caught / uncaught

The Saturday after the election, I found myself at the East Bay Meditation Center for a daylong workshop about “Courage at the Crossroads: Faith Over Fear.” The teacher opened the day with reflections from the audience about what brought them to the space that morning. There was so much emotion in the room, we had to air it out in the open before settling into meditation. People spoke honestly, and from the heart. Much anger, frustration, sadness emerged. We were a mixed group: gender, age, race, class, ethnicity, ability. I could sense from the outset that this day was going to be both challenging and necessary for our individual — if not also our collective — healing.

I found myself sitting next to a young woman whose community in East Texas was missing her queer black radical voice. Part of me wanted to say hi to a fellow liberal Texan questioning whether she should be in the Bay Area or back home, but I ended up not saying anything: didn’t think my feelings could compare, having lived in a larger Texas city, having faced less discrimination growing up. On my other side sat an older black woman who spoke with palpable rage and frustration, whose presence emanated strength, and grace, and calm. I listened and I felt alongside her. I just wanted to sit in quiet that day.

After our sitting meditation and our walking meditation and our dharma talk, the day ended with small group discussions about how we might view current events as a positive thing: a hard challenge, and a necessary reframe. I was not courageous enough to opt out of the discussion and to stay in my own silence, so I found myself in a group with three other women of color, who were all farther along on the social justice goddess warrior path than I am. They were frustrated. They were hopeful. They were angry. They were tired. They were energized in their strength and groundedness and hurt, as they have been doing this for so long. When it was my turn to speak, I did so in vague abstractions, alluded to my baby feminism, and shared how these times were going to push me into facing the realities of finally putting my body on the frontlines.

The workshop was wonderful, and helped me to heal, and provided much needed context and compassion from which to move forward. I left the workshop more grounded than I had felt all week — but I also left feeling like shit.

I didn’t feel entitled to the same rage and heartbreak of other black and brown people of color that I was feeling because I was at the same time also feeling the guilt and complicity of the white people that they were railing against, who I too was frustrated with. This feeling of invisible frozenness within their in-between was so familiar to me as a yellow person, that I started spiraling, wondering if I was complicit in this self-silencing of myself, feeling tripped up in repressing my feelings and my words because I didn’t feel I could claim any of it for myself, as if there were someone checking claims tickets, but then again who…?

That’s when I realized I needed to stop,
that I needed to write, to at least reflect
this experience of the stuck in the in-between,
before I could move,

move beyond that
into action in solidarity with all marginalized people
into confronting my own privileges and prejudices
into dismantling any learned and internalized oppression
into embodying compassion for all beings
into making concrete the world we imagine wherein these structural oppressions and inequities have been replaced with just systems that operate from a place of full&complex humanity, dignity, and equality for all.

So. A poem.


 

caught / uncaught

For a time,
in the rawness of grief,
when mixed groups can trigger,
it is okay to gather your tribe
To be with your people
To confess your sins
to those who understand
the complexity of living
your skin

This poem
is for any Asian American out there
feeling stuck righ’ now

‘cuz I feel it.

I feel caught.

Caught between grief for an America we thought we knew
and wanting to fight for the country that our families chose

Caught between rage sadness & frustration
and guilt apathy & complicity

Caught between worry for our families’ lives
and shame at their racist homophobic lies

Caught between their vulnerability
and their willful political passivity

Caught between immigrant survival in flight
and never learning how to stay and fight

Caught between wanting to fire back, draw weapons, take sides
and avoiding conflict, peace-strivin’, love and compassion

Caught catching them silencing whitewashin you
and realizing you been invisible all along

Too ‘other’ to belong in white America
Too ‘model minority’ to be in solidarity with POC

Shouldn’t be surprised
this feeling as familiar
as second skin
as the complicity of
cringing at mom’s accent
as the guilt of
losing your mother tongue
as the confusion of
being too American
and not Asian enough
but never American enough
to be Asian in America

It is a good thing
I have learned
how to hold multiple truths
in the palm of my hands
as so much layered sand

It is a good thing
I have practice
holding contradictory emotions
in the chambers of my beating heart
knowing they will move

because emotions are built
to move

if you let them

and so are bodies built
to act

if we guide them

If we can catch ourselves from
turning hate into hate,
we become uncaught.

Take a breath
Step back
Look again
Codeswitch n
Flip it
and Reframe it

We aren’t caught…
but poised

in this middle

space

between

Asian   (and)  American

POC   (and)  majority

old generation honor  (and)  new generation justice

acting against oppression  (and) waking up from delusion

wanting to protect the most vulnerable  (and)  having some power and privilege to do so

between being baby activists in America  (and)  having gandhiji ai wei wei aung san suu kyi thich nhat hanh tiananmen square and the dalai lama in our heritage

 

We have always been uniquely poised

to bridge

different worlds

to bridge

loyalty and love

to bridge

the Asian and the American

within ourselves

both/and

.

 

OMG Vote

I am emotionally exhausted from this election season. This is more of a rant than a well-heeled argument. I could reread and rewrite a few more times to strip it of my cynicism of your cynicism, to be more compassionate and to appeal to your “rationality”, but I don’t care to fight in your designated arena of battle right now. I’d rather play in the field of earnest emotion. I’m just going to use my blog to, ahem, blog. Actually, let’s just add a blog category of “rant” right this fucking minute. Mm, yes. Hey, don’t even read this. Just go fucking vote please.

I finally figured out what I hate so much about the one-liner that you get all the time when people aren’t going to vote: “My vote doesn’t matter anyway; I’m not in a swing state.”

Because you got me har har, it is hard to argue with the weirdness that is the electoral college. And my standard response was always: “Who the fuck cares, go vote for the downballot stuff that affect your local politics, which will affect your life way more on a day-to-day level.” Of course, that stuff’s not as sexy and not as fun and way more complicated to research, that it’s definitely a conversation killer. “It’s so haaaaaard, it takes so much tiiiiiime to get involved in local politics. Let’s just continue fighting and spewing hate on the national stage where I understand how to make hateful comments without concrete plans for making any real change.” (Local = e.g. A-Z propositions on the SF Ballot this time: Here are some handy resources for SF 2016 btw if you need last minute research before showing up at your local polling place.)

Another response which I believe in, but which doesn’t seem to work in changing people’s minds is: “If your vote didn’t matter so much, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep it away from you.” People fought hard for the right to vote, and you’re just wasting yours. But you don’t want a guilt trip today, so you’ll maintain that you’re still not in a swing state.

I have a hunch that we’d have a lot more swing states if we actually increased voter registration and voter turnout, but I have no research to back this up.

Cu_s95SWcAEXyIN.jpg

Instead, you’d rather keep the line of apathy you’re towing because then you can fight it with more apathy! If you don’t vote today, you’re fucking perpetuating this apathy in politics by legitimizing that people should only vote when their vote “counts”. As if showing up to speak your values isn’t important unless someone is able to hand you results on a silver platter for your one-time opinion. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry if you’ve never had to create a movement to get basic rights, to even be heard. Newsflash: there are millions of people and tons of movements who show up day after day, voicing their opinions, presenting visions of a better future, and demanding justice — they know it takes time and commitment and multifaceted approaches and fucking showing up again and again and again. Because showing up for something important means it’s important to you. Because if you don’t show up, people don’t have any reason to pay any attention to you.

(And no, voting is not the only cure-all you have in your toolkit; I know we will have continue to have so much fucking work to do after today. I spoke with one local businessperson and artist who said, “No I cannot register to vote because of reasons, but I am very involved for political change on the local level in other ways.” If everyone who used the electoral college as an excuse for not voting were instead and also on the ground in their local communities working for the change they believe in every single week, I would be absolutely thrilled.)

None of those arguments work. Which is fine; I’m going to keep using them. But this morning, I realized why I am so fucking mad about this electoral college excuse  — and it is a fucking excuse. You’ve found a way to be logical about your apathy that allows you to be high-minded about it: “I understand the system, so I’m going to play the system by not participating in the system.” This also is the undercurrent for people who are voting third party “I’m going to vote third party because my vote doesn’t matter anyway, and I want to advocate for a new system than the one we’re stuck in.” I get so furious on a gut level at these arguments but have up to now not been able to articulate why.

Now I can articulate why: You only fucking do this for systems you have no intention of actually challenging, the systems for which you have no strategic plan for dismantling. You never question or opt out of or cast “protest votes” in any of the other oppressive systems that we swim in, live in, breathe in, have to survive in — that, ahem, we do have strategic plans for dismantling. I don’t hear you divesting funds from banks which support the Dakota Access Pipeline. I don’t see you opting out of work to go protest for anything. I don’t see you “voting with your feet” to work for organizations that promote multiculturalism and inclusion. I don’t hear you upset about the systemic racism that plays out in police brutality and the prison pipeline and housing discrimination. I don’t see you supporting female and people of color in leadership positions, so that they can create and advocate for new systems other than the patriarchal one we’re stuck in.

Make no mistake, this election has been about policy and our values as a country on an uncomfortably visceral level. I know it might be safer to stay on the logical level of “it’ll be about the same no matter who the president is” but “lesser of two evils” is BULLSHIT. Trump has shown you his values. And Hillary has too. Now it’s time to show yours.

Your voice matters; showing up matters. Voting is one way of showing up. I expect you to keep showing up afterward, too. I believe in you. Maybe you’ve stopped believing in your agency to affect change in these kinds of systems, but I believe in the full power of you. This is probably the least sexy least cool argument of all: I earnestly believe in the power of your voice and in your ability to stand up for your values. Fuck, I expect you to do it even if no one is listening. Because that’s how change happens. That’s what it means to be a social justice warrior and an ally and a human being whose itty bitty life here on earth still fucking matters — we just keep showing up.

OMG just please go vote.

(If it’s not blazingly obvious by now, #imwithher.)

Downballot downballot downballot

I voted early today! Got my sticker. Made the line shorter for someone else on Tuesday.

This election cycle has been exhausting. But I do believe voting and engaging with the political process is important. Local and state policies have an outsized effect on your life — and is an area where voting for your values can shape how your city grows. For example, engaging with SF propositions D, H, L, and M has been a learning and reflective experience for me in whether I believe in more accountability at the cost of bigger government on the local level. It also helps to inform my decisions about candidates for local and state positions to see what they’re endorsing and fighting for at the prop level.

Below is a gathering of the resources I found most helpful and least partisan while researching downballot elections this year (for San Francisco specifically, but there are similar resources and groups across the nation).

catsvoting2
(photo by Harry Whittier Frees)

 

Ballot FYI

Ballot.fyi lays out the California propositions in plain English. For instance, it was the clearest explanation of Prop 61 about drug pricing that I found. It also has a good “how does a proposition work anyway?” for those considering strategically abstaining from certain prop votes.

P.S. Video on Prop 60; even just reading the video description is helpful. Ostensibly, Prop 60 is about condoms, but if passed it would put performers’/producers’ real names and addresses in jeopardy which can lead to doxxing.

SF Public Press

San Francisco Public Press has an election guide that breaks down the local city propositions by themes, explains what it would mean if it passed, how much it would cost, and who proposes and opposes it. Good journalism. Really appreciated. They also provide summaries for local races (supervisors, school boards, BART board) and tally up endorsements.

Hoodline

Hoodline provides an “interactive guide to all the other guides.” There are a ton of organizations who put out endorsements and voter guides, and Hoodline puts them all into one chart for you to see which are the truly contentious propositions/races. It’s interesting to see which groups you end up aligning with or disagreeing with as a guide to where to look for more detailed election guides — sometimes it is helpful to look at a group’s very opinionated endorsement 0f a thing in order to decide whether you agree or not.

(During one voter research party, we joked that if both League of Pissed Off Voters and SPUR — who have many conflicting interests — agreed on a prop, that was an easy vote to check off our list. Insert cry-laugh emoji.)

Questionnaires

[Edit: This is a partisan source, and I found out tonight that if you have cookies enabled in your browser, they will be able to get your phone number and will text you about voting and supporting the local candidates they endorse. That feels really gross to me, and part of me wants to unlink the source, but the questionnaires DID help me assess the candidates…so I will leave the link, but give you fair warning about the site.]

RFK Democratic Club sent questionnaires to all the candidates for the local boards (SFUSD Board of Education, CCSF Board of Trustees, BART Board of Directors), and these are the candidates’ answers. This is on a partisan site, but the questions were thoughtful and found reading the Q&A’s more useful than the shorter summaries of candidates.

Good luck in democracying your alphabet soup of propositions. <3

Bliss Stations, Low-Information Diets, and Single-Use Objects (aka Unplugging)

I’m doing it! I’m doing it right this moment! Stop it, Christina! Focus!

Let’s rewind. I sat down at my computer this morning to write this blogpost, but first I had to gather the links that I’d like to reference for the blogpost. One of the links was from Austin Kleon, which I had to find in the archives of his newsletter. First of all, to get there, I had to go to his Twitter page, and scroll a bit and click on a few links. Then I went to his newsletter. I found the link I was looking for pretty easily. “Bliss Station” was #1 on the top of a list of weekly 10 (which are in themselves not 10 links but 10 topics, many of which contain multiple links), but could I close the tab immediately? No. I’ve trained myself to quickly skim the rest of the list. What if there’s something interesting or related? Of course there’s something interesting (of course nothing’s relevant for this blogpost). Before I know it, there are 8 more tabs open on my computer, and the potential start of that many more internet rabbitholes. Besides articles, there is a particularly dangerous link to Instagram beckoning. Plus, the Twitter tab’s still open and would start giving me (51) notifications if I weren’t blissfully (but rarely) logged out.

But let’s rewind. I didn’t have to start with the links; I could start with the writing. I could have started writing this blogpost in WordPress and filled in the links when I needed them. Or I might have written a whole first draft without opening a single link.

I mean, I woke up this morning and cleaned up this old laptop for this specific purpose. This white MacBook is from 2009, hums like an old refrigerator, and will not operate unless plugged in. If I have too many tabs open, it protests audibly and slows down enormously. I realized this morning that it’d be perfect for writing in the mornings…if I could keep it tab-free and logged-out and single-use-only.

Let’s rewind. This week, I’ve felt anxious and tired and not productive. My intuition says it has to do with too much screen time, too many rabbitholes, too much Twitter and YouTube and Instagram, and not enough focused writing time, not enough blank space for doing my work. I resonated with Austin Kleon’s post about creating and protecting a personal Bliss Station, which is simply a sacred where or a when in which you can incubate ideas and create creations outside of the demands of other people or of the Internet. This made me want to actively ignore my phone and my inbox for the first half of the day, even if that makes me a bad friend and girlfriend. After all, my favorite days are the days when I wake up writing, when I reach for pen and paper while still in bed, when the ideas can’t bother with distraction.

Let’s rewind. Last week, I was considering a low-information diet but hadn’t figured out how to reconcile my multiple uses of Twitter as news source, connection channel, entertainment engine, and procrastination station all rolled up in one. I had watched a video by Derek Muller about the “Distraction Economy,” and he mentions going on a low-information diet so that he could focus more on his work and more on the information of his local circle gleaned from real-life conversations.

This feels especially valuable in the crazy coverage of our United States presidential election season, amidst an era where news has turned into 24-hour sensationalism. There was another article on Slate that I had bookmarked wherein Mary Elizabeth Williams talks about how limiting her exposure to the news (even as a working journalist) was an active step in self-care. Both Mary and Derek acknowledge the argument which requires us to be plugged in and attuned to the world’s information in order to be engaged citizens, but both push back on that.

Let’s rewind. I was at a cabin with friends in Northern California a few weeks ago, and Katie mentioned that she had seen an article on Facebook about how we aren’t built to take in and understand and know what’s going on in the whole entire world, which made her feel better about wanting to sometimes disengage from the news cycles, from Facebook. The cabin is in the mountains north of Chico, next to a babbling creek of snowmelt, surrounded by trees and birdsong. I’ve gone up, during summertime, 4 or 5 different years, a few days or a week at a time if I’m lucky. After the conversation, I didn’t look up the article; I never looked it up afterward, but I agree with its general premise.

Let’s rewind. The cabin got internet access two years ago. I still try to unplug every time I’m up there.

I have TMobile, which has spotty service outside of major cities. Sometimes I half-heartedly complain about it. But secretly, I love it. When I go on a roadtrip, the minute I’m out of the Bay Area, I voluntarily switch my phone to airplane mode to “conserve battery power.” If I’m on vacation in another city, I tend to ignore my inbox and sometimes even my social media feeds.

It’s like releasing a breath I haven’t known I’ve been holding.

I always hate coming back into range. I’ll check all my things, but usually there is nothing of import. Usually I haven’t missed anything. Usually I still yearn for the quiet of the mountains.

Which is really just a quiet of the mind.

Let’s rewind. I didn’t have to start my day on this old laptop, or any computer for that matter. I could have drafted this blogpost on paper, with pen. I could have drafted this blogpost in my mind, during a bikeride or a climb. I could have drafted this blogpost out loud, on an audio recorder. I could have drafted this blogpost as a conversation, with my neighbor in the garden.

Kim Boekbinder writes on her blog about the “Single-Use Object” and how she’s a different writer on her laptop, in a notebook, and on her typewriter.

She wants to be all she can be, every Kim there is.

===

Notes:

I decided not to put any of the links into the blogpost itself. I normally pride myself on the profusion of links in my newsletters and blogposts, but I am starting to reconsider it. In submitting my interview for Drop Leaf Press, I included a lot of links as I normally would, but the editor decided to leave most of them out because she said that she finds too many links distracting when reading a piece.

Upon greater reflection, my tendency to create links that are both topical (e.g. the article name includes a link to that article) and unexpectedly tangential (e.g. the word “memory” might be linked to an old photo) inadvertently embeds a “Dark Pattern” random reward system into my writing. If you are anything like me, you click along the way while you are reading, opening up new tabs, ever on the hunt for elusive new rabbitholes, never caught up in your reading, never done.

I don’t know how to make this more intentional on the part of the reader…both when I am the reader and also when I am the writer writing for a reader. I do believe some rabbitholes are fruitful. I am a designer trained in a synthesis process which allows me to connect disparate data points and to make sense of a mass of information. As an artist, I have a(n untested) belief that some of my best ideas come from allowing seemingly unrelated topics to coalesce into something unexpected and insightful. But there are very, very blurry lines between internet research, artistic wandering for inspiration, procrastination, and addictive patterns of media consumption which are built into the media we consume.

So this is just one experiment in terms of links. I will put them below; if you want to read more about that particular rabbithole, feel free to dive in, intentionally, of your own volition. (Maybe a better experiment would be to not include any of these links. If you actually want to know, you can Google it, and maybe that active act of looking something up is enough activation energy to ensure that you really are being intentional about something instead of following dark patterns. But I’m too weak for that right now; my ego is tied up in providing you with these sources, in pointing you in the direction of some awesome creators…maybe that’s part of the problem…)

Nobody needs to be fixed

This episode of the podcast Invisibilia called “The Problem with the Solution” really struck a chord in me. It’s about chronic mental health issues — and the radical notion of acceptance for healing. But this acceptance, this idea that no one needs to be fixed, is counter to our culture and our society (and capitalism’s need for you to feel broken or inadequate or dissatisfied, to fix all the things, by buying all the things.) Criticism, hostility, and over-emotional-involvement (aka you deeply want the person to get better) can be triggers for a person with a chronic condition. The ironic part is that strangers may be better at accepting a person for who they fully, truly are because on some level, “they don’t care whether you get better or not.” Those who are not family, who are not close friends, those are the people who are able to see you as a person and not just “a bundle of problems that need to be fixed.”

justasyouarememe.jpg

This idea of nobody needing to be fixed reminded me of this episode of Invisibilia-turned-This American Life called “Batman” about a blind man who can move around the world as well as any able-bodied person because he learned how to use echolocation as a kid. He’s on a crusade to change our culture, so that we stop treating blind people as disabled, so that they stop thinking of themselves as disabled. The heartbreaking part of this episode is at the end when a mother pulls her son back from the road during a mobility lesson—a split second before he gets the extra time he needs in order to learn how to truly be mobile on his own. It’s her love that holds him back. In our culture, love often means protecting or helping and usually comes with the kneejerk habit of fixing (I am guilty of this myself)…what if radical love meant accepting and just being present with the other person? What if radical self-love meant accepting and just being with ourselves, instead of trying to make things better all the time?

The idea of nobody needing to be fixed reminds me of a lot of meditation practices which are really a literal practice in accepting what is instead of dwelling on what was or what could be. See for example, Tara Brach’s RAIN. (Here is a guided meditation for the same concept.)

  • R – Recognize what is happening
  • A – Allow life to be just as it is
  • I – Investigate inner experience with kindness
  • N – Non-Identification.

This idea of nobody needing to be fixed and “allowing life to be just as it is” reminds me of Yumi Sakugawa’s zine There is No Right Way to Meditate, wherein she reminds us to be aware of our pain body but to remember that it is separate from us.

Yumi

In her book, Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe, Sakugawa also suggests that you invite your inner demons to sit down to tea because “when we realize and truly embrace everything that is within us, that is when we can truly feel healed and whole again.”

YumiTea.jpg

This idea of nobody needing to be fixed reminded me of the idea that there are no “good” or “bad” emotions because all emotions are natural and normal because we are human and because all humans have all emotions. Which reminded me of Evan Rachel Wood’s interview and conversation with Amanda Palmer, wherein they discuss the intensity of giving birth without unintentionally labeling it as something to fear.

“I wouldn’t want to call it pain. I try explaining to people: Pain is this thing that comes with harm. Sort of like having periods cramps—you know that no harm is coming to your body. You don’t have to go into a defensive position because you might not be alright or stop to check if you are going to bleed to death, you know? It’s a different sensation. It’s an intense experience, but you are also standing on the threshold of motherhood about to meet the most important person in your life, so there is a simultaneous joy that comes with it that doesn’t come with getting your foot run over by a car.

So if you can undo the script in your head that tells you, “a really intense sensation is bad” and remember your body is not in harm’s way, then you can kind of control the narrative and allow your body to surrender to the sensations and not have that extra layer of actual pain that only comes when your body is in fear. I give a lot of credit to years and years of yoga practice.

Yoga is about sitting with an experience and really understanding the difference between sensation and harmful pain. Not just assuming everything that is uncomfortable is bad.

The idea of nobody needing to be fixed but living in a culture where everyone feels like they need to be fixed reminded me of Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory,” a thesis on how “sickness” is an invention & requirement of capitalism. (That link is the text version, but this video of Hedva reading “Sick Woman Theory” out loud is quite powerful.)

Ann Cvetkovich writes: “What if depression, in the Americas, at least, could be traced to histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery, legal exclusion, and everyday segregation and isolation that haunt all of our lives, rather than to be biochemical imbalances?” I’d like to change the word “depression” here to be all mental illnesses. Cvetkovich continues: “Most medical literature tends to presume a white and middle-class subject for whom feeling bad is frequently a mystery because it doesn’t fit a life in which privilege and comfort make things seem fine on the surface.” In other words, wellness as it is talked about in America today, is a white and wealthy idea.

Let me quote Starhawk, in the preface to the new edition of her 1982 book Dreaming the Dark: “Psychologists have constructed a myth – that somewhere there exists some state of health which is the norm, meaning that most people presumably are in that state, and those who are anxious, depressed, neurotic, distressed, or generally unhappy are deviant.” I’d here supplant the word “psychologists” with “white supremacy,” “doctors,” “your boss,” “neoliberalism,” “heteronormativity,” and “America.””

This idea that nobody needs to be fixed yet the fact that we’re living in a culture in which we’ve been taught to believe that we are all broken and that everyone needs to be fixed reminded me of this (frightening) comic by Connie Sun:

drawing not my fairy godmother w500

So here’s an idea: Nobody needs to be fixed. So you don’t have to fix ’em. And you yourself, you don’t need to be fixed either. You are enough. You are exactly who and where and when you need to be. You are enough.

EDIT: Here’s the trick. Here’s the rub. Here’s the thing. I do think there are things in the world that need fixing. I do think our systems need fixing. I know that these systems manifest in each of us, and that each of us individually embody + enact + make up our systems. Therefore, there are things that we think and do and feel that come from the broken system, which do need to be challenged, which do need to be changed. There is a difference between the things that are you and the things that have externally been imposed into you, which you have now internalized as you, but which are not you. I don’t know if I can make myself clear on this point. It is hard to see the distinctions sometimes. My should’s are the system speaking. My need to write is me speaking. My fear of being judged a failure is the system speaking. My sitting with the discomfort of the pain of the world is me speaking. My belief that my shoulders are too broad and my arms too fat are the system speaking. My ease when I am climbing with those same shoulders is me speaking.

Further complicating things is the fact that there are things which are you which the system does not like, which you have now learned to dislike and wish you could change: you are fat, you don’t want to work 60 hour work weeks, you don’t want to work at all, you experience anxiety, you need so much time to grieve, you get angry when bodies are dying in the street, you untwist all the buttons on your shirts each day in order to quiet the voices. And there are things which are not you which the system encourages, but which are part of you now and which you have internalized as things you feel like you should strive for: you are scared for your safety so you pay more and build walls and self-segregate, you worry about the future so you look for stability and steadiness in the work that you do and in the relationships that you build, you feel not beautiful enough so you spend money on make up and time on hair and judgment on everyone and everything around you, you have learned how to hate yourself and criticize and paralyze and stop yourself from doing the very things you truly deeply need to do.

So maybe those last things are things I wish I could help you to stop doing and saying, and maybe that feels like I’m trying to fix you. And there is an industry that is about learning how to love yourself and how to practice self-compassion and how to meditate and how to accept yourself and those around you— and maybe all of that sometimes still feels like self-helping and helping and fixing. But I am trying to fix the system, not you. Reframed, these are just ways of helping you to unlearn the system, to let go of the system’s mandates, and to remember who you truly are and what you truly need to be doing. They’re helping us remember that we are enough just as we are.

But fuck, this is all so complicated. And it’s a fight I fight on a daily basis for myself, so in that sense, no I am not trying to fix you. I’m too busy unbuilding and unlearning the systems inside of me first. So that I can create the garden of my mind that I want to build (The garden is a metaphor by Emily Nagoski that I love).

Design for Social Impact + Systems + Co-Design

I’m taking a break from design consultancy work to focus on my art and writing for awhile. Maybe a long while. But as they say: you can take the girl outta design, but you can’t take the design outta the girl.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to capture my current thoughts around design for social impact, as my hypotheses are always evolving through learned experiences and depending on the latest book/mental model/framework/kool-aid-du-jour that I’m currently excited about. Hopefully, over time, this thinking is getting more nuanced and more attuned to the realities of our complex world.

One thing I know for sure — there are also more and better questions over time!

I fully acknowledge that this blogpost is rambly and long. It is not “the simplicity on the other side of complexity”, where I have synthesized enough to communicate the complexity in a compelling manner. But this is partly for my personal archives, and if you’re a process geek and willing to wade a little in the weeds with me, I am happy to elaborate on any of these points in discussion — as a way to keep pushing the conversation forward.

The past few years

I have had the great pleasure of being able to work at Daylight Design on some amazing design for social impact projects, and a couple of them have made it into the “real world” via prototypes and pilots. One of the projects was even working with teachers, which was a dream of mine coming out of grad school. One of my projects was CSR for a multinational corp. A few projects circled the theme of social and emotional learning (SEL) for young children. Over the past half-year, I have been working on projects which gave me a crash course in systems thinking and another crash course in measurement and evaluation (building off cursory knowledge from a previous M&E internship with Livelyhoods).

I think one of Daylight’s secrets and one of the reasons they are able to do effective social impact work is that they have longterm trusted relationships with some of their non-profit and foundation clients, who are willing to experiment in partnership with new ways of approaching challenges and projects.

My current working hypotheses

My current working thesis is that the interventions, opportunity areas, and ideas generated through the human-centered design process (while still based in human needs and insights)…

1) would be much more compelling if they intersected with an identified leverage point(s) for change within a system, which requires a good solid understanding of the system (the foundation of which could also be gleaned during deep-listening, ethnographic research and continue to evolve over time).

2) would be more effective if the initial systems mapping and understanding is done in collaboration with community members and other stakeholders, who then—through the process—have an understanding of “I am part of this system” and “this is important” and “oh shit, this is also my responsibility to work toward changing.” (The process is the product, the process of working together and understanding the system together is a necessary ingredient in changing systems. Also I believe that co-design efficiently+effectively overturns unhealthy transactional relationships and toxic power dynamics and old ways of doing things.)

3) would be more effective in the long-term if teams could treat the ideas generated as hypotheses (putting the theory back in theory of change, heyo!), which they would then prototype in an agile (?) way/environment with the community because you have to put pilots/prototypes out into the system in order to see how the system will react/change/pushback/etc. We have to probe the system with “gentle action” (Andrew Zolli) in order to change the system.

4) would more realistically be able to shift the system if there are multi-prong approaches, so recognizing that individual [design or otherwise] interventions exist alongside other approaches. If a ‘portfolio’ of things are targeted toward affecting the same leverage point and the same desired goal for change, then individual things have more potential for actually working. (I guess even if some of us end up working on targeted interventions because goodness knows we need teams on the ground actually doing stuff, how do we keep an eye on our partners, what else is going on, how to work in concert with each other…how do we keep a systems view on things?)

Thinking about this set of things within a consultancy framework or within an academic year or within a fellowship’s timeline is difficult. #3 in particular is really hard because “near term” timelines for systems stuff is like 1-3 years. Although, I guess if it’s a narrower, smaller, more contained (community? geographically bound?) system, it might be possible to see some change or effects in a system in a 6 months-1 year time period?

The tricky thing is a mindset shift from planning + problem solving >>> to adapting and responding to the system. My previous feelings and writing around “we should work in our own backyards” and “we shouldn’t parachute in to save anybody” are about this topic. My more nuanced view is that the reason you need longterm commitment and engagement is because to be a systemic practitioner, you need to 1) recognize your role in the system, 2) have some responsibility in acting on the system and responding to the the changes in the system, and 3) systemic change takes time. Also 4) there’s something woo-woo yet also very powerful about the fact that a lot of systems thinking books (even the densest, most academic ones) end with the idea that “to change the system, you have to change yourself.” (So chew on that! For instance, how does one go about decolonizing one’s life and relationships…?)

I think a true mindset shift to working as [design or other] practitioners within systems would change how we talk and think about: deliverables at the end of projects, the “end of projects”, the goal of the end of a residency or fellowship year, the pitches (“this will change the world! this solves it all!”) to get funding to launch prototypes into the world. (We should be funding teams to work on specific problems and their ‘north star’ impact goals, not funding the solutions — which should change if they are truly working within a system and responding to its needs.)(At the very least, we should be funding teams to test their prototypes, and expect follow-up conversations and funding that allows for failures, “so what did you learn?”, and pivots.)

For ‘design for social impact’ initiatives/programs within academia, this is tricky because of competing, parallel goals: training and getting students ready for a job market vs. impact on a system. For the program to survive, the former is paramount, and the secondary is merely bonus. The meta-question here would be to map a system and see how the short-term engagements of academic programs, fellowship years, and consultants affect the system dynamics and relationships of a particular community. Do all of these small things add up to some good in the world, do the benefits outweigh the harm, and are the shortterm consequences worth the outcome of having more people trained to think systemically and designerly? Is the training of people a good leverage point for overall impact? (Maybe so!)

I would probably sit back and also argue that we need to change the education/life system in which students feel pressured to treat their schooling as a step toward “getting a high-paying job in xyz.” But that’s a whole nother wicked problem, and admittedly I’m a curmudgeon who is still trying to figure out whether it’s better to work within or outside of systems.

Also, the perpetual question in all of these discussions is: Who’s paying for this work? How is it being funded? (I would probably sit back and argue that we need to change the…etc.)

Links and Resources

If you’re on this journey, too, I’d love to hear what you’re reading, or which thought leaders are influencing your point of view these days. Here are some of my starting points for diving into systems thinking, from a designer’s point of view:

Hugh Dubberly on Designers and Systems

Books on Systems + understanding Leverage Points

The most accessible I’ve read is Donella Meadows book Thinking in Systems. Part 3 in the book is all about leverage points and opportunity areas.

Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Stroh is more academic, but the second part is helpful because it talks more specifically and more practically about applying systems to social change initiatives.

A friend recommended ecologist Joanna Macy’s books; they are next on my reading list.

Additional Things to look up: 

  • Love this article from Ideo.org about the relationships and friendships at the heart of design research. The process is the product, the dharma is the path, the relationships are the change.
  • Kumu as a tool for systems mapping
  • Keep an eye on the ways The Omidyar Group is using systems thinking in their practices and in their strategic grantmaking. They are working with Rob Ricigliano on tools that will eventually also be available to the public. I think they are doing really exciting work in integrating systems thinking and design thinking into their work; plus, they’re working with Daylight on some of the projects, so there will also be a human-centered lens as a filter to some of it.
  • Danny Burns and participatory systems mapping
  •  A short overview of some different systems thinkers‘ philosophies

  • Zaid Hassan’s talk on complexity and need for Social Labs (social, experimental, systemic)

Other Social-Lab-y Stuff I was recommended to look into:

  • Dalberg Design (led by former frogs Robert Fabricant and Ravi Chhatpar)
  • Stanford ChangeLabs (led by Banny Banerjee. design + behavioral economics + systems thinking)