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Design for Equity: Participate and Contribute to the Movement

May 8, 2015

The last post in the Design For Equity series was meant to be a conclusion, but of course it is also a beginning. We’d like to use this final essay to reflect on who we are as a group and what this work means to us, and more importantly, provide you with some ideas and insights about how to move these discussions forward and work towards more equitable design practices.

Collaboration Is Not Easy

We are a group of peer practitioners who knew each other from years of shared interests in the broader field of public interest design, and as explained in the first essay in this series, we came together to address a certain critique of the status quo of our field. This series enabled us to articulate a platform that has strengthened our resolve to work towards more equitable design practices, both individually and collaboratively. We hope to promote others to do the same, but as Jess Zimbabwe points out in her article on trans-disciplinary thinking, collaboration is not easy. She explains that for actual collaboration, “practitioners need not only in-depth knowledge and know-how of the disciplines involved but skills in moderation, mediation, adult learning, and transfer of knowledge.”

Furthermore, Jess emphasized the importance of recognizing that collaboration is the most powerful and pervasive resource for our field. When you think about your own accomplishments, think about all the people who helped in your success. Think about all the different skillsets they have and how critical your collaboration with them was to the success of those projects. Try making a list of all the people you have collaborated with. My guess is that your list gets longer and longer the more you think about all the different people who have contributed to your work in one way or another, directly or indirectly. This is because all meaningful work happens through collaboration.

Rose Fellows_Sante Fe

This reflects a larger insight our group has come to – by growing our awareness of the nuanced qualities of collaboration, and simply by paying attention to the qualities of our relationships, we can give rise to a more network-based field that can move beyond the limitations of traditional hierarchical structures. This can help us create a field of social impact design that not only fuels a diversity of voices, but also embraces accountability – another recurring theme throughout this series.

Accountability in Process and Practice

In Christine and Liz’s article on the language of equity, they brought to light why we must hold ourselves accountable to incorporating design for equity into all aspects of our practice.

“The focus on equity makes clear that our projects are not ‘good’ just because we are bringing design to communities that have not had access to it. Our work should also strive to create greater equity in society and to eradicate the barriers that prevent some from accessing resources…This has implications for a broad range of factors, including how we engage with communities we are not a part of, how we treat our own employees, how we share credit for our work, and how we measure impact.”

They also note that accountability doesn’t start with the projects, but with us. As community designers, language is not something that we often give much thought to, but concepts like privilege and power factor greatly into the outcomes of our work regardless of whether or not we choose to acknowledge them. The next time you embark on a project, reflect on the role that equity, power, and privilege are playing. What are the power dynamics of the context? How much privilege and influence do the various stakeholders have in the situation – from the person funding the project to the community members impacted? Don’t forget to include yourself in that matrix of power and privilege because you have the potential to play an important role as well. Ask yourself what would it take to bring equity to the design process?

Rose Fellows_Sante Fe2

Developing an action plan for your design team to hold itself accountable is a critical part of all of this. In Barbara and Liz’s article on linking intent to impact, they stressed the importance of an action plan that incorporates an outcomes based approach from the earliest stages of a project in order to hold ourselves accountable to equitable processes.

“To fully embrace outcomes in our work, we must also acknowledge that they can’t just be tacked on at the end of the design process. We know we shouldn’t wait until the end of the design process to start thinking about how a building can be energy efficient or made of sustainable materials. Thinking about and planning for equity outcomes is no different… a team can employ a developmental evaluation approach, wherein metrics evolve with a project as it is refined. This way the project team is empowered to iterate concepts for impact evaluation from the very beginning instead of being paralyzed by the notion of metrics at the end.”

How might you begin to incorporate these lessons into your work? First, talk to your project collaborators about working on a theory of change to determine the priority outputs and outcomes for the project (if you’re unfamiliar, +Acumen has a great free online intro course on theory of change.) Second, throughout the project, regularly evaluate your theory of change and assess your progress and revise your framework as needed to reflect what you’ve learned along the way.

Enterprise_ISA HxD_Lathrop

Accountability is not only important in project outcomes and the creative process, but in the way we work and run our businesses as well. Christine and Jess address this head on in their article on incorporating equity outcomes into practice.

“It’s challenging to build and maintain a practice in the social impact design space. Addressing pipeline, diversity, staffing, and financial issues is a heavy load, but our work won’t really be design for equity until we take on these issues and make sure our own internal practices are consistent with our values and the larger social equity goals we are fighting for.”

Paying Attention

In the same way that we need to view our work though an equity lens in our professional practices, we also need to understand this on a personal level. A few weeks ago, I visited Theresa Hwang at the design center on Skid Row, where she has been facilitating “Our Skid Row” – an ongoing initiative that puts into action the civil rights framework she described in her essay in this series. We were surrounded by empowered visions; words, drawings, models, and diagrams of aspirations for the future of Skid Row generated by its own residents. We spoke about the Design For Equity series, and in particular we reflected on the points that Nicole Joslin raised in her piece exploring career pathways in social impact design.

Our Skid Row_Open House

Nicole brought to light the importance of mentorship in cultivating a more robust field of practitioners, which sparked an idea for us to develop a mentorship exercise. Inspired by the diagrams surrounding us, Theresa and I began to draw diagrams of our own. We drew out our ‘network of loving relations,’ a term used by Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Senge uses this phrase in connection to what he calls learning organizations – groups of people who are continually enhancing their creative capabilities through collaboration – which have been shown to be deeply influential in the for-profit and non-profit world alike.

We asked ourselves, who are the people who help us on our path, and perhaps more importantly, what are the qualities of those relationships? What makes them successful, or not? For example, I found that while there are many people who inspire me, there needed to be a high degree of reciprocity of engagement to warrant a place in my network of loving relations. I believe that if we pay close attention to the quality of our relationships with one another and work to strengthen them, we will be better able to develop pathways for diverse young practitioners and ultimately create a field as diverse as the communities we work with.

Network of Loving Relations_Theresa

One of my primary takeaways from this series is about the act of simply paying attention. Paying attention to the quality of relationships, paying attention to the far-too-present structural inequalities in our field, and paying attention to the use and abuse of power. Paying attention is the most powerful place to begin, and the act of paying attention is a tool we all have at our disposal.

Endings, Beginnings and the Future

As this series on Design for Equity comes to an end, our team of collaborators has been thinking about what comes next. We have met many times over the past two years and now we want to invite you to join in the conversation. We took pains to create a level of trust that allowed for honest reflection and meaningful collaboration and we hope you will do the same. We found that while we couldn’t solve these systemic problems as individuals, we were able to have a larger impact by joining forces and investing in collaboration. We hope you will help us expand this conversation and mature it, and we hope it remains honest, relevant and self-reflective.

Carver Apt MMA

Instead of creating a new entity to push this work forward, we plan to infiltrate our own conferences and networks, and identify new ones to use as platforms for promoting Design for Equity as a concept. We hope that Design for Equity can become a stream of dialogue within practice that is enriched by every new contributor. The Design for Equity website will continue to evolve as well, so we hope you join us in that evolution.

This summer we will host discussions at several professional events, including the upcoming Design Futures Student Leadership Forum and the Association for Community Design Conference. For those of you in whom these values resonate, let’s work together to raise the bar.

Please visit our website – – for more information and updates, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at

– Katie Swenson, with Jess Zimbabwe, Barbara Brown Wilson, Liz Ogbu, Nicole Joslin, Theresa Hwang, Christine Gaspar, and Jess Garz

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