. We want them to feel so invited. 

Jackie Ferguson: Love it. 

Ashley Sharp: I have a dog in the background that is being, 

Jackie Ferguson: you know, one of the things that’s so awesome about, um, you know, doing these interviews is I get to come into people’s homes so often and, and the kids are there and the dogs are there.

And then

Ashley Sharp: Nope. I do I have a four-year-old upstairs. I have a cat in my lap and I have three dogs in my house. Literally the insane as home ever, which I guess, right. 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s fantastic. 

Ashley Sharp: Let me I’ll jump back in on the designers, right? 

Jackie Ferguson: Okay. That’s 

Ashley Sharp: awesome. So our designers 

Jackie Ferguson: don’t apologize for that. 

Ashley Sharp: So our designers are handpicked by our staff come in every year and to help us with rec studio.

So the designer that works for our families is actually a trained, uh, accredited designer who went to design school because we want to make sure that we’re very mindful of the person that we’re placing in these families’ homes, because it is a very, um, Again, intimate relationship. And they’ve been through a lot and we don’t want to expose them to more people.

Then they have to, because they have trust issues and they have privacy issues. And some of these women have to have their names with help because they are fleeing from domestic violence and really tragic situations. And so we are very careful about our programs team. Being vetted and trained to be able to go into these homes and to take care of our families, but our designers come in and they are able to kind of be the fun ones because they’re doing thrift studio, which means they get to do whatever they want.

So for the first time ever, they don’t have a client, they just get to be fun and vibrant. And so they love it because. When’s the last time a designer got to make something for themselves. They’re always working for a client. And so this is so much fun for them. So we hand pick our designers just based on recommendations, um, through the community and just kind of who’s out there doing amazing work.

And that’s really where I first noticed that diversity problem, because when I was handed the first list of recommendations, they were all white. And I said, stop it. Let’s think about this for a second. And then we got one black person and I was like, Okay guys, we have to do better than this, right? So we have a 20% commitment.

And so there’s a woman that I love Aurora James, who is the creator of brother valleys. And she’s been pushing the fashion industry to be inclusive and have 15%. Of all of the vendors they work for be African-American and I love that, right? She is calling people out on social media. She is making this a real commitment of these conglomerates, like even target is getting on board and Sephora.

And I think that we need to do that in design. And so at least 20% are our designers have to be individuals of color because there’s no excuses. I don’t care if we have to go find them in another state and fly them in, we will find people who not only represent different parts of. Their states and their cultures, but who also represent our families because how can I go to our families?

77% are African-American 20% are Hispanic. How can I go to them and say, well, yeah, we’re going to run the store and raise money for you, but we’re not going to have anyone who looks like you be part of it. Right. I mean, that’s just so close-minded to me. And so I think 20% is a as a starting point, but again, I don’t want to have to put limits on it.

I want it to be the type of situation where we have designers and artists of color, and it’s not, we don’t have to handpick them and we don’t have to hunt them down, but it’s just, there’s so many of them that it’s just part of the conversation. 

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely Ashley, you know, it’s so important to be intentional in any organization and make those commitments so that you’re holding yourself, your organization, your leaders accountable, that’s so important, so important.

And how can we support dwell with dignity? 

Ashley Sharp: We are always looking for support at dwell with dignity. And so there’s multiple ways to get involved. You don’t have to be in Dallas to be a supporter. And so obviously donations are a huge way to support. You can go to dwell with dignity.org to make a monetary donation, or you can even shop our thrift store.

I think that’s even more important is to put. Your money to good use supporting our families by also supporting diverse designers in the community, right? Like it’s, it’s a really big commitment. You’re saying not only am I wanting to help these families, but I also want to help these designers succeed.

And so thrift studio.com is our website. Hi, and we do Instagram sales. We do online sales, we do shipping. And so this is something that we’re really starting to get into more. As we start to expand our reach is that we want to start taking our pop-up stores to other cities. So if you know, diverse designers and you want to send your city.

Send us an email, give us a call. We would love to come do a two week pop-up in your city, where we highlight your designers, right? The people that are out there making a difference in your community. We want to be the ones to give them a voice and a platform. And I think that it’s something that we could really see catch on and it could go nationwide if we’re, if we’re really lucky and we’re intentional about it.

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. Ashley, thank you for sharing that. And then my final question is a fun one. Um, tell us something about you that not a lot of people know 

Ashley Sharp: something that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I am a two time national champion tap dancer and a former Ms. Dallas teen. Wow. Up to a lot of jokes in ridicule, right.

With my packet wave and my big hair. But yes, I did use to have to sleep in like 800 curlers at night and they teased my hair and I had to, uh, answer questions about world peace. Okay.

Being in a pageant is such a Texas thing to do. 

Jackie Ferguson: It just seems very Texas, 

Ashley Sharp: but, um, I have an undergrad in dance and so dance has always been my passion. I didn’t use theater and I’ve been in over 60 main stage productions as a dancer and actress and choreographer, but tap dancing was always my love. Uh, and again, I think it was because it was the most diverse dance form.

Right. Yeah, the people who started it were African-American and that, you know, the whole jazz movement and the teachers were black and male and fascinating, right. They live these amazing lives and ballet was so white. It was just, it wasn’t fun, but tap dancing was vibrant and something that I’ve always connected to and very rhythmic.

Um, and I think we’re starting to make more headway in terms of. Diversity in the arts, that’s a whole nother conversation. Uh, Misty Copeland has been such an amazing champion of black ballerinas. Yes. I mean, gosh, I mean, I remember my mother having to buy me a Hispanic baby dog growing up because I didn’t look like Barbie.

Right? Like I’ve always been dark haired and tall and curvy and it just, I’ve never looked like the white blonde American girls. Uh, and so I’m really excited that there’s more and more women out there who are being role models, who are diverse and that they’re, you can go Barbie now have Misty cuts the ballerina.

I mean, how cool is that? Or Simone Biles, like these young women can see themselves in these super successful diverse women. And so I hope that we can do that for design as well. 

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. Ashley, thank you so much for sharing that. And again, you mentioned it a little bit earlier, but how can people connect with you?

Ashley Sharp: So, if you would like to reach out to me directly, my email is ashleySharp@dwellwithdignity.org, or you can go to our website, dwell with dignity.org. And we have all of our information on there from our store to volunteer opportunities to amazing before and after transformations of our family home installs.

So we would love for you to come see us online. 

Jackie Ferguson: Ashley, thank you so much for taking this time and sharing this special story. You know, it’s, it’s so important to amplify voices of, you know, situations and people and professionals, when you don’t think about diversity in interior design, but it’s so important, um, that we’re represented in every industry.

So thank you for shining a light on that for us and sharing your time 

Ashley Sharp: with us. Well, thank you for your passion and your commitment. And I’ve even signed up for classes to get my CDE with the diversity movement. So incredibly excited to continue my own personal education with you and your team. Love that, 

Jackie Ferguson: Ashley, thank you so much.

Full Episode Transcript

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Diversity Beyond the Checkbox is brought to you by The Diversity Movement, hosted by Head of Content Jackie Ferguson, and is a production of Earfluence.

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