Category Archives: Social Innovation

On Sharing Power

A fellow Terry Scholar from UT Austin emailed me asking about design research, and I was re-reading this blogpost that I wrote about my time at the Austin Center for Design researching homelessness as part of my “Interaction Design and Social Entrepreneurship” program.

As I was re-reading, I thought of two things I would add to this conversation so thought I would blog them here:


Over the past two years my friend Jess Rimington has been researching what leads to true innovation, e.g solutions that break out of the current system and into the beginning of a new world.  She’s just summarized her and her co-author, Joanna Cea’s, findings in a feature article in Stanford Social Innovation Review:

Although I think the headline “Creating Breakout Innovation” sells the piece short, I think it’s worth a read because it’s a different way of approaching things that’s rooted in co-design and sharing power and community-engaged solutions:

1. Share power

2. Prioritize relationships

3. Leverage heterogeneity

4. Legitimize all ways of knowing

5. Prototype early and often



George Aye of Greater Good Studio talked during SXSW about power and understanding power dynamics that affect client relationships in design for social good projects.

(Relatedly, I still haven’t read the whole book, but Adam Kahane also has a book that’s on CCA Social Lab students’ reading list entitled Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change.)

Important stuff. Like I said in my blogpost, these address the “tensions around how to tackle the social justice issues that are so interwoven within social impact work.”

P.S. AC4D is expanding to a new space and has room for more students. Apps for 2018-19 school year open til July 1st. Click here for more details.

P.P.S. I wrote a Dear Beloved letter about what I learned about making art from the Neo-Futurists, but it’s also about sharing power.


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.

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 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)

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.

Thinking out loud: the role of individual agency in system change

During an icebreaker last year, each of us was asked to bring in a photo or object that represented why we work in the social impact field. I brought in  a picture of water ripples because I believe in the ripple effect of empowering individuals. Another person talked about seeds, and I was reminded of that day recently when we were speaking with an NGO whose tagline is:

If you are given a fruit, you can enjoy it only once;
If you are given a seed, you can benefit from it your whole life.

This NGO’s staff are inspired by the women they work with when they see that their personal empowerment becomes seeds for change in their families and in their communities. I’ve always been drawn to strength-based work that focuses on capacity building and fueling change in individuals as the seeds for larger social impact. That’s why I believe in education as a way to tackle the root causes of many of our social issues. That’s why I quit design to pursue teaching in ’09. As a teacher, I wanted to spark the individual agency within our next generation of changemakers. Or rather, I don’t believe our world has any chance of solving some of our current problems if our next generation doesn’t have the critical thinking skills, passion, and agency to make great strides forward.

I’m lucky to be able to continue working on social impact projects across different sectors. Each project brings new perspectives and evolves my point of view on social change. Through recent introductions and rabbit-holing, I found this “Ideas Unbound” interview with Ruth Shapiro that has some great quotes. For instance, this is a good encapsulation of the difference between scale and systemic change:

“There is a difference between scale and systemic change. Scale, you’re delivering x number more of water tablets or mosquito nets, and you’re scaling your endeavor that way. Systemic change is going to the root of the problem. In most parts of the world, you can’t create systemic change without partnering with government, and that piece has [until recently] been left out of the conversation. But you have to really work with government. You have to work with school districts or you have to work with ministries of health. You have to get at systemic change, which is much more powerful than just scaling. Scaling is good; systemic change is better.

“The other point I wanted to make is I make a point at the end of the book that I think this field has significantly been influenced by Silicon Valley…a lot of the money for the field is coming from this area. And these are people who’ve made a lot of money because they’ve scaled something like Facebook or eBay or a computer like Hewlett & Packard. I quote a social entrepreneur in the book, Eric Weaver, who has the largest micro finance organizations in California for social change. He says, ‘One of the problems is people are looking for the killer app for social change, and it doesn’t work that way. Yes, you can have a killer app that’s a great game. but you can’t have a killer app around infant mortality. There’s no one right answer. It’s a complex issue with a complex set of solutions and numerous players and organizations and agencies involved. So to think you’re going to find this one panacea or killer app is I think naïve. There’s still this tendency to think what is it, what is it, this one idea is going to change everything.”

(There is no killer app; there’s only silver buckshot.)(And incidentally, system change is why I left traditional teaching to come back to the world of design in 2010.)

Even though Ruth Shapiro’s book, The Real Problem Solvers: Social Entrepreneurs in America, and this podcast are a few years old now, the changes she mentions around media and personal empowerment are still young and still need incubation in so many parts of the world.

“When I graduated college, I went into the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines, which is a predominantly Catholic country. Here was this New Yorker…all of 22 years old…I thought I knew all the answers. And I ran up into this attitude — they call it their bahala na — which means this is as God wills it, there’s really nothing I can do about these circumstances. And I found it so frustrating. I see an extraordinary sea change in that — that personal empowerment, that notion that in fact I have some control over my own destiny. I think it’s because…it’s phones, it’s internet. People are starting to say: I don’t have to live with this situation, this status quo any longer. I can make a change. To Bill [Drayton]’s point, to Ashoka’s point of ‘everyone’s a change maker.’ That’s happening. They may not all become social entrepreneurs, but this notion of personal empowerment is a huge sea change.”

 We were in the field doing some research interviews this past week, and one of the frustrating things was that a lot of the women we talked to have accepted their current circumstances as the way things are. That have no sense of agency right now.

And in some ways, I get it — the system is so big, and you are just one individual. It would be folly to try to fight the system right now. That would take a ton of courage, resources you don’t have, and an enthusiastic inexplicable compulsion to being a rebel and a troublemaker…because rebel is also often synonymous with outcast and loner.

There’s also an interesting cultural tension at play. I wonder about the role of individual agency in societies that value collective duty. In the podcast, they talk about how American it is to tackle social issues or our own personal problems vs. relying on government or someone else to take care of it.

“In the US, people are always creating organizations. Someone who suffers through a certain tragedy will create an organization so others don’t have to suffer the same kind of tragedy. It’s a very American thing…I think that technology is fundamentally changing the way people are feeling empowerment in society. And when you feel empowered, that’s how you create change. Americans, we’ve never relied on government…That sense of personal empowerment, that’s changing throughout the world and how people are thinking about their mobility and their personal circumstances.”

The question of collective collaboration in the social impact field is a question many are asking right now—to reduce redundancy, to amplify impact, to tackle system problems with system solutions. I wonder about the negative unintentional consequences of American culture’s hyper-focus on the individual, on “bettering one’s situation”, on elevating the individual entrepreneur over the bridgemakers trying to work within the system. (I’m not saying it’s wrong; I’m just asking if there might be more than one way.)*

The women we talked to this week have all been able to persevere with grace in the face of emotionally difficult situations. Part of their survival arsenal in doing this is to accept the facts of their life as they are and to deal with their current circumstances as best they can. They still dream, but they are also grounded in reality. Acceptance of what is, is also a key part in the practice of Buddhism and meditation.** Whining and resisting and fighting are not productive. Focusing on the negatives just makes you feel helpless.

Actually, the goal of any capacity-building work is to counter that helplessness, to seed that empowerment, to spark in someone that sense of individual agency. But there are limits to individual agency. Individual dreams cannot be activated within an ecosystem that lacks opportunities—or within an ecosystem that actively discourages individual mobility. Maybe we are setting individuals up for failure if we encourage their agency in a vaccuum, before a ‘tipping point’ has occurred, or before we’ve simultaneously and collectively bolstered the ecosystems that make individual agency truly effective. I’m starting to think that it’s irresponsible to help black kids dream without also simultaneously addressing the current realities of race in the United States.***

Yes, it’s true: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But, what if he also needs a boat to get to the fish? Or what if he lives in a landlocked country with no access to fish? Or what if the sea where he is supposed to be fishing is polluted and overfished and undernourished? Or maybe most importantly of all: what if he never wanted that fish in the first place?

I’m coming to see that I’ve been using capacity-building/personal empowerment/individual agency as MY own silver bullet for tackling social change. And obviously, of course, there is no silver bullet. There’s so much more nuance. There’s so much more complexity. It’s a ‘both-and’ situation of empowering individuals AND working on (breaking/remaking/creating anew) the systems we live within.

Yet I’ll still place most of my bets on this idea of personal empowerment. It’s where my hope lies. While my perspective is evolving and growing more complex, my personal contribution to this field of social impact will likely always anchor in sparking individual seeds for change.

Because of Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s most astounding fact of all:****


*Related and thought-provoking: The power of design education and design in general in helping people realize that “everything is made up” and therefore have the agency to change things. Juxtaposed and dancing alongside: “Why I’m not a maker” and why makers are not the only ones changing things.

**There’s a lot more nuance to this idea of “accepting your current reality”–obviously, there are also boundaries and psychological health and the difference between repression vs. acceptance, the difference between acceptance and giving up, to dig into…but they feel tangential to the main point of this blogpost.

***Another perspective on the Humans of New York fundraiser; how to be a good ally; and Deliberate Discourse Dinners as just one way to start engaging with race in a safe space.

****H/T Christina V. Pentz, aerospace engineer.

Nick Kristof + Silver Buckshot

I went to a Commonwealth Club talk with Nicholas Kristof last month. I went into the evening curious what kind of tone he would have as a speaker, and I left inspired. Here are two stories that he shared that I really needed to hear:

1. Hope in the face of complex issues

A woman stands at the mic and tells Kristof that his book inspired her friends to start a dine + donate club. They choose an issue and make contributions each month. They’ve been looking at human trafficking, and she wants his advice on where to focus their energy — the rescue piece? the prevention and education of young girls piece? the law enforcement piece?

He says: “Everyone is looking for a silver bullet. There is no silver bullet…But there is silver buckshot.”

The project I’m working on with schools in the South is ostensibly about improving students’ academic performance, so they can get good educations, so they can be successful and thrive. But that really means helping them be more ready to learn. Which means attending to their emotional needs + focus skills + motivation. Which means fostering resilience in the face of trauma + toxic stress. Which stems from growing up in poverty and surrounded by violence. Which is merely a symptom of all sorts of nasty complex challenges, not the least of which is intergenerational disenfranchisement stemming from overt + subtle racism. (And we can only ever openly talk about the first third of that iceberg.)

Our approach favors small evidence-based kernels that empower teachers over big programmatic changes that can feel prescriptive. But that means we are starting with 1-to-3 very small, very tiny, seemingly microscopic things this spring. Laughably tiny.

And some days, the gremlins come around and say WTF WTF WTF.

And on those days, my mantra has become Silver Buckshot Silver Buckshot Silver Buckshot.

2. Believing in the value of drops-in-the-bucket

Kristof shared this story of a successful NAACP lawyer who was a troubled youth in his younger days. He was one of the tough kids, cutting class, always in trouble, never around. He’s walking through the school library one day after detention, and this sultry cover catches his attention out of the corner of his eye. It’s a book by Ali Neil. He’s intrigued. But he’s one of the tough kids, he can’t be checking out books. He checks to make sure the librarian Mrs. Grady isn’t watching and walks out of the library with the book under his jacket.

He reads the book at home and loves it. He returns the next week to see if there are any other books by the same author. There’s another one on the shelf. So he steals that one, too.

And he comes back and steals a third one. And a fourth one. And those books were his gateway drug back into reading, and starting to show up to English class again, and eventually graduating high school, going to college, going on to become a lawyer with the NAACP and becoming influential during the civil rights movement.

And at his high school reunion, he’s one of the success stories, one of the heroes. He finds Mrs. Grady to tell her how he stole all those Ali Neil books back in the day and to thank her. And she tells him that she knew he was doing it all along.

She had seen him, and at first she had been so mad. She had been about to stop him from walking out of the library. Why would you steal a book when you could just as easily check one out? But in a flash of insight, she knew it wasn’t that easy for him; his reputation meant he couldn’t be caught checking out a book. She went to see which book it was and then drove 45 minutes to the nearest bookstore in Nashville to see if she could find any more Ali Neil books. They didn’t have any, so she drove to another bookstore and another one and another one until she found a different book by the same author. She bought them and put them on that same shelf on the off-chance that this one kid might come back.

Helping is hard, but sometimes that risk pays off.

We are all interconnected, and yet we are all stuck in our own little ego’d bodies and brains, working from our own little circles of concern and attending to our own selfish needs. And still, you never know how what you say or do–even things you may not even be aware of–will affect another person or peoples or the world.

Part of a whole

I’ve been thinking about systems a lot lately.* I keep having moments of realization that we’re all just tiny, tiny parts in a complex system which we can never fully see nor comprehend. This leads to two opposite emotional reactions in me. One is a rabbit hole of doubt because I’m still processing its implications for the social impact work that I do. The other is a shiny ray of hope that helps me to be a creative day to day.

First, the Rabbit Hole

In one of the short stories that comprise his book Sum, David Eagleman compels us to imagine each human being as a cellular piece of an immense, godlike creature — the same way a cell in your body has a role and operates independently without any idea why or how it contributes to the body’s larger ecosystem. This made me think of the immune system: A macrophage sent to the site of a bacterial infection doesn’t know how the infection got there, nor how effective the overall effort is going. It just does its job, trades notes with its colleagues, and tries to discern from the body’s signals whether it should keep fighting or retire for the night. Auto-immune diseases occur when immune cells turn on the body itself, unable to distinguish between self and non-self. Do these rogues understand the harm they may unintentionally be inflicting as they go about their (to-them) natural routines and noble causes?

Who is to say whether we ourselves are helping or hurting in the grand scheme of things? There’s no simple way to assess it because we are inside it. We’d have to seek the outside help of an external being who exists on a much grander scale.

In a lot of ways, this fuels dismay. How can we have collective impact when we can’t even clearly see the bigger picture? When we start to see danger signs, how do we mobilize the entire ecosystem to react when we are one mere cog within the system? Even if we get traction, how do we know that our solution is best? After all, if we imagine all our body’s reactions as neutral, the fastest spreading ones are viruses and cancers.

Now, the Small Yet Shiny Ray of Hope

Let’s shift angles and tackle this idea from a different perspective — from the perspective of an artist.

One of the pre-dominant messages of our culture and the day and age in which we live is that: You are special. You are unique. The contribution you have to give to this world can only be made by your hand, your voice, and the distinct circumstances that have led you here right now to today.

It’s easy to conflate this rhetoric with the idea that our messages also needs to be unique, original, distinct — never heard before and won’t exist if we don’t put it out into the world ourselves. On one level, this can be a great motivator for someone to get her work out in the world. I have a responsibility to tell my story, dammit.

But it’s dangerous, too. That feeling of reading an already-published article that contains the same sentiments of one that’s been hiding out in your drafts folder? That feeling of seeing a comic in your Tumblr feed that shows beautifully what you have been trying and failing to draw for months? That feeling can start to preempt any future attempts at creating and publishing. The pressure to find something unique to say can be paralyzing. And you start to think…maybe you are not a unique snowflake after all.

Well, you are a unique snowflake, my dear.

But you’re also a part of a much larger system, and that system requires redundancies.

If we think back to the immune system: there are many macrophages in the body all tasked with the same job. Some need to be sent up to the throat, and some need to be sent down to the gut. All are unique, all are important, all have jobs to do.

The same is true of an artist or a creative. Someone else is probably creating some version of the same blogpost you are writing, the same song you are composing, the same painting you are drawing, the same joke you are crafting, the same movement you are dancing. And maybe that’s because the prime core of your artwork needs to be seen, heard, and experienced…not just by a small group of people but by the whole ecosystem. To ensure that the message spreads, the system has built in some redundancies. Which is why I feel compelled to write about this topic at the same time that everyone else seems to be fascinated with the same. So that those people in my immediate circle and in my zone of influence can hear this particular message.

That redundancy is freeing. Being a cog in the system is freeing. I don’t have to worry about trying to orchestrate something I have no control over. Once I stop that energy drain of worry, I can focus on the task at hand. I just have to do my work and trust the resiliency of the systems in play that if I am doing something that’s causing more harm than good, then the body will course-correct in time.

We all have our own small roles to play in the grand scheme of things.

* I haven’t dug into the science of systems yet. I’m looking forward to reading Sarah Brooks’s forthcoming book chapter about “designing for systems,” which sounds like a good introduction into that kind of thinking.