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Every Space is Political

Transformative justice is more crucial than ever. Sarah Fathallah believes researchers are primed to assist in this critical moment if we can "move at the speed of trust."

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

A lot of folks in UX are in this for the right reasons.

They want to be champions for their users. They want to build products that leave a positive impact on the communities they design for. And they want to leave things better than when they arrived.

But often, the products with the best intentions behind them often go awry. Every day it seems like we hear of new examples of designs being used to harm communities and users. These unintentional consequences can be especially exacerbated when we’re working in an unfamiliar culture or community.

However, it’s beholden to the practitioner coming into these spaces to do so with a sense of equity and transformative justice. “Every space that we operate in is a space for resistance and inspiration,” says Sarah Fathallah, a social designer and design researcher. “Every space is political.”

Sarah’s work spans across the globe in more than 20 countries. She knows the importance of building with communities and avoiding the dreaded “parachuting in” mindset.

That’s why we took some time out of her day to discuss the importance of proverbs in research, the fulfilling beauty of working in the social sector, and why you should pay your users already.

dscout: You have a broad body of work spanning the globe. What’s your best advice for working mindfully and effectively across cultures?

Sarah: The number one thing is having people on the team who are deeply familiar with the context that you're working in. I'm not a believer in the ability of a group of total strangers to parachute into a place and be able to do the work effectively. People say they do this competently, but I seriously question the validity of that statement.

I think it’s necessary to build teams with knowledge of the cultural context that you're working in, whether that's your facilitators or fixers, your translators or interpreters, or any kind of professional or community-based role that can effectively serve as a cultural broker and help navigate the nuances of culture and community, both in planning and executing the research.

This also comes into play in the process itself of engaging with communities, whether that's comprehending the intricacies of language, religion, community dynamics, or even trivial things like clothing and greetings. I can't fathom how anybody who isn't from the community could learn that on a secondhand basis.

It’s also important to understand what it means to be in service of a community, and by extension to the team members who are from that community. When I'm leading a team working in a community that isn’t mine, non-hierarchical leadership means enabling team members to nurture and hold onto relationships way after I'm gone. This can look like doing childcare, coordinating transportation vouchers, taking notes, or doing whatever it takes to create the space and skill-sets for other people to do the literal work of community building.

I've been asked questions before about doing work cross-culturally and a lot of the times the questions will be around, "How hard is it to deal with language barriers?" I almost always chuckle at that because I don't think that it's the linguistic challenges that are the main issue. It’s more so the fact that the language of design and research is super inaccessible and jargony.

I love to do work in a way that builds capacity with team members and community members to continue doing the kind of collectivist and participatory problem exploration and problem solving that design can help us do. But in ways that doesn't make it contingent on you needing to have done some formal training in design to be able to do it. And part of that includes not requiring to know every entry in the glossary of design in order to be able to do design.

This is tied to how many thinkers—mainly Indigenous people—are challenging how epistemology needs to have a Western foundation, or otherwise it’s not valid. International development as a whole has a deeply rooted history in imperialism and neo-colonial practices. It's this idea that you bring in expertise from Anglo-Saxon and Euro-centric centers of knowledge that you then take to other communities. Then you “support” or “help” them. It’s paternalistic, patronizing, and transactional.

Acknowledging that I'm not dismantling all of that, I do try to disengage from coloniality as much as I can in my work, through restructuring power dynamics and making it more about a mutual, reciprocal relationship and less of an extractive one. And actual ways to do that are to provide material exchanges, compensate communities, build capacity, share skills and knowledge, and have a fierce commitment to relationship building.

You mentioned that the language of design research contended to be super jargony. You have to put it into ways that people in these communities can understand. Do you have any examples of that in action?

One example comes to mind. In Niger, I worked on a project around reproductive and sexual health and family planning in Zinder. The community there is largely Hausa speaking. Hausa, from what I've come to learn, is so rich in proverbial wisdom. Every few sentences, somebody would say a proverb.

We were drafting our language around seeking informed consent and crafting the introductory script that says who we are and why we're doing this research. We wrote it in French, and we tried to translate it in Hausa.

As we would do a few test interviews, I realized that our Hausa speaking team members were always using proverbs to explain some of these concepts. For example, they would say, “You cannot force a dog to run.” This proverb explains how you can't force someone to do something, and that's how they explained the idea of informed consent to someone.

This was also a community that has a huge presence of international development actors, so a lot of people experienced research fatigue. They're asked to participate in projects all the time. And so they often said, "Why are you talking to me? Just go talk to the healthcare worker," or whoever.

So there was a proverb that we used to explain why we wanted to do more participatory research approaches. It was something along the lines of “Whoever lives in the house is the only one who knows where the water leaks.” We could tap into the power of a phrase that just in one sentence communicates so much more than what I could have done in a few dry and unfamiliar paragraphs.

Working in the social sector requires me to be transformed by the work.

Sarah Fathallah

You're a big proponent of paying research participants monetary compensation or something as close to monetary compensation as possible. Why is that important?

It goes back to valuing people’s time and labor. From a purely equity-based perspective, I am a researcher. I'm being paid for my time as a researcher. The interpreters or the translators that I'm working with are being paid for their interpretation and translation work. The driver is being paid for driving us there. Every single person as part of that equation is being paid. Why not the participants themselves who are providing their time, wisdom, and insights?

If we're operating in a project where we’re exchanging our labor for our compensation, then why should participants not fall under that same paradigm? That's the first piece of it.

And then when you think about it even more, the idea of having professional, highly-educated people being paid for their work versus community members not being paid for their work is deeply rooted in dominance behavior—where you're the expert, you have the training, and there’s the subject who doesn't know any better. It’s the idea that paid people are more important than unpaid people. That our time is more valuable; that we are wiser and more important.

It's actually utterly untrue. There's not a single project where I felt any smarter or any more insightful than any single person that I've engaged with. That's not only not true, but it also stems from a hierarchical way of categorizing relationships which is devaluing of participants’ own knowledge and expertise.

Have you worked pretty much exclusively in the social sector, then?

Yes, except for one year and three months that I worked for a private company. When I was younger, I had only worked in the social sector and I repeatedly heard people say, “If you haven't worked in the private sector, you're not a real “insert profession.”

I let that get to me, so I applied for jobs and I ended up working in an enterprise software company in Silicon Valley. A few months in, I was like, "I don't know that they know anything better than I do. As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure they know less because it's just a whole different world. The tech bubble is real."

I think working in the social sector forces you to be a lot more reflective about your positionality, your biases, and the privilege that you bring into your work. It just pushes you to not rely on what you've learned at school as the end all be all of what you need to know.

Working in the social sector requires me to be transformed by the work. Every project I learn about things that I would have never learned about if I wasn't challenged by the depth of the work. It's constant. It's so humbling to work in the social sector in ways that I did not find working in the private sector. And I think that's why I ended up leaving that company. Because I thought, "This is not bringing me the kind of personal transformation and critical reflexivity that I strive to have to grow as a professional designer, researcher, and as a human."

Why do you think it's hard for commercial work to be transformative in the way for you that the social sector is?

The short answer: they have to answer to the interest of shareholders. They're just not incentivized to answer to anything but consumerism and capitalism.

Even with the way that we plan the timing and frequency of engagements, I think private sector work is often structured in a sprint, agile type of timeline where we want to do this work very quickly. We want to be first to push things out into the market and we want to test it, et cetera. And that just doesn't always translate well in the social sector.

Adrienne Maree Brown has this wonderful quote in Emergent Strategy that says, "Move at the speed of trust." And working in the social sector relies on building trust, building relationships, and creating the space for what it means to seek mutual liberation. You can't do that in a short amount of time. You can't do that in the pace that typical design or design research engagements are done in the private sector.

Even in international development or the social sector, funding is still very much on a project-based basis. With that model, it’s like, “You're just engaged for this contained period of time and then you're going to neatly end it." But this kind of work just takes time.

There's also the fact that the private sector doesn’t hold as much space for reflection on the unintended consequences of what it creates and puts out there in the world. I think there's been increasing awareness of that recently. You're seeing people who are doing these Black Mirror-esque speculative visioning exercises where they think about, "If we were to put out this platform and our intention is for it to do X, but then put in the hands of Y, it's going to lead to somewhere bad."

We've seen enough stories in recent years of tech products that were used by ICE to track down undocumented immigrants or a variety of other heinous things that happened. I think that the social sector is a little bit more attuned to the idea that it's not about good intent.

Creative Reaction Lab actually has a really good definition of design where they took the IBM definition that said “design is the intent behind an outcome,” and they added to it “design is the intent and the unintentional consequences behind an outcome.”

That's very much the spirit of the social sector where you understand that it's not just about what you hope to happen. You have a theory of change, you have a set of outcomes that you're setting out to achieve. But you also know that you may be causing some things that you didn't intend to and that you need to mitigate for in advance.

Every space that we operate in is a space for resistance and inspiration. Every space is political.

Sarah Fathallah

Lastly, working in the social sector, one of the things that I've learned is that you don't show up with just your professional hat or researcher hat. This is how capitalism creates a bifurcation of the self. You have your professional persona, and then you have your everyday persona that's different from your work one. We can't be trapped in this capitalistic frame of you either work and get paid or you spend your free time checked out and consuming.

When I work in the social sector, I try to come in as a whole person that doesn't have this artificial separation. I come in with my full immigrant, my queer, my feminist, my person of color selves into the work.

It's not just an abstracted thing. For example, I did a project recently around researching the experiences of foster youth in institutional placements. These are not regular foster homes. These are placements like therapeutic facilities, group homes, and shelters. Showing up with my research skills only, and not also my values and identities, would have done the work a lot of injustice.

So I showed up to the work with a transformative justice lens, in order to design a research project where you center the stories of survivors. Because these foster youth have survived deeply harmful systems of family regulation and actual state-sanctioned harm.

I also looked at the work with a disability justice lens, where you recognize the wholeness of these individuals. That each person is full of history and experience. That their worth isn't tied to capitalistic notions of productivity where if they're not currently working then they are not worth it.

And I brought to the work a feminist framework in order to value the work of women and other caregivers’ contribution to community work. The care work that they do at home isn't rewarded. As a matter of fact, it's punished—especially for poor communities. But if you are licensed in the system, like if you are a foster parent, then you are actually getting paid for it.

And I used a queer theory-informed approach to question normativity, including in family structures and parenting styles that the entire philosophy of child welfare is built around. That philosophy says that, unless you're a middle-class family with two parents in a set of a very American, white value-based parenting choices, then you're a bad parent and the state is going to take away your children. And queer theory challenges the supposed benefits of white, middle-class, heteronormative family structures.

And I approached the work with a critical race theory perspective that views the law and the legal institutions in child welfare as a whole—from child protective services, to social work, case management, and every single paid staff person who legitimizes the system—are racist. This is particularly true when you study the history of child welfare and its interactions with social welfare policy and the criminal penal system.

Without these emancipatory lenses, the framing of our research findings would have likely ended up reifying dominant, violent discourse around the need for institutional placements to continue existing. But these frameworks provided the tools to develop a nuanced analysis to make liberation-oriented recommendations, rather than “neutral” ones. So, in short, every space that we operate in is a space for resistance and inspiration. Every space is political.

What’s something that you wish people would ask you?

Can I subvert the question a little bit and tell you a question that a lot of the times people ask that I don't have the answer to?

Yeah, that's fine too.

One of the things that people often ask me is, "Okay, what do I need to do to be able to do this work, to be able to be a designer or design researcher in the social sector? What are the books that I need to read? What are the things that I need to learn? What kind of programs do I need to be enrolled in?”

And I still don't have an answer to that question because the reality is: there is no degree in transformational social change from a university or a single training that any one of us can do.

We're literally just figuring out a lot of the ways in which we're trying to shift the needle in the highly oppressive systems that we're operating within. The best thing I can say is that social change requires lifelong curiosity and study. It means spending a lot of time studying what other people have done, what they've tried, what's working, and what's not working.

There’s the Maya Angelou quote that goes, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." Except it's not a destination, it’s a journey. I'm continually being like, "Well, the way that I was used to doing this thing, I can't do that anymore." Even the other day, I learned to challenge the fact that maybe inclusion isn't the point because the people who are doing the “including” are still upholding deeply asymmetric power dynamics by holding the privilege to set the terms for what inclusivity means. And that’s just one example. It's just a constant journey; I’m always striving to deepen my humility, learning, and discernment of what I don't know.

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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