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Salena Burke

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Can Design act as a Solution to Systemic Forms of Oppression

Analysis of Who Gets to the Future? Race, Representation, and Design Methods in Africatown by Jasper Tran O’Leary et al.

For the Black diaspora to conceptualize black empowerment, liberation, and cultural and social change, through research, the design process must engage them in the process. A paradigm shift from predicting future outcomes to embracing participants to work at making the future is the recipe for inclusive design and systematic change. Futures embrace methodologies that propose a systemic change by adopting participatory concepts that engage participants. Jasper et al., in their article, “focuses on amplifying the legacies of imagination already at work that may help move beyond a simple reading of design as the solution to systemic forms of oppression.”[1] Jasper et al. proposed that one line of theorizing cast participatory design as less about a fixed design process and more about a productive entangling with the community.” In a research project collaborating with Blacks in a community in Seattle, Washington, the community was engaged in the process of “designing and building an installation that counters decades of disinvestment and ongoing displacement in the historically Black Central Area.”

The research was done from the lens of the community; the Africatown community was involved in “designing the devices, namely, the workshop sessions.” Having community input is essential, but Light et al. warn that “when ethical and political concern is narrowly focused on how people directly participate in designing products and systems, it can miss a significant dimension.”[2] Light eludes when researchers, on behalf of the participants, fight against political changes; the researchers are activists. However, Lauren Vaughan argued, “design is political, even when it is not engaged in formalized politics.”[3] Jaspers et al. argued that “without a handle on race, participatory design risks compounding racist legacies under the title of design.”[4] For example, a technology study performed in Chicago concluded: “that technology on its own could not increase neighborhood members’ political voice in local governance.”[5] However, when designing for marginalized communities, we must understand the ecosystem and its role in economic, social, technological, cultural, and resources as a whole; and not presume to address one covers it all. For example, eggs are ingredients in southern cornbread; however, you need more than eggs to complete the recipe. Jasper et al. discussed using speculative design and playfulness in a workshop where playfully, someone indicated that the prototype of a stage in a park needs a roof, considering they are in the rainy city of Seattle. However, an African American woman who does not have the luxury to downplay the real issue states that “all this other stuff with parks is okay, but African Americans need businesses.”[6] The design process offered not a means to a solution but a way for community members to collectively imagine”[7], but the community demanded solutions.


The statement made by the African American woman highlights the importance of addressing the economic disparities faced by the African American community. While the process used in speculative design is important, understanding the underlying systemic issues that contribute to the economic and social inequality experienced by African Americans is crucial to the process. The design process mentioned in the statement focused on community engagement and empowerment, and while this approach is important for building community cohesion and fostering a sense of ownership over the community's future, it is crucial to ensure that tangible solutions are also developed and implemented to address the underlying issues.

Speculative design is a methodology that uses design thinking to explore and envision possible futures, and it can be a powerful tool for addressing complex social and economic issues by imagining alternative scenarios and testing new ideas. Design alone cannot act as a solution to system forms of oppression; however, it can be used as a powerful tool to support social, economic, and political efforts to address system oppression. System oppression is a complex issue that requires multi-faceted solutions that involve a range of stakeholders and strategies , including policy change, community organization, education, and advocacy.


My research is working on the education aspect to bring equity and inclusion into learning environments. Focusing on the education aspect is a crucial part of the multi-faceted approach to addressing systemic forms of oppression. Education is a powerful tool that can help promote understanding, challenge biases, and create a more informed and engaged citizenry. By promoting equity and inclusion in learning environments, we can help shape future generations to be more compassionate, empathetic, and committed to social justice.


However, it is important to recognize that education alone is not enough to address systemic oppression. It must be part of a broader effort that involves policy change, community organizing, and advocacy. By engaging with these other strategies and stakeholders, we can create a more comprehensive and effective approach to creating positive change.


Design can play a critical role in supporting education efforts by providing creative and innovative solutions to complex problems, engaging communities, and raising awareness. By leveraging design thinking methodologies and approaches, we can develop more effective and impactful educational programs and resources that promote equity and inclusion in learning environments.


Subscribe to follow my journey as I strive to bring equity and inclusion into learning environments.


1 Jasper Tran O’Leary et al., “Who Gets to Future?: Race, Representation, and Design Methods in Africatown,” in Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’19: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Glasgow Scotland Uk: ACM, 2019), 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300791.


2 Ann Light and Yoko Akama, “Structuring Future Social Relations: The Politics of Care in Participatory Practice,” in Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference on Research Papers - PDC ’14 (the 13th Participatory Design Conference, Windhoek, Namibia: ACM Press, 2014), 151–60, https://doi.org/10.1145/2661435.2661438.


3 Laurene Vaughan, ed., Practice-Based Design Research (London Oxford New York New Delhi Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).


4 Jasper Tran O’Leary et al., “Who Gets to Future?: Race, Representation, and Design Methods in Africatown,” in Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’19: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Glasgow Scotland Uk: ACM, 2019), 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300791.

5 Jasper Tran O’Leary et al., “Who Gets to Future?: Race, Representation, and Design Methods in Africatown,” in Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’19: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Glasgow Scotland Uk: ACM, 2019), 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300791.


6 Jasper Tran O’Leary et al., “Who Gets to Future?: Race, Representation, and Design Methods in Africatown,” in Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’19: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Glasgow Scotland Uk: ACM, 2019), 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300791.


7 Jasper Tran O’Leary et al., “Who Gets to Future?: Race, Representation, and Design Methods in Africatown,” in Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’19: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Glasgow Scotland Uk: ACM, 2019), 1–13, https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300791.

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