Design for the Furthest from Opportunity

I talked to a friend and colleague who teaches middle school earlier this week. Liz is a first year teacher and had to adapt quickly and nimbly to teaching online, then going back into the classroom, and teaching students remotely and in-person at the same time. As we chatted, she told me more about her classes, and she mentioned her husband who is a woodworker. She said he loves his work because he designs for harmony and to solve problems. He can look at a space, especially oddly shaped spaces and mathematically and artfully design a built-in shelf, bookcase, or piece of furniture to accomplish the goal. I loved the phrase design for harmony.

Another colleague Trang did amazing volunteer advocacy work to improve COVID19 vaccine access for POC elders, immigrants, and community members who aren’t English proficient. During one of her briefing calls she said you can judge an event or project on how well it was designed for those who are the hardest to serve. (She said it much more eloquently.)

How we plan and design says a lot about our values.

As Trang alluded, how people experience an event or project speaks volumes about what the planners value. If we say we value racial equity, are we designing experiences that center people of color? As an example, with the rollout of COVID19 vaccines the distribution plan and execution of those plans had nods towards people of color, but didn’t always take into account the full-range of needs, barriers, and assets.

As an example, booking an appointment to get a COVID19 vaccine required the use of the internet and understanding English. Many of the appointments were snatched up quickly by people who were English literate and had access to the internet, leaving out many immigrants and seniors. Nonprofits, friends and family members sometimes often had to jump in to make calls and book vaccination appointments. Many did this willingly, but in an equitable system we wouldn’t have to rely upon goodwill of others the system would have been designed with seniors and immigrants in mind.

People with disabilities were also left out of the distribution plans. A friend with vision impairment wanted to access a vaccination in her own neighborhood but couldn’t, she had to find a ride to the mass vaccination site. When I mentioned this on a planning call with officials running the vaccination sites one of them said “the vaccination site is ADA accessible,” I had to remind them access only works if you can get there. Physical access isn’t the only part of disability justice, we need to think about the entire experience.

What we value is what we plan around. I’ve been guilty of planning events fast and valuing expediency and efficiency over centering those furthest from justice – when I did this it showed and I was rightfully called out. My friend Carrie also reminds me “when we design for everyone, we design for no one.” We need to be clear about who we value as we design events and projects. When we are clear about what and who we value in our design people can see themselves in it.

As you design consider the experiences of people of others not just people like yourself and your planning team (we often gather with people of similar backgrounds and experiences). I remember hearing a story about an elderly SE Asian immigrant who refused to use a mass vaccination site at a large cavernous stadium because it reminded her of her war experience and watching others being marched into a stadium knowing they wouldn’t come out. She needed a different vaccination site that was smaller and we should design spaces that make her others feel safe and included.

Design for Harmony

I’m still thinking what it means to design for harmony in racial equity work. Often, we’re designing to agitate, disrupt the status quo (which needs disruption), or to provoke a response – all of which are needed to achieve racial justice. Maybe we also need to periodically design for harmony. Liz described how her woodworker partner designs functional pieces that help them get along better. Maybe we need to design in this way too – I’ll be thinking about this concept especially as I design a few online events. If I come up with anything novel share it, but for now I just have a lot of questions about the concept.

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