Designing For, With, or By? Building Equity Across the Social Sector

Hear from speakers at our 2021 Summit about how design work is changing to center community needs
a screenshot of a youtube video

In the past few years, there’s been an awakening in the civic tech world to the concept of building with not for. At its core, this idea recognizes that the solutions we create as designers, engineers, and policymakers are more effective if they’re designed and built in partnership with the communities they’re meant to serve—and they’re most effective when they provide that community with the skills and resources to create their own solutions in the future. It’s a shift from a focus on technology and products to one that centers understanding and empathy. 

To understand how this movement spread, and to see where it can go next in the public sector, panelists at our 2021 Summit dove in to their personal journeys through the design world and shared their perspectives on how we can continue to improve community practices. In the introduction to the conversation, Amy J Wilson provided some helpful context: Designing for establishes an uneven power dynamic and removes community agency; designing with equalizes power and agency; designing by builds community power from within and leads to more equitable outcomes.

Innovation really means building positive change in the world. The pathway to that is to have empathy plus action.
Amy J Wilson

But how do we do that? Panelists discussed how difficult it can be to relinquish control of projects. Antoine Wright noted that designers often “hate the idea of somebody else’s drawing on our canvas”—but when working with government and community, we have to share the canvas and “shift our mentality from doing the work into facilitating the work.” When designers think of themselves as facilitators, they gain insight into needs on the ground.

Much of this work starts by asking questions, added Aditi Joshi. Designers of programs, products, and services have to ask themselves, “What are the systemic inequities and what are the historical conditions that allow that inequities to come to be?” Then we must ask, “What am I allowed to do in the space? What power do I have because of the person that I am, and because of the role that I’ve been given in the system?” By asking these questions, designers can understand how to give power back to communities. “Folks know how to meet their own needs, they just need to be given the space to do so,” Joshi said.

The panel was moderated by Amy J Wilson, Founder and CEO of Empathy for Change, and included Arlene Corbin Lewis, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at Code for America; Michael Baskin, Chief Innovation Officer for Montgomery County in Maryland; Antoine Wright, Design Lead for Fearless Tech; and Aditi Joshi, Senior Qualitative Researcher at Code for America.


Amy J. Wilson: Welcome everybody to the session. We do have Antoine, who is going to be joining us very shortly. Welcome to this conversation on the growing movement towards equity and government. I’m Amy J. Wilson. My pronouns are she and her. I want to acknowledge that I am sitting on the traditional territory of the Piscataway Nation. I’m your co-host for today’s session. Along with Arlene Corbin Lewis. This session was first held on Clubhouse a few weeks ago, and we loved the session so much. We were invited back to do an encore performance. This time we have new guests for a renewed conversation.

I have spent my career as a public entrepreneur that has witnessed an emerging new power world. One where open and participatory and peer-driven work is taking center stage over top-down leader driven and the hierarchy of this old power dynamics. I witnessed firsthand what is stopping us from making real progress in the world. I’m incredibly honored this year to be serving on the summit content committee. I wanted to have a conversation with those in the field who’ve been really deeply thinking about these equitable outcomes over equal access.

I’m going to add some context to the work that we do. The data shows that the world has been changing away from empathy and towards narcissism. Earlier this year, I released the book, Empathy for Change: How to Create a More Understanding World, where I take a critical look at change and innovation efforts at the past and imagine what we need for the future. In the book, I feature people leading systems change by redesigning the world around them with empathy at the core. For the next few minutes, I want to raise their voices and here to put our important work in context.

Empathy can be truly transformational, but we don’t really have a true grasp of what it is. In its most basic form, definition of empathy is feeling with someone instead of for them. I have been defining in the book and after talking to all these people that innovation really means building positive change in the world. The pathway to that is to have empathy plus action. In my conversations with people all over the world, the interviewees have pointed to the challenge of centering our design for others rather than with them.

First, I spoke with Antionette Carroll. You heard her today on the main stage. She is the founder, president, and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab. She is a pioneer of equity-centered community design. I highly suggest you check that out. It is a great framework for doing this design moving forward. She defines equity over equality and states that equality is equal access while equity is equal outcomes. She believes that a lack of empathy in the world creates harm, trauma, and creates negative systemic impact, but an abundance of empathy can create safety, confidence, power, and systemic impact.

Another person I talked to is called Monica Curca, she’s the director of +Peace and the founder and director of Activate Labs. She says that empathy has hands and feet. It means that you’re moving yourself, your body, and your work to the spaces where the problems are occurring. She works with populations such as refugees and historically under-invested communities that are directly impacted by trauma, conflict, and uncertainty. She finds that those communities, therefore, do not have the resilience to respond to trauma. She says that we need to change our underlying institutions. To change the institutions, movements must be built or create new cultures.

She says, “I don’t see institutions leading social change. Organizations have to disrupt the cycle in a parallel universe or competition where it models what is not working anymore. If something is working for somebody then they won’t change it. These people will keep the status quo because they personally benefit from the way things are. This led me to a whole chapter where I wrote on power. Power is the elephant in the room that many of us don’t talk about, but it’s everywhere. Those in power design the world and write policies that literally shape our society.

In the Clubhouse conversation, we had a few weeks ago, we spoke with Stephen Chang from the National Equity Project. He talked about how we do know that we have a history of discrimination within our country. Discrimination has been institutionalized into our systems. We do know that is because we wrote it down, and so when you look at the history of basically almost any policy, almost all significant institutions and agencies and structures with our society explicitly names discrimination. One big example is that it goes way back to our constitution where slaves are being valued at three-fifths of the human being of a human being for the census.

When we recognize that there is discrimination, there’s an important piece that we often assume people recognize. That we need to be explicit about, which is the discrimination is not for discrimination’s sake. It isn’t based on a moral belief that it’s actually the false narrative to reinforcement. It’s about porting power, and when we were recognizing discrimination in the history of discrimination and institutionalization of it. That is about how we justify that one group over several groups within society are going to have much more power, privilege, and resources, and opportunity than other groups. This is the root of society.

As recognizing just how deeply ingrained that structure is in our society and how it’s held in place. The thing that you have to do is to interrupt it in order to maintain that kind of cruelty. The way to do that as empathy. We need to see our humanity in someone else. Until we see that, it’s very hard for us to not care for others. To bring this into context, to bring it into the conversation today, one way we can achieve equity and empathy is through shifting power and agency to those who are most affected by the services, programs, and policies of the social sector.

Often, we have been talking about empowering others, which isn’t very specific and is actually quite nebulous when you think about it. Just associates in their book in 2007, in making change happen, brings these concepts from social justice into the forefront. They call it, power to, power with, and power within. They mix power and agency as together, together as one thing so that you have to give agency over and you have to exceed power. They call agency as the creative human capacity to act and change the world.

What’s happening here is that you see that we go from for, with, the by. We have power over when we’re designing for others, we have power over them and remove the agency from folks who are participating in the work. When we start designing with others, we share that power and we have equal agency. We’re trying to think about how do we get to designing the world by so you build a power within ourselves to change the world around us, an individualized site mentality.

The conversation really evolves from designing for, which has power over, and removes agency, to designing with, which has power with each other and has equal agency to designed by, which has power within and building more can lead to more equitable outcomes. We have a huge responsibility as designers and builders of the future to do what’s really right and provide equal outcomes for the most vulnerable of our society. As our consciousness is shifting more towards equity and empathy, I want to convene those who are passionate about this topic and are thinking of this important aspect of designing a better social sector.

One of the main questions I get asked when I do talks and conversations with people is how do you really shift from designing for to designing with? We’ve convened a panel here to share their thoughts and stories, and we also want to co-create with you. We want to hear how you’re shifting power and agency to different groups of people. This conversation is really skimming the surface, but what if it’s deep and necessary for us to have in light of the greater awareness we’re having, how government can shift the narrative and be a force for good. I’m thrilled to be listening to these folks in the room to share their wisdom and to hear how you’re also leading the shift.

Let me introduce you once again to those who are on the panel today. We have three great storytellers. We have Antoine Wright, we have Michael Baskin, and we have Aditi Joshi. Their contact information, their Twitter is on the page here. Let me pass the baton to my co-moderator, Arlene. She is the co-chair of this lovely summit that we’re in, and the chief communications and marketing officer for Code for America. Welcome, Arlene, I’m going to stop sharing the screen and open it up for everybody else. Welcome back.

Arlene Corbin Lewis: Thank you, Amy. Thank you for that opening and for setting the stage for this amazing conversation. I had the distinct pleasure as Amy mentioned of being able to start this conversation in a very small setting on clubhouse back in April, and because it was such a generative conversation, we got so much out of it, so much richness. It was so well received, we decided that we had to continue the conversation, we couldn’t let it end there. I’m just really grateful to be able to have this conversation here at Summit today with Aditi, and Michael, and Antoine, and really all of you who are part of Summit today so that we can hear and learn from one another.

One thing that I’ve really been heartened by and amazed by is just how much energy there is around this concept of what equitable design really looks like and how to do it. I know my colleague Aditi, she’s well immersed in this area. It is really nice to know that there are so many other people in this space who are leading the charge. Not just leading the charge by talking about it but actually, doing the work. This is just an amazing opportunity to just learn how to do the things that we’re talking about, this is a space to talk, obviously, but we want people to feel empowered to actually do that work when they leave Summit today.

Just to start us all off, I do have the first question that I’m going to ask of Antoine. If is Antoine is there, let me see you or at least, say something.

Antoine Wright: Hi.

Arlene: Good, yes. Success.

Antoine: Lovely to have me. I’ve got audio, video is not successful. You got me.


Arlene: That’s great. I’m going to start us off because I know there are going to be questions. I want to make sure there’s plenty of time for questions as well. As I said, in learning and in hearing from each other earlier today and also yesterday, we heard about disruption of the status quo with Michael Tubbs yesterday. I listened into a few sessions earlier today about what it looks like to build with equity in mind. When you’re thinking about what you’ve been hearing at Summit these past two days, but also in the work that you’re doing, and as I said, I’ll start with you, Antoine, at your work at Fearless tech for example, what does it actually mean to shift towards equity? What does that look like for you?

Antoine: I’ve had that challenge as a career designer. Design and engineering lead is inherently very insulated. You build stuff because you like it, you build stuff because there’s a problem. When somebody uses it and they can’t, you get the feels, it’s like, “Why are you crapping on my things?” When you move from designing for someone to designing with someone, in a sense, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to help share the canvas.

Every designer and every artist hates– I’ll just be honest, we hate the idea of somebody else’s drawing on our canvas. What we’re finding especially with our government, customers and clients is that they want to be a part of drawing on the canvas and we’ve had to shift our mentality from doing the work into facilitating the work. When you facilitate the work, it doesn’t really take your power away as the designer or the engineer, but it grants somebody else a little bit of insight towards where you’re going. In our case, I’ll only speak to our case, it’s been really interesting to watch our partners go, “Can we do more of what you do? Can we do it like you do?”

Our honest answer is “No, you really can’t. You have to figure out what your sauce is. We’ve got a purple sauce. We got our own purple sauce. You got to figure out what your sauce is, but here, what we can do is help you. We’ve got frameworks, we’ve got sense-making frameworks. We’ve got research frameworks. We’ve got business frameworks. We’ve got designed frameworks. Inside of these pieces, we’ll design with you, we’ll facilitate with you this language to get you to where you want to be because it’s going to be uniquely yours if the change is going to be consistent.”

Arlene: It’s awesome, Antoine. I love that idea of sharing the canvas. That speaks to me deeply because you’re right, there is this sense of ownership but it is this idea of sharing the ownership or sharing the ideas and making it part of a community versus something that is very individualistic. That’s a brilliant way of looking at it. Thank you for that. Michael, same question for you which is what does shifting towards more equity or deeper or greater equity look like in your work?

Michael Baskin: Thanks, Arlene. I think there’s actually some Francesco, and Rachel, and others who are in this chat, and Maura, they really know what this work is about. I’d love to see the first minute of conversation, two things from this group. One, what do you want to learn, and two, to share lessons that we all might learn from you. Maybe let’s just take a minute to all do that in the chat, I’ll countdown, and then we’ll hit enter at the same time so it’s a big old cascade of sharing from and learning from everyone here.

That prompt again is what do you want to learn and what lessons have you learned about shifting equity and power in this work? Tim Moreland, my former work spouse always reminded me to repeat things five to seven times. I miss working with Tim every day. If you don’t know Tim, he’s a great person to reach out to about really shifting power to government employees. He believes that often in government, we think we are stuck in awful processes and awful systems and that the best fuel to fix those processes and to fix those systems are the people in those processes and in those systems.

That’s work that we’ve stolen from Brian Elms and Melissa Wiley in Denver, and that we have partners in LA, and in Las Vegas, and Denver doing as well. 10 more seconds then we’ll hit enter, the magic button of cascading chat. Awesome. I think as designers, we come from a long line in government. I got my start on the Mayor’s Youth Council in Boston with Francesco, whereas a 17-year-old Patty who ran for years said, he asked the mayor, “What do you want the young people to do?” He said, “I want them to tell me what to do.” “Oh my God, Stockwell’s here,” and he meant it.

I think, yes, we have this move in design from design for to design with and moving to design by people, but in the larger government context, we have from gods to people. We had governments to people, government to serfs, government to slaves, and this isn’t a totally linear trajectory. Then we have the government for customers, so we have things like city stat, which said let’s manage by numbers, or Robert Moses and the urban planners.

We’re in that same lineage as those urban planners, and they’ve learned those lessons, that hubristic lessons of, “We know best. We can see what is legible rather than recognizing the [unintelligible 00:18:45] that local knowledge.” We have these customers in cars, and in neighborhoods who are going to serve by ripping highways through their places. That was people taking from the private sector and adopting to the public sector. As designers in the public sector, we risk doing that same thing today. The question is how we rather than just adopt, how might we adapt to public sector values like justice?

Then we moved to with users, which I think is a huge step in the right direction, but when I think of with users, I think about those three faces of power loops in the event of Power and Powerlessness in Appalachia, where the first one says, “Who wins in this decision? Who gets to draw on that canvas?” That second phase of power is something that we have a lot of control over when we’re facilitators and we’re translators. Translation is power so we have to give up control to grow power, not to empower where we’re benevolent dictators who passed power to others, and they can always take it away, but to co-power, we recognize the humanity in others, and the humanity in ourselves, and see them as equals.

Then we move on from with users, we still hold that transit, or we still decide who comes to the canvas, and what’s on that canvas. When we move on beyond that and I like I’m loving to build on Antoine sharing, when we move, I think to by people, then we’re saying, “Okay what are the canvas that people are on?” I think about a great example of this is in Dallas where people took over their streets and they said, “We’re going to build parks,” or people start going and painting their own bike lanes and see bombing. In Montgomery County, we have some amazing designers. We said, “Hey, wait, don’t you show up to an advisory panel?”

We have some residents. Anna Chung is one of them, she’s our prototype for UX Design response. Anna Chung is a resident who raised her hand, she said, “I don’t like how 311 is working,” and she brought her design skills into being to bring plain language into and we had to say, “Here’s our problem. We don’t know what to do,” and we broke them in where we’re really truly co-creating something together rather than just user interviewing a bunch of folks. We’re actually having those user interviews done and led by Anna, who is a resident here in Montgomery County. That’s all I got, I’m going to read the chat. Thanks so much for having me.

Arlene: Thank you, Michael. I was just going to encourage everyone to read the chat, Antoine, Aditi. Michael, there are some great things in there. I welcome your lifting any of those comments up in your responses are in the next round of questions. Also just highlighting, Michael, your notation around seeing the humanity in each other. That is something that Amy started out seeing as well and also something that we heard from Representative Harris in his response around criminal legal reform as well. I just love that through thread that you brought into this conversation, Michael. Aditi, over to you, same question. What does this look like for you?

Aditi Joshi: Thanks, Arlene. I also just wanted to name and thanks Amy for naming us as well, that I’m coming to you all from unseated Ohlone land in San Francisco where I work as a design researcher at Code for America in the criminal legal space. Specifically focused on automatic record clearance legislation. I think about shifting towards equity and a couple of different ways. One is really about whose voices you’re centering in the process? Another is how you’re sharing the power that you have as an individual? Then the last is, how are you making sure that folks are healing from the trauma of interacting with the system? For me, it happens in multiple different steps.

The first is really interrogating that the service that you’re working within and asking what is the systemic inequity and what are the historical conditions that allow that inequity to come to be? In the criminal legal space, for example, one in three Americans is living with a conviction on their record and we know that that disproportionately affects BIPOC folks. It’s important to name that and also recognize that the history of the system is that oftentimes white legislators who are not just as impacted themselves are the ones that put together the policy and legislation that allow the inequity to come to be.

I think it’s important because systems like white supremacy that created our criminal legal system as we see it today, they have more power if they sit in the dark. For me, it’s really important to name them and bring them to light. The part of that is because it’s harder to work towards healing from something when you can’t name it or can’t see it. By really interrogating and naming those inequities that are historically systemic, it becomes easier to recognize them also when they show up in the future and in yourselves and in your own work.

I also think after interrogating that service as a whole, it’s important to interrogate what we’ve already talked about a little bit here today. The power that you have in both your individual identity and also your positionality and role in the system. I work at a Code For America, which works in technology in the civic sector or social sector space. When you’re working in civic tech as a technologist, you can be given a lot of power, especially because technology can be seen as “neutral”. I think most folks here today would argue that it’s definitely not.

I think it’s important to ask yourself, what am I allowed to do in the space? What power do I have because of the person that I am, and because of the role that I’ve been given in the system. For example, in the work that we do in automatic record clearance, we are oftentimes in rooms with policymakers discussing legislation. It’s rooms that I otherwise, especially as a woman of color wouldn’t necessarily have access to. I think having that seat at the table becomes a way to bring equity in as technology as your “Trojan Horse”.

In the legislation that we’re working on for automatic record clearance, we can use qualitative and quantitative data to really demonstrate the impacts or the disproportionate impacts of past record clearance legislation to really shift towards more equitable automatic record clearance legislation. I think especially as we’re shifting towards designing with, to designing by, it’s really important to think about the ways in which you can shift and share your power in a way that can work towards equity, which is obviously the most important step. Because in an ideal world, those that are most directly impacted by policies and products and services would be the ones that are designing them.

I necessarily maybe would not have the job that I have today, if we had the perfect world where folks were actually designing the things that are most directly impacting them. We don’t have everything set up for folks to be given that power and also to be successful in those rooms if they are given power. I try to bring in voices of those that are most directly impacted in my process, especially for decision-making purposes. For example, we’ve brought in justice impacted folks as consultants to really establish long-term relationships with people where they’re brought in at the very beginning.

We also try to center voices in the public sphere and public legislative hearings, so that folks can hear firsthand the importance of passing automatic record clearance legislation, for example. I think it’s really important to recognize and name, the fact that systems right now are not set up oftentimes to honor the experiences of those that are directly impacted. When shifting towards designing with to designing by, it’s really important to also for me to ask myself, “How I can change the culture and set up an environment where folks can show up as their true selves?”

Because to me, that’s the only way that people are going to want to design by or want to be involved in the products and services that they’re building because that is what makes sure that they are actually building things and designing things that will actually meet their needs. Folks know how to meet their own needs, they just need to be given the space to do so.

Arlene: Thank you so much, Aditi, that was awesome. I will just plus one, all of that and just lift up your take on just checking our own privilege and power that we all hold and how we actually interrogate that a little bit. Reminds me of the conversation in the earlier session around reforms around pretrial justice. There was a question, a really critical question around, what are the biases that we hold and what can we do to address those and just appreciating you lifting that up as well. I’m hoping everyone had a chance to look at the chart.

Antoine, I’m going to turn it back over to you and just ask you if there was anything in the chat that you wanted to lift up in terms of a question or something that someone wanted to learn.

Antoine: I’m a [inaudible 00:28:36] reply case scale up to learn, bring people along, and want to do this work, but because that’s the tagline on my thing. I teach in and I mentors, the design stuff is the side piece. I think that’s the piece is we teach and we mentor, but I’m going to put a caveat with it. Anybody can teach, sorry, everybody, but not everybody leaves an imprint. Not everybody walks on the beach and leaves footprints, not everybody walks through the mountain side and causes avalanches to happen. There’s a certain amount of power, a certain amount of force, a certain type of accountability, gravity.

If you will, that happens when you intentionally put yourself in the way of helping others forward. The really cool part is mentorship and teaching done well, does not come back to the person who’s mentoring, and actually, it’s a way forward. On my Twitter timeline, my bookmark pinned tweet says, “The road that we have or the road that we put forth is all well and great, but nobody follows the path that you blaze, unless somebody comes behind you and put gravel on that path.” That’s the point of teaching and mentoring. Something that’s accountable that allows somebody else to come through and run the story. Nobody follows the pioneer. Historically speaking, no one follows a pioneer. Everybody follows the person who followed the pioneer because it’s the person who followed the Pioneer who validated everything that the pioneer did. If we’re going to bring other people into this work, and help them design better stuff, or help them manipulate better stuff for better outcomes, let’s say it that way, then we have to be intentional about letting the gravity of our work take hold.

We have to be intentional about letting avalanches happen when they do. Sometimes that means that we’re the pebble before the avalanche, that we have to do the really small thing, so that it’s assigned to those that are paying attention that, “Hey, something better needs to happen.” Somebody has to be the person to call out that, “Hey, this five ladies on the team and two dudes, but the two dudes only are the only ones that get the airtime.” How about the guys call that out? Small avalanche, big impact. We have a team where, someone might feel unaccustomed to being heard because the interaction platform, we were just talking about this for our client.

The interaction platform is mural and it’s really great if you got good motor skills. It’s really awesome if you know how to use a mouse but what if you have one hand, and you don’t have that mouse and you don’t have that really cool Xbox game controller that allows you to do those five movements? You’re now outside of that conversation? Now, what are we going to do, who’s going to be the pebble before the avalanche to pull that person in and say, “Hey, their opinion was not represented here.” Therefore we really can’t say that we’re changing anything until all people get a seat at the table.

That’s the impact and the point of mentorship is, how do we leave such an impression that it really does cause other folks to go, this is the way that we should go, this is how we should design a service. This is how we should design a program. It doesn’t necessarily mean the big bang, everybody doesn’t have to have 10,000 followers, you need to have one follower, who’s willing to be so good at following that they have no choice but to bring other people with them.

Then that becomes the proof of you have made things accountable, that your actions have caused other people’s ability. That type of mentorship, that type of teaching, that type of facilitation, that’s what causes systems to be reshaped and to be reshaped in a sustainable manner.

Arlene: There was much good stuff in there, Antoine. The chat is going all over the place with all of your comments. If there are questions that you’ve put in the chat that you want to lift back up, I just recommend putting it in the Q&A, just so we don’t lose track of your great questions. If you don’t mind adding questions to the Q&A as well, so Amy and I don’t lose them or don’t miss them. Please do that and I hope if you take nothing away from this hour, just the note of being the pebble before the avalanche is spot on, and thank you for dropping that gem for all of us, Antoine. Michael, is there a question that you’d like to lift up?

Michael: Yes, start small scale, I love the pebble, I’m going to take that full. The question I want to look up with JVOs is about like, all right, let’s get real, great talk. How does this actually happen? Then the next question is that I’d like to hear more about showing up fully at work and I’d love if you go deeper on that. For JVO, just to get concrete. People experiencing homelessness in Montgomery county need dental services.

Right now, there’s a three-month wait, because we have too many folks and too few appointments. Except actually, if you’ve ever experienced homelessness right by the time you need appointment, you need appointment now. Not three months from now. What happens is people are signing up for systems three months from now and then they go get an emergency appointment, which means those very limited appointment slots are left empty.

That doesn’t serve anybody and Judith Yesenia Bernal joined our team. She is the frontline worker responsible for that process. She talked to the other people in the process. She talked to the people experiencing homelessness. She started small and scaled or as I guess we’re now going to say she started with a pebble and she unleashed an avalanche and now people experiencing homelessness. She’s like pulled herself out of that wicked cycle. Patricia is a frontline worker in Montgomery County.

She works for health and human services. She works with families of those experiencing disabilities. Her families love her and she was getting a lot of slack from her boss, because scheduling was taking up all of her time, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Then she was jumping from one team to the next because the schedule wasn’t good. She wasn’t filling out reports, which means if you don’t fill the report within 10 days, you filled a report on the report, now we’re definitely in government. If you’re not in government, this might not make sense to you, right but for Patricia, all she wants to do is to serve these families.

She started with no new technology, no new budget, no new people and she found allies inside of government and built herself a new booking system, which is now scaling across her entire team to make things better for people experiencing disabilities in the system. James is working like we don’t have the money to get be applied, which is awesome, like de-biasing tool and hiring systems. James Hawkins in our HR department is figuring out how to like take the insights from that and hack it together to de-bias our hiring.

The reason I share those, like for small stories, which don’t sound like systems change, is because as Antoine said, you start with a pebble and you own- and that pebble has become an avalanche where we see that progress and people are making for making those things that are invisible visible, the systems of oppression that are invisible, visible, and the progress that is happening, more visible to celebrate it and scale that success. Part of that is by those people like trying to show up fully at work but that’s the I’d really love to hear more from Aditi about that question and JVO hopefully that helps with your concreteness and if not follow up, please.

Arlene: [unintelligible 00:36:40], Aditi.

Aditi: I wanted to first off, thank you, Arlene, for asking this question. In terms of like, trying to figure out for folks who are trying to show up as their true selves, how do you do it when it’s something that, gets you excluded in the first place? It’s such a good question and I think also, unfortunately, like, it shouldn’t be up to you to do that and oftentimes, it is up to individuals to show up as their true selves. What it should be is folks in power folks that are creating the workplace folks that are the ones that are in charge of creating the culture in a place, whether the workplace or otherwise, they should be the ones that are making it safe for everyone to be involved.

Oftentimes, what we see is that they don’t and that’s why it’s harder for people to show it, but their true selves, and it’s not even just as folks as true selves is just showing up in general. You see, for example, when it comes to hearings on legislation, they happen in the middle of the day, they happen sometimes in person, although sometimes, during the pandemic, they’ve happened virtually, which has a whole host of other consequences but those things make it less accessible for people. Not only can people not show up as their true selves, but they don’t show up at all.

I think it’s really important for us to first interrogate who’s showing up in the first place and of those people who are showing up, are we creating an environment where we are allowing them to show up as their true selves? I want to recognize, also that it’s hard to do when you’re working in government and I can’t necessarily say to government, change your hearing legislative hearing practices but the question is, in the little space where I do have control, where I do have power in my own processes and my own practices, how can I create a space where folks can show up as their true selves.

I’ll give a little bit of an example. We did a consultancy with folks living with convictions, and some of the work that we’re doing, and we tried to create an environment where folks felt like they have the tools in order to do the work that we’re asking them to do and really created the speed that they were looking for, and the trust and the outcomes that they needed for their work. That they otherwise would not necessarily get in sort of a “normal environment” and that’s because we had the ability to really individualize that connection and those relationships because we were the ones that were totally in charge of the experience.

It becomes much easier to craft that when you have full control over it and so I want to also recognize the difficulty in crafting spaces where folks can show up as their true selves when you don’t have full ownership of the end-to-end experience if you will.

Antoine: If you wouldn’t mind, may I jump in on that.

Arlene: Go ahead, Antoine.

Antoine: If you don’t mind, can I jump in on that? I wish my video was actually able to be on but that’s crazy but y’all can tell by my avatar, I am a troublemaker. I am a very light-skinned black man and I have learned that I am not welcome and I am welcome in every setting and one of the most beautiful things to realize and this is something that I work with the folks that I mentor with, is that you have to be okay with the person in the mirror because that’s the person who’s going to be doing the work.

Now that does not mean that you’re going to be accepted, that does not mean that people are going to care, it actually means nothing at all, except you are okay with that person in the mirror. If you’re okay with the person in the mirror, you literally can walk into any room and your confidence and your spirit goes before you and then it really does become, “Hey are you going to take me at my worth.”

I’ll preface that and say, I do understand and I have experienced myself, I do understand that sometimes people will see the color of your skin, sometimes people will see your gender or lack thereof, and then they will make a judgment call against that. You have to understand any place that you’re not wanted, is because you’re not supposed to be there, every place that you’re wanted, you’re supposed to be there. If you are calling for other people to be a part of your design process, if you’re calling for them to be a part of changing the culture that you’re with, you have to give them the space, the canvas to use the previous analogy, that they are great as they are.

They are accepted as they are, they are wonderful as they are, and no, you don’t understand everything about them and it’s okay that you don’t. What you do understand is that they’re human, and human-centered design starts with the human. You center on the value the thing that makes them them and then from there, it’s a wrap, you can be like me and Gonzo and throw your facial expressions all over the place. You could be like Mike and Aditi and say, “Hey, listen this is how we dress, and this is how we stand, and this is what we drink and this is what we eat.”

You have to be confident in who you are and how you’re built if you’re going to open up the door for others to be able to shape the world that they want to live. I’m done that’s all I want to say [crosstalk]

Arlene: Thanks to that, Antoine.

Amy: Arlene, I see that there’s a question that I think might be really relevant and great as we talk about what Antoine was just talking about. JVO actually asked the question and this is for anybody who wants to chime in, can I hear examples of systems that have been materially changed people’s lives. He says clean slate is the only example I’ve been consistently hearing about but that’s not recruiting equity, it’s just a band-aid over the inequitable system. Well, it’s a good program no doubt, do we know the employment and salary data of those with their records cleared. Anyone want to take that? The question is can I hear examples of systems that have materially exchanged people’s lives.

Michael: Amy is it possible to get Francesco Tena up here. He lead [inaudible 00:43:17] change and I think it’s an incredible example that inspires me every day of really shifting power in a real way.

Amy: Well, it’s a he? Right if he wants to come on stage he just he [crosstak] can come up there’s a thing that says share video and audio if you want to click on to that we can add you to the panel today to ask a question in person, or even talk about your experience. Okay so anybody, while we’re waiting if you will be joining, does anybody else have an answer to that question.

Aditi: I think one thing that I’ll just say from and specifically the last piece of that question I think had to do with record clearance specifically. I will speak from my own perspective and say record clearance is happening at the tail end of someone’s experience in the criminal legal system. One of the things that we know is the system is extremely traumatic to folks and so that record clearance does not account for any of that. It does not account for the injustices of the system, to begin with, but it is a start and it is a foothold into changing that system.

I think to talk about the employment and salary data of those with record clears, we see that if folks have their records cleared, they are able to access new opportunities whether that is for employment or housing, or education. There’s plenty of data that exists to show that, and I also want to exactly say what you’ve said in that it is a band-aid over this inequitable system. The question really is how can we transform the full service experience for people in a way that not only solves for some of those inequities but also begins to heal from the traumas of the criminal legal system.

It is, I want to be very clear of a first step and hopeful that steps like these, and having more folks with that are just as impacted at the core of building policy, can also lead to just more steps in the right direction.

Antoine: I can actually speak to more projects at Fearless with this as well. We did a neat user experiment, I want to say neat, it’s neat to me, before I got to Fearless we did a redesign of the HUBZone mapping tool. Anybody that’s played with any of the mapping systems, no comment to Maryland’s mapping system, but anybody who’s played with any mapping systems knows that they suck and they suck if you’re able-bodied. You can imagine what the case is of somebody who has some disablement enablement.

One of the things that we were able to do with [inaudible 00:46:31] mapping tool validated our prototype with some students and faculty from the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. If you want to talk about a thing that changes the culture of a company, get somebody who can’t use your product, to tell you that something that you designed that looks really good, they can’t see it and it’s still bad, and we got such good feedback and impact from that. It actually changed the way that we tested and developed applications from then on.

From that project, Fearless decided to focus on design impacts as a human-centered item not just as a bullet item to just for software delivery. From that, we’ve had two changes one inside and operational, a company changed the way that their perspective is. Then also you had a government-provided service that also became more widely available to folks who are usually not heard. I think we have to be okay with those moments, even though the hard decision the product owner, the business owner discussion really is this is going to slow us down, do this testing and validation.

You’re right but what’s your market look like, what do what does your addressable reach look like? If we don’t get this, do you want to pay for support or do you want to pay for an implement, because support is usually 10 to 100 times more costlier than doing an enablement right the first time? I would say, as one of the programs that’s definitely shifted Fearless, that’s one of the ones that have done a really good job. I can’t talk about the ones that are happening now, but you can be rest assured that one of the things that’s at the top of our list is that, if an item isn’t accessible, and this is not just mean visual accessibility but if an item isn’t accessible, then we’re probably not shipping it.

Amy: Good perspective for sure. We do have a question here from the Q&A that five people given thumbs up on so I think [inaudible 00:48:41] question and as quickly as we can because we’re about seven minutes or eight minutes left in the session. It’s a big one so it says how do you heal trauma much less facilitate design when you cannot [inaudible 00:49:00] what comes up due to constraints, funding contracts policies. When we do not have the ability to implement. There’s a lot a nodding heads, anybody want to take that?

Antoine: Yes, I’ll take it first. You don’t go and heal the trauma first thing, here you think it is not our responsibility as people to heal somebody else’s trauma. I’m going to take this from like every Twitter thread that has every black woman on it that I know, brother go get some therapy and I’ll say to say that, go get some therapy but no here’s what we do change, as designers we are trauma therapists. We have to make sure that all voices are represented at the table as much as possible, we have to make sure that we’re advocating for clear and usable research.

We have to make sure that we’re not telling people what they want, and then sharing with them what we think is valuable and then showing we go the other way, we show the thing, we share with them the whole thing, and then if they need us to then we tell the story. That’s how we reverse the effects of trauma that’s happening on there. Now, we can’t control all the things and we have to be okay with the things that we can’t control. It doesn’t mean we have to accept it but we’re designers and we’re developers, we’re artists, we’re craftsmen, we’re initiators, we’re pebbles before an avalanche. Do your part and influence other people to do their part and then, go from there. I’m done. I think that’s one minute, there we go.

Amy: Thank you, Antoine. That’s a great response. I think what would be great is, Arlene, you want to ask the last question as we go into the final steps here?

Arlene: Actually, it looked like Aditi wanted to jump in on that and I’ll just quickly say that as we’re wrapping up, just make sure you let folks know how to find you on the other side of this conversation because it sounds like folks are excited to continue the conversation just like Amy and I were after our clubhouse conversation. I want to make sure that people know where to find you if they need to reach out. Go ahead, Aditi.

Aditi: I think that was a really great response. I just wanted to add that I think being clear and upfront with yourself and with others is more important than anything else. I think oftentimes, I have a tendency to just be really excited and be like, “Yes, we can do this. Yes, we can do that.” I want to do all these things, let’s do it together and I think being really realistic with yourself about A, why am I doing this, and B, what do I have the ability to do afterward is really important.

Then when you go into an engagement, I think saying that to the other person also allows them to come in with realistic expectations because I think often, folks will get excited. If they don’t have those level setting expectations at the beginning, it’s much easier for people to then say, “Oh you promised me all these things and didn’t deliver.” I think clarity at the beginning is just super, super, super important and that clarity with yourself I think helps to provide that clarity with that other person.

Arlene: How folks connect with you, Aditi.

Aditi: I’ll put it in the chat.

Arlene: Sure, thank you. Go ahead, Michae,l if you wanted to.

Michael: If you’re not in government, we need advocates and activists to be pushing us. We are people and neighbors on the other side of those forms and those call lines and we stole the story of Judith and Patricia and James and all of them are not just people of color but they’re also frontline employees whereas the “top” where the center of the organization is mostly white males like me. A huge thing is like when we have those stories of people like Judith, Patricia and James sharing them, celebrating them. We all need that love and then continuing to push and advocate for them so we can move things forward.

Oh my gosh, Leona is dragging me here from Philly is here who everyone should connect with if you really want to learn about equity and design.

Arlene: There’s a fan club for Aditi in Philadelphia so that’s fantastic. Michael, how do folks find you.

Michael: we’ve got forms. Well, I’m on LinkedIn, and welcome we’re hiring and we’re looking for designers.

Arlene: Great and, Antoine, also share how to find you and then email pass it to you for the final words and also please let folks know how to find you too, Amy. Go ahead, Antoine. How do folks find you?

Antoine: Sure thing. You can definitely find me at, the T-E-C-H. Please don’t go to, that is not us. or you can find me I’ve got a contact form there. If you want to just connect and research and don’t give your information to LinkedIn, that’s just fin. You’re more than happy to connect with me there or if you want to connect on Linkedin, I’m there, I did put LinkedIn and Twitter and all of that good fun stuff is here. A-R-J, and last name wright, W-R-I-G-H-T. I can be found at all those places. Definitely feel free to reach out, I always love a conversation.

Amy: Awesome. Thank you for sharing where you can be found. I also want to check in last-minute thoughts. Anybody wants to share just something like in the chat for those who are here and present with us but for any of the speakers any reflections from this conversation today, favorite thoughts. Thank you. Can I get that? Thank you. Great. I’m just going to share a last parting thought here as we go into it. She’s actually in the room today. There’s Mari Nakano. This is a conversation I wanted just to share at the end here to bring this all full circle is Mari Nakano. She’s the director of the service design studio at the New York City mayor’s office of economic opportunity.

Another great person that I profile in my book and I’ve been working with and having lots of conversations with. One of the things I love that she has to say is we must go beyond empathy. We should stretch ourselves to be actual allies that can transform insight into real action that can redesign systems and provide better outcomes. After all, we aren’t here to let just let people know we’re listening that does very little on its own. What we as designers are here for is to show and make real change that can be seen and felt by our residents and measured by our skeptics.

I can’t think of a better way to end this session with that quote from Mari. I think she said it at the Code for America Summit a couple of years ago but it’s worth repeating. Thank you again. I’m just going to share. You can contact all of us on LinkedIn at and these are our handles for LinkedIn as we go forward. Want to share, thank you so much for attending the session. Thank you, Arlene, thank you, Aditi, thank you, Michael and Antoine, for the conversation today and being part of this with us. Thank you all for joining us for this session today. This was remarkable, it was my favorite of the summit. I’m biased but thank you for the time and the energy you brought today.

Arlene: Thank you, Amy. Thanks, everybody. Bye.

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