Workshop with Alexandra Fiorillo: Designing for Equity, Inclusion, and Impact

The Service Design Network New York Chapter hosted Alexandra Fiorillo for a (virtual) workshop entitled “Designing for Equity, Inclusion, and Impact.”

“..designers have a responsibility and obligation to account for ways in which their work can impact people.” — Dr Emma J Rose on Richard Buchanan’s work

The workshop and ensuing discussion spanned three hours, but we could have continued our discussion for days. This is a moment of growth for the design field and for designers themselves — join the journey by reading the synopsis below. This workshop embodied a Liberating Structures form of facilitation by having a mixture of participatory conversation breakout groups and intermittent presentations on research best practices and methods by Alex. A full recording is available here.

Alex is a multidisciplinary social science researcher, social economist, and collaborative community co-designer who’s experiences originated in anthropology and economics. She inhabits the social justice impact space, and is an advocate for lived and academic experiences.

Her company, GRID Impact, uses participatory research and design to co-create equitable, inclusive, and impactful approaches to economic, health, and social challenges. GRID Impact is intentional in using the term ‘approaches’, as opposed to the term ‘solutions’, because ‘solutions’ is binary and insinuates that there is an ‘end’ or a correct way. Alex continued to weave this concept throughout the workshop, to show us that methods and processes are ever growing to represent the myriad of voices and experiences in the room.

 
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The focus areas of GRID Impact, a collective of independent researchers and creatives spread across five continents.

Indigenous Land Acknowledgement

Alex started our workshop by voicing an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement.

“Naming is an exercise in power when what is being named has been historically been erased. As an activist I would like to take this opportunity to commit myself to the struggle against the systems of oppression that have dispossessed Indigenous people of their lands and denied their rights….And please join me in uncovering such truths at any and all public events.”

You can find more information about Indigenous Land Acknowledgment and you can find the names of the lands that you reside on at this site: https://www.amnesty.ca/blog/activism-skills-land-and-territory-acknowledgement

Our Lived Experiences: Breakout Conversation

In keeping the spirit of embracing one’s lived experiences, she opened our workshop by inviting all of us to share our experiences, resources, and insights with regard to equity, inclusion, and impact. Participants were divided into groups of 3 or 4 into zoom’s breakout rooms (twice, so two rounds), and were invited to share what came to mind for the following prompt:

  • When you hear the words EQUITY and INCLUSION and IMPACT, what comes to mind? Is there an image, an example, a metaphor, or a movement that comes to mind?

Upon convening as a whole group, Alex invited us to share our conversations about the prompt via the zoom chat or by speaking aloud. We discovered that every group took a different approach to addressing the prompt, and one resounding theme that surfaced was:

“nothing about us, without us”.

The dialogue touched on frustrations with performative actions and actions that may be seem inclusive, but that actually still exclude some groups. The concept of edge cases came up in the chat, as well as the frictions between researchers and funders and the lack of a concept of metrics for measuring equity. This conversation set the stage for Alex to detail her research methods, processes, and experiences that work to address these very frustrations.

 
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This rather well known comic was shared in the chat by numerous participants. Image courtesy of the City for All Women Initiative’s guide, “Advancing Equity and Inclusion.”

 

There is No One / Right Way

An element of embracing the lived experiences includes acknowledging that there is not specifically one right way of designing and researching. Methods are constantly growing and evolving, as evidenced by the healing centered engagement (HCE) approach that grew from the trauma informed care approach.

“A healing centered approach is holistic involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing. A healing-centered approach views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but rather highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively. The term healing-centered engagement expands how we think about responses to trauma and offers more holistic approach to fostering well-being.” — Dr. Shawn Ginwright.

The HCE approach is just one method that forms a foundation for ethical and inclusive research, along with

  • community organizing
  • cognitive psychology
  • social science mixed methods research
  • human centered design
  • emancipatory research
  • participatory rapid appraisal methods
  • anthropology and ethnography
  • social work.
 
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Community organizers, participants, and workshop materials from one of GRID Impact’s projects with a Latinx community in Colorado.


Measuring Impact

“Just because the intentions behind the method were good, does not mean that the resulting product/service is better than what it replaced, or that the product/service had a positive impact on the community”. — Alex

The methods mentioned above and the processes employed must by measured, monitored, and evaluated to ensure that the resulting impact of the research is positive. Alex stressed that designers and researchers are not currently taught monitoring and evaluation techniques, and thus cannot measure overall impact. This lays bare an opportunity for researchers and designers to expand their skillset and to understand the importance of impact evaluation. A researcher / designer should be able to collaborate with their team to design and implement an evaluation, or be able to conduct the evaluation on their own.

Choosing our Methods

Alex emphasized that a researcher’s choice in methods has power and impact. In designing our studies, we must ask ourselves:

  • Who, either intentionally or unintentionally, is being left out?
  • Who is doing the designing? How are things being designed? What is the impact of this?
  • How does a research or design process re-enforce existing structures of exclusion and/or power?
  • What is my role in this system of oppression and exclusion? Can I use my position to shift resources and power to those with greater need?

Small Group Discussion: Methods in Practice

Alex invited us to reflect on the following questions:

  • Have you observed a research or design process that successfully removed barriers or inequities?
  • How might I use my position to shift resources and power to those with the greater need?

A number of responses focused on methods that participants have employed to remove barriers and shift power to those with greater need. One example is representative sampling: making sure that as researchers we sample and survey a representation of the population — not just the voices that are the easiest to find, the loudest, the richest, etc. Many voiced their desire to hold leadership accountable. This accountability, participants said, could take the form of advocating for thorough, more time intense research; advocating for “culture add” hires instead of “culture fit”; and budgeting for actionable results instead of relying on performative lip service.

It was here that participants and Alex began to talk about Capacity Building — training the end user so they are the expert; and Co-Design — hiring community members to be a part of the research team and design the research/project along with you. The researcher has the power to empower the community at the center of the research, to ensure that they can keep the project going without the need to find funding for continually requiring the professional consultant. This is ultimately designing with, not for.

Equitable Research Framework

Alex then dove right in to sharing her framework for equitable research with us. Below are the highlights of her best practice techniques and experiences.

Why

  • What is the purpose of this work? Why now? Why us? Who will this research benefit?

In thinking about why we are doing the project at hand, we need to understand and contextualize the circumstances. Alex noted that there have been times that she has turned down projects because she knew that there were other organizations who could do the work and who are closer (in geography, in culture) to the community involved. Contextualizing the project also means understanding the potential for power imbalances between the funding source and the scope. Could the goals of the funders interfere with ensuring the the project is thorough, impartial, and equitable? This intersects with understanding who ultimately will benefit from the project, and who may be neglected or even harmed.

Who

  • Who do you work for? Who are the decision makers and power holders? Who gets to participate? Who gets invited in? Who gets to inform what the problem is? Who will be held accountable to make sure action is taken? Who is represented on the team of researchers?

Alex elicited a flurry of agreement at stating: “An invitation to the table is a power dynamic and is passive”. We cannot simply extend an invitation to marginalized groups to participate after initiating the research design, we must work with them from the very beginning and ensure participatory alignment — where the scope aligns with what community thinks is important. Equity means that we are actively creating a process of systems, tools, and methods that bring the table to them. To include the excluded. This of course takes time, which is something Alex stressed that researchers have to advocate for. This participatory alignment could even reveal that the research design and project should be in the hands of local talent and/or should be an effort of community co-design and capacity building.

 
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Workshop materials from one of GRID Impact’s projects in Colorado, presented in both English and Spanish.

 

What

  • What are we researching / learning about / designing? What are the boundaries and how is the scope defined? Do we really need to ask that question?

To this, Alex reinforced usage of the healing centered approach as one of our foundations. We also have an opportunity here to reinforce our scope and our intentions, and use this as our stance in omitting unrelated questions and unrelated methods. We should ask and do only as much as necessary to perform the research/project, out of respect for our participant’s time and wellbeing.

Where and When

  • Where will the research take place? Are the participants safe? Is privacy protected? Do the participants have to travel? Is the site politicized in any way?

Once we initialize the research, it is our role to be flexible and to accommodate the participant and ensure their safety. This could take various forms: reimbursing travel expenses, providing child care, allowing for a support friend/family member to attend, and providing flexible hours to accommodate work schedules. If we utilize the framework noted above, we will already have community co-designers working with us, informing us if the participants will feel safe in the research location chosen.

Quite important on the list is the method of participation compensation. Alex noted that the method of payment should be at the preference of the participant. Cash, pre-pard credit card, check, gift card. There are so many options, but the participant’s compensation needs to accommodate their ability to redeem the funds.

How

  • Have we developed a diverse set of activities and methods? Who will be facilitating? Have we considered literacy, class, language, culture?

The research session itself should be a reflection of the participant. We can ensure that the method used is accessible and understandable by taking into account literacy levels, language, class, and culture. It is better to train a native speaker to facilitate the sessions, than to train a facilitator in the native language. The session should be conducted in the native language by a native speaker. And ultimately, give ample time for reflection and listening.

 
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During one of GRID Impact’s workshops to co-create a housing program for refugee women, GRID Impact engaged two refugee women co-facilitators from the community. One such facilitator is depicted here engaging with a workshop participant.


Critical Elements of Designing for Equity

  • Acknowledging and naming power and privilege
  • Understanding the motivations behind the work
  • Eliminate barriers and Inequities
  • Actively creating space for excluded people and communities to participate
  • Intentionally designing process and methods to include excluded individuals and communities
  • Ceding and repositioning power


Small Group Discussion: Takeaways for Our Future

As we started to wrap up the session, Alex invited us to quietly reflect within ourselves the following questions:

  • How might we create a sense of participant agency and influence over the research and/or design process?
  • How might I extend my power and privilege to the participants in my research and/or design process?

The resulting dialogue took place again via chat and voiced conversation, and the participants on the call one by one noted the many elements of Alex’s workshop that they will be able to bring to their research and design practice.

This article provides the just the highlight’s to Alex’s talk. She provided numerous illustrative examples of how she brings these frameworks to life in her own work. There is a wealth of information in the recording and in the resources below that researchers can use to expand their research practice into a more equitable space.

More resources:

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