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My Reflections on "Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design"



Name: Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design: Towards More Equitable Participatory Design Engagements


Citation: Christina Harrington, Sheena Erete, and Anne Marie Piper. 2019. Deconstructing Community-Based Collaborative Design: Towards More Equitable Participatory Design Engagements. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 3, CSCW, Article 216 (Nov. 2019), 25 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3359318


Authors: Christina Harrington*, Sheena Erete**, and Anne Marie Piper*


Institutions: *Northwestern University, **DePaul University


Terms: Design workshops; community-based participatory design; social action research; design equity


For anyone who has or is planning to incorporate participatory design (PD) into their research methods, this article is a helpful critique and case study to consider. Harrington et al. outline a brief history of PD in context with HCI and underserved communities before critiquing it both generally and through a post-colonial lens. They then outline two case studies in which they observed their critiques in the field. Finally, the paper closes with tips for decolonizing PD.


The authors define PD as follows: “PD has become a way to encourage social action by collectively imagining design solutions that respond to community needs. PD as a social action response is seen as the creation of interactive systems, as well as design experiences themselves, meant to empower and support collective action [25], serving as an opportunity to introduce participants to design as a way to respond to social issues in collaboration with community partners [49]. Situating PD in the context of a particular community frames design engagements according to local needs, responding to issues that are defined by the individuals of that community.” (p. 4) For marginalized communities/underserved populations, the authors contend that PD requires ethics and inclusivity as well as a more intentional approach.


The critiques that previous literature have brought into relief about PD include “a need to: devise collaborative research agendas, address imaginative freedom among research participants, consider political forms and objectives of collaborative design engagements, and define success as it relates to design activities within marginalized and underserved communities” as well as the implementation of PD through design practices such as design workshops being seen as “ their own form of social structures which emphasize technological creativity, suggesting barriers of oppression and classist hierarchies to what is considered design thinking” (p. 2).


This paper focuses on design workshops. The authors define design workshops as, “a spatially situated and temporally bounded coming together of participant groups and researchers to envision new design futures, which employ particular materials, tools, and goals” (p. 2). In the paper, the authors “examine the design workshop implemented in community environments as an instantiation of PD methodology and the ways in which it can misalign with the lived experiences of underserved communities” (p. 2). They argue that “participatory design as manifested through design workshops — in its current praxis — is a privileged, White, youthful, and upper to middle-class approach to innovation that consists of activities that implore participants to rely on ideals of imagination, creativity, and novel insight” (p. 2).


To be more specific, the authors point to methods such as design workshops or design thinking approaches such as “blue sky” ideation as having “an ethos that can be exclusionary to communities that have historically faced systemic discrimination” (p. 2). As an example, “engaging in design processes that promote “blue-sky” ideas (or ideation without constraints) may exacerbate inequities by leading to infeasible solutions that ultimately frustrate underserved individuals. Underserved communities can face a higher prevalence of life-threatening circumstances (e.g., economic despair, violence, health disparities) and may look to design involvement as a resource for more pragmatic solutions and action” (p. 2).


The findings in this paper outline “four areas of challenge and tension, experienced when conducting participatory design workshops: skepticism and reluctance due to complex history of research injustice, gaining access among presumptions of gatekeeping, adverse sociocultural interpretations of materials and activities, and risks associated with obtaining full personal narratives'' (p. 3). Out of these four, “one of the primary tensions in the application of PD with these communities lies in the fact that oftentimes the historical context of these realities is not thoroughly understood, nor does it align with the implementation of PD in HCI or CSCW” (p. 3).


The two case studies in which the authors engaged with two different marginalized communities using PD resulted in similar findings. Both case studies possessed research participants who had experienced a history of research injustice. In the first case study, “[c]ommunity residents shared that there was a long-standing complicated history of poor research relationships between the Black community residents and the university hospital. Historically, Black people faced discriminatory practices in interacting with this university as students undergoing unfair admissions and housing policies” (p. 9). When attempting to gain access to communities, it is difficult to develop trust and healthy relationships. Regardless of it, there is a layer of shared identity, it may not be enough and different layers (race and class for example) may not mix.


In case study number one, participants found materials such as crayons and markers infantilizing and activities like blue sky brainstorming as difficult to impossible due to their experiences as marginalized people. The authors describe the situation thusly, “[s]imilar to the misalignment with the sociocultural expectations of materials, we observed tensions around activity structure, particularly brainstorming. Much of the larger group indicated that by brainstorming in such an ‘out-of-the-box’ way they were not moving towards solutions that would actually be helpful” (p. 11). Participants were also reluctant to share their narratives fully with researchers. As the authors put it, “this group initially saw the research team as aligning with other outside organizational workers (e.g. representatives from Medicare or Medicaid) or even building management as opposed to the community residents themselves. In this way, there is a general sense of risk in disclosure of personal narratives, perceptions, or attitudes felt by community residents that may be tied to power dynamics in ways that have not been considered” (p. 11).


Case study two also found a history of research injustice with participants. Previous researchers would fail to share out what findings and results came from their interactions with participants. One participant remarked, “'So, my feeling always is, you know I look around the room and DePaul is present. And for them it’s a research project. That don’t sit good in my heart. And I’m sorry, because… Like I told you, I’m a lifelong Chicagoan. I’ve seen University of Chicago fucking did it, DePaul doing it, but this workshop… what do you do with that!? And so, I’m the kind of person that believes change is only going to come from within the community. The cavalry ain’t coming in to save us, we gonna have to save ourselves.' This comment is an example of the skepticism and doubt expressed by the community regarding the researchers’ presence” (p. 13). In the second case study, gaining access to the community also involved personal requests and the personal emotional labor of the lead researcher who eventually went on to secure funding for the community to explore civic technology. The authors describe this additional emotional labor as “...as a range of personal requests (e.g., expectations that the lead researcher will be available for campus tours, giving talks at a church, working at an understaffed food pantry) and personal emotional labor (e.g., constantly questioning the validity and impact of the research beyond academic publications)” (p. 14).


For interacting with materials and activities in the second case study, some participants were unfamiliar with design concepts. For the participants, “due to the nature of the activities, it was challenging to keep some community residents interested due to the disconnect between what individuals viewed as feasible, sustainable solutions and the design process – which requires an acceptance of ambiguity and faith that the process will yield effective solutions” (p. 14). Similar to the first cast study, participants were not able to brainstorm and imagine solutions. Instead, “when asked to imagine technical solutions, residents were resistant, stating that they ‘were not techie’. These engagements mirror the previous case study in the ways that community residents thought about solutions to social issues, often with non- technical approaches” (p. 14). There was also a hesitation to share narratives in the second case study ”...even amongst a table of other residents and/or the research team. Much of the hesitation to engage deeply stems from the historical distrust of research in general that has resulted in trauma to these communities” (p. 15).


The authors employ postcolonialism in their discussion section to speak to their findings. Postcolonialism in the context of PD is “...largely shaped by power dynamics and cultural difference between researcher and participant. The concept of postcolonialism is concerned with the impact of colonization in various contexts and is informed by grassroots and participatory development” (p. 15). Once defined for their purposes, the authors apply the concept to PD which “...stresses the importance of considering histories of injustice, uneven economic relations, local knowledge as it pertains to design implementation, and the difficulties of design across cultures, which may occur when positioning academic researchers in underserved communities that they do not identify with. This suggests that there are inherent privileges that come with PD that must be attended to and destabilized when design engagements are situated in communities that are undeserved” (p. 15).


The authors offer three ways to decolonize research practices that use the design workshop. First, consider the history and context of a research environment as a method of trust-building. By this, the authors stress that “[i]n order to facilitate meaningful collaborations with underserved communities we suggest that not only is the community history important as has been established by La Dantec, but the context of association with research institutions is also equally vital to consider. Understanding this history with an eye toward “research injustice” is beneficial to collaboratively developing research agendas that do not further marginalize individuals or causes” (p. 16). The authors mention a myth that researchers who identify with the identities of their research community get a pass but actually “1) Black researchers still face gatekeepers and must answer to histories of research injustice, and 2) there is considerable emotional labor that comes with getting into the gate. This reflexivity also requires careful consideration of who is or should be made visible (i.e., recognition) and whether these individuals are even willing or desire to affiliate with design practices” (p. 16). Gathering information before the research study begins and sharing findings after the research with the community can go a long way in building relationships, rapport, and trust within the research community.


Second, encourage rich and full accounts rather than stressing honest disclosure. Consider that “[h]istories of research engagements have led to participants recognizing that the data, information, and stories collected will tell a narrative over which they are not in complete control. Therefore, many community residents perceive research engagements within their communities to be more about concepts of ‘white gaze’ (in which Black and Brown bodies are a spectacle of performance), an often seen savior complex where individuals are fixated on ‘saving’ the disenfranchised due to guilt of privilege or even ways of policing in which their personal narratives are not safe from future consequence.” (p. 17). In addition to looking into the research history and trauma of a community, researchers can also acknowledge that participants may feel uncomfortable sharing a narrative or information they do not feel that they have full control over. More to keep in mind with this point is that “it is also important to understand the sociocultural and political environment of the communities themselves. As a way to address this nuance, researchers should look to focus more on the fullness of engagement rather than whether participants are disclosing ‘honest truths.’ Supporting community residents to engage on their own terms and share narratives that they deem important in a comfortable environment may push us closer to design engagements where these individuals feel empowered rather than further marginalized, while also accepting that there are likely some personal details missing” (p. 17).


Third, challenge “corporate” design thinking within PD. Researchers need to recognize that “...many design activities and the emphasis on ideal solutions actually widens the equity gaps that we should be bridging…attending to how design practices can be implicitly racialized and how the concept of design itself often represents people and institutions located outside the community” (p. 17). Also, “...the ‘elite’ status of design and associated approaches to design thinking have become institutionalized as a “corporate” approach to locating opportunities to address community challenges. Within these approaches, methods of ideation and prototyping value new ideas, particularly technology-oriented ideas as ‘good’ solutions or outcomes, which may negate or minimize the relevance of existing resources. In this way, design thinking has unintentionally shifted PD to devalue existing assets or environments of underserved communities, and as we see in our case studies, distances community residents from feeling PD is a useful tool in addressing societal challenges” (p. 17). Instead of focusing on solutions valued by academia and Silicon Valley, root success in community metrics. The tenets of equity-driven (as opposed to asset-driven) PD include seeing community members as experts in the research area which reminds me of a Design Justice tenet. They do mention the Design Justice Network in the paper (pg. 19).


Overall, the authors give researchers a reason to pause and consider how their implementation of PD may harm participants. As someone who is considering PD for their dissertation research, I found this article to be important and valuable for how I will go about incorporating PD into my work and how I can honor the underserved communities I will engage with.


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