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.

Escobar’s Design for the Pluriverse

Arturo Escobar’s 2018 book

The West and global North can draw inspiration for new futures from cultures that see themselves as more connected to the earth, rather than in dominance over nature. This is one of the many calls to ideas and action in Arturo Escobar’s 2018 book, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Designers hold some responsibility for ignoring or sublimating the types of knowledge that value natural systems and ways of measuring progress. Epistemologies of the South (ES) is a framework to turn to begin to learn from these holistic ways of envisioning.

Escobar is proposing that we can center “the intersecting goals of ecological sustainability, social justice, and pluriversality” through practices that move beyond many of the boundaries that characterize Western, modern and postmodern thought. He draws from a range of authors working and writing toward environmentalism who reframe doing and knowing as intertwined.

Understand that everything exists only in relation to other things, as “mutually constituted,” and remove the boundary between humans/non-human/nature for a healthier self, society, and planet.

Reading through his call to action for a radical new approach to designing, makes me wonder, where is space room for spirituality in design education? Design practice? Do we need spirituality to have morality? What else upholds the ethics needed besides religion and spirituality?

Escobar writes, 

There are nevertheless aspects of [Thomas] Berry’s work that would require deeper reflection on designers’ part, such as his view of the Earth as a bio-spiritual planet; his insistence on the need to re-create an intimacy with the Earth as essential to crafting the new story (“ We cannot discover ourselves without first discovering the universe, the earth, and the imperatives of our own being”; 1988, 195); and, perhaps most difficult and controversial, the idea that central to the transition is a trans-rational thought guided by revelatory visions, one that is attuned to life’s self-organizing potential and best accessed through myth and dreams, “indicating an intuitive, non-rational process that occurs when we awaken to the numinous powers ever present in the phenomenal world about us” (as, say, shamans have done throughout the ages; 1988, 211).

(Escobar, 2018, Loc. 3173)

Are designers prepared with the critical thinking skills to contribute to enter political  and restorative work? What could change in design education to help us contribute?

Can design contribute to fulfilling the historic, perhaps vital, task of catalyzing forms of collective intelligence that attend to the kinds of choices confronting us, including design’s own role in creating them?

(Loc. 2486)

Ontological design is important for designers, to remind us to reflect on the responsibility of the choices we make as we give form and shape experiences. Clive Dilnot writes, “how things are thought: not as ‘dead’ possessions or signs or markers but as ‘live gifts’ working, at base, ‘for’ us, and working in their ‘circulation’ between and among us to establish a circle of making and self-making” (1993, The Gift, p. 57). But I have to wonder, is it really the designers who are shaping the choices– or are we describing the act of designing more holistically, and we therefore have to recognize that business people and engineers will often carry greater weight in deciding what is created? Therefore the designer is one voice who can reflect on the experiences we are shaping– but turning to designers to change the way products are built in the world is leaving out some of the larger influences in most commercial processes.

Emergent Strategy + Transition Design in a poem by Wheatley

 

Turning to One Another

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness.

Stay together.

Margaret Wheatley

Fractal, Adaptive, Iterative: Resilient Solutions

Portrait of adrienne maree brown from adriennemareebrown.net

Recently adrienne maree brown published a very personal and insightful reflection of her study of what works in centering social movements + inspiration from black, feminist science fiction, titled Emergent Strategy. She speaks the language of design naturally. I picked up the book on an impulse because the subtitle speaks to the goals of Transition Design, “Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.” And I am thrilled because she explains many of the Transition theories that Tonkinwise, Kossoff, and Irwin describe— but she is presenting them in simple structures, helping me to understand them further.

I find that this book is informing four critical things for me at once:

1. Describing why Transition Design is necessary and possible.

Let me summarize by quilting together her own words:

“I would call our work to change the world, ‘science fictional behavior’ —being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.We are excited by what we can create; we believe it is possible to create the next world.

“How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of economies and ecologists that center humans and the natural world over the accumulation of material?

“We embody. We learn. We release the idea of failure because it’s all data. But first we imagine.

“We must make JUST and LIBERATED futures irresistible.” – amb

2. Offering a point of view on the best approach to changing a massive system [Emergent Strategies]

“Our tendency is toward hierarchical and capitalistic and growth at all costs. But it is the adaptive and collaborative practices that are more sustainable. Those are the beings that survive through change.

“What we practice at the small-scale sets the patterns for the whole system. To see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation’s, and alignment with each other and the planet.

“We are microsystems. We must create patterns that cycle upwards.

“Emergence emphasizes critical connections over critical mass, building authentic relationships, listening with all the senses of the body and mind.” – amb

3. To look at everything with LOVE is the best, healthiest way to be personally resilient enough to tackle these difficult challenges.

“Where shame makes us freeze and try to get really small and invisible, pleasure invites us to move, to open, to grow.

“I am listening now with all my senses, as if the whole universe might exist just to teach me more about love… This practice lets me connect to the part of myself that is divine, aligned with the universe, and the place within myself where I can be a conduit for spiritual truth.

“Nothing is required of me more than being, and creating. Simultaneously being present with who I am, who we are as a species…and creating who we must become, and within that who I must become.

“…a pendulum swinging between curiosity, possibility, and hopelessness.” -amb

4. Notes on current day, American issues

“Americans don’t know how to do democracy. We don’t know how to make decisions together, how to create generative compromises, how to advance policies that center justice. Until we have a sense of how to live our solutions locally, we won’t be successful at implementing a just governance system regionally, nationally or globally.” -amb

The lack of comfort with, and trust in, politicians makes me think of the newly-realized sexual assault accountability for (some) politicians. And a recent Ezra Klein show podcast that presents the idea that Congress is not debating enough– within each party. Republicans especially are afraid to disagree with each other, and therefore BEST solutions don’t emerge. James Wallner, author and political scientist, makes a case for more discussion, less suppression.

The Democratic Party needs a redefinition.

“What happens when we succeed? New problems? Detroit filmmaker Oya Amakisi once shared with me the words of General Baker, a Detroit labor organizer and leader, who said, ‘You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?’” -amb

If we impeach Trump— will we be ready for a well-thought-out next step? What will we do differently to be a better option as a Democratic Party?