Learning from Action Item Fair

Sungmy Kim
Apr 20, 2017 · 3 min read

Since working on social issues, I have had many chances to listen to the people and engage with them. As a trained designer, I was able to extract their needs and address their voices through workshops and design intervention, but I felt the necessity of social skills, such as communicating with people or organizing a community. How do activists deal with this? How do they start their actions? To learn some practical people skills, I attended Action Item Fair held on April 8th at ThoughtWorks.

The event was structured by two Skill-building for Systemic Change Workshops and several TED-style talks. I joined the workshop Organizing from Past to Future: Reflections for new & Experienced activists and Effective Communication for Active Citizens. Most participants were those who work for the people and their better lives such as activists, community organizers, journalists, workers from NGOs. I am going to share what I felt after the event.

Designers and Activists Have Something in Common.

1. We are here for people.

Both designers and activists work for the people but anything else. They both advocate people, represent their voices, and contribute to the human lives.

2. Anyone can play the role.

Many activists are not trained to be activists; rather they voluntarily become activists for the mission. Anyone who has a strong self-motivation can take the initiative. In the same context, anyone who wants to make a change can design(I mean design in a larger context). Design can not be completed by a degree or only in an office. Ezio Manzini also pointed out the social role of design in his book Design, When Everybody Designs.

3. Practice is the key.

Good activists practice on the street, with people, and with a powerful message. Their education level or occupation is not the core of successful activism. (I was able to meet several workshop participants in the event who had been imprisoned!)
Good designers also are seen as how genuinely they communicate with stakeholders and how well they delivered the users’ needs rather than what school they graduate or what quality of the output they produce with their digital skills.

4. Still, communication is hard.

Through the conversation with the workshop participants, I realized that the way of communication is challenging to the activists. Due to this reason, a journalist and the second workshop host Anya Kamenetz shared some practical tips for communication in different cases.

5. We need a strategy.

Activist Larry Moskowitz pointed out the lack of strategy in the Occupy movement during the first workshop. Without a strategy, any movement would be weak even though the population of participants were huge. This lesson also works in the design world. Without a strategic plan, design can fail no matter how much effort was put into the project.

Useful Tips for a Social Designer

A. Look back yourself first. Recognize how much you are privileged. There are always people who climb a same mountain behind you without hiking boots.

B. Be a sustainable advocate. Don’t burn out for what you believe in. Distribute your energy wisely. Stick with one issue that you can relate or contribute the most.

C. Build a community to win. A community is powerful than an individual. Use your community in a smart way. Divide knowledge with them. You don’t have to know all, You don’t have to do all.

Sungmy Kim

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Experience designer and design strategist, active in New York | sungmykim.com