Reframing Community Narratives by Diamond James


I've just designed and printed these worksheets for my interactive workshop at the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit this week in Chattanooga, Tenn. I'm pretty excited to try them out. The basic idea is for participants to identify the issues local news always covers and see how that lines up (or doesn't) with what they'd highlight as issues in their neighborhood or communities.

This idea came out of a youth workshop with my Baltimore students who didn't like what was portrayed on cable news about their motivations and where they live after the 2015 Uprising following Freddie Gray's death while in BPD custody.

It's not at all an indictment of the media. It's an exploration of what people find most important affecting their daily lives on which news outlets sometimes don't have the capacity to focus. I'd genuinely like to know what is the story of places as told by residents. 

If you'd like to use these worksheets or like me to teach these worksheets, contact me.

If you'd like to use these worksheets or like me to teach these worksheets, contact me.

Leave Your Sharpies at Home by Diamond James

City Springs' birthday celebration attendees enter the photo booth. The booth attracts the young and the young-at-heart. 

City Springs' birthday celebration attendees enter the photo booth. The booth attracts the young and the young-at-heart. 

As social impact designers, we often play the role of the facilitator during design research. We’re expected to learn from people by working with stakeholders, users and community coalitions to gain insight into their experiences. Armed with Sharpies and Post-its, we look forward to a robust, honest community engagement. Honestly? Are our office supplies and earnest attitude enough? They’re a great start to any designer’s toolkit, but we can bring more to the table. This is not an indictment against permanent markers and sticky notes, but here are some ways to go beyond the trope.

Put down the pen.

From countless community engagements, designers can attest that group dialogue isn’t always comfortable for everyone in attendance. Perhaps people are shy, an outspoken few may intimidate others, or there might be language barriers to overcome. Facilitators often lean towards the written word on colorful squares to ensure everyone has an opportunity to discreetly share their perspectives.

Rapid writing elicits a wide range of pithy responses. The method beckons fluidity — a constant stream of ideas that might point to a central theme or poignant observations. It is generally a low-barrier invitation to participation.

Consider allowing stories to emerge through oral tradition, signing, the arts, music or body language.

However, there are other equally valid ways of communication that might nudge people to tell a more comprehensive story. Consider allowing stories to emerge through oral tradition, signing, the arts, music or body language. Decide which medium is most relevant or familiar, least intrusive and benevolent when designing your research event.

Take a back seat.

Designers may find community engagement efforts go a long way when someone else takes the lead. Of course, not just anybody will do. But selecting a member of the group with which you’re designing to fill the role may yield more insightful conversation than if you were in the driver’s seat at the workshop.

This approach takes humility, trust and coaching to make a smooth and effective transition. A facilitator’s job is literally to make things easier. If stepping out of the way to make the design process more accessible for a community of which you are not a member, then humble yourself and slide over. This is not a step down, but a lateral move as you are sharing the work and on your way to an authentic co-design.

In order to choose wisely, identify community gatekeepers, people that have the trust of the group as a whole, or someone who has a good rapport with other attendees. In order to find a good candidate, you may need to do some social detective work beforehand, or pay close attention to group dynamics in session. Once you’ve found someone, be transparent about why you want to work with them. Share workshop objectives, your role and goals, and how you might work together.

Set the scene.

Earlier I used the word “workshop” to describe one kind of community engagement. The word needs clarification because it brings to mind a very narrow connotation. Designing a gathering for people to engage with specific topic should bring a wide range of settings to mind. However, the term generally connotes a more formal, office or academic setting with chairs and tables with someone clearly defined as the “leader” of the session. There is often a physical separation between the facilitator and the participants. This format is very typical, but acknowledge its possible barriers.

If you discover a typical setup isn’t going to be comfortable for participants, consider a different type of environment to reduce any spatial obstacles to participation. Think of informal spaces where participants already meet, share feelings and freely exchange ideas. Ask to be invited. If you can’t change the workshop location, consider rearranging furniture, adding food, sitting among community members and participating, or at the minimum, name the event something inviting and relevant to the group.

After the booth, participants received their halves of the strips. I kept the other half and as valid research. The photo booth was a hit because it is a culturally relevant art form, and it literally met people where they were.

After the booth, participants received their halves of the strips. I kept the other half and as valid research. The photo booth was a hit because it is a culturally relevant art form, and it literally met people where they were.

Case Study: Saved by the selfie

One summer, I worked on a project about public housing and neighborhood development. I decided to begin by gathering opinions about how the nearby public school supported residents. I was determined to find voices starting with parents and administrators. My community partner allowed me to attend parent meetings, but it was clear no one was comfortable talking to me as I asked to conduct interviews. One parent was furious, denying my request. I understood her anger with me — a stranger who had appeared without warning, wanting her time and her personal thoughts on a beleaguered topic. As an outsider, I was getting nowhere, and I already knew that a survey would be much worse.

I needed to start over and build rapport with the school community. It happened that a school celebration was scheduled for later that month. Looking for a way to warmly engage students and parents, faculty, as well as alumni who still lived in the neighborhood, I asked my partner to let me sponsor a photo booth. Not only did the photo booth fit into the festive mood of the day, but it gave me an opportunity to collect candid perspectives. I asked one open-ended question and provided fun props to collect a visual record of what the school symbolizes. I gave participants their halves of the strips and I regarded the other halves as valid data points. The photo booth was a hit because it met people where they were.

Everyone loves a selfie! Over time, portraiture has taken many forms, but our desire to document ourselves hasn’t changed. Combining my very simple research question with portraits was a relatable concept. The photo booth experience is symbolic of fun times as it is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon appearing at weddings, proms and parties. After the event, I was able to see the responses as more telling than an interview asking the same question.

There isn't A Pathway: Finding your 'how' in social design by Diamond James

pathway blog illo.jpg

An excerpt from my 2016 Student Perspective interview after the Leap 2: Value of Design Symposium with a few awesome social impact designers

As an economics major turned design student, Chris Kasabach realized there was a disconnect between his newfound passion and the big, wide world of people who excluded from it. Taking a page from Victor Papanek’s seminal text, Design For The Real World, a young Kasabach didn’t want to design for a “thin subset of users that didn’t take into account cultural context.” As an inspired designer, he needed a way to bridge innovative theory to practice.
           “Here I was staring at a discipline I loved and a profession I disliked, and wondering what to do in between,” Kasabach said. “And there was social design.”
           Decades later, as the director of the Watson Foundation in New York, Kasabach is still defining how new designers can arrive at a successful social design practice. I sat with him and 29 other innovative practitioners attending the LEAP/2: Value of Design Symposium held at MICA in April. The conference, which continued the momentum of 2013’s LEAP I: The Professional Frontier, attracted international designers and related professionals to discuss obstacles to viable career pathways, and articulate the value designers have in addressing the world’s complex social challenges. 
           Kasabach is certain “the path will be meandering and that’s OK.” The pathway is based on a personal journey rather than prescription. “Your interests will change,” he said. “The field will change and you’ll find your unique way.”
           This might be disconcerting for some looking to find parallels to a corporate ladder approach.
           “There isn't a pathway into the field,” said Christine Gaspar who is executive director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn, New York. “Everyone is shaping their own path.”
    The design discipline “is not like law or medicine,” which has standardized, explicit steps for advancement. Gaspar, who started as an undergraduate student interested in policy, debunks the idea of a linear, clear-cut career trajectory, and views a “successful career” as relative. Instead, she encourages people to pursue work in many sectors, from government work to traditional design to enrich a career . 
    “I think if you just follow your passions, and do different things that are interesting to you, [your career] is going to meld together in a way that’s coherent eventually,” Gaspar said. “Follow things that are of interest to you and know they’re going to lead somewhere really awesome.”
           Design Lead of emocha Mobile Health, Inc., Amanda Allen, is more absolute about entry points for practitioners. “You’re not going to get a job as a ‘social designer’,” she said. A 2013 alumna of MICA’s MASD program, Allen previously worked at a global design firm in the Baltimore area.
         “Make sure that you have other solid hard skills that get your foot in the door hopefully somewhere that you’re passionate about,” she said. “Then bring in the social design through the back door.”
          However scary that may sound, Kasabach finds “it’s very refreshing and it reduces the anxiety in students to know that it’s not a linear or vertical path, and that there are many ways to enter the [design] field.”
           As daunting as an organic path might be for students and new design professionals, Kasabach’s approach was echoed by others as the symposium continued through mid week.
           Courtney Spearman, a design specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., recalled her own “circuitous path” through landscape architecture before considering design. Based on her experiences, she cautions people “not to worry so much about exactly what your path is going to be.”
           “You may have a very specific way of working that you want to do, that you want to achieve, but I don’t know that that always translates to a very specific job,” said Spearman, whose current work supports community-engaged designers.
           Instead of looking for job titles to bulk up a resumé, students should craft fluid careers based on opportunities that develop the unique process and values social designers possess.
           “Being open, and trying to be less anxious about exactly what the ‘thing’ is” are what Spearman advises. It’s “more the ‘how,’ not the ‘what’” when thinking about career development she said.
           Finding your ‘how’ of social design should be individually tailored, but there are common characteristics that define the practice and the best of professionals.

  1. Empathy: “The value of design is this humanistic quality that designers bring to key societal issues,” says Mariana Amatullo formerly of ArtCenter in Pasadena, Calif. If a projects starts getting too complicated, take a step back and take Studio O principal and founder, Liz Ogbu's advice: "Be Human."
  2. Simplicity: “What design enables us to do is to take something that is really intractable and really abstract and, I think, boil it down to something very concrete, to something that is solvable and actionable for people now,” says Sonia Sarkar, Chief Policy and Engagement Officer at the Baltimore City Health Department.
  3. Critical Curiosity: "Design as a field for me is meaningless unless one is able to articulate clearly the questions that one’s trying to address,” says Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design in Washington, D.C.
  4. Transdisciplinarity: Having experience across sectors is helpful because, as associate professor of industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Charlie Cannon says, “we are trained to solve for more than one thing at once” and “we are asked to create solutions for things that address lots of different pieces.”
  5. Humility: Robert Fabricant, Co-founder of Design Impact Group and partner at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, says a great design practice is built on the very “fundamental human quality of trust and engagement.”  Understand that and "if you've got that down, and you know how to create that with people, there’s no end to the sort of direction you can take the work,” he says.