Re-designing the power of power
on Equity-Centered Community Design within spaces of power and privilege
I am humbled and privileged to have the opportunity to be part of the team at Creative Reaction Lab, an organization that is committed to educating and deploying youth leadership to address issues that disproportionately impact Black and Latinx communities — issues that stem from racism by design. I’m grateful to have opportunities to work with a wide range of people across the United States — youth and adults — in rethinking design and decision-making.
Part of what I do is train people in an approach called Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD), which is a framework that builds on human-centered design and design thinking to explicitly examine how identity, power, privilege, history, and context shape design. ECCD calls for design projects to be led by community members directly experiencing the challenges at hand, rather than outside agents entering the community to bring what they consider to be a design solution. Too often we see people working as design professionals creating design solutions for people, instead of with people. ECCD not only calls for designing with people, but it also calls for a design process that is driven by people who don’t necessarily have formal design training or professional titles as designers.
Designing for equity is a continuous, collective set of actions that require navigating and reshaping messy power dynamics, shifting mindsets, challenging perceptions and assumptions, and centering the leadership, interests, skills, strategies, values, and expertise of those whose power is often systematically denied or dismissed. It involves building and tuning shared language, learning and unlearning, and reshaping the power of power. It’s far from instantaneous and far from glamorous.
For people with access and privilege, designing in solidarity for equity can look like using one’s relative privilege to make sure that people most impacted by inequities are not only at decision-making tables, but that they have power at these tables. It can look like examining and removing institutional barriers to accessing funding for work addressing injustice and inequity led by people of color. It can look like examining and removing barriers to hiring, such as reframing candidate qualifications. It can look like ensuring that membership in institutional boards of directors and senior leadership reflects the communities they serve and are part of. It can look like adopting fiscal transparency within organizations. It can look like sincerely hearing all kinds of feedback — not just feedback that is desirable, or feedback that affirms what one already believes. It can look like recognizing when a project doesn’t actually have community support — and taking that as a indication not to move forward.
Often, I train well-meaning adult stakeholders who work in spaces they identify as social impact, or social innovation, or non-profit, or social justice. Often, I train people who care deeply about racial equity, but who may not directly experience racial discrimination and racial inequity. As a mixed race person whom often experiences white privilege, I benefit from these systems of racial inequity, whether I want to or not — and I believe that my greatest potential impact for fighting racism is to focus on directly challenging the mindsets of others who also experience white and white-passing privilege.
Everyone has a role to play in dismantling racial inequity. At the same time, we often see people in positions of power and privilege — whether or not the power and privilege are actively claimed — getting and taking credit for this work, at the expense of those who are actually doing the work and directly oppressed. We can support the movement to re-design for equitable futures by (1) co-creating and protecting space wherein people most impacted by inequity lead and (2) applying critical lenses, like the principles of ECCD, to the work within our own communities of power and privilege.
ECCD is one of many tools and frameworks that exist to challenge us to shift the way we think about design. As we continue to take action to fight for a just world, what matters is to continuously challenge ourselves — and those who believe in equity and justice — to use each of our unique, multifaceted, intersectional, complex, situational positions within, and our complicated relationships to, systems of power to dismantle racism and to dismantle oppression.