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Social Designers: Why Our Own Neighborhoods Need Us as Much as Sub-Saharan Africa

There are three ways of doing good work in the world that I think we need to consider in closer relationship to one another: humanitarianism, design, and local activism. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of emerging models for applying our expertise abroad, especially in the developing world. Culturally, there’s a certain cache and starpower we attach to global humanitarian work.

But let me ask a question: Is there the same level of commitment to and investment in our local communities? Are we as aware of the need in our own back alleys? And maybe the hardest question: Do we care as much about these local issues? Do we care as much about these people?

I’ve lived in San Francisco for almost 15 years now and so it’s the place and the community I know best. But the opportunity for local design activism is everywhere. Because human need is everywhere.

It’s the sad truth, but also the huge opportunity for us to step in as designers.

Need, and the concept of who is needy, is very tricky to define. By certain definitions, nobody in America needs a thing. The thinking goes: there are always people in the world who are worse off. I think that’s a dangerous mentality to fall into. We see human need as existing not here at home, but somewhere else, far away, over there.

It’s not productive to feel like we can’t do anything good unless we find a way to drop everything to move to Sub-Saharan Africa. We can get caught in a vicious emotional cycle of awareness, guilt and inaction.

More than that, I don't think flying across the world is the best model for engagement or lasting change. It’s neither sustainable for yourself or for the people you’re helping. At some point, you’re going to need to leave and come back home.

Social change is a complex, messy business. It takes a long time. We’re best positioned to affect long-term outcomes when we stay home and work within our own communities.

Many of you are already enmeshed in local design activism. But do we see our work as designers as a form of community service? If not, I think we should. Think of programs and service delivery models like soup kitchens, Americorps, trash pick-up days. These models, more than global humanitarian work, are most relevant for designers looking to work locally.

We have such great opportunity to position ourselves as leaders in this movement. I mentioned earlier that social change at any level is a complex, messy business. This absolutely holds true at the local level; it’s tough work. These are contentious issues with many competing voices and priorities.

Many processes get stuck. Homelessness is a classic example. There have been many ideas, many campaign platforms, but in the last 10, even 15 years, we have absolutely failed to move the needle on homelessness in San Francisco in any significant way.

Here’s where designers can step in. Designers are some of the best facilitators and consensus builders I’ve seen. In some cases we need more creative solutions, which designers are obviously in a good position to provide. But in most cases we actually don’t need any more ideas. We need alignment and action.

Designers are amazing at pushing a process forward. We push things out of the talking phase and into the doing phase. Perhaps because of our creative nature, or our training, we’re innately action-oriented. It’s in our DNA to DO stuff.

But we can’t do it alone. To have the impact we aspire to, we need partners. In the business world, in the nonprofit sector, and in local government.

Recognize that you are an expert in your own community. Think about the research and ramp-up time and cultural assimilation needed to understand a community outside of your own. Whether elsewhere in the United States or halfway across the world. A lot of this ramp-up isn't necessary when you stay local.

Working locally offers a way out of a vicious cycle of guilt, feeling hindered, and inaction. It offers escape hatches leading to a more sustainable situation for yourself, meaning you can get out of the mentality of thinking you need to quit your job and move to Africa to do something good.

Local humanitarianism integrates into your existing life. You can create long-term relationships with the people you’re trying to help. You can escape that alienating feeling we’ve all had, I’m sure, after a late night in the studio. Where you think, what’s the point to all of this? Is there more to design than pixel pushing?

Let’s all remember that human need is everywhere. Halfway across the world, as well as right here at home. But everywhere, too, is the potential to make a difference. Or at the very least, to create a moment of joy for someone you will actually come to know over time. And this is possible, of course, using the skills and superpowers you have as a designer.

This post was adapted from Julie Kim's presentation at Compostmodern 2013.

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Original photo of homeless man via Shutterstock

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