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Creative Hawa Arsala on Abundance, Sustainability, and Capitalism

Creative Hawa Arsala on Abundance, Sustainability, and Capitalism

Welcome to Unbuttoned, a conversation with grown-up creative people about how they made it, their process, and any advice they’d give to those dreaming to create something of their own.

The first time I speak to Hawa Arsala for this piece, she calls me from a cottage in Santa Cruz, California. It’s October 2020; we’re seven months into the pandemic and one month out from the presidential election. Over Zoom, Arsala is glistening in the California sun. A cerulean sky wraps around her like a blanket as she tells me she’s been spending her time going to the ocean, meditating at a Shiva temple, and listening to the languages of the redwood forests. As I am invited into these dreamy scenes with Arsala, I note her vulnerability. With a big sigh she says, “This year ripped me apart in every way I didn’t know I needed.”

Making time to rest and reset are paramount to Arsala. She’s spent the past 10 years in a variety of roles: teacher, coder, nightlife photographer, strategist, art director, and currently, the director of cultural intelligence and creative strategy at ViacomCBS and the author of a newsletter, “Reality Streaming.” With one hand crafting campaigns for Glossier, the WNBA, and Spanish Vogue, and the other hand researching youth culture and developing ways to codify equity and inclusion practices within corporations, it is about time she took a moment for herself.

Arsala was born in Washington, DC, to Afghan refugees who fled their home country due to the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. She spent her youth playing in the forests of Virginia, and then by the ocean in the Bay Area, where she went on to UC Berkeley for her undergraduate studies. After graduating, she founded the new media agency and curatorial project Browntourage, with producer and developer Tonia B, in San Francisco in 2010. Through the agency, their team transitioned from content creation to providing strategy, direction, and production to clients, with a focus on highlighting QTBIPOC creators, something Arsala continues to do to this day.

When I connect with her for the second time, it is January 2021, and a lot has happened in the past three months, for her and the world. Her name, Hawa, in Hindi and Farsi means “wind” or “air,” and this year she’s living up to that namesake, letting the breeze take her where she is meant to go. She has relocated to a small town in Colorado. “Mountains are in the blood of my people,” she tells me, nestled in her temporary home, surrounded by snowy peaks, where she’s able to continue to witness herself and take in the wisdom of the earth around her.

Teen Vogue spoke to Arsala about the theory of abundance consciousness, how we can all support communities on the margins, and how to dismantle capitalism while living and working within it.

Teen Vogue: We started our conversation in October 2020 — pre-election, pre-vaccine, pre-coup. At that point, we were all in this liminal space, and you mentioned feeling quite unmoored. How does the beginning of 2021 compare with how you were feeling last summer and fall?

Hawa Arsala: Last year, I was in a deep space of unwinding, unloading, and undoing myself. Excavating and examining my interior as much as possible. I came of age on the internet during my awkward teens, feeling so much more comfortable being an avatar than having to navigate the disappointment of teenagers being teenagers in real life. I tethered to the evolution of technology, and missed out on some very important initiations. It’s quite the divine comedy that 2020 really forced me to fill in gaps, to live parts of my younger life I didn’t really live! I had a really hedonistic teen-flick kind of summer — eating fast food, cutting my own hair while crying in the shower, howling at redwoods, stuff like that. I really needed to not take myself so seriously.

Creative Hawa Arsala on Abundance, Sustainability, and Capitalism

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