Civics: Design’s Duty

FAQ… with a little of the backstory

Tickets & Info: CivicsTalk.com

Q: What is this event?

A: It’s an evening speaking event that asks how we (as humans, professionals, and citizens) might be more engaged in aiding civic and social progress through the levers of design and technology. The design speakers are nationally renowned in their field and will each speak for 25 to 45 minutes. The MCs of the evening are Tina and Grayson Currin — (notable social activists in the RDU area for things like “The Air Horn Orchestra”). Any profits from the event will be donated to the ACLU of North Carolina.

Q: What is the goal of this event?

A: As this event was conceived — there were two ambitions.

  1. (To steal a little from John Bielenberg) To infect anyone with an inclination for design and technology — or those communities — with ideas and inspiration so they might channel their abilities in ways that make invaluable contributions to civic progress and the incredible social issues facing America today. If of the 100+attendees (fingers crossed), just a small few walk away from this event inspired, and in a years time do something that makes a positive impact on our lives as a society (locally, nationally, whatever) — this event would have done its job.
  2. It’s timely. There are few times, or never, in recent history (say the last 20 years) when it has been more important for the civically-inclined, thinkers, tinkerers, technologists, designers, and would-be community leaders to get involved. Not to check a box of the volunteer hours, but as a right of passage and ownership of our communities as contributing, engaged citizens. The observant of us may agree that it can be easy to take what we have as for granted as American citizens. Today we routinely witness the consequences of that indifference when inalienable human rights and equity around us are threatened. But we can’t JUST protect what rights we do have — or those things taken for granted – we have to also dig in to make things better.

Q: Why organize this in Durham, North Carolina?

A: Besides the fact that I’m biased to locations where I live… The Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill area — to my mind, really check off all the boxes that make it such a ripe environment.

  1. It has a rich community in the technology sector with places like IBM, Citrix, Red Hat and so many others in the RT and American Underground/ATC communities.
  2. With UNC, Duke, NC State, and NCCU here — there is an massive quantity of minds ripe for idea incubation and exploration.
  3. North Carolina makes for an interesting example for rest of the country with rich diversity — and also a pronounced political gamut. Recently, North Carolina has been sadly on the wrong side of history and headlines — with notable issues like the HB2 law, Gerrymandered political districts, racial profiling/policing, income inequality, voter suppression, and energy.
  4. It’s a rapidly growing area — and that is a critical moment of a community’s history in fostering engaged citizens to help to shape its future.

Q: Why should someone attend this event?

A: Easy! Because you give a shit. You care about your neighbor. You want to leave things better than you found them (or at least just as good). You believe that a just and equitable future for everyone means a good future for everyone.

Q: Who should attend this event?

A: Anyone! You don’t have to be in design or technology to enjoy this event. If you like idea talks like TED, care about social good, civic tech, activism, or the future of the country and your community, you’ll be glad you came — I promise you.

Q: How was this event realized?

A: Very organically with a lot of stumbling and learning as I went. I had never organized something like this, save a performance aid-fundraiser at College of The Atlantic in the wake of the Haiti earthquake. It really came about because of Mike Monteiro — this event owes much credit to him for seeding this idea. Earlier this year, he had started to promote a talk called “How to Fight Fascism” and wanted to find partners for this talk around the country where he might give it. I’ve always been quite inspired by his position on how designers should be more thoughtful, critical of their role in affecting change (must watch talk of his: How designers destroyed the world). So, I reached out in a total right-place-right-time moment on Twitter, and he excitedly agreed that Durham would be a great place to perform the talk. In a historically naive moment of mine, I thought to myself privately:

“Hey, I really think other designers agree with Mike’s general position and I bet I could recruit a few other design speakers who would like to join in on this talk and I could turn this into an evening TEDx-style talk event.”

I pitched my idea to Rena Tom, Mike’s lead on his speaking/workshops, and they loved the idea and gave me the time/support to see if I could pull it together into a reality. Slowly the dominoes fell into place and here we are! I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Beyond that — this event would have been impossible-to-nearly impossible without the help/support from my wife Sophie, Jacob Newbauer, Tina Haver-Currin, Grayson Currin, and recent high-fives from Andrew Wirtanen. The folks at The Durham Hotel have also been an incredible source of aid and support for which I owe a lot of thanks to.

Q: How were the speakers selected?

A: Well, besides Mike being the initial seed (mentioned above), in a very non-thoughtfully manner, I reached out to folks who I knew were passionate about the theme and sympathetic of the event’s ambition. John Bielenberg came along in an earlier, seminole period of my career as a designer and was one of a few people who infused my sense of civic/social responsibility as a designer — he was a natural selection. I’ve long been a fan of Pamela Pavliscak and her talks on how designers and technologists might consider making more human, empathetic decisions in their craft. Because of an introduction through Caktus Group, I’ve been quite familiar and had the chance to participate a few times with Code for Durham (btw — please consider joining a Code for Durham or Code for America event — these people are HEROES), and Jenn Downs came highly recommended by with her history of mentoring for Code For America as well as a career of social/civic impact endeavors. The initial list of speakers were all working in areas outside of North Carolina, so I was nudged from multiple folks that the talk deserved a voice from here in the local community (I was quite embarrassed I hadn’t given that more thought earlier in the process). With that I didn’t need to look further than the folks at Caktus Group — a tech consultancy with a social impact thread woven into much of their work. I had the great opportunity to work alongside Nkechinyere “NC” Nwoko during my time at Caktus Group where I became quite familiar with her work and interest with public health issues — specifically on Epic Allies (A mHealth game (and tool) to help people living with HIV).

I reached out to a handful of others who I thought would be wonderful speakers, given the theme, as well — I’m happy to say they all loved the idea and would have loved to participate, but had scheduling complications. I’m hoping that if this event is a success and I decide to try it again, that there is already a shortlist for speakers for next year’s iteration.

Q: What is the motivation for organizing for this event?

A: It’s a little bit personal — so bare with me for the formative backstory.

I grew up in a very rural catholic/christian community in northern coastal Maine. Though I’m not much of a practicing Catholic theses days, the church and my parents had a profound impact on my sense of responsibility to my “neighbor”. The two basic threads that seemed to go everything I was taught (these should be familiar to everyone!): (1) Treat those around you would want to be treated. (2) Take care, befriend, and fight for those who may not look like you, or are sick, weak, old, young, or down on their luck — for someday you may find yourself there as well. In addition to that, my parents were very active in the boy scouts / girls scouts organization when we were kids. Memorably, in the cub scouts (or webelos?) we were infused with even more basic principles that stick with me as a mid-thirties adult: The world around you is for everyone, not just you. Take care of it for everyone — and most importantly, leave it better (or at least as good) than you found it.

Nearing the end high school, as young and naive teenagers do (when you decide to live as a productive, contributing-to-society-adult), I considered the idea of service to the country in the form of joining the Marines. Recruiters visited our house a few times and were a common track for those in my community who weren’t drawn to to the fishery, forestry or post-HS education. The motivators were all there — the Marines recruiters know all the levers and their audience. This would have been a fine, noble path — but I had begun developing specific skills in HS: I began to learn to both code websites and began fostering fondness for art and the communication promise of graphic design. I eventually decided on art school (in large thanks to parents who had begun saving for college when we were toddlers). But that itch to serve — or really to just participate in contributing in a direct, government or civic manner — never went away.

After a few years into my career as a designer, I made some early poor decisions and toiled with what I should do. I recalled an inspired economics teacher I had in art school (yes… economics), who had shared her tales of service in the Peace Corp and so I began wondering what the hell the Peace Corps was all about. Well — after maybe about a year of weighing the decision and a long application process, I became recruited and went off to Bolivia where I would scratch that call to public service for four years in a health, water, and sanitation program. During that time in Bolivia those principles introduced in adolescence, advanced a pronounced belief in me: In every edge of this world we have far more in common than we have differences. And no matter our differences, whom we worship, who we love, what we look like, our place in the age and health spectrum — we must take care of one another — in doing so, we make progress as a civilization and achieve our greatest human attributes: kindness and empathy.

When I returned from Bolivia I found a new focus — that I would be sure that whatever work I engaged in as a professional designer, it would in some manner help to move the social progress needle forward. I’ve been especially fortunate to have had the opportunity to do so working recently as a designer in the education-technology space, but also in the past with Randy Hunt’s Citizen Scholar, studying in the Human-Ecology graduate program at College of the Atlantic, working with orgs like UNICEF and the Clinton Global Initiative, and many nonprofits in Maine, New York, and North Carolina.

Lastly, a new phase in my life started five years ago. I became a dad. As that change does for many parents — it made me even more cognizant of (and sensitive to) the world we contribute to, shape, create, and ultimately leave for them.

Civics is motivated by all of that history and wanting to help further civic and social engagement in the design and technology communities here in The Triangle.

Q: You’re doing this on your own? Independently?

A: Yes… kinda — funny thing: support comes in many different forms but the one significant thing that I’ve been grateful for is simply, encouragement. It was a bit of naivety to try this at the outset on my own — I thought, “Let’s do this! How tough can it be?!”. Usually the greatest life lessons and personal growth are from taking the plunge, even in naive circumstances (you’ve seen this in every Disney movie). If you’re someone who might be fond of the idea that this independence approach affords — my advice: Take your time and consider getting help. People generally want to help, it’s in our nature. Find those people. Unless you are a larger business or organization, don’t do this on your own.

My thinking a few months ago was: This is an important, timely discussion for the design and tech community here in North Carolina, and I’d like to make sure it happens. After our youngest daughter turned one, I was eager to be more involved and I felt — naively — that I would have more time on my hands. Where my thinking is now: boy, I see why event organizers do this as a job (hat tip Marie at Hopscotch Design Festival who has offered wonderful support and advice).

This event is also not a “profit-center”, nor leveraging it this for any sort of business or organizational agenda. It’s quite simple: The costs of the event are the venue rental, the speaker’s overhead, and some promotion overhead. Whatever this event brings in beyond covering those things, will be donated to the ACLU of North Carolina.

Note: I’ll likely share a post-mortem self critique of the event here on Medium with my experience and “lessons learned” in a few months. I’d devote 500 words at least to how I might promote this more effectively in the future.

Q: What advice can you give for anyone attending this event?

  • Come with an open mind. Be inquisitive.
  • Also come a little early so we can seat everyone in a timely manner.
  • Maybe plan to eat before the event or after? It’s a 3hr show with a short break in the middle. We’ll have a few drinks and snacks there of course.

Q: Will you do this event again?

Hoping to! Let’s see how this event goes — I would very much like to, but I’ll be looking for an organizational partner in the future.

Hope to see you there!


Tuesday, August 15th 2017, 6pm at the Durham Arts Council
Tickets and Info at: CivicsTalk.com.