Institute for Social Justice Student Prize 2021: Alissa Morgan

York St John University is delighted to announce Alissa Morgan as recipient of the first-ever Institute for Social Justice Student Prize. The prize is awarded to a graduating student for evidence of investment, engagement and understanding of social justice through the curricula in a manner that has impacted on themselves and/or their wider community. Alissa has received the prize for her work as a ‘design activist’ and the clear sense of purpose to which she adapted her degree and expertise to campaign for social justice. In this blog Alissa discusses her work and the motivations underpinning her design practice.

Photograph of Alissa Morgan

Alissa Morgan

I first became aware of social justice after reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in my first year of high      school. At which point I began inadvertently working on a collection of activist literature (alongside my ever-growing collection of design books). However, my passion for what I’ve labelled ‘Design Activism’ didn’t become apparent until my first semester at York St John. When our graphic design class was given the task to produce a timeline on a subject that interested them, the other students were scrolling through the wikipedia pages of their favourite football team, or a list of Marvel films, or video games, whereas I found myself drawn to a book on the suffragette movement. I produced a timeline on the history of the British suffragette movement in the past 150 years, and was fortunate enough to feature strong women from my personal life within that piece, all of whom have contributed to the person I am today. That’s when it dawned on me that I’d always had an interest in women’s rights (even from early childhood, watching Mulan on an almost daily basis), and this was something I could focus on within my design work.

From this point on, I began to focus my time on how I could use my skills as a budding graphic designer to make a difference to the world we live in. I was inspired by the works of Craig Oldham and Barbara Kruger, and became obsessed with learning what was happening in the world, and what I could do to help. I have been fortunate enough to meet Craig Oldham on multiple occasions, and every time it inspires me further to apply my passion for social justice to the design sector. Oldham and Kruger are part of an ever-growing list of creatives who have recognised how important it is to use their platform for social justice.

Drawing of feed up looking C19 looking woman with writting repeated all around her saying 'Still Have to Protest'

As a cis-het white woman, I knew I was in a lot more privileged position than most. I’m fortunate to be able to use graphic design as a platform to help others, and spread my message to the world, and I refuse to allow it to go to waste. Writer and activist Audre Lord famously stated, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are different from my very own”. I strongly believe that we all share a responsibility to fight for the rights of others less fortunate than ourselves.

In a society dominated by upper-class, cis-het, white men, any other individual is placed at an immediate disadvantage. Society has been systematically built to maintain this power, and will continue to do so as long as people carry on the belief that somebody else will do something. Every day, we make an impact on this world, it is up to us to decide whether it is positive or negative. My aim within my work is to produce art that will upset racists, homophobes, misogynists and the like. I have dedicated my social media @the_design_activist to raise awareness of social issues, and specifically appealing to those who are fortunate enough to just witness injustice, rather than living it. For some people it’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, where in actuality social equality is something that must be targeted head-on, specifically by those with a position of power. 

Since completing my degree, I’ve moved to Manchester and I have been freelancing for Manchester Museum and The Whitworth Gallery. Art Galleries have historically been filled with paintings of upper class white men, so it’s refreshing to see curators taking a stand, and choosing to focus on more equal representation of people, that is a true cross section of society.

Drawing of a black man with white hands clamped over his mouth. Text behind reads 'White silence is violence' Graphic text reading 'People should not have to die for everyone to start giving a shit'

Looking forward, I hope to eventually set up a studio with designers who share my passion, and become The Design Activists. I have dedicated my life to making a difference to the world I live in, and paving the way for others to do the same. In a society that has seen huge shifts in focus towards activism, (think BLM, Me Too and Extinction Rebellion), it’s about time the Art and Design sector follows suit and uses its power to make a difference. 


Follow @the_design_activist to follow me on my journey.