Nobody needs to be fixed

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

justasyouarememe.jpg

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

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

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

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

Yumi

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

YumiTea.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

drawing not my fairy godmother w500

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

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

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

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

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

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Design for Social Impact + Systems + Co-Design

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

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

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

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

The past few years

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

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

My current working hypotheses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links and Resources

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

Hugh Dubberly on Designers and Systems

Books on Systems + understanding Leverage Points

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

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

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

Additional Things to look up: 

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

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

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

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

A Game(poem) for Immigrant Parents of Asian American Children

Never say the words ‘I love you.’
Stop hugging or kissing your kids when they are 5.

Show your fierce loyalty and protection in other ways:
Cook for them.
Eat dinner together.
Make them eat fruit.
Always keep them fed.
Drive them to their piano lessons.
Help them with their homework.
Pay for their college.
Always keep them comfortable.
Don’t let them forget your sacrifice.
Discourage them from choosing career paths in the arts.
Remind them to be grateful.
Always keep them moving up in life.

Every time you can brag about them to your friends, gain 5 points.
Every time they forget to call you back, lose 1 point.
Every time they answer you in English instead of their mother tongue, lose 1 point.
Every time they surprise you with a sign of affection, gain 10 points.

For the first 25 years of their lives, discourage them from dating.
After 25, complain loudly about not having grandchildren yet.
If they are currently dating potential marriage material, +50 points.
If they are currently dating good-for-nothings, -50 points.
If they are single and still living at home after 30, -100 points.
If they ask you to take care of their babies, you win.
If they take care of you in your old age, you win.

Do this for their own good.
Do this for The American Dream.
Do this until you die.

(Inspired by gamepoems, via @lethalbeef)

Becoming an Artist in 2015

In some ways, I became an Artist with a capital A in 2015. It wasn’t intentionally planned, but it’s been a long time coming. Both are true: I have been an artist my entire life, and I will struggle with being an Artist (with a capital A) for the rest of my life. It’s also not over yet. You don’t just “become” and be done with things.

As 2016 begins in earnest, I wanted to take a little time to be grateful for some of the phase-shifting experiences I had this past year.

1
While I was working in Seoul in the spring, my roommate came for a visit and booked us a temple stay at Myogaksa Temple. Upon arrival, we filled out some simple paperwork: name (Christina), age (31), country of origin (United States), occupation (designer). Upon departure, we were asked to fill in some feedback forms with a few optional fields: name (Christina), occupation (writer).

In the quiet of the weekend, I had gone from designer to writer. My roommate had gone from college administrator to yoga teacher.

Thanks roomie.

2
In the summer of 2015, I fell in love. Hard. With neofuturism. We made art babies. I wanted to tell Facebook but didn’t know how. Facebook wouldn’t have understood.

On a last-minute impulse, I attended a day-long writing workshop with the SF Neofuturists. We learned about the aesthetic (on stage: you are who you are, you are where you are, and everything you’re doing is real) and the format (30 two-minute plays each week, all written by the performers, running the gamut from comedic to political to serious to wacky experimental). We did exercises, and came up with impossible tasks, and wrote plays, and performed plays, and collaborated, and played. I was swept off my feet. Twyla Tharp talks about a creative DNA, and Jessica Abel talks about your personal creative rhythms…well, neofuturism fit me like a glove.

So on an even impulsier impulse, I ended up auditioning because I wanted to do the 2-day workshop that was callbacks. And I made callbacks! I got to spend a blissful weekend with the current cast and 12 aspiring neo’s writing and performing and playing and learning more and putting myself in the vulnerable position of being judged on the merit of my art. It was exactly like falling in love, complete with the sleepless nights, inspired energy, big smiles, obsessive thought spirals, and warmth.

Needless to say, I was more than a little heartbroken when I didn’t make it into the cast. But I did make some amazing new friends, and my lessons from the auditions led me to dive into so many other fun new adventures during the remainder of the year: dance and improv and finding my voice and taking up space and seeing my creative work in a new light. I can’t really say I regret any of it, not even the no.

And like all love, it spread. It spread to infect my brother (who took a workshop when the NY Neo’s visited during Out of Bounds Fest) and all the friends or dates I’ve been able to expose to their first experience of “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.” If you haven’t already checked out the show and you live in Chicago or SF or NY…Go. Enjoy. Art.

Thanks Norna: for telling me about TMLMTBGB. Thanks Donna + Ahran + William: for experiencing that first show with me. And thank you Neo’s: old, new, and aspiring.

3
I’ve been making comics for awhile now, more seriously for the past 2-3 years, squirreling them away on a secret tumblr, experimenting, freaking out when my brother posted one to Facebook and asking him to take it down. I wasn’t ready yet. They weren’t ready yet. No one could read them yet. Even after I started letting people read them here and there, I called them visual essays for a long time. I didn’t think people would get it (them)(me).

2015 was the year I came out of the comics closet. 2015 was the year I let people read my comics in earnest. 2015 was the year I actively started telling people to “Hey! Go read my comics!” 2015 was the year I started sharing new ones on all my social media channels. Even Facebook! 2015 was the year I made a public site for my comics. 2015 was the year I (eventually) linked to them from my main hub at sodelightful.com. 2015 was the year I started a newsletter, and serialized a comic, and connected with readers for 8 Sunday evenings in a row. 2015 was the year I printed little books and sold them at a real-life legit Zine Fest and on consignment at a real-life local brick-and-mortar store.

2015 was the year I connected with new readers and deepened connections with old friends and started hearing from people that my comics had moved them. It’s all too easy in our data-filled lives to obsess over stats, pageviews, subscriber counts, but those numbers do not tell the full story of the “hidden effects of our work.” That is why I am so grateful for every small note anyone has sent my way. Putting the work out there is vulnerable and scary and hard (every single time, it’s hard). So to hear that they’ve connected with someone or resonated with their experiences or helped somebody feel something they needed to feel…well, that is why we Art.

Thanks Michelle and Donna for Zine Festing with me. Thanks friends who have supported and encouraged me along the way. Thanks Xerox machines for still existing within big box office supply stores.

Most of all, thank you, readers. <3

4
And not trivially, 2015 was also the year I did all of the inner work that was required to be able to make and finish Release and Aging and Closets. Still working, still practicing, still struggling with the same old stuff, but lemme tell ya…that’s some major leveling up in that them pages there.

If you’ve been along for the journey, you know who you are. Thanks. (Even if you were one of the people who were sent into my life as a trigger for change and didn’t necessarily know your role in the journey…thank you. Actually, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.)

5
This last one is so new, it’s still unprocessed, so I won’t write much. But I had the incredible good fortune and honor to spend the last few days of 2015 in Yosemite National Park with a tribe of people who are all self-proclaimed explorers and adventurers and wonder-seekers and wonder-makers and storytellers and experience designers (in the IRL sense of the word). And it feels as phase-shifting as my stint with the Neo’s. My eyes are opened, my inspiration is fueled, and my connection-meter is glowing.

So thank you explorers for showing me what ‘wonder-ful’ truly means.

6
I am SO looking forward to 2016! Stay tuned!!!

A manifesto for love

I like the idea that if you find yourself telling more than 3 people about a certain something, you should just blog about it.

I’ve been telling a bunch of people about this article “How to Pick a Life Partner”. The headline sounds like clickbait, but the contents really resonated with me. She articulated what I’ve been looking for without having the words for it. These are the qualities she names as crucial for a long-term partnership, and this trifecta makes so much sense to me:

  1. Deep friendship
  2. Feeling at home/safe with them
  3. Commitment to problem-solving the relationship together

I know it’s not fair to expect a partner to be everything to you; I value my independence, and I also want my partner to have a life and community independent of me. I’ve been seriously pondering whether or not my partner also needs to be my best friend; after all isn’t that what my best friends are for? But in some ways, I must be looking for that kind of friendship in a mate, because I am quite quick to label and write off certain prospective suitors as too boring. By “boring”, I mean that their lives don’t feel similarly multi-dimensional as mine.

“A Traffic Test-passing friendship entails…a decent number of common interests, activities, and people-preferences. Otherwise a lot of what makes you ‘you’ will inevitably become a much smaller part of your life, and you and your life partner will struggle to find enjoyable ways to spend a free Saturday together.”

I am a super-social introvert. I am a social justice activist. I am an artist who likes to explore and a geek who likes stories. I am a wanderer who takes too many pictures and a traveler who secretly craves the woods. I like to follow my fears and show up for things even if (especially if) I don’t know what I’m in for. I’m not a thrillseeker nor an adrenaline junkie, but I do like adventures of the heart, of connection, and of the mind. I want someone who’s as equally curious about life and who’s equally up for life as I am. I want someone multi-faceted and inspiring— interesting to be around and interested in the world…Otherwise, I’m just a manic pixie dream girl for another nice guy.

I don’t care what you look like;
Show me your heart of gold.
Show me what you make when you think no one’s watching.
Show me how you share your unique gift with the world.
Show me what makes you smile, and what makes you cry.
Show me what gives you pause, and what lights up your mind.

I started writing this, and then I realized that the poet Oriah already said it all and so much better in the poem “The Invitation”:

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty every day. And if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ’Yes.’

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

I liked that my friend Sheena tagged this poem on her Tumblr with #manifesto.

Of course, the fear is that this bar is too high and that in saying no to some, I’ll end up with none. Or that these qualities are red herrings when I should be paying attention to xyz instead. But I believe in manifesto’s of the heart. I deserve to dream. I can dream if I want to. And maybe we never reach those peaks, but we can keep striving for them in our day-to-day, and in that striving is the moment-to-moment living that ultimately defines our lives. And that is richness enough for me.

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.

THE NEED FOR THE FOR-IMPACT TRIBE TO START LISTENING

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.)

CONNECTING THE DOTS FOR MYSELF

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.

HERE ARE SOME NUANCES AS TO WHY ALL OF THIS IS TOUGH

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.