The Ethics of Designing for Indigenous Communities

A reflection based on Technically Wrong

Andrés Hurtado
Dec 8, 2017 · 3 min read

I come from a background in Mexico where I’ve had accessibility to a large number of privileges that have been passed down to me through racial, cultural, and socio-economic systems such as steady income support from a hard working middle-class single parent, access to private education from kindergarten to my current higher education, access to media, resources, and education platforms that have allowed me to become bilingual, among countless others.

Regardless of these privileges having been worked for, or passed on to me by circumstances out of my control, I recognize such privileges exist on a power spectrum where each holds a set of advantages and disadvantages over one another that position me higher than other individuals in such power spectrum, such as my light-skinned mestizo features. By being mestizo — having half-Spanish and half-indigenous American ancestry — in Mexico, I automatically get a higher chance of access to a socio-economic status that allows me to pursue a higher-than-average quality education, than the 15.7 million indigenous people living in Mexico, where 80% of them live under poverty or extreme poverty.

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My senior thesis focuses on mestizo middle-school and high-school teachers with a traditional westernized ideology of what a classroom environment should be, who work with youth in [Tarahumara/Rarámuri] indigenous communities. I aim to provide a platform with the tools and resources necessary to: 1. Understand, connect and empathize with the culture, practices, and background that is unique to the specific indigenous community they’re working with. 2. Reflect and keep track of what they see is working and what isn’t working in their teaching practices to the class or a specific student. 3. Adjust and make changes to the classroom environment based on their reflections made, making it more engaging for the indigenous students’ learning methods and needs specific to them. With these three goals in mind, I aim to create a pathway to better engagement, understanding, and learning of the material for indigenous students that will allow them to receive a better quality education through ‘making and doing’, without disrupting the cultural heritage specific to their indigenous community, or assimilating it to “ideal” Westernized practices.

Given that the platform I am aiming to create involves having access to a feature, low-end phone or inexpensive smartphone, as well as access to basic internet connectivity, it is critical for me to consider the accessibility to technology and internet connectivity these teachers of low economic resources have. Hence, I am creating valuable offline-accessible tools and features on a platform for teachers, as well as taking into consideration current platforms that aim to provide affordable and free access to online knowledge hubs and data bases, such as Internet.org, and future internet connectivity networks, such as Project Loon that have the potential to bring internet connectivity to remote areas around the world.

As I continue to advance in my thesis, I aim to avoid the tendency of colonization through design so many designers are guilty of when designing for a community we are not integrated or connected with, most often the result of remote and distant creation away from the community subjects and the problem they’re facing with, instead of co-creation through integration with the community. However, co-creation and integration must be done through avoiding a “savior- mindset”, where one lets the community individuals take the role of guides to guide us through their their needs, problems, and possible solutions, rather than the designer acting as the one who has the ideal solution — a result of the fake notion of western superiority complex.

Bellow are some sketch-notes of Technically Wrong, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher that helped me reflect on this post.

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