Chapter 5 Review | Design Justice

Design Pedagogies: “There’s Something Wrong with This System!” is the fifth chapter in Sasha Costanza-Chock’s 2020 book Design Justice. Visionary yet grounded, the book itself explores how design can be led by marginalized communities while simultaneously dismantling structural inequality, and advancing collective liberation and ecological survival. In this review our concerns lie solely with the fifth chapter in which critical pedagogy is examined as a way for educators and community-based organizations to not simply critique structures of power and oppression, but actualize change vis a vis a ground-up method of engagement and participation that itself embraces multi-stakeholder agency-based empowerment while also serving to address shortcomings within current community engagement models. Costanza-Chock’s design justice model draws from and extends the rich tradition of participatory action research and engagement which itself is informed by the foundational work of Latin American popular social reform movements particularly those spearheaded by Brazilian educator and theologian Paolo Frieri. The principles and practices are broadly, yet deftly, articulated with careful attention given to potential pitfalls while simultaneously highlighting their promise. At times lite on actionable steps, the chapter offers a consistently solid, and hearted, guide for revisiting the form and function of pedagogy, and navigating the urgent necessity of an approach that “demystifies systemic power inequalities, involves a multi-directional learning process, results in transferable skills, and constructs a new world as it constructs knowledge.

The roadmap provided by Costanza-Chock in chapter five highlights not only what such a process might resemble, but the urgency of the work, alongside how this new approach may be scaled. Indeed, the 10 principles outlined are a viable template for agency-based, community-led engagement that is both actionable and applicable in formal and informal settings. Each of the principles listed have numerous real-world and researched examples which may serve readers as jumping off points for further exploration, community, and connection.Threaded throughout the chapter is the promise of developing a co-curricular environment wherein both professional and the personal passions are blended. The philosophy behind this approach is key; by embracing such a participatory model, Design Pedagogies challenges traditional – and arguably limited – structures of knowledge and community engagement, ultimately creating something which more closely resembles a heterarchical structure. The inherent brilliance here is multi-pronged: educators not only rethink their role, but so do participants and stakeholders at every level, resulting in the community itself being transformed. This is the heart of praxis: pairing critical thought with action; Costanza-Chock does not simply rely on a penetrating insistence that this methodology has value, rather they provide examples of such – examples they live by:the interactive community-centric nature of the web-based reading invites discussion and cross-pollination of ideas, elevating the content from a traditional reading. The philosophy of Costanza-Chock’s design is its biggest strength; chapter five seeks to instill a mindset of design “with” or, potentially, on a long enough timeline, design “by”. By doing so, Costanza-Chock avoids designing “for”. Through this shift in approach, the ability to leverage community interests and creativity is unparalleled. Finally, via design thinking’s iterative nature, the seed for the long-term sustainability of such projects by way of community ownership is able to take root. On a long enough timeline, and with enough will, participants can become leaders of these projects.

With respect to limitations, arguably the largest hurdle is that of securing and maintaining “buy-in”.  To be fully realized, the Design Justice methodology calls for rich participation from a diverse audience over a sustained, and indefinite, period of time. To effectively achieve and maintain all outlined goals – to be ethical, iterative, expansive, co-curricular – is a herculean task. Various studies illuminate how community-based organization staff, as is the case with non-profit staff in general, are often overworked, under-paid, and on the edge of burn-out .  Given these realities, Costanza-Chock’s vision might better be framed as an ideal to work towards, rather than an absolute. From this, perhaps more attention may be given to how to manage burnout as well as managing the invariably varied interests and the problems of numerous stakeholders which will inescapably arise. Additionally, another pitfall of participatory community-oriented work is that of tokenism, a phenomenon which has no discussion here; one-off projects should be eschewed in favor of ongoing efforts that the community co-manages over time. Moreover, the banking method which Freiri so rightly critiques does have a place in certain contexts, namely in bringing a group of learners up to speed on a similar topic (think the bottom stages of bloom’s taxonomy in early sequence courses.) Defining and understanding of key concepts can be co-designed in a participatory fashion (with so many diverse participants I can’t see a scenario wherein there is no need to impart, share, or grow new knowledge – while there is some attention given to what knowledge is aparted, how it is, and what, ultimately, is done with it that matters. Both the experiential and the expository can co-exist. Costanza-Chock dismisses the latter. Finally, as a philosophy of justice and engagement, this chapter espouses a way of thinking, knowing, being, and acting in the world which goes against a rather entrenched status quo. Costanza-Chock assumes this approach will be accepted without priming or, perhaps worse, a switch that will be flipped. Changing systems, including and especially systems of thought, is a process not an event.  And processes take time and conscious effort; breaking down years – a lifetime – of educational structures, paradigms, and hierarchies is not easily achieved, yet it is a foregone conclusion in this chapter. A deeper, and perhaps, single, case study that involves a complete – and ongoing – cycle of the Design Justice process, from development to implementation to monitoring to community ownership, would be most welcome.  

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, famous author of the beloved book Le Petit Prince, wrote a line whose spirit I feel this work is on conversation with, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  Costanza-Chock’s chapter Design Pedagogies: “There’s Something Wrong with This System!” is a spiritual successor in so many ways. It’s a chapter – and book – that will produce ideas and models of engaging with the community. Not perfect in every regard, there is still more than enough paradigm shifting content to make this work a key resource for community organizers, non-profit staff, educators, facilitators, and learners themselves. And, in the spirit of design thinking, a solid core from which these varied participants themselves might also iterate and, ultimately,  improve. To close, while arduous, uncertain and not without apprehensions, the ends espoused in Design Pedagogies may be a process that is inherently slower, yet it can take us much farther; the ends are worth all the means.