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How to Find the Bears in Your Forest

Autumn Sanders Foster believes orgs can face challenges around racial injustice and inequity in the world head on. To do that, they need to start by facing them in the office.

During a single week in 2020, the entire world experienced a tectonic break in the way we look at and talk about race.

Amidst continuing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s killings at the hands of police officers, people began to talk more openly and candidly about the inextricable role race plays in our day-to-day lives. Protesters declaring that Black Lives Matter gathered in streets, parks, and city centers world-wide that stretched from predominantly white small towns to international metropolises. And people began to talk—about themselves, their organizations, their communities—in a way that doesn’t often happen in predominantly white spaces.

What was reflected back was uncomfortable. It was painful. And it was ugly.

But, it can be changed. Especially if teams and orgs are willing to do the work.

Or at least, that’s what Autumn Sanders Foster believes. As the founder of Quire, a design consulting firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, she has worked with a wide variety of civic and nonprofit organizations focused on alleviating economic, social, and racial injustices including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Joyce Foundation, and Schools That Can.

“Quire’s main emphasis is doing work in and around social good,” Autumn explains. “When I got to Birmingham, there were so many spaces I noticed needed that support.”

It’s this dedication to social good that’s given her a keen insight on how design can play a role in communities in the southeastern United States, as well as how teams and orgs can meet this moment in history—and come out of it stronger.

dscout: Quire is based in Alabama — an area of the country that doesn’t exactly come top to mind when someone says “design thinking.” Why Alabama?

Autumn: People typically have a narrow and negative perception of the South. We think it’s this last refuge of backwoods thought. I was in Chicago previously and heard similar sentiments about Chicago where people thought it was just one thing—a place overrun with crime.

But I loved my time in Chicago. It is an amazing city that has all of this nuance and all of this complexity—and Birmingham has that as well.

Work of value, people of value, and interesting things are very much happening here.

What most do you like about the work down there?

When I first got to Birmingham, people would tell me the line is short to get to the people who are making decisions. You’re three steps from the mayor, or you’re two steps from the school board president. You are in reach of everyone you need. You can’t say that in a lot of larger cities. So, when it comes to seeing ideas actually be implemented, there’s a lot of value of being in smaller cities.

I can pick up a phone, call someone, and they personally work with us. Even in this pandemic, we were conducting research with other small towns, and could get a meeting with the mayor or city councilman inside of a week. And we were able to do that because the line is short.

We are surprised there are bears in the forest. We are surprised there’s racism in our organizations. We’re surprised that there’s bias. We’re surprised that people aren’t being paid equally. We’re surprised that it’s in every organization everywhere.

Do you think that orgs and businesses are sleeping on the Southeast—especially in Alabama? Like they don’t consider it a place where good design can thrive.

Yes, very much so.

Why do you think that is?

Because we’re biased. And so we try to create this separation. We want to create a distance between the idea of who we think we are and what we think we’ve left behind. But so much of who we are comes from the South, whether it’s a global south, or it’s an American South. And if we’re not in the habit of making that journey, we can have a very fixed notion of what’s true.

There’s no question that there’s a difference in the national conversation around race now. How can different orgs and teams meet this moment?

I would argue that it goes beyond research. If the first time you’re talking about race, identity, culture, and racism is in your research, then you have a problem. You started too late in the work.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I’m obsessed with this show called “Alone” on the History Channel. It’s a bunch of wilderness experts—ex-military, wilderness hobbyists, and survivalists. They get dropped off in the wilderness and have to make their way. No shelter, no food—just the clothes on their back, 10 items, and a bow made out of wood.

What I love about this show is that some folks are surprised there are bears in the forest and there are folks who expect there to be bears in the forest.

Even with all their experience and preparation, people who are surprised by wild animals quit saying, “Sorry, I can’t stay here.” And people who expect [predators] are like, “Okay, this is part of my game plan. This is what I’m going to do.” And they have a tenacity around it.

We are surprised there are bears in the forest. We are surprised there’s racism in our organizations. We’re surprised that there’s bias. We’re surprised that people aren’t being paid equally. We’re surprised that it’s in every organization everywhere.

But if you presume there’s a problem, you operate in a completely different way. And I think we understand that as researchers. We presume that when we go talk to people about a product, or a service, or experience, there’s a problem.

We don’t necessarily do that in our own organizations, though. We want to believe the best about the place we’ve chosen to work, or we want to believe that the problem is not in our domain to solve—but there are bears in your forest. You’ve got to presume that something is wrong.

Consider the pandemic. We made full-scale changes because we presumed the problem and the solution was in our responsibility, and capability. That what we did mattered. So, when I think about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and what their deaths mean for organizations, it’s that we can no longer stick our head in the sand and presume this is not present in our businesses. That it’s not our families. That it’s not our city. We have to presume there are bears in our forest. We have to start there.

When it comes to thinking about our users, we have to ask, “How does race figure into who’s in my research?” How does race figure into what we observe, and who we’re asking to participate? How does race factor into our respect for the customer. What are our assumptions, and presumptions of the people we interact with?

It goes back to a central tenet of design: always challenge your assumptions.

Yes. And one piece of it is authenticity. When it comes to thinking about our users, we have to ask, “How does race figure into who’s in my research?” How does race figure into what we observe, and who we’re asking to participate? How does race factor into our respect for the customer. What are our assumptions, and presumptions of the people we interact with?

Also, how does race figure into how your research participants surprise you? Things that are surprising to you might be that way because they’re not part of your personal culture. But it doesn’t mean that they are in any way surprising to the research participant that you’re engaging with.

We need to ask ourselves who we are talking to and why. We can’t just say, “I need to get two more Black people in here.” Why do those people of color matter in your study? That’s where the breakdown is. There are so many things in our process that we don’t question. They’re just the way we were, and that’s dangerous.

Sometimes it seems built into the process intentionally. You hear stories all the time about stakeholders essentially saying things like, “Ignore the edge cases. Don’t even worry about them.” So it can be tough, especially when you’re getting pushback.

We’ve worked with the African American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium for a number of years. There were 20 sites that are important in African American history, but are in danger of being lost to history because they need repair. They’re small, they’re family owned, and they’re private.

Their director understands that they have a teaching and learning relationship with the sites they represent, and with the funders that are backing their work. They don’t presume that the funder, just because they have deep pockets, has any sort of awareness as to what’s best for the sites.

The same is true when we think about our clients on the topic of race. Our clients are our clients because they’re signing the checks that get us work, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own blind spots. They’re dealing with their own bears in their own forests too.

It’s our job to be the interpreter and the guide for our research participants as well, and we’re neglectful if we’re not challenging and operating at both ends.

We can’t do that if our teams are ill-equipped to guide our clients in their thinking. Let me say this clearly, it’s never a Black person’s job to fix racism. That said, this kind of change can’t—and shouldn’t—happen without leaders of color who are empowered and fully supported by their organizations.

But what we’re looking for is substantive change that lasts beyond a news cycle, new initiative or a single new hire. That limited response comes from organizations who just want to get back to normal, and see this unrest as preventing us from getting back to a presumed normal.

How have you noticed the ways people have reacted to this moment in a “not-so-good” way?

I was talking to a colleague when the protests first broke out. She’s a white woman, and was just mourning and grieving. Then she said to me, “We just need to have a conversation about this.”

And I was like, “I love you. You’re great, but I’ve been doing this work since high school. I’ve been trying to get white people to talk about this since high school.”

I can promise you the people in your organizations will read your statements and may even show up to your roundtable discussion. But what we’re looking for is substantive change that lasts beyond a news cycle, new initiative or a single new hire. That limited response comes from organizations who just want to get back to normal, and see this unrest as preventing us from getting back to a presumed normal.

A lot of these responses come from fear though—of not knowing if we’ll get through it, of wanting to appear like you’re doing more.

I always try to remain conscious of the fact that we have been here before, so many times. Whether you go back to Ferguson in 2014, or Rodney King in the early 90s, or the 60s.

The past is present here in Birmingham. I’ve worked with people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and participated in the children’s marches in Birmingham. They have these incredible stories, and they are not that old.

And so is this moment, and it will pass. But we also know that if it passes without change, it’s coming around again. So, on behalf of your colleagues of color, understand the tension that they’re holding on top of all the other tensions. And saying that you’ve acknowledged something to be true in their lives doesn’t mean that you’ve actually responded in a meaningful way. Consider how you respond, consider what you expect, and consider new ways to come alongside the people in your organizations.

Tony Ho Tran

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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