The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors known and unknown African American victims of racial terror lynching.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors known and unknown African American victims of racial terror lynching.

What the deep South taught me about the pitfalls and potential of design

Sue-Jean Sung
Jun 29 · 8 min read

When working in complex spaces like racial justice, the tried-and-true ‘beginner’s mind’ framework can be naive and harmful. What if we combined it with another approach?

Editor’s Note: Sue-Jean Sung wrote this piece in 2019 after returning from a visit to Montgomery, Alabama. We are posting it a year later, acknowledging the many significant events that have taken place in the interim related to racial injustice in the US. Sue-Jean’s reflections do not specifically address the circumstances of 2020, but they are resonant in this moment, as they were when she first chronicled them.

When I started at IDEO in 2018, I heard a lot about an approach called “beginner’s mind.” Originally inspired by a Zen Buddhist principle, beginner’s mind is about tackling design challenges with curiosity and optimism and without judgment. Applying a beginner’s mind has led to innovative solutions and initiatives over the years: high school principals were individually paired with a student for a day to understand the student experience instead of blindly making assumptions about what students need. This led to the creation of the Shadow a Student Challenge, a scaled version of the initial effort that empowers principals to see their schools through students’ eyes and design ways to improve the school experience. Over 6,000 educators signed up to participate between 2016 and 2019.

As designers address increasingly complex societal challenges, the beginner’s mind doesn’t always work well. It can be a naive framework that’s detrimental to the solutions that we create and the people we hope will benefit from them. I’ve found this to be true when designing for access to justice, one focus area under IDEO’s Legal Design and Innovation portfolio.

A rattling but eye-opening experience in Alabama

To more deeply understand the challenges and 400 years of history related to designing for social and racial justice, I joined a group of 80 individuals affiliated with GLIDE, a social justice movement and organization based in San Francisco, California. Together, we embarked on a pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Both offer an in-depth look into America’s racist past and present, with an emphasis on revealing our nation’s journey from slavery to mass incarceration and homelessness. One experience — which took place outside of the planned trips to the museum and memorial — particularly highlighted the shortcomings of the beginner’s mind.

GLIDE racial justice pilgrimage participants gather for a group photo in front of the entrance to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Towards the end of the visit, we saw a parade marching through the street. The procession was led by a white man dressed in all white, carrying a white flag and riding a white horse draped in a white cloak. Pandemonium erupted: confusion, fear, pain, and disbelief, resulting in tears and shrieks. “Oh my god, it’s the KKK!” one person yelled. As a Korean-American, cisgender woman from coastal New Jersey and a newcomer to the deep South, I froze in horrified disbelief. Was this really the KKK? Time felt distorted as I stood watching, trying to make sense of what I saw.

We later found out that the parade was a rodeo. Though I was somewhat relieved to learn the facts, I felt skeptical and rattled. Why did they have to dress like that, I wondered. Did they not understand the implications of their actions?

By the time I’d returned home to California, I’d tried to move on from that experience; the dominant feeling I attempted to carry with me was gratitude for the time I’d been able to spend in Alabama.

A week later, when our group came together to debrief the trip, I learned that the Black members of my pilgrimage group couldn’t even consider reframing the experience the way I tried to. My prioritization of gratitude was a privilege that Black people did not have.

I began to understand the magnitude of impact the perceived appearance of a KKK march had on the Black individuals. Having relevant lived experience of racism and intergenerational trauma, they held feelings of fear and suspicion, front and center. For them, there was no turning away from the rodeo. After all, a public display of white supremacy could easily be masked as a celebration. It seems like these things don’t even need to be hidden these days.

The shortcomings of the beginner’s mind in isolation

I tried to show up in Alabama curious and without judgment. But this “beginner’s mind” framework failed to help me even begin to understand the extent to which the Black people in my group were impacted by the “rodeo.” I did not — and will never — understand the depth of their deeply ingrained, lived experiences of racism.

I don’t share this anecdote to say I now understand everything there is to know about the systems we want to change. But even after one trip, I realize that there are other approaches that designers can take when working in historically-loaded spaces. Instead of solely using a beginner’s mind, how might we balance it with an “informed mind?”

What exactly is an informed mind? What does it look like in practice?

  • Having context while recognizing the need to learn more and remain open.
  • Seeking existing resources and deeply listening to the voices of those who are more rooted and ingrained in the work or space.
  • Having hard, candid conversations with yourself and those in your personal network who can hold you accountable.
  • Pursuing education through personal experience.
  • Being receptive to changing your mind when you receive new information.
  • Understanding that being wrong and getting corrected is part of the growth journey and learning to do so with grace.
  • Asking questions to those who are willing to create the space to support your journey by listening or answering. In turn, being respectful to those who cannot provide that energy and effort your way.
  • Knowing when to step back and not be a part of the solution and instead focus on elevating the right voices.

We can learn a lot about this approach from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which does work in the criminal justice reform, racial justice, and education spaces. Their mission is to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality. EJI staff typically have first-hand experience in the spaces in which they are driving change, including but not limited to previously or simultaneously being teachers, public defenders, historians, and incarcerated individuals. They prioritize working alongside and deeply involving the communities they’re designing for, and they have been doing the hard work in legal advocacy since 1989. Their expertise comes from this experience serving clients with the goal of advancing justice and equality. Doing the work allows the highest level of an informed mind to take shape.

Instead of solely using a beginner’s mind, how might we balance it with an ‘informed mind?’

During the trip to Alabama, we heard from Anthony Ray Hinton, who works as a Community Educator at EJI. He was falsely accused of committing two murders outside of Birmingham in 1985. He was wrongly convicted and spent nearly 30 years on Alabama’s death row before he was exonerated and freed in April 2015. While relying on knowledgeable perspectives like Anthony’s, EJI teams also maintain a beginner’s mind: they remain open, ask questions, and don’t assume they already know everything there is to know. They give individuals like Hinton the time and space to tell their story and to inform people with his reflections and his mindset.

The foundation of an informed mind is discomfort

How can designers bring more of an informed mind to our work, given that we may not have the same experiences as those we are designing for? Like EJI, co-creating with the individuals we’re aiming to serve and inviting them into the work is vital. Or even better, giving them the support and tools to design for themselves can empower them to create the change they want to see in their lives and the world. But I’ve found that designers can begin developing an informed mind long before the act of co-designing. It begins with embracing discomfort and asking the hard questions.

Since my trip to Alabama, I’ve intentionally been having more conversations on topics generally deemed “uncomfortable”: racism, white fragility, benefitting from inequity, and many others. I’d be lying if I denied being afraid of saying the wrong thing or spurring a heated argument — it’s intimidating. But actively bringing up these subjects with friends, family, and strangers alike has allowed me to make more meaningful connections and gain depth and breadth in my knowledge. Embracing discomfort, listening to those with lived experience, and learning from them has given me a path towards a more informed mind.

In some ways, our entire world is set up to keep people in their own bubbles. That’s largely by design. But we can turn to design to help us overcome this, too. To become more knowledgeable designers, we must seek opportunities to connect with others and learn from their experiences, all while asking questions and remaining open. A combination of an informed and beginner’s mind gives designers a chance to share what we already know about a particular topic or space, and then ask others to fill in gaps and offer their thoughts and experiences. This allows us to have the important, difficult conversations that the complex spaces we are designing for require.

That said, the design industry has a long way to go in its journey from being dominantly white and influenced by white voices to involving a wider pool of diverse designers and influenced by the voices of BIPOC. There is an opportunity for immense, important change. GLIDE’s approach to the annual justice pilgrimage strikes the balance of informed and beginner’s mind by consciously coalescing a group of participants from across lines of race, class, religion, and education to spur crucial and often uncomfortable conversations before the trip, with the hopes of doing courageous, radical, and healing transformational work upon return. How will design and designers learn from examples like this to enact meaningful change?

Here is an experience, two existing resources, and an action to consider in your own journey to developing an informed mind:

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