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Positive Deviance: Rachael Dietkus on the Abundance of Empathy and Curiosity

Social Workers Who Design Founder and Principal, Rachael Dietkus, takes us through her journey of blending social work with design and the untapped collaboration potential between the two sectors.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

The diversity of background across the experience- and design-thinking communities is what helps make it special. Almost no two human-centered practitioners share the exact same path.

There is a cohort of social scientists—broadly defined—coming from disciplines like anthropology and sociology. Social work is another of these disciplines and Rachael Dietkus sees many connections between designers, experience professionals, and social work as a practice.

We grabbed time with Rachael to discuss her new organization, Social Workers Who Design, the path from design to social science and back to design, and how building more intentional, multidisciplinary bridges might help human-centered practices dive deeper to begin tackling incredibly complex, systemic issues.

dscout: What was the impetus for melding social work and design thinking? What were you seeing that created the space for that?

Rachael: There were a handful of reasons why I wanted to start Social Workers Who Design. The primary one is that whenever I'd meet someone—at a conference, event, or during a project—I'd be asked about my role as a social worker.

There's always been this fascination. Folks didn't really know a social worker, what social work was, or why a social worker would be working on a design project.

There's been this very warm welcoming of questions that would come my way which I found interesting. For so long I had this hesitancy—thinking you're a potential outsider or believing that you are in fact, an outsider—and it led me to make up a story as to why I may or may not be able to even be involved with the design project. Even though I have a background in design and have been formally working as a design researcher and strategist.

I look back and think I probably spun my wheels for several years and fed myself a series of myths. I mean, I'm not sure where that came from. If it was just the whole idea and notion of othering and wondering if I could be helpful within this discipline? Is this something that I might have interest in pursuing?

Is it, "Oh, it's so extremely different from social work" and so I think just overcoming some of my own reservations or hesitations, I slowly started to shed those and it took time. I also just couldn't ignore these hints that really seem to be coming from the universe.

"...people were sharing things like, 'I never knew how much trauma I have' and how, 'It's impacting how I do design' or, 'I never even considered the trauma that other people might have and how that might be impacting how we're doing design.' I feel like bringing a social work perspective opened it wide open and now I'm searching for opportunities to co-grow and enmesh these disciplines."

Rachael Dietkus
LCSW and Founder and Principal of Social Workers Who Design

I'd worked at the Department of Veteran's Affairs as a social worker and was hearing phrases like "Patient-centered care" and the emphasis on the projects was usually taking into consideration the person and their environment.

Asking how we are fostering inclusion, how we are considering a person in their environment and how we are reacting to those inputs and designing our programs. Slowly but surely this language around "systems thinking" and then "human centered design" and "design thinking" would be present in these big federal initiatives.

I thought, "Well, wait a minute these things, they're all the same, but they're on this really wide continuum." I was starting to just connect the nodes from early experiences from probably just being a kid in high school and then that journey into college where I started in art; seeing where there are elements of design in everything that we're doing as social workers.

My dear friend and fellow social worker said at dinner a number of years ago, "Social workers cannot do their work without all of these different forms of design." It then became an itch that I could not stop scratching—I was just hungry for more and became more deliberate in finding those opportunities.

For me it was about having my antenna up to see if there was something. If there was an opportunity to bring in this element of design in terms of the process of what we were doing, then I want to be the first one who's going to volunteer to be part of that. I started to shed some of that hesitation and reservation and just went for it.

What drew you to social work? When did you first realize the "overlaps" between this work and design?

It's striking the overlap between social work's principles and those of design thinking. What other similarities do you perceive?

I think the central thing is that designers really are designing things for or with people. Social workers are typically in a role where they're helping individuals, so they're working with them, but also helping them.

The other piece that is unique is that we are both—and when I say "we," I mean social workers as a cluster, designers as a cluster—we're both looking at people and their environment. We're trying to understand and make sense of that relationship.

One of the key principles of practicing social work is looking at an individual holistically, and in order to look at someone holistically, you have to understand that person and their environment. That could be from very foundational aspects like family of origin or birthplace, to the conditions and the circumstances within which you were born, and how those things shaped and developed you over time.

Now, what would we call that in design? We would call those behavioral insights. We're trying to understand some of these key components of what makes people tick. Better understanding why they do things the way that they do.

I just started to really see these recurring patterns of overlap in the past five years. The more I got involved in design, followed more organizations, studios, and teams working on design, I would hear about all these great initiatives leveraging service design or social impact design.

And I would wonder, “Why aren't these teams collaborating with a social worker?” You have social workers who are working on the exact same issues, but from a very different perspective. Typically, social workers are on the ground and in the field—our roles have been designed to be highly reactive in a number of different situations.

Many of these, ironically, are ripe with an opportunity to be redesigned and reimagined with the design process. So, I continue to keep wondering why we aren't working more closely together to simply act on them.

My initial both awareness and frustration was asking about inclusion and a seat at the table, especially given the overlapping focus. But really, the design space doesn't have a firm grasp on social work in the same ways that it does with sociology or anthropology, whose methods many designers and researchers employ to gather context about a person and their environment. Social work employs many of those methods, and levels-up to investigate structures and operations that also might be at play.

I knew that if I wanted to see more social workers involved in design, I was going to have to immerse myself in the craft and understand the methods and really be able to see where there was this synonymous overlap, where there was potential for integration, and where there was more than anything opportunity for really strong collaboration.

You began identifying these overlaps while working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign? Experience leaders often remark on "pipeline" problems and social workers might be an untapped stream.

I believe social workers probably take some of this for granted because it's implied (and almost expected) that you're going to come at your work from a strong social justice lens. I mean, that's what draws you to the profession.

So as experienced professionals and designers begin thinking about intersectionality, subject position, and how design can and should inform that feels like an "Of course!" for social workers. And that's an important realization for someone who might not consider a path in design thinking, service design, or experience design.

While at the U of I, I wanted to surface the overlaps between the students' strengths and interests. Part of my role [as the Assistant Dean at the School of Social Work] was reviewing applications and it was just striking how many of the social work students mentioned "empathy," whether it was part of a narrative describing their own interactions with a social worker or as a driving reason for starting the program.

The thing is, the application does not ask for anything related to empathy! We don't frame it explicitly in those terms—social work students naturally gravitate toward an other-oriented, empathic perspective.

And so empathy became a way for me to advocate for social work and design collaboration, because it’s critical to the work each discipline does. Just knowing that empathy was such a well within human centered design made me realize, this is my hook. This is how I'm going to get University leadership on-board.

It was now about building up and showing these examples of how social work and designers can be interacting and how social work as a discipline is actually extremely similar to the human centered design process.

All this said, I know that social workers are not nearly as resourced as your average designer. And, more often than not, as a social worker, you're living in a sea of ambiguity all the time.

You might have very unexpected situations that you're trying to approach and try to problem solve that can be very stressful for both you as the employee, but also for the individual who was living that situation. So I felt like I was trying to piece together my own puzzle and then be able to say look, I solved it.

Oftentimes, it's also a matter of department and college funding. Social work is an under-resourced area compared to others, but the skills students are learning are vital to so many aspects of business and leadership.

The students those kinds of disciplines [the under-resourced], have to be curious and creative by default. They don't have the resource-rich opportunities to help aid them in their problem solving. That is a hard and true reality. I didn't really know and appreciate the beauty of that until I left working in the nonprofit sector, became a social worker, and then worked for the federal government.

"I do think that there are creative ways that we can rethink what it means to collaborate and understand people. There are other disciplines out there that have this training, have that professional licensure, have an expectation for continuing education and can bring that into the environment of design to strengthen it.

For me, so much of it comes down to this admiration and respect for a true multidisciplinary team. That kind of diversity supercharges transformational and transdisciplinary design potential. If we can get to that, that would be the gold standard.”

Rachael Dietkus
LCSW and Founder and Principal of Social Workers Who Design

Universities and the broader community are going to have to begin thinking hard about skills students bring with them to campus and how their choice of major might accentuate and meld with those skills. Anthropology, sociology, and psychology are prevalent in the experience world, and social workers can (and should) be, too.

Students too often get put into swim lanes or boxes where they don't feel like they can foreground their creative interests as part of a social science track, but that combo is unique and compelling for someone building a team.

We've noticed a trend in modifying one's position to include adjectives like "inclusive" or "trauma-informed." What are you noticing in the space, as someone working in trauma-informed design?

The pandemic and everything that has come as being unexpected and disruptive has led many to stop, reflect, and reassess the work they might be doing. No matter where you are or how the pandemic affected you, things will feel differently going forward, especially for us in the human-centered space.

These themes were starting to come up in my own research and conversations with people, especially around the context of just work, being a working parent—What does that mean? What does it mean to be an empathic designer? I really remember just some of the explicit definitions of the different kinds of design that are happening under that umbrella of human-centered design.

A colleague of mine is on the faculty at the University of Illinois and she's chair of the graphic design and the design for the Responsible Innovation program. She identifies as an empathic designer and I’ve often wondered, "Would I ever describe myself as I'm an empathic social worker?" I think that's simply implied.

So what's implied and what needs to be explicit? I think the phrasing around trauma-informed is one that I'm definitely excited about, but I already feel myself moving a little bit away from some of that language because, again, looking at things that are on a continuum. To me, it's not enough to be just "informed" about it.

I can learn these things, attend a webinar, go to a workshop, or get a certification, but then all of that is fruitless and meaningless if I'm not applying it or if I'm not integrating that into my practice. And so how do you know that you are arriving to that state?

I've got a friend and collaborator, Matt Bernius from Code for America, who likes to talk about this as a journey and it's a thing that you become. So we were kind of bouncing ideas and wording off each other a few months ago and he said, "I really feel like this is more of an art of becoming, don't you think?" And I said, "Yeah. We're getting closer, but we're not quite there."

"I want to do a little bit of social work while doing a whole lot of design. I want to have some elements of engineering. I want to work with different people who have different lived experiences, different ways of thinking, and also different ways of being curious. I don't think there's just one way of being curious. And I can keenly remember for so many years that being too curious was deemed as being deviant.”

Rachael Dietkus
LCSW and Founder and Principal of Social Workers Who Design

I like using this language of "trauma responsive." So let's just say I put on this hat of being a trauma-responsive designer. To me, that feels like a combination of these two identities, as a social worker and as a designer. I would identify as someone who practices trauma-informed and trauma-responsive design.

That means that I am trauma informed. But I'm also trauma conscious and I'm trauma sensitive. It just feels much more practice focused oriented, application oriented, and not just being stuck in the academic sense and defaulting to intellectualizing.

But also you're wondering, “What's the combination of tools that I can pull together that make me think about how I would apply or how I would respond to something in a different kind of way?”

I'm not trying to just pick and choose when I might want to be trauma-informed. I'm actually actively embodying this mindset as a practice and looking for those clues and those cues, while helping others do the same.

Can you map out some of those key moments that you felt defined your journey with social work and design?

I thought hard about those “marker moments” and the ways in which I’ve spoked about these in the past. This felt like a more authentic / aligned way of speaking to things that I don’t always highlight (but perhaps should) when I talk about the influences of social work on and in design.

1975 - 1993: I grew up in Danville, Illinois, a working-class community that has grown to be one of the poorest in the state in the decades since I was there. I grew up poor and I mention this because I never knew it growing up. We were surrounded by appreciation for art and music and activism and I just assumed everyone ate government cheese and had their power shut off every winter.

It wouldn’t be until much later in life - working as a social worker—that I would come to understand positive and adverse childhood events and how those events can shape and form a person. In a social work framework, we’d call this the person in the environment.

1993 - 2000: Being a first generation college student was awful. However, this became a story of being reborn once I went back to school (after failing out) and switching gears from photography to sociology.

I carried a significant amount of shame around being a debt-laden 1st gen student and this, too, continued to shape and influence how I approached injustices in the world, why things persistently bothered me, and why I saw a need to systematically change things. My own lived experience has fully influenced the why, what, and where today.

2000 - 2003: I was a very active student activist in the late 1990s and anti-death penalty activism was increasing in Illinois. I had moved to Chicago in August of 2000, and right around this same time, more men had been found innocent and exonerated than had been executed.

Shocking reports of years-long practices of police torture during confessions were getting significant airtime (see this update as the story continues to unfold decades later). In 2002, I was hired on as the Program Director for the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (this is the org where we “doubled in size”) and was part of this tiny, yet mighty, team that worked closely with Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and University of Chicago’s MacArthur Justice Center.

This was a fascinating dream team and where I fully started to understand systems, thinking in systems, and more deeply connecting the dots on oppression and racist systems and structures.

2006: Being a delegate at the UN was such a great experience. I learned enough French to navigate Geneva, Switzerland on my own and understand translations while listening to proceedings at the headquarters. My time there—only three months in total from March - June of 2006—was a precursor to realizing that social work was the next step on the journey. Looking back, I can see that that time there was where I was starting to learn my practice in large systems.

2008 - present: This has been the sweet spot of transitioning from work in the non-profit sector (2000 - 2009) to the federal government (2010 - 2016) and higher ed (2016 - 2015).

These containers of experience have fully paved the way for seeing more clearly the parallels between social work and design.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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