Moving from Design For → With → By

Amy J. Wilson
Apr 23 · 4 min read

Last Thursday I co-hosted a conversation with Arlene Corbin Lewis, the Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for Code for America in Clubhouse. We were joined by Jasmyn Latimer, Service Design Lead for Code for America; John Foster II, COO of Fearless Tech; and Stephen Chang and Tom Malarkey of the National Equity Project. They shared their experiences building equity in their design practices, and eventually the world.

Below is my opening remarks, which I gleaned from my recently published book: Empathy for Change.

I’ve spent my career as a “public entrepreneur” that has witnessed an emerging new power world — one where open, participatory, and peer-driven work is taking center stage over top-down, leader-driven hierarchy of old power structures. I witnessed first hand what is stopping us from making real progress with change and “innovation” in the world. I’m incredibly honored to serve on this year’s Summit Content Committee, and wanted to have a pre-Summit conversation with experts in the field who have been deeply thinking about equitable outcomes over equal access.

Power is usually the elephant in the room that many of us don’t talk about, yet it’s everywhere.

Those in power design the world and write policies that literally shape our society, and recent trends in the past few years are troubling, yet I remain hopeful.

I spent the past several years learning how the world is changing towards (or away) from empathy. And, two months ago I released the book: “Empathy for Change: How to Create a More Understanding World,” where I take a critical look at change and innovation efforts of the past and imagine what we need for the future for true social change. I spoke with industry leaders who are leading systems change by redesigning the world around them with empathy at the core.

Antionette Carroll is the Founder, President, and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, and is a pioneer of Equity-Centered Community Design. She emphasizes equity over equality, and states that “equality is equal access, while “equity” is equal outcomes.”

One way we can achieve equity is through shifting power and agency to those who are most affected by the services, programs, and policies of the social sector. Often, we talk about “empowering others” which isn’t very specific and is quite nebulous. Just Associates in their 2007 book “Making Change Happen” brings concepts from social justice of “Power To” “Power With” and “Power Within” into the forefront. They call agency as “the creative human capacity to act and change the world.”

In more recent years, there has been a growing movement towards bringing these concepts into design. In design, there’s often an unbalanced power differential, which takes power and agency away from those we serve, and thus we need to have awareness and action towards sharing and shifting power. This requires us to “deal with the psychological and social dimensions of oppression and subordination that leave people feeling inferior, isolated, cynical, and often angry.”

So, the conversation evolves from:

  • Designing For → Power Over (power is unequal) → Removes agency
  • Design With → Power With (equal power) → equal agency
  • Designed By → Power To (Power is transferred) → equity (equitable outcomes)

We hold a huge responsibility as designers and builders of the future government to do what’s right and provides equal outcomes for the most vulnerable populations of our country.

Mari Nakano is the Director of the Service Design Studio at NYC’s Mayor’s Office on Economic Opportunity says this so well:

“Design is about going beyond empathy to be actual allies that transforms insight into action — real action that can rethink systems and provide better outcomes. After all, we aren’t here to just let people know we’re listening. That does very little on its own. What we, as designers, are here for is to show and make real change that can be seen and felt by our residents and measured by our skeptics.”

As our consciousness is shifting more towards empathy and equity, I wanted to convene leaders who are thinking of this important aspect of designing a better social sector. One of the main questions I get asked is: “so HOW do you shift from designing for to designing with?” So we’ve convened the experts here to share their thoughts and stories.

This conversation is starting to skim the surface, which is deep and necessary to have in light of the greater awareness we’re having around how government can shift the narrative and can be a force for good, and shape what good looks like. I’m thrilled to be listening to these experts share with us their wisdom — and to hear from you on how you’re leading this shift.

This conversation was incredibly deep and rich, and I’m excited to be bringing an encore session of this conversation to the Code for America Summit on May 12th or 13th! Purchase tickets for the Summit here. Tickets are only $50 until May 1st. Stay tuned…

Empathy for Change

Creating a Better World through Understanding and Movement Making

Empathy for Change

Diving into the intricate science of empathy, debunking common myths and sharing practical uses and stories for a better society. Empathy for Change is the essential guidebook for developing kindness and learning to use it to make a more understanding and equitable future.

Amy J. Wilson

Written by

Author, Founder, and CEO. Empathy for Change. Movement maker, storyteller, empathy advocate.

Empathy for Change

Diving into the intricate science of empathy, debunking common myths and sharing practical uses and stories for a better society. Empathy for Change is the essential guidebook for developing kindness and learning to use it to make a more understanding and equitable future.

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