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Aryn Drake-Lee and Jesse Williams Amplify the Art of the GIF

Jesse Williams and Aryn Drake Lee Courtesy of Ebroji App

Long before he became a household name on the Hollywood streets, when actor Jesse Williams met his wife Aryn Drake-Lee, she was a successful Real Estate Broker in Park Slope, Brooklyn and he was History teacher. The couple has always shared interests in justice, the arts and education and they've partnered up to bring their passions into the tech atmosphere.

At ComplexCon in November, Williams and Drake-Lee spoke on a panel about the power of communication, diversity in technology, and the first year of their Ebroji app. Launched in January of 2016, the Ebroji app is a platform that allows users of all backgrounds to express their feelings through a diverse curated set of GIFs.

The GIFs are categorized and include everything from select side-eyes by your favorite celebrities to magnificent mannerisms from your favorite TV characters that make a perfect response to your texting pal or Twitter community.

Whether you want to spread Black Girl Magic via Beyonce, do a happy dance like The Fresh Prince of Belaire, or shrug like Kanye, the app allows you to find the best expression of your thoughts at the time.

NBCBLK spoke with Drake-Lee about the app and her journey to opening up the communication for people that want to express themselves in unique ways beyond what’s available to them from the mainstream.

Courtesy Mathew Scott for Complex
NBCBLK: What is your main message when sharing about the Ebroji App?

Aryn Drake-Lee: The impetus for us is really to create a space and a tool for many of the underrepresented communities of people in the social media and conversational space.

We are unfortunately in a place in the tech landscape where the majority of the products coming out and the people making the products are white people. As a result of that, there is a clear gap in the variety of voices and representation that trickles down to the actual mediums, platforms, and many of the tools; the apps and those pieces of the business.

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We were hoping to, being that the [social networking] space is very widely known as being dominated by people of color, especially black people, we wanted to create a tool for people to use and be able to see themselves and speak from their voice and point of view. We wanted to create a product that was reflecting voices and imagery that we didn’t find were widely accessible and could not be easily found before then. It’s about the sharing and the expansion of the variety of voices that people can use when they’re representing themselves.

Sample GIFs and text message from the Ebroji App. Courtesy of Ebroji App.

How did the idea for the Ebroj App come about?

I grew up multilingual, so the idea of language and understanding nuance and understanding culture and being able to express yourself in a variety of ways and with the ability to see from different perspectives, that’s something that’s important for me personally. It’s also important for me that people are able to express themselves from their point of view in their voice in the way that they want to be heard.

It started originally just as reaction to there being no brown emojis. There really wasn’t much when we first started talking about it last year so it kind of started from there. When the new brown emojis did start to come out, it was a blessing in disguise. Originally, we didn’t see this [lack of representation] as something that was going to be solved just from us changing the color of the faces of the emojis anyway because that’s not really the point. The point is for [emojis and tools] to represent the people the way they might want to be represented.

So we were looking to try to figure out what elements would be used in the space based on the types of conversations people were having and what people were using to express themselves. One thing that black people are very good at is taking what little they have and making it work for us and turn it into something amazing and beautiful.

We wanted to not just deal with that particular issue but kind of be a couple steps ahead of ourselves and see where the conversation would lead and that’s how we got to the gif keyboard creation.

What difference are you offering from other apps?

The difference between what we are offering, besides it being a boutique experience rather than a warehouse experience, and other apps is that we are your curators of culture. We set [the content] up to be an extension of language and emotion that allows you to interject that clarity of what you're trying to say since so many of us have been misinterpreted on a variety of different occasions be it socially or otherwise.

We’ve categorized it and curated the experience so that it’s a two-sided discovery of the message experience. It allows you to be very quick on your feet. You usually get the response of ‘How did you find that?’ or ‘Where did you find that?’ on the other side. We are here to have a fun experience in the process.

"Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" New York Premiere - Outside Arrivals
Actor Jesse Williams (R) and Aryn Drake-Lee attend the premiere of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on July 28, 2008 in New York City. WireImage

How do you think technology can advance social justice?

Everything we do has that in mind and part of what’s at play in the overall system and the situation that we find ourself in is that the conversations, the control, and the mouthpieces are often one sided. In order to really have a very clear perspective on what people are thinking and wanting, you have to be able to be able to hear from those people.

Through the creation of this particular app, we wanted to create a space for people to be comfortable to express themselves more directly. When you’re used to hearing from just a couple of outlets, and being talked down to often, it’s very disempowering we’re hoping to give fuel to that feeling of inclusion and acceptance and hopefully empower people to say and represent how they really truly feel.

When you’re empowered because you’re seen and understood you’re empowered to move the ball down the court and stand up for what’s really important to you. We are tired of hearing from the few and we want to break open the space to hear from many more. Through this tool, we are able to expand the conversation and able to include people that have traditionally been excluded from the conversation to represent themselves and share their views.

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