Category Archives: Social Justice

Something about Empathy, Something about Trust

So this happened:

And then this happened:

And watching the second video, I literally started to cry. (Which is not an easy thing for me these days.)

There’s something here about empathy.

Of all the topics that are considered taboo and hard to talk about during this interview, the interviewer and Amanda Palmer land on first and for a considerable time is…empathy for people who do terrible things. The interviewer seems perplexed by and almost disgusted at the thought of having empathy for another human being. Which made me sad. But then again, I am having a hard time having empathy for the politicians who are pushing forward with policies and legislation that will harm so many millions.

But maybe it’s because things are too abstract, and they are not hearing the human voices over the din of the lure of wetiko and money.

But I have to remember that they are human underneath it all.

This article has helped me wrap my head around some of the nuances and tensions and historical context of why Chinese immigrants have stumped for Trump, of why my partner’s family would’ve probably voted that way if they had voted at all:

A pro-Trump rally near the Trump Tower. Photo by April Xu.


There is also something here about trust.

I played this interactive guide to the game theory of trust by Nicky Case, and his footnotes always stick with me as well.


“Because, contrary to popular belief, coming up with Win-Win solutions is hard, takes lots of effort, and is emotionally painful. Heck, I’d go even further – I’d say our culture’s default stance of Win-Lose “us versus them” is the easy path, the lazy path, the equivalent of activism junk food.

“Anyway. Exaggerations aside, I strongly believe “Win-Win” / “Non-Zero-Sum” is something we all urgently need — in our personal lives, social lives, and definitely political lives.”

And then there’s something here about…Is this the work of art?

A few days ago, I went to a U.S. Department of Arts and Culture event in Portland called “Cultural Organizing — Oregon Style”. At the event, there was a woman there who was a longtime resident of Portland and who has seen the disinvestment in East Portland firsthand, and who is now in school for community development so she can help people she went to school with who are now on the streets. She was fully present and wanted to hear our ideas, but she kept repeating that she might leave to go to a Prosper Portland meeting next door to hear about economic development instead. I interpreted this as if she was humoring us artists when the real work was happening next door.

And when I introduced myself as an artist, she said, “Good for you that you are able to self-actualize.” She was smiling really big when she said it, and at the same time I sensed an undertone of resentment or a knockdown…the same way I feel when I say to my friend about a cis white male exercising a lot of privilege, “Good for him for having so much faith in the universe. ^_____^”

A recurring theme/thought that keeps occurring in my heartmind, is that there is a lot of work to be done on the ground (the logistical activism, governing, social change that happens incrementally through coalition-building, policy-making, action-oriented kind of changemaking), AND then there is also the emotional work that needs to be done, to get to a place where we can hear and see and understand and trust each other again.

Which requires a lot of acknowledgement of the hurt that has occurred and atonement and forgiveness of said wrongs.

Something here about feeling the feels we need to feel.

Something here about being able to take the time and space we need to do that.

Which is the micro that I’m writing about with Slowingly, which has a macro lens as well.

But am I willing to legitimize that (art)work that needs to happen? The work I need to do as an artist as complement to the work that I need to do as a fledgling, floundering activist?

There is something here about hope.

The hard truth of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which also brings a release of light shined on it all, an exhale of seeing in words something that’s so un-articulated un-literated in our current day milieu.

citizen.jpg  urbanalchemy.jpg

The optimistic community-restoring, place-remaking, city-reimagining work of Dr. Mindy Fullilove & Co. in Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities.

Fullilove outlines nine elements of urban restoration that will help stop the soruce of injury and restore an “urban ecosystem’s wholeness”.

  1. Keep the whole city in mind
  2. Find what you’re FOR
  3. Make a mark
  4. Unpuzzle the fractured space
  5. Unslum all neighborhoods
  6. Create meaningful places
  7. Strengthen the region
  8. Show solidarity with all life
  9. Celebrate your accomplishments

The video of the protestors that I started this post with, standing on the steps of the Capitol, celebrating a win for healthcare, for humanity. That is why I was overcome with emotion.


There is something here about love.

I find so much inspiration, so many lessons in how to show up from the Little Lobbyists and from ADAPT.

It reminds me of something I read somewhere on Twitter about how no one is more patient in the face of uncertainty, in the face of hardships than the parents of children with disabilities.

Powered and fueled by love.


The Politics of Caring

I think I’m just going to go ahead and post this. I don’t think it’s the most well-written post; certainly it is more ramble-bloggy than structured-essay-y. But it IS a record of some of my current attempts to understand the politics of caring: why certain people try to get you to STOP caring, and why I still value it.

I recently watched some of the play-off games between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I don’t know much about basketball, but even I could tell that the Warriors are playing a whole new level of ball game. The Cavs are very good, but they are very good at playing the basketball that I grew up watching: one where the teams switch off having possession of the ball, defense is usually 1-on-1, and the game is won based on which team can make the most shots. When the Warriors have possession of the ball, you can see how the traditional gameplay just doesn’t work in the same way against them. The Warriors are agile, super quick, and work together as a team to the get the ball to the net. They make it look like a choreographed dance. It makes any other team look slow and clunky in comparison; it makes the other team look forceful and forced. The Warriors dominated the post-season; no one was coming close. They’ll continue to dominate until other teams start to question and evolve the way they’re playing the game.

When I was talking with some girlfriends soon after the election of Trump, what we kept circling back to was this incomprehension of why certain people were voting for him. We understood the racists, we understood the rural poor who had become disenfrancished within this country, but we didn’t understand this other group, the group who didn’t seem to care that their actions would mean disastrous things for nearly everybody. They seemed to have privilege, and they seemed to not have any empathy for those who would be affected most by Trump’s policies, and they didn’t seem to grasp how those same policies would eventually also affect them. Did they not understand that you can’t burn down the other side without burning down the entire house?

This article by Dale Baren outlines the history of 4chan, and the evolution of the power of its users, to the point where they are now influencing our political arena. After reading it, I understood better. We thought seeing Trump in debates with the other candidates would help people see his incompetencies, his pettiness, his insensitivities (to put it all too too mildly). But we were also assuming that seeing these things would cause people to not vote for this man. We were playing by the rules of the game we were used to: we should as a country elect moral, competent, and smart people into office.

This was a whole new ballgame.

“Pepe [the frog] symbolizes embracing your loserdom, owning it. That is to say, it is what all the millions of forum-goers of 4chan met to commune about. It is, in other words, a value system, one reveling in deplorableness and being pridefully dispossessed. It is a culture of hopelessness, of knowing “the system is rigged”. But instead of fight the response is flight, knowing you’re trapped in your circumstances is cause to celebrate. For these young men, voting Trump is not a solution, but a new spiteful prank.

In other words, we can append a third category to the two classically understood division of Trump supporters:

  1. Generally older people who naively believe Trump will “make America great again”, that is to say, return it to its 1950s ideal evoked by both Trump and Clinton.
  2. The 1 percent, who know this promise is empty, but also know it will be beneficial to short term business interests.
  3. Younger members of the 99 percent, like Anon, who also know this promise is empty, but who support Trump as a defiant expression of despair.”

The scariest part is how this hopelessness, despair, and prankishness is affecting our current political discourse. Film Crit Hulk wrote about this in an article called “P.C. Culture vs. the Big Joke” which traces strains of our current political discourse to nihilism and a generation who (as someone tweeted) doesn’t understand the difference between skepticism and cynicism, having grown up on South Park and 4chan. The figure of the Joker from the recent The Dark Knight trilogies serves as an apt analogy for a swath of people who don’t play by the rules.

“There’s a reason The Dark Knight’s Joker struck such a cord with this populace and it wasn’t just his good performance, it was his mantra: ‘Why so serious?’ It was his ability to reign terror and tear apart hypocrisy. It was the sense power that comes with having such a freeing attitude toward the cares of society. The pure, bleak joy of nihilistic glee. And yes, the way this philosophy was expressed could be as terrifying as when the Joker did it. The lulz is an almost pathological need to undo your seriousness. To undo what you care about. To not make sense. There isn’t a side. There isn’t a belief. The only goal is to burn down your side. After all, ‘Some men just want to watch the world burn.'”

This is scary. They don’t play by the rules because they want to burn the whole game down.

“When I look at everyone. I’m asking ‘What do they want?’ And when looking at anti-PC culture as a whole, from the left-hating alt-right, to the trolls, to the knee-jerk comedian, the aligned message is clear, and whether they mean it or not, the effect of that want is the same:

“They want to tear down people who actually give a shit.

“It’s all part of the upside-down. They are fighting anyone who tries to be protective of marginalized groups and they’ll tell you that they’re the ones who are really marginalized. Fuck man, I will tell you it is easier to find ground in a conversation with an actual KKK member and I’m not kidding. They believe in something so morally wrong, but their goal isn’t to upend the notion of serious conversation itself. And so, with the anti-PC crowd, it becomes part of the reflexive game that goes ever on. We lose ourselves completely in wars of false equivalency, pedantic arguments on ‘logic’ that eschew morality completely.”

It is easier to engage with someone in the actual KKK than to engage with someone in the anti-PC crowd because the former actually believes in something. Remember that thought because we’ll come back to it. But for now, this is the frustrating part because this is what makes is so hard to have logical, reasonable conversations; to rely on facts; to remain civil; to keep playing by the same rules of the game we have always played by.

Participating in arguments with people who are defiantly despairing, nihilist, and who want to tear down anyone who gives a shit…will eventually tear you down, as well.

It leads to frustration and feelings of futility and articles like this one in the Huffington Post, entitled “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.”

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see.

“I cannot have political debates with these people. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.…I can’t debate someone into caring about what happens to their fellow human beings. The fact that such detached cruelty is so normalized in a certain party’s political discourse is at once infuriating and terrifying.”

It leads to giving up.

Which is precisely what those who play the game of “why do you care so much” / “why so serious” want.

Which is something I cannot abide by. While I understand the need to stop butting our heads up against the walls of a now-rigged game, the conclusion that we stop trying to help people see why they should care is something I can’t quite sit with. When we start to dehumanize this amalgam of YouTubers, gamers, harassers, trolls, basement dwellers as ‘losers’, and as we start giving up on them…then we will have become them.

Hell, I am one of them right now in that I am living in my boyfriend’s family’s basement. I understand how little it takes to start to feel powerless and purposeless. I understand how hard those feelings are, I understand how compelling escapism is, and I understand how searingly painful it is to care about something when it feels like you can’t do anything to change it. So I understand that not caring and disengaging are protective self-mechanisms that work. They are about self-preservation, but the question is who then is the self you are trying to preserve?

“Like adolescent boys, 4chan users were deeply sensitive and guarded. They disguised their own sensitivity (namely, their fear that they would be, ‘forever alone’) by extreme insensitivity. The rules, like everything else, were always half in jest. Everything had to be a done with at least a twinkle of winking irony. This was an escape route, a way of never having to admit to your peers that you were in fact expressing something from your heart, in other wordsthat you were indeed vulnerable. No matter what a user did or said, he could always say it was ‘for the lulz’.”

And hell, I am also one of them others right now because we keep having political arguments with my boyfriend’s dad, that keep ending up at the same dead ends. It’s a different strand of the conservative notion of meritocracy, but it’s eerily familiar: if I as an immigrant worked my butt off to pull myself up by my own bootstraps to get to where I am today, everyone else who is on welfare must be lazy. Poor people have no one to blame but themselves. Government is corrupt, nothing is going to change, you already have it so much better than when we were growing up poor, hungry, and dirty in the countryside, you are naïve to think you can change anything, so why bother making a fuss? Take care of your own, and leave it at that.

“Why do you care so much?”

Why so serious?

That is the argument that always crushes my spirit, that makes it impossible for me to continue engaging in the conversation. How do you defend why you care about something? How do you justify something that feels so self-evident to yourself?

It’s difficult because I think the root of the question of “why do you care so much” is actually “who do you think you are to care so much?” Caring about something presumes that you matter enough to 1) be in the arena to feel whatever you’re going to feel about what you care about, and 2) be able to do something or make a change about whatever you care about.

So it makes sense that those who are disenfranchised, who feel powerless, who have been told explicitly or implicitly that they don’t matter will also try to attack you in the same vein — to try and make you believe that you don’t matter. By attacking what you care about. By attacking the fact that you care at all.

Earnestness? Sincerity? Values? Empathy? Caring? Hope?

Those things make us vulnerable.

For my partner’s father, it was a mindset honed to survive the grueling realities of poverty, immigration, and hard work to scrape by. In a way, he has bought into the narrative that America handfeeds to its immigrant workforce: work hard and keep your head down, don’t get too big for your britches. Be invisible to be the model minority. Be grateful.

“The refugee has to be less capable than the native, needier; he must stay in his place. That’s the only way gratitude will be accepted. Once he escapes control, he confirms his identity as the devil. All day I wondered, has this been true in my own experience? If so, then why all the reverence for the refugees who succeed against the odds, the heartwarming success stories? And that’s precisely it – one can go around in this circle forever, because it contains no internal logic. You’re not enough until you’re too much. You’re lazy until you’re a greedy interloper.”Dina Nayeri, “The Ungrateful Refugee”

For the anti-PC, 4chan crowd, it’s a new world where feminists present gender as cultural instead of pre-determined and gender identity as a spectrum instead of biological. (Sidenote: It’s actually a lot more complex than this; Laci Green has a video that examines why both feminists and anti’s have valid views on gender.)

“To the deplorables, whose central complaint is one of masculine frailty, pride, and failure — to deny their identities as men is to deny their complaint. They are a group who define themselves by their powerlessness, by being trapped into defeat. But if they are to accept the left’s viewpoint, they must accept that the problem at core of their being is all in their heads. That is to say, the left’s viewpoint of sexual-difference-as-illusion is exactly what they don’t want to hear — that they have cornered themselves into their mother’s basements.

“The irony here, of course, is the radical idea of sexual-difference-as-illusion is meant to solve the deplorables’ problem. It was created to liberate those who are oppressed by the concept of sexual difference by dispelling it as a cloud of pure ideas. But to these powerless men, it’s as if the left were addressing their issue by saying in an Orwellian manner, ‘There’s no such thing as your problem! Problem solved!’

“Here the notion of sexual-difference-as-illusion is not performing the work it was built to do, rather the opposite. Ironically, it works to convince alienated men that sex/gender has marked them as a unique sort of outsider/failures, who cannot be accepted even into the multicultural coalitions that define themselves by their capacity for acceptance. In this way, 4chan’s virulent hatred of gender-bending ‘safe spaces’, though not justified, makes at least a perverse sort of sense, one tangled in wounded masculine pride.”

Learning how to show up as yourself and engage with the discussion at hand through that vulnerability is hard work. (Which incidentally is what Brené Brown and Love Warrior and Buddhism and meditation sanghas and On Being and so many others — who get written off as hippies, who get written off as SJW pandering, whose work get dismissed as woo woo — have been writing about recently, and so many many others have been exploring for centuries.)

Remember when Film Crit Hulk pointed out that it’s probably easier to have a conversation with a Klan member because they actually believe in something?

There is a two-part Love + Radio episode with Daryl Davis, a black musician who initially interviewed KKK members in order to understand “How could someone hate me based on the color of my skin without even knowing who I am?” He eventually befriended a lot of his interviewees. Daryl Davis talks about the shift in some of the people he met. In their initial conversations, he would interview them and they would answer all his questions but never once ask Daryl what he thought about the issue.

“And as time progressed, then all of a sudden they would say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ Then I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, I have an opinion. I have some value. They wanna know what I think.’ That broke the ice – they’re open to hearing what I’m gonna say.”

We can’t hear the other side until we see the other person as a human being, until we acknowledge their humanity, that they are of value, that they matter, and that they are worth listening to. It’s a two-way street. Although, Daryl Davis proves that seemingly one-way streets can become two-way…with enough time, patience, open-heartedness, people can come around even if it doesn’t seem like they care what you have to say when you first engage with them.

I think we will eventually get there with my partner’s dad because I have to believe he cares about something on a deeper level past the talk of politics. He seems to lack empathy for groups of people who he persists in stereotyping based on his worldview, but he engages in the conversation, and he is willing to listen to opinions which are different than his. I like Daryl Davis’s advice about listening, asking questions, and giving others a platform to express their views honestly without fear of attack:

“Learn from them, because while you are actively learning about somebody else, at the same time you are passively teaching them about yourself.”

But what about the anti-PC 4chan crowds who don’t want to engage, whose goal is to “upend the notion of serious conversation itself”? How do you engage the Joker? How do you get someone to care?

I don’t know. That’s a wall I keep hitting when I think about all of this.

But even within the feminists vs. anti’s communities on YouTube, there are shifts happening. I really admire the work Laci Green, a prominent feminist YouTuber and sex educator who values intersectionality, sex positivity, and skepticism, has been doing recently to open the door to conversations with the anti-feminist YouTube community by having real-life, in-person, in-depth conversations with them. She has been receiving a ton of flack from the feminist social justice YouTube communities for “red-pilling” and being a sell-out and by “whitewashing years of abuse” by merely being in conversation with anti’s, as she has received a ton of real abuse, threats, and pile-on’s from the anti-feminists over the years.

But the pushback she is getting from both sides’ extremes misunderstands what those who are engaging in this conversation are trying to do. Instead of respecting the longer timeframe that having respectful conversations and building relationships with other human beings with multidimensional points of view, the critics are reducing Laci Green and some of the other YouTubers with whom she’s been engaging (like anti-feminist Blaire White) to sides.

Laci Green has said that these conversations are about her own personal healing. One fifteen minute conversation can’t be a reconciliation between the feminists and the anti-feminists. It’s just a step in her reconciliation and potentially having some kind of new relationship with another YouTuber who has in the past caused her a lot of pain, pain from which she wants to heal.

The hardest thing is that when people try to be reasonable and have conversations, to really listen to each other (if you look for it, there are people trying to speak reasonably about complicated public events, while their comments sections remain testament to how stubbornly everyone else wants to draw them into these firestorms)…this moderate approach does not translate well to YouTube or Twitter, which are the battlegrounds that the 4chan crowd continue to use to pile on abuse and shut the conversation down in attempts to try to change the rules of the game.

The trust is long lost. Battlelines have been formed. And it’s hard to break out of that narrative. It’s hard to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when you’ve been burned by others who look and sound so similar to those who are extending olive branches.

There’s a parallel with what’s been going on in D.C. Look at how the Republican-majority legislature twisted the rules of procedure to obstruct and oppose Obama’s platforms for eight years. Should the Democrats learn from this playbook of methods and tactics? If they don’t, the country slides progressively right as Republican policies get pushed through during their terms in power and Democratic policies continue to be blocked during other times. But…

“The biggest danger, of course, is what all of this legislative warfare does to the democratic process. As both parties get deeper and deeper into the muck — and this is something on the minds of many Democrats — there will be growing concerns over how all this effects our ability to govern and responsibly resolve the great problems of the day.” (CNN)

How do we preserve the civility of the discourse, when there are hard conversations to be had across differences, when there are even other groups out there who are trying to subvert it all and burn/troll all of us who are trying to have any serious conversation?

I believe the answer is to continue to engage with any who are willing to show up in the arena with you, on an earnest level. To look for the humanity and go towards it.

So the conversations need to keep happening on a 1-to-1 level. And in-person. Similar to the years of conversations Daryl Davis had in living rooms with (now-former) Klan members. Relationships will evolve.

Over time.

It’s the long game.

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



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




Unpack Impact + New thoughts on co-design

There are those moments when you feel fired up, inspired, and aligned — as if someone’s saying “yes, this path, here.”

I felt it again last night listening to Jess Rimington and Joanna Ceas talk about Unpack Impact, their research initiative as visiting fellows at Stanford about the imperative of listening to end users and including end users in meaningful ways throughout the process of for-impact work.


I will link a video of their talk as soon as it’s available, because they do the storytelling in a way that I won’t be able to do justice to here. But in brief, they present a history of two tribes of people: those working “for-profit” and those working “for-impact.” While the for-profit tribe has evolved over the decades in response to both market and consumer needs, the for-impact tribe looks largely the same as its colonial and philanthropic roots during the Gilded Age (think Rockefeller Foundation saving the poor). While the two drivers of the lean start-up approach and the rise of design thinking (and human-centered design) have led to innovation in the for-profit space, the for-impact space has a mindset that incentivizes satisfying donor objectives rather than end-user impact. While the for-profit space is creating platforms that take advantage of the wisdom of the crowds for content and services, the for-impact space still largely views its beneficiaries as people who need to be helped by others who know better/best.

They also had a panel who spoke to the costs and consequences of not listening. The cost of the war in Afghanistan when we go in and do “aid” without respecting or listening or working with the people who live there…being the starkest example. And success stories of projects in New Orleans and the Philippines where working with residents, using technology to include voices of those displaced, and combining technical expertise with resident passion gave the neighborhoods a fighting chance.

Rimington and Ceas are writing a book, and this is their call to action to their own for-impact tribe to begin a cultural renaissance by:

  1. Investing to shift standards (funding for assumption testing, and not just investing in proven ideas) (Hello, Tipping Point’s T Lab. More of this model please.)
  2. Translating and adapting the tools/methods/approaches (the tools and technology that the for-profit space has used to involve users to evolve products — these need to be adapted because obviously needs are different…and sidenote: some of these tools were borrowed from for-impact sector in the first place — from community organizers and social justice warriors who involve the people.)
  3. Shifting mindsets (that the expertise is distributed, and that the expertise about how to have impact is within our end users. This is the hardest! because the core of this lies in social justice and true co-design. I want to talk more about this below.)


So, as context, I am a designer working in the social impact space. For a lot of my projects, we create new products or services for companies/organizations doing good in the world.

The last time I felt this fired up was last summer when I was sitting in meetings where many smart people were trying to figure out how we would all collaborate on an education project in the South working with teachers. I was most inspired by one of the smart people in the room who deeply believed in the power of teachers — and that if we could give them back the agency to be problem solvers in their classrooms for their students, that would solve a lot of the problems we try to solve with additional “programs”. And this smart person also saw the systemic blocks that have been stripping away teachers’ powers for years.

At the time, I thought my enthusiasm and my “stars are aligning, this is your path” feelings were because this project lay square in the middle of my venn diagram of dream project between “design” and “social impact” and “education”. BUT now I’m seeing the pattern: it was more because of this theme/thread of capacity-building and co-design and giving voice to the voiceless. (<< Which is still the wrong phrasing because I can’t give you anything. My role is just in helping you recognize and remember what you’ve already had all along.)

It’s what I came out of my grad program at AC4D most fired up about as well. I wrote about co-design and Theatre of the Oppressed here and here.

Co-design is hard to talk about because it’s actually a really complex issue. I myself ebb and flow in my practice of co-design as much as I believe in its theory. And there is a lot to still discover and figure out and experiment with. When Rimington and Ceas talk about adapting the methods, this is where I really want to collaborate with for-impact organizations to figure out what co-design means in practice for social impact projects, where end users fall on a range of historical disenfranchisement.


Rimington and Ceas are speaking to the for-impact tribe; their audience is the non-profits and NGOs and foundations doing this work. They’re trying to convince their audience that listening to users will lead to more innovation and more impact.

Some human-centered designers and firms who practice design thinking are also talking to this same audience of the for-impact tribe: we have a process and methodology that will help you involve your users and which will lead to more innovation and more impact! Work with us!

I am whole-heartedly an advocate for the above two paragraphs. By all means, let’s work together! Writing as a designer who is working in the social impact space, I will just be honest and say that I am wary of the “HCD solves all” Kool-Aid. Below are some nuances as to why/where/how I think design needs to continue evolving in order to meet the needs of the for-impact space.

  • Even the for-profit sector has to fight for end-user inclusion. I have designer friends right now who are working for big cool Silicon Valley tech companies who are fighting for (and “fighting” is the word they invariably use) to include user-centered design in their processes.
  • We still need to figure out where end-user feedback is most leveraged for for-impact projects and organizations. There are many ways that the for-profit sector involves users throughout the process, including: design research to understand their needs, user testing during iterative feedback cycles to improve products, crowdsourcing users to create content or provide services (e.g. platforms like AirBnb, Facebook, etc.), receiving market feedback via dollars spent (consumers are able to vote with their $$$). There are times when design thinking is most leveraged, and there are times when user-involvement is most leveraged, and there are times when designers need to go off and be designers. We need to adapt these ways of thinking and working into the for-impact sector, and they probably look different for the for-impact sector. (Which requires experimentation and partnership with foreward-thinking orgs who are okay with the fact that we designers don’t already have all the answers but who trust in the fact that we can figure it out if we all work together, holla!)
  • All of the above ways that the for-profit sector includes users may never be enough for the for-impact space. For a lot of the impact we want to see, if the root/seed of the solution is the in re-enfranchisement of the historically dis-enfranchised…the process has to be full-on co-design for it to be effective (as witnessed in New Orleans or Afghanistan or the teachers I alluded to earlier). And true co-design in the for-profit space is very rare, so there really isn’t an existing model we can look to. We can borrow heavily from Lean and HCD, but we’ll have to create a new paradigm for how innovation works in the for-impact space.
  • The mindset shift to “designing with” from historically “designing for” is an emotionally-charged space to be in when we’re talking social impact work. An a-ha moment from the talk last night was when Rimington and Ceas pointed out that the roots and history of current-day social impact work lies in the colonial mindsets of philanthropy from the late 19th/early 20th century of “how to help the poor.” (Rockfeller? Gates? Same same.) “Designing with” requires people with good intentions to grapple with our own biases, and the historic systems of oppression which we operate in, and the inherited roles of privilege which we inhabit. The ability to look at a beneficiary and really truly believe that you have an answer and expertise here which I don’t, and the answer lies within you and not me…I am not here to help you, you are here to help me…well that is straight up social justice work, which honestly most of us who work as designers (and maybe even a lot of people working in the for-impact space) did not sign up for. It’s easy to feel a dichotomy between “us” vs. “them” and to feel like the end user is either a) a victim b) to blame for the position they’re in c) not in any position to contribute. How do you invite a chronically-homeless person to be a meaningful contributor at the table? But if that’s the case, then part of our work is the capacity building and education to get that person to the place where they can be co-collaborators in this process. On a larger scale, “designing with” can only happen if we question and dismantle existing systems of power. That’s where the theatre of the oppressed stuff comes in: when you change the rules of the game, more is required of all involved. It’s a metaphor shift: from working on the symptons of poverty (improving education and healthcare) to trying to eradicate the roots of poverty creation.

And within all of that lies this tension of:

  • On the one hand, I’m arguing that co-design in the social impact space is a very radical approach. If you really want to have the most impact, you need to re-empower the [teachers, citizens, homeless, poor, healthcare high utilizers], and to do that, you need to involve them as collaborators and partners from the get-go. Not gonna lie — this is hairy, scary work. It means wading into politics and longterm relationships and other gnarlier questions along the lines of… individual agency vs. systemic change: how much of a disservice are you doing if you’re trying to empower people within a broken system.
  • On the other hand, I don’t want people throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I think there is a lot that can be gained from listening to users at strategic points during your process. Even if make small process changes in the for-impact model, we can make huge strides. We can inject some Lean principles into your org! We can apply human-centered design to social impact issues! Yes we can!

So I’m going to keep working on both. Frankly, the latter is easier to do as a day job, and there is still a ton to learn and contribute. AND the radical core of me will continue to get fired up whenever people allude to the former, as I keep trying to figure out where I fit in that whole scene. All of this work will continue to refine my POV — my thinking still has a long way to go in sophistication as I keep grappling with these themes, so stay tuned!

And anyone out there who wants to collaborate on any of the above, I’m all ears. Hit me up.


This is the most powerful piece of music I have heard in awhile. (h/t @ShaunKing)

#BlackLivesMatter is a demand, not a plea. It is going to make a lot of white people (all people)(conservative AND liberal AND even so-called progressives) uncomfortable, but our nation is on fire. And it’s time.

As Shaun King wrote in an email to supporters of the new coalition and movement he’s putting together called Justice Together:

“In each generation, in each era, the overwhelming majority of people strongly preferred the status quo.

During the height of chattel slavery in the United States, in which people, by force, were brutalized into lifelong servitude, most historians suggest that nearly 80% of Americans approved of slavery.

We look back on that time and wonder how in the hell 80% of a country could support such a thing, but it’s the American way.

Dr. King was not popular nationwide. He was despised by most Americans and the Civil Rights Movement was WIDELY disregarded as overkill, attention-seeking, and completely unnecessary. The constant criticism was that it was seeking “too much, too fast.” Mind you, it was 100 years after slavery.

Today, in 2015, we live in an America that is VERY similar to the America’s I just described to you. Our nation is highly resistant to change, leaders who speak out on racial injustice or police brutality are demeaned and called outrageous names, and we are told that we are fighting for a worthless cause.

…Your family may not understand. Your friends may not get it. We created Justice Together so that you would always have a tribe that loves and supports you in this struggle.”

I had chills listening to the song at the top of this post. I feel it in my bones and in my hurting heart and in my soul that our nation is hurting, and that we need to move forward together. And I didn’t know where to share it. I retweeted it and got no retweets. I emailed it to colleagues and got no response. I posted it on Facebook and got two likes. I don’t know how many people heard me. I don’t know if anyone will read this. I don’t even know what reaction I’m looking for.

I saw this tweet last weekend during #FergusonTaughtMe to honor the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.

It resonated because I feel the same. I DON’T know my place in this movement yet, but I DO know that I cannot — and WILL NOT — ignore it. I will actively be supporting it in whatever way I can. Even if it scares the shit out of me. Because #FollowYourFear. Fear means you care; fear means growth; fear means it matters.

This next year’s election is going to be a circus no matter what. I’m glad people are using the platform to get their voices heard. Let’s listen. Let’s amplify their voices. Let’s fight for the justice we believe in.