How do you spell “determination?” You might want to start with Danielle Forward.
Now a Product Designer for Facebook, her own user experience landing her dream job at Facebook at age 30 was peppered with bugs. A member of the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians (Makahmo Pomo) in northern California, Danielle grew up in a resource poor environment, but one, as she recounts, that at least had pencils. So, she drew her way through life – and school – ultimately graduating with associates degrees in both social behavioral science and global studies from Santa Rosa Junior College, then with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Interaction Design from the California College of Arts (CCA) with high distinction in 2017 as class valedictorian.
It sounds easy enough, but it was anything but.
Overall, it took Forward 10 years to earn her BFA because she had to work to support herself through school, including financing that venture herself. This meant going part-time, almost marching in place, while she watched her more well-heeled peers zip through in four. In that period, in spite of the very low cost of community college in California, she racked up nearly $100,000 in school loan debt due to the extraordinarily high cost of art school, along with considerable credit card debt deriving from self-financing her living costs. That delta is the cost of the difference in coming from a place of privilege rather than humble circumstances, according to Forward, but is important to understand “because it helps put into perspective where I’m at now,” she contends.
“I used to fold clothes in fitting rooms at a department store, blow up balloons at Party City. I used to make paninis outside of a smog shop at a drive-thru coffee kiosk. I sold video games at Gamestop. I was a personal assistant briefly. I was a barista at a grocery store, sometimes I would make smoothies or scoop ice cream. I did sales for a wholesale perfume company. I used to work at a drug testing laboratory, keying in data of endless amounts of specimen samples each day, sometimes for 10 hours….all while attending school part-time,” Forward recounts.
But the game changers that changed her life were two: “falling in love with humanities” as she learned more about global and socio-political issues, and winning two internships at Facebook.
“I wanted to bridge my existing talents (design & art) with something that reached those new issues I cared about—and it turned out that new ingredient was technology. I began studying ‘interaction design’ after that, a newly coined field that incorporates both design and technology to address all kinds of human problems,” she said.
“After working a few years as a product designer, I started attending my first semester at CCA when Facebook reached out to me to interview for a product design internship. When I started my internship the following summer, I did absolutely everything to get another offer from them. Literally, my life depended on it. I couldn’t afford to keep going to college without the money I earned from that internship. I couldn’t afford to not be the absolute best. I gave it everything I had, and I got another internship offer — which meant I could keep going to college,” she reminisces. And her love of the humanities, propelled her to “[start] to want more than what the design field offered – new domains.” Consequently, product design plugs into both interests.
“Often times people think of “design” only as how a product, service, or experience looks, but also, very importantly—it’s how something works, as well as how it makes you feel,” Forward explains.
While the title Product Designer can mean a lot of things in Silicon Valley, Facebook makes software. Her role is, as she describes it, “to think very deeply about who we’re designing for and what that experience might be like for them.” To do that involves conducting interviews with real users to generate feedback on their problems, concerns, and needs, to keep improving the design to meet people where they are to help them reach their goals.”
But Forward didn’t stop there. She also founded Natives Rising “so that I could help move Native folks enter the tech industry with the support I never had, and to think about broader internet connectivity initiatives for rural indigenous in North America,” she told Native Business Magazine. In addition, she is a lead for Native@Facebook, an internal group of indigenous employees and allies at Facebook whose mission is to build its indigenous community and celebrate and discuss indigenous cultures and news. And she is “also getting more and more involved in the issues of MMIW, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and am excited to keep in touch with Annita Lucchesi on this, who has been working tirelessly to bring greater legislative justice to indigenous women and girls.”
And if there’s any doubt, Forward loves her job.
“Design is a strategic form of organization. As a product designer, I reorganize experiences or products to produce different results. I love mapping out an experience or a system, finding and fixing breakdowns in that experience or system, or completely reconfiguring it to be more enjoyable or efficient. It still reminds me of art, where you rearrange the world in new ways to produce new feelings or outcomes. In this way, you can create different futures, different possibilities for how the world can be,” Forward annotates.
Now 18 months into her dream job at Facebook where she designs tools for Facebook Connectivity products, she sees her future calling as drawing other underprivileged – especially indigenous – people into the tech and design worlds.
“We need them in tech and design. I’d also say that you are absolutely capable of everything everyone else is doing in the world, and what people have in life doesn’t have as much to do with working hard as people say it does. There are tons of people who have everything and never worked for it, and so many people I know who work incredibly hard and barely can survive. Privilege places us at different points in life—but doing the most with what you have, being resourceful, being optimistic and patient with yourself—that can be life changing. At the beginning I knew it would take me 10 years to finish my degree, over twice as long as everyone else. But I said, “I’m going to be alive in 10 years anyway. Wouldn’t it be so much better if I had accomplished my dreams?”
Now a critical member of a team that helps bring broader internet access to the world, Forward sees the internet as “magical in terms of how it can transform people’s lives, relationships, opportunities, and economies – opening doors to online education, offering better access to information, telemedicine, digital finance—all sorts of things!” And she is on the cutting edge.
All of this from a young Native girl whose only young aspiration was to draw Japanese anime.