Civic Design Lifts Up Local Experts

Last week, the Transformative Culture Project celebrated its 10th anniversary. I was honored to recieve an award that acknowledged my contributions as a civic designer over the past decade. The honor offered clarity to my journey and to a growing practice of designers committed to creating new opportunities for people to convene, lifting up local expertise, a supporting moments of solidarity.

Reflecting on my journey as the founder and, as I see it now, founding convener of the Transformative Culture Project, I gave the following speech that I hope others might find useful as they approach the work of designing toward civic aims.

“Thanks to Cara, Reggie, Matt, Ariel, Letia and Malia for doing such inspiring work. And to the board of directors for their commitment to the organization.

I want to dedicate this award to the staff and students at the Dearborn After School Academy, where all of this started.

All of this today is possible because the students welcomed me and wanted to share with me what they were experiencing. I listened. I listened to their concerns, their hopes, their dreams. I listened to the challenges they faced and the factors that compounded them. In particular, I remember that the young people were savvy media critics, pointing to local news channels as perpetuating stories that only highlighted the negative moments in their community, which left them feeling distraught about a future in their hometown.

From those conversations, from those moments where we all just hung out and chatted, came an idea that brought young people together to shift the narrative about how their community is portrayed in the media.

I’m telling this story because it captures this principle of what civic design and innovation is about. It’s about listening and following the lead of the experts, in this case, the young people of Boston. My job in that scenario was just to listen, bring in resources where needed, and connect some dots to generate some momentum. The rest was left to the young people. Talk to Cara and anyone on the TCP staff and they’ll tell you that what they are doing, day in and day out, is responding to the needs, expertise, and vision of the young people in the community.

There is a group of designers that created a document called the design justice principles. It is a response to design innovation practices that oftentimes move too quickly to capture the nuance and power dynamics inherent in particular contexts, or at times prioritize a designer as an expert. One of the principles that I think speaks directly to this award is the idea that a designer is not an expert, rather, a designer is a facilitator. A designer is someone who is there to convene conversations and listen, intently, to the nuance of challenges and obstacles. It is only through listening, for long periods of time, that we can have any sense of the multifaceted nature of issues we wish to grapple with. From that point of embeddedness, the people you are with will work with you to identify new possibilities.” 

– Speech given at the 10th Anniversary Celebration of the Transformative Culture Projects founding. October 10th, 2018.

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