Social and Racial Justice in Eco-Trauma-Informed Design

Aaron Wong
Oct 21, 2020 · 5 min read


I’ve been on an exploration to further understand my role as a Designer in the context of Social and Racial Justice. With the premise that as designers, researchers, strategists, and creators, we have for too long stood by as we upheld systems built for racism, capitalism, environmental terrorism, settler colonialism, and patriarchy. Without examining what we were told, questioning its efficacy, and reinventing new systems, we fell silent as BIPOCs were killed, poisoned, and imprisoned, just to name a few injustices. As an anti-racist, how do I commit to anti-racist acts in my day-to-day, my workplace, and with my friends and community? I do believe we need to go beyond ‘doing our job’. Our job now is to dismantle what propped people of power up and pushed others down— we owe it to each other to do better — but what does that does that look like?

In my search to relearn what I now see as problematic, I came across the Restorative Design Conference hosted by Greater Good Studio, with a panel of speakers on Trauma-Informed design, Social Justice and the Built Environment, and De-centering Whiteness. For this post, I reflect on lessons learned about trauma-informed design, because I believe this is the root of our decision-making process, and understanding trauma-informed design can be a framework to help us serve vulnerable populations, ourselves, as well as the world better — an ecology and trauma-centered design. Secondly, I provide my own perspectives based on my experience as a gay, gender-non-conforming, Chinese immigrant dealing with my own mental health and evolution of self so that hopefully, others can relate and share their experience as well.

Vulnerable Populations and Power Dynamics

Nothing is neutral. All policies and practices are either racist, or anti racist; and I think the same is true for design. Our practices are either disrupting the status quo, or they’re perpetuating it.

Let’s first dive into, who the vulnerable populations are. Way too often, vulnerable populations are community organizations or marginalized individuals who are already at an extreme power disadvantage compared to white Americans. People of power need to first, be aware of this fact, and secondly be willing to give it up freely, wielding it towards justice. As moderator of the conference, Sara Cantor introduced the topic of trauma-informed design, according to Ibram x Kendi, “nothing is neutral. All policies and practices are either racist, or anti racist; and I think the same is true for design. Our practices are either disrupting the status quo, or they’re perpetuating it. ” Furthermore, our practices are either perpetuating systems of trauma or disrupting it, but trauma looks different to each individual. To better understand power and privilege, and trauma-informed by marginalization, I like the framework by Sylvia Duckworth, adapted from CCR.

When we look at this diagram of power/privilege, we see those with power at the center, typically white, rich, heterosexual, cis, men, and those with disadvantages in the fringe, in example, dark, poor, queer, trans people. By understanding our privileges and those who are marginalized, we have a framework to talk through these dynamics. These power dynamics compound exponentially through our lifetimes and and through generations. Examples are generational wealth and systemic poverty. However, trauma is not separate from these dynamics. Trauma does not discriminate from the rich or the poor, white, or black. With this in mind, trauma-informed design not only helps the vulnerable, but can help those people of power as well, because we are related and interdependent of each other, of our resources, and even our planet. To visualize this notion, I did some digging and found this diagram from Service Ecosystem Design for Improving the Service Sustainability.

Power Dynamics From Micro to the Eco System

What I like about this diagram, is that it contextualizes the self in layers from the micro-system, to the meso-system, the exo-system, macro-system, and finally the eco-system. To do trauma-informed design, one must understand the self, the social fabric in which self is contextualized in that sets norms, the organizational and community one is in which we organize work and ways to meet needs, the cultural human and non-human systems that help us flourish, and finally, the biome that allows all of this to happen. Trauma, power, privilege, as well marginalization happens in all these layers. For a quick reference, I’ve listed some questions I think of when addressing these layers. Note, these are only starter questions, and we should personalize as needed dependent on the situation whether it’s designing policy, service design, UX design, or something entirely different.

Questions to ask:

  • Micro-Self Needs — What do we need as individuals in order to grow as a person, and are my actions aligned with them?
  • Meso-Cultural System Needs — What are the social norms in this community I am serving, and are they causing harm?
  • Exo-Organizational Work Needs— What are the measures of success in this system and are they aligned with my values?
  • Exo-Community Needs — What are the ways we receive the resources we need and are they distributed equitably?
  • Macro-Human & Non-Human Needs: What is our place in the world and are we respecting human and non-human rights?
  • Eco-Biome Needs: What are we doing to protect natural resources, and are our processes and services helping or harming?
  • What other questions would you ask when redesigning policies, systems, and designs? Please share!

In Summary

It may be a stretch to loop the ecosystem into trauma-informed design, but at its root, ecology-centered design provides us a framework to address all the layers of harm from the power dynamics in our current system. We must adopt a new way of thinking in order to help protect the most vulnerable populations AND ourselves from racism, capitalism, environmental terrorism, settler colonialism, and patriarchy. Eco-Trauma-Informed Design could be worth trying — we need to try it because what we’ve been doing has failed us. In closing, I reflect upon my own privileges, and while I would not consider myself marginalized, it took me a long time and energy to reconcile with the micro and macro aggressions that I’ve faced in my lifetime. While my disadvantages may not put me into poverty for example, someone with more disadvantages may be in poverty. Now I am asking you, perhaps as someone with more advantages than most, what are you willing to give up or dedicate to the cause? What are you committing to in your day-to-day, workplace, and communities?

And so we have an incredible opportunity, all of us no matter where we work, to figure out how to make our design process a net positive. And we believe that this is possible — Sara Cantor

If you like what you read, please share with your friends and colleagues, follow me, and look out for my next post where I will dive further into lessons learned from the Restorative Design conference and personal perspectives around de-centering whiteness and and re-matriating the lands and minds.

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Aaron Wong

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Design & Research for Social Innovation

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