How to fight an empire – inspired by photographer and activist Nan Goldin

HOW DO YOU FIGHT AN EMPIRE? | “This is the only place they’re being held accountable, and we did it.” | Harlem, Hudson, High Line, Washington Heights – all of that will sound familiar. While the #Sackler Wing, in one of the 4 (!) largest museums of art worldwide, might not. Now that name is gone, in a precedent of accountability (but still years after the Louvre took action), and for a good reason. Scene cut.

18, just out of school, I learn a few things about the United States of America, its largest city and myself. But I have no way of knowing about the Sackler empire. And in 2015, photographer and activist Nan Goldin isn’t real either. I’m alone in New York City, hiking for kilometres with sparks in my eyes, pastels and paper in my pocket, and a little camera one grip away. In between responsibilities that enable me to be here; hit by the dissonance between the worlds of marmor-clad-and-gold-inset galleries by day, and the shadow of parks and street corners by night. 

Six years later, in 2021 (!), after 4 years of campaigning by P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), after 400,000+ deaths from opioid painkillers across the States, New York‘s Met removes the Sackler name from seven exhibition spaces. And that’s not the end of the story. The beginning: Purdue, owned by the Sackler families, “deliberately changed the way opioids were prescribed”, exaggerating the benefits of OxyContin to boost sales, fuelling addiction. A topic clad in #stigma. Then in 2019, facing 3,000 lawsuits, having taken 10bln $ out of the company, bankruptcy is declared. P.A.I.N. continues fighting. HOW they do it, glued me to the cinema seat yesterday. 

I’m also asking you to think about: what can art teach us? And how do we talk about activism in business circles? Like here. What makes you connect to a cause? I did because of the particular (NYC is part of my inner fabric), and cause injustice and pain are universal. 

So how do you fight against an empire? Let’s paraphrase a few ingredients from this story (without spoiling it all): the artist, the bottomline, the creative ideas, the lawyer, the team.

  • Take a famous artist, with a calm and articulate demeanour, a wildness about her, and art that the Guggenheims of this world want to exhibit. Nan. Telling the museums she won’t exhibit her work there, if they don’t e.g. refuse a grant by the family. Living out the legacy of her sister. (Don’t have a world-famous artist? Find one, I guess.)
  • Remember the bottomline. “Death is the bottomline of this, and that should be reminded.” Know what you’re standing for.
  • Make old medication bottles with changed labels float in the fountain of the Met, below glass walls, in front of the Temple of Dendur from the first century B.C. Make papers rain under the dome of the Guggenheim. With the crowds joining in. “What if we made a bunch of prescriptions and threw them back at them?” Powerful actions.
  • Get a pro-bono lawyer on board, though chances at success are bleak. There’s a reason this story is NOT about the levers of the justice system. (PS: everyone from Italy will understand this even more)
  • Join an “I’m with you”-team, like the one convened by Nan at her home (and I think that was key, meeting at a home), planning the key messages, preparing materials, holding each other through court hearings and terrifying stalking, not stopping at a demand fulfilled, not giving up.


The film „All the beauty and the bloodshed“ tells the story of it and more. Retracing Nan’s tragic family history, the youth of a rebellious artist, the AIDS epidemic. In the cinemas, since May 25th (at least over here it is). I think it can teach us a few things about society, far beyond the topic. And maybe even fuel your own work 🙂

“People are beginning to rethink how we do things.” Whatever you do, make sure you contribute to that happening. Think about which stories are important not just to you, but to society. Be bold, just like an artist.

Hi! I’m a comms professional and creative for social impact. On my CV, I have life experience in leadership. Off it, I know about some hard edges of life. Through it all, I write to connect the dots and help bring out the best in people.

Reach out via LinkedIn or Email if you’re now feeling a tingle of connection, excitement, thirst for more. Or go back to the Blog to keep exploring. 

7 universal insights into storytelling between therapy and communications

[FLASH OF CREATIVE INSIGHT✍️🧠] Storytellers, anyone? “In therapy we say: Let’s edit your story.” I’m inspired by people who do courageous things, who tell honest stories, or even help to change them. And by great content editors, but that’s a different…story.

The book “Maybe you should talk to someone” by therapist & writer Lori Gottlieb made me think hard about the universal truths of stories, between #comms and #psychology. Why care? We, and our world, are made of stories.


🟠 ALL STORIES BOIL DOWN TO UNIVERSAL QUESTIONS. On a human level they’re something like this: “Everyone lives their own story, but underneath the details we’re forced to face the same essential questions: How do I feel safe in a world of uncertainty? How do I connect?” And in comms we all need to answer “What’s your reason for being?” (PS: don’t forget those WHY questions), as a communicator you know.

🟠 STORYTELLING IS ABOUT BUILDING UP, AND LETTING GO.We grow in connection with others. Everyone needs to hear that other person’s voice saying, I believe in you. I can see possibilities that you might not see quite yet. I imagine that something different can happen, in some form or another.” “…But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself – to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are.” Stories only have the power that you give them.

🟠 THE FIRST STORY WE TELL IS NEVER COMPLETE. Give important stories time to unfold, and to change. The story a patient comes into therapy with may not be the story she leaves with. What was included in the telling at first might now be written out, and what was left out might become a central plot point. Some major characters might become minor ones, and some minor characters might go on to receive star billing. The patient’s own role might change too – from bit player to protagonist, from victim to hero.” And in comms, how often have you been scratching surface level or getting it all wrong?

🟠 STORIES DON’T ALL OBEY THE SAME RULES OF EXPRESSION. So go find the right one. “Wendell [her therapist] and I had a conversation, even if no words were exchanged. He watched me grieve, and didn’t try to make things more comfortable by interrupting or analyzing the issue. He let me tell my story in whatever way I needed to today.”

🟠 STORIES CAN CONNECT US, OR CAN (PURPSEFULLY) KEEP US AT BAY. The seemingly pointless, repetitive, aggressively boring and aggravatingly-angry ones are attempting the latter. “Anger…pushes people away and keeps them from getting close enough to see you. I wonder if John needs people to be angry at him so that they won’t see his sadness.” Deep. Be boring with your therapist to do get stuck, but please don’t do it in comms.

🟠 STORIES HAVE LIMITS TO SHOWING REALITY. Remember to work in the here-and-now, to illustrate, to let different people speak up. ”One on one, therapists get depth but not breadth, words without illustrations. Despite being the ultimate #insider in terms of Julie’s thoughts and feelings, I’m an #outsider here among all these people I don’t know but who knew Julie.…Instead of focusing on a patient’s stories from the outside world, and here-and-now is about what’s occurring in the room.” Whatever you do, don’t get lost in the BIG, generic narratives. Understand what you’re not seeing, the puzzle pieces you’re missing.

The foundations of it all: understanding. Understanding of the self in therapy, understanding of a subject in comms. And that can be pretty humbling. 

Here’s to telling and editing stories that help real people.

Hi! I’m a comms professional and creative for social impact. On my CV, I have life experience in leadership. Off it, I know about some hard edges of life. Through it all, I write to connect the dots and help bring out the best in people.

Reach out via LinkedIn or Email if you’re now feeling a tingle of connection, excitement, thirst for more. Or go back to the Blog to keep exploring. 

7 things I learned from leading teams as a creative communicator for social impact

I don’t believe in born leaders. Some of us grow up as leaders, others craft their way to leadership later in life and a third group walk a quite different path altogether. As the Communications Coordinator of the European Youth Energy Network, an experienced project manager and passionate creative, I want to share bits of what I learned over the past months, choosing leadership and connection above everything.

(this place is a work in progress, like all writing that happens in the time borrowed from other things; so please bear with me)

#1 – A leader shows the big picture. Be it giving insights into organisational strategy, showing connections inside our work or even tossing in inputs from the creative world seen elsewhere. To be considered when the time is ripe for them. Interdisciplinarity is key. For example, graphic design is a lot more than making things pretty. Graphic design is about breaking down complex things, creating order, storytelling and messaging, making things human, prompting curiosity. It’s about organising information, visual and text-based and emotive.

#2 – A lot of the work is literally about building confidence.I trust you to figure it out”, “I’m seeing your progress and eagerness to learn”, “If this journey is what you want, I’m confident you’ll get there” – we can all say this more often. While explaining those uses of secondary colours, element combination bingos and perfect punchlines. Or just the importance of a comms activity or result, and why it needs to happen till a certain deadline. Do not take anything for granted. Just because the puzzle pieces are layed out nicely in your head, it doesn’t mean that others see them (they might just see the puzzle, and like the result..or well, not so much). To cite Brené Brown from the Dare To Lead book: “A strong leader pulls players toward a deep belief in themselves.” And: “Clear is Kind. Unclear is Unkind”

#3A leader is also human. Between the funny parts and the „being overwhelmed or still figuring out things“ parts.” – as I wrote before in my last leadership text. It’s still equally true. I learned to not be afraid to show up, show my vulnerability also in the professional context, and thus also steer expectations back towards what is realistic. As volunteers – me, you, everyone. We can be fun and professional, confident and honest at the same time. It takes courage to speak (and also sit through moments of silence) and intentionality to say what is natural and needed. “I’m also learning” – I’ve said this before, and I will keep saying it.

#4 Give feedback. Ask for what feedback is needed, structure, be concrete, keep it brief. I’ve made good experiences with “what kind of feedback do you want?”, “why do you (not) like it?”, “what do you like about it?“, “what is your idea behind…?”. Help the other person to think and understand before rushing in with advice. Finding a balance between letting a team member work their way through (eg the admittedly hard-to-learn language of our branding) and directing towards what we know works vs doesn’t is something every creative leader needs to figure out. With every unique person they work with. Balancing the needs of the organisation, upholding the trust in the brand, with those of the humans growing inside.

#5 – 1on1 meetings are great to address questions of your team member, revisit how previous work went and talk about motivation & the future development of their role(s). I found that these meetings, even when happening a lot less regularly due to a volunteering environment, create a space beyond the operational and balance out expectations of team lead and member. A space to discuss how you want to work together. To open the floor for feedback to you as a leader, giving – but also asking.

#6Allow people to innovate (but don’t expect or force them to do it at all times). I learned that it materialized through a mix of ownership, clear responsibilities, short feedback loops (screenshots and quick message over Slack or WhatsApp? yes, that’s what I mean) and tasks that fit the passion of the person. Most importantly, it’s about breaking down complexity. Not overcomplicating things. Asking yourself “Is this simple? Can I simplify it further?”. Be it decision-making processes, feedback, literally designs or other. #simplicity #clarity

#7 You can set up a creative studio, and it’s worth it. You can have a common place with all your world of brand materials, collaborate with colleagues on designs, and then extract the essence of what works into a brand book. It takes time, but through common iteration ping-pongs, feedbacks, learning from each other and picking up creative ideas, systematizing blurbs and design templates for different occasions and processes you get far. You’re professional, and you still have fun. It’s still not easy, but I was amazed by what we built up. With the aim of setting up a best-practice for a communication team and hub, as we haven’t seen before in the youth space.

PS: Crafting powerful designs is hard work, just as crafting human connection is. They both require care, presence and attention to detail. And they yield immense power. Many of us are both makers and leaders, and that’s exciting.

Hi! I’m a comms professional and creative for social impact. On my CV, I have life experience in leadership. Off it, I know about some hard edges of life. Through it all, I write to connect the dots and help bring out the best in people.

Reach out via LinkedIn or Email if you’re now feeling a tingle of connection, excitement, thirst for more. Or go back to the Blog to keep exploring. 

Leadership feels like gardening sometimes – the leader I am and want to be

When my intolerance against #newleadership, #distributedleadership and the like grows into a big cloud, I decide to make it rain down in something useful. In an early morning in bed, before rushing to the office, I write about what really matters for leadership, beyond the stunning beaming, buzzing, blaring buzzwords. This is my experience after years of leadership in the civil society space:

#1A leader is visionary. A compass. An inspiration to team members. As a leader I’m driven by a vision and I communicate it, I share my passion and sometimes my story (with new people), I set the direction (but don’t plan the details) & create goals and then get everyone on board. I’m not afraid of taking risks. I don’t delegate decisions if it’s me who has to take them. I communicate clearly – also the bad news, give all the info necessary, ask direct questions to clarify things. Responsibility towards the team starts with myself: I’m organized and I find ways to keep an overview. A leader demonstrates confidence, and thus makes others feel secure.

#2A leader is also human. Between the funny parts and the „being overwhelmed or still figuring out things“ parts. I’m authentic and honest at all times and I invite the team to be that too. Successes and failures go together. I bring in non-work things and the sharing of personal stories, but I don’t speak of “wellbeing” or other buzzwords if I don’t have a plan there; I don’t create false expectations, bubbles separate from the world. Yes, I speak of “war”, I don’t pretend.

#3 As a leader I am by definition team-focused, I have „my“ team I’m working in, I’m well rooted in it, I feel responsible for it and my role is clear to others. I get to know my team members, I’m interested in them. I manage projects, build partnerships, but I LEAD people (and EMPOWER them to lead all along, a precondition to modern leadership). Having a team also means to empower team members to get the best work out of themselves, to help them figure out how to bring in their passions & background in unique ways and adjust tasks accordingly.

#4 Presence is key for leadership. For me it means leading meetings regularly and also processes visible to the team, speaking up, giving strategic input. I constantly try to bring order into the chaos, sharing overviews and insights into strategy, breaking down the big things happening and staying on top of key news so we can actually act on them. It’s also about sharing what I know, reminding of resources, leading by example – in reporting/transparency, inclusion, good organisation etc. Empowering with honesty and transparency.

5# I foster ideas / am quick in picking up ideas from the team, I invite people to try out new things (if time permits). I take any concerns seriously, respond to feedback (am generally responsive), give advice and invite the team to ask others or me for advice, and importantly I create spaces. Bringing people together to avoid working in silos – this is a huge thing, this is coordination. And it brings efficiency and motivation. Also, inviting discussions about norms and how we want to work together. I contribute to the resolution of conflicts (especially when I’m the reason). I keep an eye out for people who are disconnected, I reach out and offer support.

Leadership feels like gardening sometimes, and it’s exciting to see a team (and just the individual humans in there honestly more) grow.