Stories

Design Observer “Creative Will: What It Takes to Shift Creative Organizations and Industries toward Greater Racial Equity”

As a new political administration and cultural climate continues to unfold in the United States, there will be demand and need for more industries and populations of people to rise up for the protection and sustainability of justice, unity, and humanity across the nation and world. Industries of creative practice are presented with a crucial set of roles and opportunities in which to contribute, design, and actualize systems, tools, cultural norms, and services that will benefit the collective mass of citizens moving forward. As we exist in a nation plagued with race-based injustice, violence, and oppression, adopting a racial equity lens to creative practice serves as a critical avenue by which these systems and dynamics can be addressed.

Forward through Ferguson—the racial equity organization that emerged following the 2014 uprise against police brutality in Ferguson MO—defines racial equity as the state whereby life’s “outcomes are not determined by race.” Considering that health care, education, criminal justice, life expectancy, housing, employment, and poverty are indeed correlated with race, this is a great starting point. Institutional racism—which can be defined as “social, economic, educational, and political forces or policies that operate to foster discriminatory outcomes or give preferences to members of one group over others”—provides another lens for engagement, as tackling institutional racism and racial inequity requires both introspective and external shifts.

Before striving toward equity, it first takes accepting the truth that—within institutions, businesses, communities, and publics alike—racial inequity thrives to sustain and benefit demographics that have historically privileged from the oppression and marginalization of other citizens. Within organizations, this often looks like long histories of senior directors and executives who largely identify as white while people of color exist in associate and managerial roles and positions that may not yield much opportunity for upward mobility and growth. Without buy-in and understanding from these leaders that these structures (and their compliance within them) contribute implicitly to racial imbalance, institutional and structural equity have less possibility to form. Do an internal assessment with your team, and come to terms with any imbalances or voids in representation, diversity, inclusive practices and policies, and equality of voice that may exist. In alignment with racial equity, action within this regard may require a redistribution of power and leadership. It may require development of new policies or even redevelopment of organizational values.

The question is, are creative industries and individual firms ready and equipped to make this radically ambitious leap? Are we courageous enough in this most critical time to give up comfort, tradition, space, and power to shift culture at large? Are we willing to be a ripple in the necessary wave of transition that is upon us?

If these answers are yes, then next is exerting the creative will to commit. Self–education and internal consciousness building will be key. We exist in a world right now where it is increasingly easier to secure the resources and training necessary, and some of the consciousness building can start from amongst our teams. Create space for catalysts to provide voice, and be willing to let go of power and entrust their leadership without tokenizing their presence.

In addition to internal structure and culture, take a look at client practices and the communities your design work engages. Are you serving clients that contribute to racial inequity? Are your creations harming or benefiting those with the most expressed need? Make the necessary adjustments with client work that helps yield greater social impact.

Beyond internal institutional practices and policies, creative entities and industries can also apply a racial equity lens to the ways in which they may stand in solidarity with groups responding to social injustices and issues. Exerting creative willpower in this regard often begins with declaring and taking a position–whether through the creation of a value statement, a manifesto, or even just action. Like Desmond Tutu informs, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Racial inequity is an injustice, and no longer can we turn our heads from it. No longer can we hide in neutrality.

Actualizing a stance takes many forms in practice, and with the recent forces of fake news and a rising political leaders who proliferate propaganda, truthtelling will be a primary pathway for changemaking in 2017. From infographics to fact-checking plugins and digital storytelling projects, designers can help assure that accuracy lives at the center of cultural understanding and that the public is provided with information that does not render the further harming of targeted and marginalized groups.

Another avenue for creators to help shift culture in 2017 includes activating pathways for greater connection between different populations of people. As the election results showed, there is a significant difference of opinion and values between people of color and white people, rural Americans and city dwellers, and older populations and younger generations. The same technology we design and develop to help people find dates, connect with events, and secure meal deliveries and rides can be scaled to aid in bridging these divides. I call this concept civic matchmaking, and I built Connected for Justice, my first prototype testing its while I was on the ground as a creative activist during the unrest in Ferguson. Post-election, I have joined a wave of fellow designers and artists who are creating more civic matchmaking tools and platforms, including the Creative Action Tracker and the American Action Index. But even more than connecting people, relationship building must take place to counteract the forces of division at play. Relationships are our currency for getting things done, and creators can help build tools, interventions, and experiences that help assure we cultivate them well.

In building such tools, we must center the voice, power, leadership, and contributions of populations of people who are most affected by racial inequity. We must stand with them as creative comrades and not just see ourselves as sideline allies. More and more, this work will take us stepping from our own minds and comfort zones to cultivate collective practice. It will take moving beyond poster campaigns, Facebook profile filters, or safety pins—all forms of symbolic allyship—and into deep, hard, and complex work. It will take leaving studios, meeting people where they are, and co-creating work on the ground. It will take trusting them as we do experts and not seeing them as subjects to be helped or fixed. It will take welcoming them to share ownership of concepts, processes, and implementation of what is created. We can all contribute and continue adding to this world by developing and nurturing our organizations and agencies as communities of practice, and we can each help build connective tissue across racial, generational, and geographical divides.

We do this by first equipping ourselves to understand and prepare for the work.

We do this by assessing our relationships and holding ourselves accountable for not contributing to the harm of others.

We do this by stepping outside of our comfort spaces and harnessing our practices in service of justice and equity.

And, we do this by creating space for the leadership, vision, and voices of people of color to be at the forefront of ideas that are created.

The systems of inequity end injustice were created by design, and we as designers and creators have the skills to redesign and recreate these and alternative systems for the better. It all starts with our creative will to do so.