Feelings on Systemic Change - October 20
I thought I found my people from the moment I stepped off the airplane and realized that the entire airport was wooden. As the escalator lowered me down, I saw the words “made by nature” etched into a grass wall, and I felt my body uncontrollably give way to relaxation. But, then it seized up once more as the lights of sale signs dotted the floor, and people began rushing past me. So much for my assumptions of Norway, I guess I fell for the marketing.
In front of a bathroom mirror, I stared at my shy face and repeatedly told myself that I had better be extroverted and make the cost of this flight and conference ticket worth it. “Go get some answers and footage!” The conference felt academic, so I felt partially at home in this foreign place. But, these were designers. And what even is design? What was its purpose?
This was a conference on systems design, which seemed to be a self-congratulatory field of design because instead of designing products or experiences, design was now working in multi-stakeholder systems. In other words, designers were now working at the table with politicians, NGOs and citizens attempting to redesign and thus fix the current problems of society. Despite its intentions for change, I began to feel this strangeness wash over me as I mingled more with the designers and listened to their presentations. I had heard conversations before this conference about systems change and systemic problems, but usually it was coming from activists or even academics discussing inequalities such as race, gender and income. However, this community of designers was also speaking of systems change and systemic problems, but they were predominantly white and European.
It was neither whiteness nor European-ness that made me feel unsettled, but the discussion of systemic change. In many regards this was an academicized version of a general concept of activism, but there was this eerie abstraction of change. Perhaps my discomfort with the abstraction stems from how I learned about activism and injustices from my peers at college. In college, we would point out injustices within society and trace the history of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression through different policies and institutions. Sitting in the conference, I questioned how we could speak of systemic change but not acknowledge the past or these inequalities. We were dancing around the problem, yet dreaming of the future. Though optimism is good; I continued to struggle with this discomfort. Finally, I brought it up to a professor attending the conference. My experience with the conference suddenly changed.
He spoke out critiquing the conference in the panel discussion following our talk; his voice wavered yet was strong, and in the end people feeling the same way walked towards him. As people spoke to him about their similar feelings, I joined into these new discussions. People were brought up the lack of people of color in the conference space, the privileged audience of the conference attracts and lack of acknowledgement to those who must work against the oppression within society. We discussed colonization, cultural appropriation, globalization, spirituality and the devaluation of emotions.
By the end of the conference, I felt a slight sense that I had found a field I wanted to pursue. But, the largest lesson from the conference was not the same as my takeaway from the lectures. At the lecture level, I learned of the importance of morality and ethics and the loss of these two concepts within our current society. Though this is certainly a realization I seek to learn more about, watching the professor speak out was my greatest lesson. By speaking out, he shifted the conference dynamic or system, and witnessing that shift was an invaluable lesson.