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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Design for Equity


The following blogpost originally appeared on the Impact Design Hub website. Written by Barbara Brown Wilson and Katie Swenson (with photos, included here, by Jess Zimbabwe, Metropolis Magazine), the piece serves as the introduction to a longer series of articles on notions of equity in the field of public interest design. You can find the original article here; the next article in the series will be published on March 5th.

Over the past few weeks, news of the closure of Architecture For Humanity has led to many critiques and questions, not only about the future of AfH, but the future of the entire field of public interest design. Inspired in the 1960s by the civil rights movement and maintained by humble practitioners across the globe, this dynamic constellation of practices is not defined by the rise or fall of a single organization or figurehead. Instead of calling the entire field into question, what the response to the closure of AfH serves to highlight are major weaknesses the field is now mature enough to address head on.

Although there are many different practice types and priorities operating under the umbrella of 'public interest design' (or related terms), much of that work is not focused on ameliorating injustice. In order to ensure that the field is concerned with action towards beneficial impact we need a shift in priorities; we need to focus on designing for equity.

Equity means more than just equality; equity means fighting against systemic injustices, breaking down implicit biases, and helping people change their "existing situations into preferred ones," to paraphrase Herbert Simon's definition of design. To be sure, this is no easy feat, but we believe there are two important leverage points through which we can influence this system: 1) evaluating community design work by its equity outcomes and 2) expanding the leadership base so that our collective voice is marked by diversity, not heroism.


Equity Outcomes
As the field has matured, many practitioners acknowledge the need for more thoughtful critique, a more rigorous focus on equity and impacts, and a better understanding of how this work gets done well. It is time to take stock in what we do, how we do it, and what types of change it creates in the communities we serve. There is not enough critical discussion about the actual impacts of our work; we operate under the assumption that our intention to work in the "public interest" makes our work inherently good. This is not enough.

As our field matures we need to aspire to setting a higher bar of practice - from our individual projects, to our employment practices, to our methods of community engagement. We have to think about how all aspects of our work can contribute to greater equity and social justice. We need to orient the profession more directly to notions of civil rights and collectively hold ourselves accountable to them.


Diversity Not Heroism
What is exciting about the moment we find ourselves in now is clarity that the profession no longer needs be defined by the work of one or two large organizations. There are thousands of nonprofit organizations, for-profit entities, and volunteer networks across the globe doing this work well, and without fanfare. Leadership pipelines that amplify this diversity are essential. The voices of younger practitioners, non-architect/planner disciplines, people of color, and grassroots community leaders are still notably absent in this field, and leave the conversation to be driven by only a few perspectives.

If we are to elevate the dialogue related to designing for equity, new platforms are needed in which new voices can contribute to the language, evaluation metrics, principles upheld, and narratives told about this work. And this will not happen until we also have a leadership model that pays attention to more than a few architect-heroes who dominate popular critique.


Leading By Example
Over the past year, a group of leaders in the field began meeting informally to discuss how they might help bring more visibility to these critical issues. What began as a few friends seeking moments of collective reflection became a working group with two key goals; first to actively commit to equity outcomes, and second to promote diversity of all kinds throughout our field (and in particular, within it's leadership).

This group looks at the field through different lenses and operates at different scales, including Christine Gaspar from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Jess Garz from the Surdna Foundation, Theresa Hwang from Skid Row Housing Trust, Nicole Joslin from Women.Design.Build, Liz Ogbu from Studio O, Katie Swenson from Enterprise Community Partners, Barbara Brown Wilson from the University of Virginia, and Jess Zimbabwe from the Rose Center for Public Leadership.

We are writing a series of articles to dig into these topics and formulate a fresh approach. Our goal is to elevate the dialogue related to designing for equity by holding up new voices and new perspectives. In the coming weeks we'll share a new article each Wednesday. We invite you all to join, comment, critique, and suggest ideas and topics on how to propel the public interest design movement forward at this critical juncture. Please check back next week and also visit our website,, to sign up for our mailing list and connect to resources.

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