The value of critical standpoints in designing toward justice


The more we understand about our histories of both oppression and resistance to it, of injury and resistance, the better we come to know our real capacities, and the better able we become to act powerfully and build real alliances.

(Aurora Levin Morales, Medicine Stories, 2019, p. 65)

Service Design, Participatory Design, and now Transition Design are critiqued for intervening in systems without a thorough understanding of historic oppression. Our lack of fluency in discussing marginality, as a white-majority field educated in historically EuroAmerican institutions, has us skim over systemic biases that shape the lived experience of many, such as race, class, gender, ability, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. If we don’t actively learn about these histories and reflect on our own positionally within these structures, we cannot claim to be doing good work.

When we fail to see the entire picture, we naively waste resources and risk alienating the very people we want to engage. Design approaches applied without consideration to systemic bias can be narrow and short-term. To intervene in complex social challenges to transition systems for the long-term we must develop an ability to critique from a deeper perspective.

The concept of standpoint–from black feminist theory: that people who are forced to experience systems from the margins will have more insight into how they really work (Wylie, 2013)– can offer a deeper perspective to Transition Design approaches. In the United States, this means that People of Color are likely to have more insight into social structures than the white majority, because they come face to face with barriers more often, and women will have a more critical perspective from navigating traditionally male-dominated institutions.

Embracing the self-reflection involved with acknowledging our own standpoints, and those of others, is an important step toward undoing the structural oppressions that are at the root of so many of our social and ecological challenges. When we incorporate the subjectivity of our own perspectives into planning a complex design project, and then deliberately involve people with alternative standpoints, we can ensure more of the problem will be understood and incorporated into the solution. Developing a more critical lens to see more of the system leads to finding more collaborators to disrupt biased systems from the root.

Morales, Aurora Levins. Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Wylie, Alison. “Why standpoint matters.” In Science and other cultures, pp. 34-56. Routledge, 2013.

Creative Mornings Oakland: OGs, Babies, and Bullets

Pendarvis Harshaw portrait

Pendarvis Harshaw spoke at the Creative Mornings Oakland‘s (free!) monthly event today. He is a journalist and educator who lives and reflects on the issues of Black culture in Oakland and everywhere.  He is probably most known for collecting wisdom from older Black men and sharing those stories at #OGToldMe.

As I listened, I heard several opportunities for Transition Design level analysis and fresh ideas for reversing social tragedies.

“If you think that the system doesn’t work, SHOW that it doesn’t work.”
[design mapping, Tufte-level diagrams?]

How might we stop the cycle of “babies and bullets?” And how might we care for the women who are left holding it all together?
[Transition Design interventions at government, community and individual levels]

And when a woman in the audience shared her story of being shot for disrupting an abusive conversation, she talked about healing for herself and the young man who shot her. “I am glad the police didn’t catch him, that would only perpetuate the cycle.”
OGPenn responded with, “[How might we] redesign what justice looks like?”