Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Rose Perry & Rajiv Fernandez of Historicons Is Helping To Change Our World
You can’t do it on your own. This venture has been like a baby to us, but at a certain point we need to let others help the baby grow. It really does take a village. It’s ok to relinquish control and let others help nourish what you put your heart into. This also allows us to take time for ourselves to be effective leaders. Teamwork makes not just our products but our mission more well-rounded and allows outside perspectives to be heard — just exactly what we advocate for.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing (Rose Perry, Ph.D. & Rajiv Fernandez.
Rose Perry, Ph.D., Co-Founder of Historicons, is a neuroscientist who specializes in child development, and the Founder/Executive Director of the applied research nonprofit organization, Social Creatures. Born with a rare form of dwarfism, Rose has learned first hand how representation and exposure to role models can empower children from historically excluded groups and inspire allyship in others.
Rajiv Fernandez, Co-Founder of Historicons, is a trained architect and an artist under the moniker Lil’ Icon. With a belief that sophisticated design is for all, he has published two books that playfully illustrate the connections between kids and adults. Using his signature bold and iconographic style, his artwork responds to the political and social climate in which we live and has been featured in The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and billboards throughout New York City.
Historicons is a small business built around educating and empowering kids in their own skin. We make interactive toys and games that teach elementary-aged kids about diverse (and typically overlooked) events in U.S. History. Built by educators and child development specialists, we know that representation matters for healthy childhood development and dismantling discrimination. Historicons is proudly LGBTQ+, Disability, Minority and Woman owned.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Rajiv: “Designing kitchens for rich people just wasn’t cutting it for me. I wanted the work I do to have an impact, especially around the issues I cared most about. Design has been my talent, so I turned to illustration to spark dialogue and connect people. I published two children’s books that illustrate a baby versus an adult’s perspective after making a bespoke book comparing myself and my baby nephew. When he was able to read the book on his own from seeing the pictures, I saw how design (specifically iconography and bold colors) can bridge people. Over time, my art took on more political and social issues. I gained a drive to inspire change using my talents.”
Rose: “Historicons was not something that we spent years or even months conceiving or planning. It came about as a necessity. I had my hands full with my nonprofit Social Creatures at the time, writing a lot about the importance of social connection and belonging for healthy child development, and was vocal about how anti-racist, anti-ableist and anti-biased approaches were needed to ensure equitable health for historically-excluded communities. In the summer of 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, a lot of millennial parents were asking me how to discuss topics of race and identity with their young kids in an age-appropriate way that inspired positive identity development or allyship. I reached out to my friend Rajiv who was illustrating images that had a social impact. I knew we could combine his artwork with my child development skillset to create a learning tool that fit parents’ needs. It seemed like a natural fit for collaboration. We were lucky to convince the incredible Deonna Smith, who is an Anti-Bias Anti-Racist Educator, to join our team and quickly realized we wanted to create a range of products that touched on identity topics that were personal to each of us (race, disability, gender, LGBTQ+ identity)… and the rest is Historicons’ history.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Rajiv: “We’ve been able to connect with so many people doing impactful things to make the world a better place, from fellow entrepreneurs to local activists to going mega-viral for capturing a guy on a motorcycle spreading joy on NYC streets by blasting Vanessa Carlton! We’ve also met many people who have personal connections to the historical events featured in our debut collection of puzzle games. But the one that takes the cake is meeting Judy Heumann, the disability rights icon who paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Rose: “Meeting with Judy was not only a rare opportunity to connect with one of the few living historic icons featured in our puzzles, but also an opportunity for me to share my disability story and connect with one of my personal heroes and role models. We got to see her unbox our 504 Sit-In puzzle game and share her memories of the event. This moment was extremely special because Judy unexpectedly passed away a week later. Although we did not get to work with her in the longer term as we had planned, her passing has rededicated us to continue her fight for disability inclusion. If you aren’t familiar with Judy’s story, we highly encourage watching the Netflix documentary, Crip Camp, or reading her memoir, Being Heumann. She was one of the greatest civil rights leaders of our time and did not receive nearly enough mainstream recognition for all the ways she made the world a better place.”
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Rajiv & Rose: “When designing the 504 Sit-In puzzle, Rajiv was putting finishing touches and incorporating some easter eggs into the puzzles’ illustrations. For deaf activist Frank Bowe, Rajiv wanted him to say “I Love You” in sign language. Right before sending it into production, Rose asked “Why is he giving the Surf’s Up sign?” Oops! We couldn’t believe we didn’t notice this sooner in our design process. This taught us the importance of editing and having multiple perspectives. When it’s just one person doing a task we can overlook small details that mean so much. Teamwork is essential to effective communication.”
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Rajiv & Rose: “Growing up, we rarely felt represented in the toys we played with, the media we consumed, and even the social study books we read in school. This has a significant impact on a child’s identity development. Seeing people that look like you succeed makes you believe you are capable of success too. And on the other side of the coin, seeing and learning about people who come from different backgrounds or identities is so important for building empathy, inclusion, and raising kids who are free from attitudes of prejudice and discrimination. That is why our mission at Historicons is to build empathy and confidence in kids through play, so that every child feels good in their skin. In a time when access to a robust, diverse education is being attacked, the work we’re doing at Historicons is more important than ever.”
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Rajiv: “A few small moments had huge impacts on us. At a friend’s party with mostly gay men, I was making small talk and told a guy about the Stonewall Uprising puzzle game. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is going to change lives. I wish I had that.’ This made us realize that what we’re doing isn’t just for kids. It makes adults feel validated too. But the most heartwarming moments are the ones like a pop-up market, when a young Black kid was piecing together the Little Rock Nine puzzle, and held up a piece with one of the students on it and said ‘He looks like me!’ I also keep a post-it note on my monitor written by a colleague’s 9-year old daughter who has the puzzles that says, ‘Rajiv, love your work.’ That makes all the hard work worth it.”
Rose: “We have also seen our impact through the reactions of so many lovely people who offered up their networks, resources and business chops when meeting us at pop-up markets. One particular patron even went so far as to connect us with an AAPI-focused organization, and we are now collaborating on a new puzzle with them. So many people seem to immediately connect with our mission, and this gives us hope that Historicons will go the distance through the strength of community.”
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1. Talk to your kids about race and identity early and often. Research has shown that babies notice race-based differences as early as six months, and around ages four and five, expressions of racial prejudice often peak. But even the simple act of engaging in explicit conversations with kids about interracial and intergroup friendships can dramatically improve their attitudes and beliefs about race and identity in just one week. This is why anti-racism and anti-bias educators recommend revisiting talks about racism and identity again and again across child development, in different ways. With diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs being removed from the education space, access to diverse, educational resources that can guide age appropriate discussions around race and identity have never been more critical. To assist parents and teachers in talking to their children about race and identity, we not only offer our puzzles, but also free, downloadable activity packs, discussion guides, and lesson plans.
2. Curate an inclusive environment. Parents and caregivers must first educate themselves, examine their own biases, and shift their behavior accordingly to shape the world their children see. Parents can actively prioritize seeking out diversity in their immediate communities — both in their own social circles and amongst their kids’ peers, and expose young children to anti-racist anti-biased role models in society. Parents can also choose books, movies, and toys for their children that include characters of different races and identities, and attend cultural events, language classes and educational programs that promote understanding and respect for people who are different from you. Research demonstrates that the less contact children have with people from other backgrounds, the more likely they are to retain higher levels of prejudice.
3. Organize. While parents can do a lot to raise children as allies through their actions at home, prejudice and discrimination is built into many broad systems in the U.S. — including the education system which remains largely segregated by race and socioeconomic status, provides inequitable funding to schools attended by students of color, and fails to teach inclusive curricula. As evidenced in the historical events we teach in our puzzles, collective action is key to driving social change, and it is important to unite under a common cause to dismantle systems of discrimination. If communities are able to come together and assert the importance of inclusion, empathy, and respect, their local politicians and school boards will listen.”
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Rajiv & Rose: “There is a common saying that true leaders don’t build followers, they build more leaders. That is the definition of leadership that most inspires our approach. At Historicons, our aim goes beyond depicting iconic leaders of the past who are seldom represented in history books and whose stories deserve to be told. Even more so, we aim to spotlight these diverse leaders and changemakers so that kids of all backgrounds and identities see that they can be agents of change and proactive about making the world a better place. We want to inspire the next generation of bold and diverse leaders, by exposing kids to all the many examples of leadership that exist in U.S. History. When you see someone who looks like you succeed, you believe you can, too.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. In the beginning we were anxious to get our puzzles in production because the themes were still hot topics. We decided to do a product test of a very early prototype. We saw a lot of shortcomings like it being too flimsy, the content was just surface deep, post-assembly interaction was lacking, and mostly it just wasn’t fun. So we decided to be patient and rework the design and functionality until we were really proud of it.
2. Innovate, don’t imitate. We followed a formula we read in books and blogs for our Kickstarter campaign, and after we initially launched, we were like “Where are all the sales?!” This taught us a few things: what works for one may not work for another; success stories are sometimes marketing ploys (they’re not always telling the truth, shh); and you have to set yourself apart if you want to be seen. We got creative with our marketing strategies to take our Kickstarter campaign across the finish line, from using a Halloween costume as a marketing tool, to hanging “Missing [from history textbooks]” posters in our neighborhoods, to even using dating apps (*Rajiv hangs head in shame*).
3. When you have haters, you’re doing something right. We understand there will be backlash to the stories we tell to kids based on the politicization of identity as of late. Luckily, we’ve grown up with thick skin, so being called names is nothing new. And if someone has something negative to say, it just means they need the education we’re providing!
4. People will support you…until you ask for money. Historicons mission has always been to make people feel seen and that’s something most everybody can get behind. We’ve been told, “We love this idea!”, “I have to get one for my kid’s classroom!”, and our personal favorite, “You should go on Shark Tank!” Then, they smile and walk away. It’s ok, we understand spending one’s money on our products is a personal choice, and these experiences have helped us hone in on who our target audience is.
5. You can’t do it on your own. This venture has been like a baby to us, but at a certain point we need to let others help the baby grow. It really does take a village. It’s ok to relinquish control and let others help nourish what you put your heart into. This also allows us to take time for ourselves to be effective leaders. Teamwork makes not just our products but our mission more well-rounded and allows outside perspectives to be heard — just exactly what we advocate for.
You are people of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Rajiv & Rose: “Thank you, we certainly don’t view ourselves as having enormous influence on an individual level but believe strongly in the power of community-led change, which is the approach that we are building Historicons around. A movement that we would hope to inspire is one that we are already actively working on at Historicons (as did many changemakers who have come before us and ones who work alongside us today): We hope to spark a movement of unwavering pride and power in one’s identity, whether that be pride in one’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability status, despite living within systems of discrimination and oppression. We both learned first hand that once we developed pride in our identities, that the difference in how we presented ourselves as a result of such pride transformed the way others treated us back. We’ve also seen how the power of pride has led to the progression of civil rights movements in history, both before and during our lifetimes. Pride is a true force to be reckoned with.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quotes”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your lives?
Rajiv: “This is going to sound silly, but I love the saying ‘Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.’ First off, I love a pun. Second, it encourages you to look at things with different perspectives. Sometimes we layer things so much that the concept becomes complex and overwhelming. We have to remind ourselves that being direct and literal could be the best form of communication. For example, with Historicons, in the stories we tell, there are layers to the historical marginalization that can only be explained fully at a scholarly level, but the simplicity of it is we want everyone to feel like they have a place in the world. Also, with these topics being difficult to breach, a little humor makes it more palpable to approach.”
Rose: “Since I’ve been mourning the recent passing of disability rights activist, Judy Heumann, I’ve been revisiting her many powerful quotes. One that resonates with me a lot, especially as it pertains to the work that we are doing at Historicons is: ‘Change never happens at the pace we think it should. It happens over years of people joining together, strategizing, sharing, and pulling all the levers they possibly can. Gradually, excruciatingly slowly, things start to happen, and then suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, something will tip.’ It reminds me to stay the course, and invest in long-haul generational change, even when a challenge, like dismantling systems and attitudes of hate and discrimination, feels insurmountable. All the little moments will eventually add up to spark a revolution if you approach social change through the lens of community, pride, collaboration, and perseverance. History has proven that time and time again.“
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Rajiv: “I’d love to break naan with the actor and activist Kal Penn. There are so many parallels we share: we’ve both acted and done comedy; he starred in the film adaptation of The Namesake, which at one point when watching I thought I was viewing a documentary of myself; we’re both queer sons of Indian immigrants; and political and social activism have guided our career paths (fun fact: we took a selfie together at an Obama rally in 2008). Our stories are not ones traditionally told, but with power in numbers we can create some meaningful impact.”
Rose: “There are so many changemakers who I would love the opportunity to meet. But one who I would most love to meet is disability rights activist, Rebecca Cokely. Not only does she have dwarfism like me (and I could always use more friends/mentors with dwarfism), but she is an absolute force who has way more experience than I do in dismantling barriers that keep disabled people excluded from society. The opportunity to tap into her wisdom would be so meaningful to the work we do at Historicons, and to my broader goals around social change, both inside and outside of work.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can learn more about our work by visiting Historicons.com and following us on socials @Historicons on TikTok, IG and Facebook.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Rose Perry & Rajiv Fernandez of Historicons Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.