For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Pride Month, we’re lifting up the voices of queer leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Ryn Adkins, a designer focused on social equity & environmental responsibility. They are currently a Product Designer with Postlight in NYC.
At Code for America, we welcome a broad diversity of viewpoints—and we strive to let people speak in their own words about their own unique experiences. With that in mind, the following has received only minor edits for length and clarity, and the views expressed here reflect those of the author.
Tell us about some of your work in the civic design space. What inspired you to pursue this career path?
My work in the civic design space is ever evolving; it is heavily influenced by my identity, intersectionality, and lived experience. The exploration of oppressive institutions and exposure to an honest historical framing of the US are two pillars defining my relationship with civic design. As the relationship to my Blackness, Queerness, and Gender evolve, my relationship to civics follows.
I started to unpack my intersectionality in high school. This catalyzed my critique of the interests of large corporations and the government—as these two bodies inflict the most harm to people who identify like me. “Who is this product for?” and “What are the long term impacts of this product?” were some of the questions I often posed. From there, with the help of a university degree, the design thinking framework became my tool. It allowed me to reframe all normalized products, tools, and behaviors within our culture. Nothing is sacred, iteration is required, and centering the user—these ideas became a mandatory practice when designing anything. As I continued to interrogate oppressive institutions through product design, agriculture and its impact on food sovereignty became the first civic sector I wanted to unravel. Food was the first major entry point for me into the direct impact of white supremacy and all of the supportive institutions that uphold it. From this point onwards, I knew I would use design to dismantle oppressive systems within or adjacent to the civic space.
During the first five years of my career, I joined companies that focused on the needs of marginalized communities. At my first job, I fought to bring fresh, local food to redlined communities and rural food deserts through farm to school programming in collaboration with legislators in the New York state capitol. I then transitioned into the criminal legal space. Lawyers, data researchers, and legislators became my co-conspirators to shine light on unjust sentencing within marginalized communities at the intersection of race, sex, income, and geography. Next, I built brands, products, and tools for community driven organizations looking to dismantle broken systems within politics, education, the environment, and the criminal legal system.
Today, I bring my skill set from the social impact and equity-driven space into my work alongside larger organizations and corporations. I’m building new processes, advocating for minorities, and taking up space with an equity-first mindset. Within these first few years of my career, I have come to understand that a civic-minded lens is crucial to my design process no matter where I work. Just as activism is inherently intersectional, civic design follows.
When designing a product or service, what’s the first consideration you make to ensure equity for populations that are often marginalized?
In short, if equity and inclusivity are not discussed within your organization, these values will not be designed into your products and services. There are simplified checklists that companies can incorporate into their workflow such as: accessibility (WCAG reporting), inclusivity (GNC text fields), operability (optimized browsers and devices), language (translation toggles), visuals (demographically informed photographs)—the list goes on. And while all these checklists are a good start, just following these rules won’t serve all. As a civic-minded designer, my approach is the following: challenge my biases, research with my team, advocate for the users, and educate our clients. This is a continuous cycle and an evolving framework for any product or service. Always have these questions at the table: “What does equity look like for the end users of this product/service?” and “What are the implications for all other stakeholders, visible and non-visible?”
How can the world of civic technology be more supportive of queer folks who want to work in this space?
Acknowledge we exist by hiring, promoting, and paying Queer BIPOC folx for full-time, salaried positions with benefits, across all levels from junior to c-suite. Civic tech must invest capital in Queer and BIPOC owned companies—not doing so is a loss for everyone involved and represents a missing opportunity. This is the support we need to survive as people and thrive as professionals.
By bringing us to the table, we will stop the erasure of Queer folx that is so prevalent in the world of civics, in the world of technology, and in the world of design. We must have equal and honest representation in the field, so we can dismantle the white-cis-hetero majority dominating the industry and distorting our society.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
My full self is a Proud Black, Queer, Nonbinary, Dyslexic human. With this identity, I know more labor is required to feel safe, in addition to my responsibilities as an employee. Therefore, I advocate for and create spaces where I am seen, heard, and accepted. I lead with a critical lens on “traditional” frameworks and “professional” behaviors. I center vulnerability and an eagerness to learn with confidence and trust in my lived experience. I bring laughter, empathy, and joy.
What do you think it would take to create a government that equitably serves all people?
We could make amendments and pass laws to invest in reparations, rehabilitation, land distribution, education, housing, and health care—but none of these will fix the foundation. The foundation of the US government, affirmed by the constitution, is rooted in white supremacy and capitalism.
We must abolish the current system. We must create a government that praises the collective rather than the individual, that centers BIPOC, Queer, Trans, Differently-Abled and Poor people, and not the colonizers, and that fosters love of humankind rather than a fear of others.
In the meantime, for a more representative democracy, vote.