In Canada, I have grown a disappointment from multiple occasions of being in design thinking and hackathon spaces and there being a complete lack of knowledge, sensitivity and care for social equity issues or environmental issues (the latter getting more attention at least than issues such as poverty & race). We have million dollar organizations who continuously get funded to do research and educational workshops/panels on social innovation and social entrepreneurship without really generating anything innovative or deep in impact at all. I will give the benefit of the doubt that perhaps there is some significant, deep analysis or research happening in the background and it just hasn't been released yet, or maybe they are working on improving this. But for the number of years of being "in the sector" I have yet to really see any indicators of it.
Coming from being an advocate for youth-led grassroots organizations who are dismantling social inequality in the city of Toronto, it simply makes me feel like it's a waste of money and other resources. It reminds me of a section in the "Reimagining Activism Guide" that the Smart CSO's Lab created, which writes;
"Suffering from the eleventh hour syndrome
Understandably, many activists feel a powerful sense of urgency around their work. Sensing the approaching apocalypse, we work more and faster to avoid disaster. After all, it is our responsibility to save the world before it is too late. This is the eleventh hour syndrome. We have to raise more funds, create more meetings, travel to more conferences, write more reports, send more emails. Activists often find themselves racing against the clock but the work is never done. As a result, activists suffer disproportionally from stress and burnout. With the justification of having to save the world, such activism can unknowingly reproduce the patterns of speed, efficiency and growth of the world we aim to change. Urgency is the reason given for not working at a root cause level – we often hear “there’s no time to transform values”. The eleventh hour syndrome also prevents activists from building reflection into their work. We are always racing to get things done instead of noticing patterns and adapting strategies our as we go. Moreover, in the long run, attempting to motivate our audiences with messages of urgency and scenarios of threat doesn’t work – it becomes normality and the effect vanishes. There are deeper psychological issues at play that we need to deal with. We need to become conscious about some of the personal motivations lying behind this syndrome. In chapter 6 we will dig into this …"
It reminds me of this because, unfortunately it's not only grassroots activists who are working to get incremental W's believing that all the small wins will actually make ripples in the larger systems that we are trying to dismantle; the ones that aren't working for most of us. It's actually also these larger institutions who are trying to get incremental W's or what seem like wins, who are trying to tackle 'innovation' or 'hacking' but really, it begs the question: do these million dollar institutions of 'social change' really have it in their best interest to dismantle the very same values, principles and practices that continuously feed money into them? Of course not. That would be biting the hand that feeds you; eating your own tail.
Then you have grassroots organizations, movements, groups of activists who are using such limited amount of resources to try and get these small wins. Neither are really making significant, profound impact. Our resources are being poured into the wrong things. We are getting swept up into the rat race, the urgency and distraction and non-deep-thinking of capitalism, certainly the 'modernized country's' religion.
I digress. My point is, these two types of stakeholders are sooo far removed from one another. There are hardly any conversations where they're talking about the same topics, or even found ever in the same buildings, let alone neighbourhoods. Social innovation itself is funded from the top, hoping to make change to the bottom. Grassroots activists are coming from the bottom going up. And so far, they haven't met.
Where exactly is the middle? Where is the meeting place?
My facilitation partner, Yumi and I recently facilitated a design thinking session for a civic engagement fellowship cohort. After we had completed the workshop, we were asked many questions about how to go about approaching a stakeholder you'd like to collaborate with, how do you handle facilitating as a neutral party if these 2 stakeholders have never even met before and may not be totally honest with each other when they meet?, how do you handle the power dynamics between stakeholders especially when they're significantly unbalanced?
These were questions about hosting rather than design thinking. Many of these fellows held quite prestigious titles and roles in their respective companies and it was made quite evident how much "collaboration and hosting were absent" in their work cultures, as mentioned by one of the fellows. Not totally surprising but still reaffirming what we had suspected. The diversity and varying levels of experience working in/with marginalized people was quite vast. The varying levels of understanding and sensitivities to inequity and oppression made it a moving learning experience for some and for others, an affirmation for how they were doing their work. I had one major bone to pick from this session and it was how I saw the same conversations about the challenges grassroots activists, artivists and non-profits have doing this work equitably in the charitable sector, at their own pace and aiming to achieve their own desired outcomes, not that of their funders. Really?? I had spent 3.5 years advocating for fundamental change (as my predecessors have been doing for 15+ years before that!) to foundations and literally every single person I came across, and it was absolutely painful to sit there listening to the same frustrations from newer activists in the field, with newer staff from foundations repeating the same strategies and solutions that the foundation has been doing for the last 15 years. What's effin new?!??!! ..NOTHING.
Well, I came across the closest thing to 'meeting in the middle' between the worlds of design thinking and activism that I've found. Quoting from a Co.Design article: "Want to Fight Inequality? Forget Design Thinking."
"In the days after a police officer shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2014, Antionette Carroll watched as her hometown erupted in protest. For weeks, hundreds of people showed up to the suburb of St. Louis to demonstrate opposite police in riot gear. Behind the scenes, community leaders and groups met to discuss the implications of recent events on a city deeply divided along racial lines, and to decide what to do next.
Yet Carroll, who was working as communications director at the St. Louis diversity training nonprofit Diversity Awareness Partnership, was skeptical that the disparate meetings and calls for dialogue would actually lead to action. “Everyone had a very top-down approach, and it brought the same individuals as always to the table,” she says. “Artists talked to artists, government was talking to government, and business to business.” In the wake of Ferguson, Carroll saw opportunity for change, but only if people could come together across those fractured lines.
In late August, Carroll went to work closing that divide, first by tapping into her own community: designers. With the support of the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (Carroll is the chapter’s president), she lead a 24-hour workshop to develop creative responses to the killing of Michael Brown—the event that would lay the foundation for her social justice nonprofit Creative Reaction Lab.
Today, the Creative Reaction Lab holds workshops and pursues other projects that address several areas affecting marginalized communities, such as education, employment, and gun and domestic violence. And the workshops aren’t just for designers; they also bring together policy experts, speakers, community partners, and citizens working in different fields. Importantly, they look and sound nothing like a design event. You will not hear Carroll preaching about “design thinking” or solutionism. Rather, the Creative Reaction Lab starts from the premise that design’s greatest value is in exposing the invisible mechanisms of inequality, many of which were by design themselves."
To find out more about them please visit their website!!
It has been a dream of mine to host and facilitate conversations between disconnected, siloed stakeholders to address issues and/or co-design solutions together. Well something might come of us new inspiration!
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