“In Conversation” with Shana Agid

“Rather than entering as designers or design students kind of trained in different modes of observation and prototyping, what does it looks like to start with something where you acknowledge all the things you don’t know, or you don’t prioritize your own expertise yet?”

~ Shana Agid, Associate Professor of Arts, Media, and Communication at Parsons School of Design

What is the story of your work, and how did you get to doing what you do?

My background is in fine arts and visual criticism. After I started working at Parsons as a non-designer, I saw a lot of overlaps between what was happening in design classes and design discourse that sounded interestingly similar to what, as a community organizer, I already had been doing for a long time. I began thinking about what it was that design had to offer in community organizing areas, and then also seeing the really remarkable limitations of understandings of structural oppression in design industries and design education. 

Flashing forward 10 years, the thing I think about all the time is what “making” looks like in social justice or in radical community organizing practices. I became really interested in service design in relation to this idea of making systems. My political background is in work to abolish the prison industrial complex, much of which is focused on ending things, but a lot of which is focused also on making things. Abolition is a strategy focused, in part, on trying to articulate and build other kinds of systems for addressing harm or police violence as part of reimagining and unmaking violent systems like white supremacy or patriarchy.

Increasingly, what I now talk about was shaped and formed through having two years to really focus on what my colleagues and I, in the “Ships First Shape was a Raft” project, have increasingly called self-determined design, or thinking about design as a way of engaging in projects of self-determination.

What did it mean to bring your community organizing experience inside an academic institution and kind of reverse roles? 

There’s the really simple, basic stuff. I didn’t ask anybody to meet me at The New School; I always went to them, unless they wanted to come to The New School for their own reasons. I never set the time. Those were lessons from coalition building and community organizing, where there’s also a practice of saying “We’re going to choose to take some risks together. We are going to hold each other accountable. And we’re going to spend some time building trust to make sure that those things are possible.”

I brought that knowing with me even if I didn’t really know how to build a class around it.

We’ve been working, most recently, with the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS). One of the teachers there has talked in really compelling ways about the importance of being asked what they need. She’ll say: if you’re a service and you want to come in because you love what we’re doing, and you’re like, “Oh we have this thing to offer,” we may or may not need that thing. If you’re willing to start by saying, “What do you need?” and then figure out if you have the capacity to meet those needs in any sort of useful way she’s emphasized how rare it is for people to actually ask that question.

How have you found ways to sustain these relationships over time, in fulfilling ways for both parties? And how do you measure the impact that the presence of these students or the class is making in the classroom?

I think those long-term relationships have been built out of a shared commitment to the work, and out of a lot of flexibility and humility. A big piece of the work that WHEELS asks us to do is to keep in mind that they are also building an institution through this lens of the importance of what people make for themselves. 

In terms of the impact at WHEELS, I think that the clearest thing to me is that nothing we are doing makes something brand new there. If anything, what we’re doing is facilitating processes that are underway by creating moments to really focus on them. We always end up doing an exercise around building the capacity to have a discussion around what are the values, hopes, and desires that frame whatever gets made. And then, any design proposal that comes out has to be measured back against those agreements. That, to me, has been a way that we have drawn into the class this reflexive possibility.

The other thing that they ask of us is that we meet at least half the time at Parsons so that their students can get opportunities to be in a college classroom and environment. We’ve increasingly started erring toward doing some of the service design lessons, that I used to do with just Parsons and New School Students, with everybody. 

I will also go on the record and say that I’m not a big believer in measuring outcomes in a quantitative way. Two years ago, I started incorporating reflective practice in the service design studio. Students do a weekly reflection, and then do meta-reflections where they look back on the last three to five weeks and will reflect on what has changed. At the very end of the semester, I ask them to do a reflection where they record what was happening in their notes and reflections along the way, and then reflect on the relationship between them. People are learning things but there’s no time to process it, so this has been something I drew from my own research practice into the class, to create that opportunity and focus on its importance.

Do you ever come across a perception that we are experts who are going to help our community partners? How do we not reproduce oppressive practices in our own pedagogy and our systems?

Rather than entering as designers or design students trained in different modes of observation and prototyping, what does it looks like to start with something where you acknowledge all the things you don’t know, or you don’t prioritize your own expertise yet? 

And it has taken many years to try to figure out how to do that well. 

Working with other educators, I never have to worry that I’m not in an environment that’s driven by learning. For me, part of the critical pedagogy and the way that I approach collaboration has to do with decentering myself as an authority and imagining myself as a facilitator of a process, which is also how I approach design work. 

What I found in teaching this class is that you need to be prepared to have a discussion about what it means that we are coming from a university or from academia. And we’re talking with people who are, for this moment, at least, outside the university. And what it means in some senses that there is this presumption (embedded in our context) that we have something to give. That we have ways to help. 

We try to undo some of that language. We’re not here to help. We’re not here to fix stuff. We’re certainly not here to give unsolicited opinions. 

We’re here to build the capacity to make some stuff together that, in fact, is already underway. 

To say that doesn’t make the work easier. In fact, it makes it harder, because you can’t just go have your own idea. We do some readings around facilitation and design. We do some readings about what it means to create capacity to have communication across power dynamics and across communities and people who are differently located. We talk about the impacts of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment, and think about the ways in which that might impact how we do or don’t hear things as designers. So part of what we talk about is how designers really hear what’s happening, as opposed to, you know, listening well enough to come up with an idea to interject. 

We also learned this phrase from WHEELS: I have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And that became a central tenet of the class for two years. We did a lot of work that we now call “holding it open.” People are going to come and go, so how do we both make decisions and move ahead while holding it open so that anybody can join up and feel like they can become a decision maker. 

So have you had a situation where you had to actually address these power issues, race issues, gender or sexuality issues in the classroom or outside it? 

Yeah, absolutely. One thing I am still learning how to do is making sure that everyone in the class feels the capacity to sort of stop things if they need to be stopped. To say: we’ve got to deal with that before we can move forward. 

There have been instances where we’ve had Parsons or New School students say things that are really problematic and where a WHEELS student will be like: that’s interesting that you’re asking that. Can I ask you why you’re asking that? Because to me it sounds like you’re insinuating x y z thing. Of course, that puts the WHEELS students in a bad position, but I am often reassured that this is also a practice at WHEELS.

Part of my work is saying this stuff is never extraneous. If we don’t deal with the assumptions that are underlying some of these questions, then you will design a thing that is totally useless. And it’s useless because it misses the point, or it’s useless because it’s actively racist. 

I wrote an article a long while back about a much earlier iteration of this class in which students – and they were an incredible class of students – designed a set of tools we were going to use for a workshop in which the images were all of young, white kids from the 1950s, and we were working primarily with 18 to 24 year old men and women of color. 

I didn’t write to them and say, “What are you thinking?” I was like, “This is really interesting that you picked these, because aesthetically, for a certain perspective, they’re totally nice to look at, they’re legible, and usable. But if the mechanic of your design tool is that someone takes a thing, owns it for themselves, writes on it and activates it in some way, what’s going to happen if the images not only don’t look like them but are of an era in U.S. history where these images were known for carrying this kind of racist, structural white supremacy? Then are you going to able to get what you want if this is the image that you ask people to work with? And I think that became a super valuable conversation about how incredibly complicated it is in a design process to use representations of people at all.

What are the greatest lessons that you have learned along the way in this kind of public scholarship practice?

The most important thing is relationship building. And I say that as an extremely shy person but who does all my work with other people. I think that there is a lot to be said for the amount of time that you spend with people over the long haul, learning their work and learning to make work together. I don’t think that doing this work in a drop-in way works, to be totally frank.

I think there’s also an element of exchange. In every collaborative class I’ve ever done, knowing what it is that I think my students need to be learning and asking the exact same of the folks with whom I’m working has been incredibly important. Often times those two things will overlap, but rarely 100 percent. 

And so then the question becomes: okay, well if part of the goal is learning and part of the goal is making something for and with the partner, then how do we do that in such a way that we stand the best chance of all those things happening? And that, I think, has to be co-planned. And so one of the biggest takeaways has to do with mutually deciding what the outcomes need to be and being willing and even excited to give a little. That co-planning work, that choosing to be in it together and having humility in the process, is fundamental to doing this work in responsible ways that end up being good learning experiences for students. 

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