To change our approach we first have to change our perceptions.
Once we are grounded in a shared understanding of our history, and desire to ‘undesign’ it, we can begin to challenge how our own perceptions are driving the way we design. We all have a lot of healing to do, because these toxic systems like redlining have shaped how we see the world. Without this humanistic intentionality, we often end up reproducing the problems in society we are trying to solve.
These intentions become real in the design process. We learned this when working in a small city to co-create proposals for an economic development strategy. Many people with tremendous community development experience and warm hearts were around the table. Two ideas, both important and needed, came to the forefront of their mind.
One was to create a day laborer center so that day laborers could have a place to wait for work, and perhaps access services like language classes and immigration lawyers. The other idea was for a young and emerging artist maker space and entrepreneurial center. The hope was that with some investment artists and entrepreneurs could transform the town into a thriving place.
But then someone from the community asked a simple but important question: don’t young artists also look for gigs? Indeed, many of them were looking for work from job to job or gig to gig much like the day laborers. We asked ourselves, what’s the difference between day laboring on the one hand, and something like freelancing on the other? The only consistent differences we found were along lines of race and class.
We were creating two separate places, one where folks could access some services, and one where folks would be given access to resources and investment, and we were doing it along lines of race and class.
Not only do these two groups actually have much in common, but their differences can be seen as ways they are valuable to each other. Day laborers can teach craftsman skills in a maker space to young people, and now we can call them our teachers. They are also very entrepreneurial, and would prefer not to stay day laborers. Perhaps it won’t be just artists that transform the town, but new relationships between these different people that we can’t even imagine yet. The new project we designed would allow for that.
Even with good intentions, our perceptions and lack of intentionality kept us stuck in a place where we were re-creating redlining and greenlining. Now this town is on its way to creating the kind of world we all want to see.