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Sabiha Basrai, Graphic Designer

Design Diva & Activist Sabiha Basrai

If anyone has every told you that you can’t meld all your passions into a successful career, then they only said that to you because they couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves. If you want proof that this is possible, all you need to do is turn to Sabiha Basrai as an example. Sabiha, 24, is a Graphic Designer by trade and an Activist by nature. She bridged her love of the two worlds by taking a job working at the Design Action Collective, a design and communications agency that supports design work for important non-profit and activist organizations. She first knew that she could be successful in pursuing a career in design without having to compromise her social justice passions when she completed her Senior Project on the history of political poster art. Check out some of Sabiha’s beautiful work and learn more about what she is up to as we feature her in this week’s Non-Profit Spotlight.


Design Action Collective






Sabiha Basrai
Graphic Designer




Mountain View, California

Current residence

Oakland, California


Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
BS Art and Design (2004)

Work Experience

Public Interest GRFX
Graphic Design Associate

Design Action Collective
Graphic Designer



About the company

Design Action Collective is an independent design and communications spin-off of Inkworks Press Collective. After more than a decade of offering graphic design services to non-profit, grassroots, and activist organizations under the same roof as its print shop, Inkworks decided that both its print and design services would benefit from the creation of a new collective. This has allowed us to expand our design capabilities, to provide web and other interactive and “new media” services, and expand to include strategic communications and messaging.

Design Action is a union shop, affiliated with Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO. We are also active members of Graphic Alliance, the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives, and the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Design Action is a certified Green Business with the County of Alameda.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

I am one of five graphic designers that make up Design Action Collective. We all share project and administrative responsibilities in order to serve the communications needs of activists and organizers.

Most notable milestones

My experiences as an art student at Cal Poly sharpened my focus in this kind of work. I was the Co-Director of the Progressive Student Alliance and I worked hard to promote issues of social and environmental justice, both on the local and global levels, through direct action protests and educational events. The post-September 11th climate was an interesting time to be a Muslim student activist protesting U.S. militarism, and the challenges I faced helped me learn about myself.

I was also involved with the Art and Design Department at Cal Poly where I worked in the University Art Gallery, and the Graphic Design resource center. I was eager to find ways to combine my passions for social justice activism with my love of art and design. I am grateful for the opportunity to curate a show in the University Art Gallery called “United We Heal” which showcased student work relating to September 11th — the bombing of Afghanistan, and the larger issues associated with the War on Terror. Some of the work was put up for auction and the proceeds went to build a child care center at Kabul University so widows with children could finish their degrees.

When the bombing of Afghanistan first began, my fellow peace activists and I launched a week long hunger strike in protest. Our goal was to get the attention of the student body and community at large and engage them in discussions about the War on Terror. I didn’t eat anything for 7 days and was busy helping to organize anti war events all week. It was an emotionally and physically draining experience. I learned a lot about myself and we succeeded in bringing a lot of attention to the issue.

Also, I did my Senior Project on the history of political poster art — specifically relating to the anti war movement. My work on this paper and the “United We Heal” show, gave me insight into the nature of affective visual communication when discussing these issues and served to prepare me for this career as a graphic designer in the progressive movement.

What’s the niche?

I have been concerned about social and environmental justices issues since a very young age. And I had always been interested in art because of the influence of my parents who are both in the arts (my mom is a graphic designer, and my dad does film/video work).

Throughout college, I was searching for opportunities to combine my skills in visual communication, art, and design with my passion for social justice activism. I wanted to use my specialized skills to further “the cause”; It is because of my understanding of social, political, and environmental issues coupled with my skills as an artist that makes me a good fit for Design Action Collective.

What’s the biggest challenge?

It is hard to keep an optimistic attitude about this kind of work when I am constantly reminded of all the problems and suffering in the world. But I can’t think of anything else I’d rather spend my time working on. I don’t think that my work will change the world, but this is what I can do to contribute to making things better.

What’s in store for the future?

I am lucky enough to have found my dream job early on in my career. I could see myself continuing to do this work for the long term.

Best way to keep a competitive edge

I try to go to as many conferences and events in the design and the activist communities so I can stay connected with people I’d want to work with.

Afghani Woman

Guiding principle in life

I feel that it is important to think of myself as part of a global community of people working against social injustice. I am motivated by the goal to leave my community a little better than I found it. I am aware that being a college educated American gives me great societal privileges.

I believe that it is my responsibility to use my abilities to promote positive change.

Yardstick of success

Right now I can support myself through my art. Some day I hope to be able to support a family.

Goal yet to be achieved

I have been considering getting my masters in visual communication design. I thrive in academic environments and I think a higher degree would open up opportunities to work on new and interesting projects.

Best practical advice

You are never too old to be idealistic.

Supportive words from a family member or friend

When I was seven years old, I told my grandfather that when I grew up, I wanted to be a graphic designer like my mom. And he said to me that it was a fine plan, but I first must think of how I can help other people.


My parents are my best friends. They’ve always backed me up — especially when I break the status quo.

What motivated you to get started?

I have always thought of graphic design as creative problem solving. While studying art and design, and taking advantage of internship opportunities at various design firms, I found that the visual communication work I was most drawn to was in the social justice movement. This was because the creative problem solving seemed more complex and more interesting to me. I was also impressed how political activist artists were able to make striking visual statements with only limited resources.

I found that the quality of my design was higher when I was working to promote a cause I really cared about. When I found that there were many artists and writers and designers who were making a living by devoting their talents to promote social and environmental justice, I knew I need to work in this niche field.

Iraqi Boy

Like best about what you do?

Besides the fact that I can take my conscience to work with me each day, I loved my job with Public Interest GRFX in Philadelphia and my new job here with Design Action Collective in Oakland because I’ve always had incredibly great co-workers. My working environment has always been inspiring and fun.

Like least about what you do?

Nothing to report here.

At age 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I have known that I wanted to be an artist since I can remember. Both my parents are creative people with jobs in the arts. They both encouraged me to take more art classes and develop my skills. Art and design has always been my favorite thing to study, and as I got older, I was able to sharpen my focus in the subject.

What was your first job?

My first real job was as the director of the graphic design resource center at Cal Poly. My goal was to organize books, senior project reports, and supplies in a way that would make them easily accessible to my fellow art students. It was quite an an undertaking because the the resource center was more of storage room than a library — but over the course of a couple years, and with the collaboration of many students, we were able to transform the dark old closet into a usable library.

Biggest pastime outside of work

I love to paint. If I’m out of paint, I knit.

Person most interested in meeting

Arundhati Roy because all her words are so steeped in wisdom.

Leader in business most interested in meeting

Dame Anita Roddick — the founder of The Body Shop, a cosmetics company dedicated to producing and retailing ethical beauty products.

Because of her campaign work on environmental issues and because of her successful Body Shop franchise, she has been given many awards including Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year (1984), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Honouree, Eyes on the Environment (1997), and International Peace Prayer Day Organization’s Woman of Peace (2001).

I have been a fan of the Body Shop for many years. The girly girl in me loves collecting make up and perfume. But more importantly, I have been a fan of the Body Shop’s emphasis on ethics and sustainability. And I am a fan of Roddick herself because of her ability to succeed in the competitive business world without compromising those ethics.

Though she is no longer heading the Body Shop, I think Roddick is an example of what business leaders should aim to be.

Self-Portrait, Sabiha Basrai>

Three interesting facts about yourself

1. I am Muslim.
2. My parents moved from Bombay so my dad could get his masters in communications from Stanford University. I spent the early years of my childhood in the student housing. I still visit my dad’s old professors who remember me as a baby.
3. While I was a student at Cal Poly, I was also on the Indian Student Association Team.

Three characteristics that describe you

1. creative
2. dedicated
3. sentimental

Three greatest passions

1. Staying connected to my family and religious community despite my nomadic lifestyle.
2. Contributing my time and energy to causes I care about.
3. Traveling — I learn a lot about myself and it helps me break any stereo-types and prejudices I have.

Favorite book

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Favorite cause

There are so many campaigns I have worked on, and it is hard to pick one issue that tugs at my heart strings more than any others. Right now, I am very concerned with the situation in India with regards to Coca-Cola presence in the country.

Communities across India are under assault from Coca-Cola practices. A pattern has emerged as a result of Coca-Cola’s bottling operations in India. Communities across India living around Coca-Cola’s bottling plants are experiencing severe water shortages, directly as a result of Coca-Cola’s massive extraction of water from the common groundwater resource. The wells have run dry and the hand water pumps do not work any more.

Coca-Cola has been indiscriminately discharging its waste water into the fields around its plant and sometimes into rivers, including the Ganges, in the area. The result has been that the groundwater has been polluted as well as the soil. Public health authorities have posted signs around wells and hand pumps advising the community that the water is unfit for human consumption.

This corporate abuse is not only unacceptable, it is down right evil. There are many organizations working in India and abroad that are trying to shed light on the problem but consumers must also put pressure on the Coca-Cola company to stop stealing water.

Who would you like to be contacted by?

I would like to be contacted by any one interested in social justice issues.


Interview by Saba Nasser
Edited by Sumaya Kazi

Article published on May 25th, 2007 | Comment | Trackback | Categories »


May 26th, 2007, 17:55:41
Sombit Mishra


This is truly an inspirational post – a delight to read! It’s wonderful to read how you’ve pursued your passions with vigor.

Your detailed and disturbing commentary on Coca Cola’s practices in India should set off alarm bells in the desi community – I was certainly not aware of the full extent of groundwater contamination and disruption. Have you considered dipping into online video/digital filmography? Your penchant for political activism would dovetail nicely with this new and powerful mode of communication.

For Sabiha and anyone else interested in film, my organization GlobalGiving is hosting a film festival to enable users to turn raw project footage content into visual stories. Grassroots project leaders from around the world have already provided footage — now they need YOU to make a compelling case for why people should support their amazing work. To learn more and sign up, visit http://www.globalgiving.com/filmfest – there are still a few days to submit videos so check it out (deadline is May 31st). There are also scholarship prizes for the winning videos, which can help to further your education, so don’t wait!

Young people have more access to information and creative tools than ever before – many of the 300 filmmakers that have already signed up can vouch for the ease of creating video. You can be the change – through your video, you can raise awareness of some amazing grassroots work around the globe, including projects in India.

Sabiha, thanks again for your post. all the best as you pursue your dreams!

Sombit Mishra
smishra at globalgiving.com

May 27th, 2007, 03:12:32

This article is interesting and i enjoyed it very much. I agree one day you will support you’re family, and in a way Sabiha, you already are, by being happy, awesome, and great! You’re doing great, keep up the good work! :-D

May 28th, 2007, 21:25:36

sabs you are an inspiration!

May 29th, 2007, 14:40:54

Hey Sabiha. I always enjoy hearing about your work and im glad that others can read about it now! Take care and keep in touch!

May 30th, 2007, 17:44:08
Martin Hellman

I am one of those Stanford professors who, as Sabiha put it, remember her since she was a baby. It’s been a privilege to watch you grow into such a beautiful, dedicated young woman. May He who goes by many names, and sometimes none at all, continue to bless you and your work. The Earth certainly is in need of such attention!

June 23rd, 2007, 11:11:23

HI Sabiha!
Way to go!

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