Anti-Oppression Actions for Designing in Collaboration

“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.” (Morales, 2019, p. 65)

A new paper, Anti-Oppression Mindsets for Collaborative Design, will be published as part of the Design Research Society (DRS) Conference in August, 2020. In this paper I draw on the work of Decolonising Design and Design Justice, and I learn from Cross-Cultural Psychology to shape careful and respectful relationships with design partners. Here is a glimpse at the framework. You can read more in the full paper.

This set of postures that I recommend here reflect my ongoing, deliberate work to recognize the necessary anti-racist mindsets and techniques that I did not learn in traditional design practice. I come to this as a white, female, cis-gender design researcher who has practiced in commercial settings for many years. In my professional work, I began to transition to community contexts without taking the time to learn community-based or anti-oppression approaches. The framework in the table below proposes how designers might prepare to lead projects with racial fluency and attention to anti-oppression strategies.

A framework to emphasize anti-oppression approaches for collaborative projects.

To understand how we might do harm in our interactions and shaping of design projects, I have synthesized recommendations from across socially oriented design and multicultural psychology. Cultural competence is required when working alongside communities who are at the center of complex problems. When we haven’t reflected enough on the role that race plays in society, we can reveal ways that we think of some people as “other,” non-standard, or exotic. Derald Wing Sue’s in-depth analysis of interpersonal interactions can help prepare design researchers to work with participants with wisdom and respect. His core textbook offers advice for providing therapy to clients from different cultural and identity backgrounds. He describes the work of developing a cultural competence that is needed to work across cultural boundaries.

Christine Marie Ortiz Guzman offers a useful critique of design thinking processes that too often rely heavily on meritocracy. Jonathan Mijs confirms the problems of meritocracy, describing how, “opportunities for merit are themselves determined by non-meritocratic factors (2016, p. 14).” In status quo thinking we take these habits of group voting and sharing ideas aloud in unstructured conversations as a natural way to distribute power, but in practice meritocracy upholds existing unequal power structures. Those with the most power in the room will typically feel comfortable and confident to dominate conversations and therefore design outcomes. Essential voices with local and specialized knowledge can be ignored if space is not made to hear from those who are typically at the edges. Without tools and intentions to actively redistribute power, we may continue to privilege those who have always been centered in design processes.

On the other hand, a strength of many design approaches is that only a few powerful stories are needed to inspire change. Ortiz Guzman identifies this as an equitable practice because it “places value on the personal and emotional, the contextual and specific (p. 29).” In Feminist practice, the concept of standpoint theory is powerful. It is the idea that people who experience systems from the margins (racial minorities, differently gendered, differently abled) will have more insight into how these systems truly work. Such people can offer more profound, more accurate, more justice-oriented perspectives (Wylie, 2013). In the United States, this means that people of color are likely to have more insight into social structures than the white majority, and women will have gained a more critical perspective on sexism from navigating traditionally male-dominated institutions. This approach is emphasized by Maria Elena Torre (2009) and in Bagele Chilisa’s textbook, Indigenous Research Methodologies (2012), in which she proposes that we should “conduct research in such a way that the worldviews of those who have suffered a long history of oppression and marginalization are given space to communicate from their frames of reference.” In design, when we are seeking points of inspiration and insight, it is not necessary to focus on the experiences of the majority. We can lift up and act on what we determine to be most important or most useful.

When designing with and for a community, we are taking on more responsibility to intervene in systems that will have a more significant impact than traditional commercial settings. We must ensure we see the entire picture and structure our projects in anti-oppressive, ways. We are now asking for a seat at the table to participate in long-term and deeply involved topics, and we need to do that with equity.

Chilisa, B. (2019). Indigenous Research Methodologies. Sage Publications.

Mijs, J.J.B. (2016). “The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy: Three Lessons and Their Implications for Justice in Education.” Soc Just Res 29, 14–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-014-0228-0

Morales, A. L. (2019). Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals. Durham: Duke University Press

.Ortiz Guzman, C. M. (2017). equityXdesign: Leveraging Identity Development in the Creation of an Anti-Racist Equitable Design Thinking Process. PhD diss.

Sue, D. W., Sue, D., Neville, H. A. and Smith, L. (2015). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Wylie, A. (2013). “Why Standpoint Matters.” Science and Other Cultures, pp. 34–56. Routledge.

Design → AntiRacism → Design | pursuing a PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign