Theoretical Foundation: Socially Engaged Art


For the project, I began my work with assumptions that transformed into theories for practice. Working with a sub marginalized community, I tread softly in my approaches. I questioned if I was the right person to be working with the community My initial experience felt colonial because I was sharing my educational privilege as a way to improve someone else’s life. But being transparent with my intentions, the Jornalero community validated and supported me. The Jornalero community appreciated that I was using my education to give back to communities in need. The acknowledgment they granted me, allowed me to think about their humanity in the forefront. Therefore, I identified three key theories to the foundation of my project: Socially Engaged Art, Decolonization of Design, and Ubuntu.


Socially Engaged Art (SEA)

SEA is an unconventional art practice that places the artist at the forefront of facilitation. The relevance of putting the artist at the forefront is because design does not exist in my immigrant community from which I identify. As a first generation Mexican American, I understand design is not a common term within Latinx people. More explicitly, design is a form of post-colonialism. Design is a form of coercion and is pervasive without permission. When the intentions of design are exposed, trust and loyalty are disrupted. As a member of a marginalized community myself, trust and principles of building community are vital to the sustainment of a community. It is an ingrained philosophy since birth passed from generation to generation. Through art, there is a form of understanding. It is the explicit nature to ground a community.

Practicing SEA celebrates the natural state of being, an awareness of history, and a gathering of a community of people to display vulnerability, healing, transparency, and open communication. SEA allows for the uncertainty of design to take form. SEA projects allow people to tinker and explore to develop their narratives and solutions without imposing direction. Something design cannot do. It is through this approach that will be the vehicle to transport messages. More specifically, the message of introducing design thinking.

SEA allows for the artist’s potential to expand just as the potential of the community will also grow. What is the dynamics of an artist working across disciplines and skill sets? Let alone be equipped with a graduate education. Part of the SEA theory is in alignment with James Baldwin’s provocation. “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” This transdisciplinary design project proposes to work under a similar artist framework. One who practices engaging the public through multiple participatory actions that lead towards collective responsibility.


Decolonization of Design

Coming from a marginalized community, I speculate that design is not a common term among marginalized communities. If I ever heard the term design utilized, it is used to describe systemic forms of oppression within capitalism or government policy. I theorize that if systemic forms of oppression are designed to benefit a class of people, than the design carries power, dominance, and fear. I theorize, design is not an ally to the oppressed. Therefore, an unconventional practice like SEA, will allow people to express themselves and promote a collective dialogue. Using a SEA approach will also allow a community to acknowledge their own human existence. One that has been negated by systemic designs.

It is challenging to trust the process of design when the stem of its evil has been ever so present within history. Take examples like segregation and mass incarceration. Two systemic designs that continue to impact communities of color in the US. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow profoundly argues how design is intentionally charged to affect a class of people. In one example she states:


Segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. These discriminatory barriers were designed to encourage lower-class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making it far less likely that they would sustain interracial political alliances aimed at toppling the white elite. The laws were, in effect, another racial bribe. As William Julius Wilson has noted, “As long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them.” [1]


Again, a reminder of how power, dominance, and fear play a critical role in these types of colonial design practices. Making a fair argument, that if design is an incredible tool to enable change that systemically damages and deconstructs communities, there should be a decolonized process when introducing design to marginalized communities.



Through my past experiences, mentorship, and practice, I have discovered a genuine and authentic approach to working with people and that is to recognize people for their powers, their differences, and for their majestic humanity. It is my personal duty to teach and embed the approach so that individuals are celebrated in a community, but a method to build community with values of trust and collective responsibility. The approach I practice is from South Africa, Ubuntu. To begin to understand the term is by storytelling the spirit of Ubuntu and not defining it. Human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it as, “I am because I belong.” Ubuntu is about “recognizing people for the gifts that we do not have.” [2] n a service ceremony for the late Nelson Mandela, President Obama described Ubuntu as “…a oneness to humanity. …We are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye. …We achieve our selves by sharing ourselves with others.” [3]

Ubuntu is about being selfless, and Nelson Mandela was known as the embodiment of the spirit. There is an association with Ubuntu, and that is, “I am because we are.” Working with communities, their struggles are bound by my struggles. Beyond the project, Ubuntu is a way I carry myself. The way I practice Ubuntu can be witnessed during humane transactions like my tone in conversations, the type of words I use to communicate achievement in people, continuously showing transparency in my work, and showing respect towards people.



[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, 2011).

[2] DTFPUSA, “What is Ubuntu: Archbishop Desmond Tutu Describes Fundamental Aspects of Ubuntu,” YouTube, January 25, 2013, accessed May 6, 2018,

[3] Edwin Rutsch, “Obama Speaks about Ubuntu and Empathy at Nelson Mandela Memorial Service,” YouTube, December 10, 2013, accessed May 6, 2018,

Explore more

Comments are closed.