How can putting marginalized people at the very center of design and technology change the world for the better? This is the question that has motivated Sasha Costanza-Chock’s work for the past two-and-a-half decades.
In episode 105 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach and design justice advocate Sasha Costanza-Chock discuss the world-changing effect of putting marginalized people at the center of design and technology practices; how the design justice movement reveals the way social movements have been erased from mainstream storytelling about innovations like Twitter; how researchers, media makers, and community activists can develop mutually beneficial project frameworks; and why challenging universalism and valuing things that don’t scale is how Sasha imagines otherwise.
Guest: Sasha Costanza-Chock
Sasha Costanza-Chock is a scholar, activist, designer, and media-maker, as well as an associate professor of civic media at MIT.
They are a faculty associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, faculty affiliate with the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and creator of the MIT Codesign Studio.
Their work focuses on social movements, transformative media organizing, and design justice. Sasha’s first book, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press in 2014. Their new book, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need was published by MIT Press in 2020.
We chatted about
► What is design justice? (2:05)
► Social movements as spaces of innovation (7:51)
► Connecting with the design justice community (12:49)
► How to do community-engaged scholarship (15:58)
► Advice for community members working with researchers (20:18)
► Pushing back against “one size fits all” approaches to research and design (25:10)
► Imagining otherwise (28:29)
Design justice is a growing community of practice that aims to ensure a more equitable distribution of design’s benefits and burdens, more meaningful participation in design decisions, and recognition of community-based Indigenous and diasporic design traditions, knowledge, and practices.
Social movements and technological innovation
I’m really interested in the way that social movements, in part out of necessity, often have to find ways to create new ways of telling and circulating stories. In the new book, Design Justice, I talk about what that’s looked like recently in terms of a number of innovations in the information and communication technology landscape that come from, or at least have contributions from, hackers working with social movements, even though those contributions often get written out of the official histories of how we got the new platforms and spaces that we have today.
Best practices for community-engaged research
When I partner with community-based organizations, or when I’m working with students who are trying to do that, early on we develop working agreements or memos of understanding that carefully lay out everything from what are the shared goals of the project to who is going to get credit and authorship for the project to who’s going to own whatever product we develop together if there is a product that’s developed. Who’s going to own the data that’s gathered along the way. All that stuff, it all has to be spelled out and you have to develop shared verbal and written agreements about that that you sign together.
Against “one size fits all” design approaches
How do we transform our system dynamics so that we’re supporting and resourcing many different local, contextual forms of design and knowledge production rather than saying, “Okay, well let’s standardize everything so that things are more efficient”? That’s one value, but it’s not the only one. And it’s an approach that’s gotten us to the brink of ecological catastrophe and species death.
We want to build a world where many worlds fit. We want to build a world of one no and many yeses, which is the slogan of the Zapatistas and Subcomandante Marcos. We want to build a world where we challenge the one-world ontology, which is Arturo Escobar’s term for the monoculture world that erases all kinds of Indigenous lifeways and other ways of knowing, being, and doing in the world. Ultimately that’s why the subtitle of the book is that we want to use community-led practices to build the worlds we need because there isn’t just one vision. We want an open space for many visions.
More from Sasha Costanza-Chock
► Sasha’s new book Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need
► Sasha’s first book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!
► Sasha on Instagram
► Sasha on Twitter
People and projects discussed
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.
Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get podcast episodes, event announcements, and articles sent straight to your inbox.
Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy [00:23]: How can putting marginalized people at the very center of design and technology change the world for the better? This is the question that has motivated my guest, Sasha Costanza-Chock’s work for the past two and a half decades.
Sasha is a scholar, activist, designer and media maker as well as an associate professor of civic media at MIT. They’re a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, faculty affiliate with the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and creator of the MIT Codesign Studio.
[00:57] Their work focuses on social movements, transformative media organizing and design justice. Sasha’s first book, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement, was published by MIT Press in 2014. Their brand new book, which we talk quite a lot about in the interview, is called Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need and that was recently published by MIT Press as well.
[01:24] Sasha is a board member of the Allied Media Project and a steering committee member of the Design Justice Network.
In our interview, Sasha and I discuss the world-changing effect of putting marginalized people at the very center of design and technology practices; how the design justice movement reveals the way that social movements have been erased from mainstream storytelling about innovations like Twitter; how researchers, media makers, and community activists can develop mutually beneficial project frameworks; and why challenging universalism and valuing things that don’t scale are key to how Sasha imagines otherwise.
[02:01] Thanks so much for being with us today, Sasha.
Sasha Costanza-Chock [02:03]: Thank you, Cathy. I’m excited.
Cathy [02:05]: So you’re the author of a really exciting new book called Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds That We Need and that offers a very different vision for design than the one we’re perhaps more used to getting from big design firms or even tech companies like Apple. How do you define design justice in your work and what impact can it have on our political and social worlds?
Sasha [02:28]: Yeah, great question. So design justice it’s not a term that I came up with. It’s a term that comes out of a growing community of practice. It emerged from the Allied Media Conference over the last several years.
It’s a growing community of practice that aims to ensure a more equitable distribution of design’s benefits and burdens, more meaningful participation in design decisions, and recognition of community-based Indigenous and diasporic design traditions, knowledge, and practices. There’s a set of principles that the Design Justice Network created that you can read at designjustice.org and people are signing onto those principles and figuring out how to use them in their own work as designers.
Sasha [03:17]: In the new book, I also talk about how design justice can provide a framework for analysis about how design practices distribute benefits and burdens between various groups of people. In particular in the book, I talk about how we need to get explicit about how design can reproduce or challenge what black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination or white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, settler colonialism, and other forms of structural inequality as they intersect.
Cathy [03:53]: One of the things that I really love about this book is the incredibly wide range of examples or uses of design justice that you’ve traced across different historical periods and in different geographic and political locations. I’d love to hear more about those examples. What are ones that you came across while doing this research that really surprised you or maybe forced you to rethink design justice or what design can mean in a really different way?
Sasha [04:22]: Yeah, I mean there are so many examples of design practices that aren’t part of the most visible and most well-paid design professions. I think what recently I’ve been excited about is this example where there’s a community of maker nurses, people who are working as nurses, as nurse practitioners, in different kinds of spaces and who often actually innovate medical technologies and care practices but don’t get recognized for it and aren’t as visible in the conversation about where medical innovation comes from, in part because nursing is a very historically gendered profession.
Just recently there is a nurse who also has a doctorate whose name is Rachel Walker who has taken up the design justice principles. I’ve never met Rachel except for on Twitter, but just the other day she was tweeting about a poster presentation about using the design justice principles to critically analyze hackathons that are happening inside hospitals.
[05:46] So apparently there are a lot of hospitals that are trying to think about how to do innovation, how to innovate processes and devices in ways that will make care better and also more efficient I guess. Rachel was tweeting about a poster session at a recent conference that sort of lays out how to carefully and critically think about what’s happening at these hackathons and whose voices are getting centered and how they’re not necessarily centering patients and primary caregivers and nurses and thinking about how to do that type of innovation event in a way that’s better.
Cathy [06:29]: That’s really fascinating. When you were describing this, my question was who is participating in the hackathons? Is it staff at the hospitals, is it patients? But you’re saying no, right? So is it outside people who come visit the hospital to do this work?
Sasha [06:47]: I mean, I don’t know that much about this particular example. It’s just I’ve been in a little bit of conversation with Rachel about it on Twitter and saw that literally just the other day, this image of this poster session came across my feed. It’s just an example of the way that the concept of design justice and the design justice principals are traveling way beyond spaces that I think those of us in the Design Justice Network imagine that they would.
[07:17] Most of the people who formed the Design Justice Network come from graphic design or human computer interaction. There are a couple of people who come from architecture and urban planning and then a couple of people who come from industrial design—the design of objects. But we didn’t realize that these principles would resonate so much with this whole other community of innovators in nursing and medical innovation. And of course it makes sense that they do, but it’s an example of how I think the concept is resonating with people in unexpected-to-us spaces.
Cathy [07:51]: Definitely. That’s really fascinating. One of the other things that you do in this book, and I think that you’re certainly pointing to is at the center of the great concept of design justice and design justice principles, is putting social movements at the center of what design is, what design can be, and what design’s role is in our political and social worlds. I know a lot of your projects, both your recent projects as well as going back over the course of your career, have focused on movements such as the immigrants rights movement, global justice movement, feminist anti-domestic violence movements, and queer and trans justice movements, just to name a few. I’m curious, what do you find so powerful about how these collective freedom projects harness the power of design and media in different ways?
Sasha [08:40]: For social movements that are trying to do transformational work and shift longstanding structural power inequalities, one of the things that tends to happen is that movements and movement voices often excluded from mainstream media discourse for a long time. Voices are silenced. People are marginalized. The frames that we want to use to talk about our lives and our communities and the types of change we need to see in the world, if we do get coverage, the framing that we use isn’t centered.
In part for that reason, because those who hold power often try and silence or ignore or marginalized or reframe social movement voices, social movements often are spaces of innovation in terms of how do you create and circulate and share ideas and stories and voices and messages. That’s been true, I think certainly since the beginning of modern social events and probably before that, and I read about this in other places.
[09:52] I’m really interested in the way that social movements, in part out of necessity, often have to find ways to create new ways of telling and circulating stories. In the new book, Design Justice, I talk about what that’s looked like recently in terms of a number of innovations in the information and communication technology landscape that come from, or at least have contributions from, hackers working with social movements, even though those contributions often get written out of the official histories of how we got the new platforms and spaces that we have today.
[10:59] For example, in the book there’s a whole section where I talk about Twitter and the way that one of the demo design projects that later inspired the team at Odeo, which was a podcasting company that went under but then as it was dying birthed Twitter. Well, one of the inspirations for that project was a project called the TXTMob “T-X-T-M-O-B” [spelled out] by Tad Hirsch. That was a group SMS service for helping activists who were doing direct action coordinate and keep one step ahead of police actions. And so this project TXTMob that was deployed at several protests in the early 2000s went on to become a direct inspiration for some of the team at Odeo that would go on to develop Twitter. I talk about that story more in the book and it’s been written about by others as well in other places, but basically that’s part of the legacy that got us to the current social media landscape that we have today. So it’s no surprise that Twitter has then been used by activists to help do things like coordinate actions and stay out of the way of police, because some of the those affordances came directly from an earlier demo design that was explicitly activists in an intention.
[12:06] That type of story gets written out of the history as corporations create their own versions of their birth and they create stories that tend to center individual cis, white male geniuses who had flashes of inspiration and through I guess grit and their own bootstraps, pulled themselves up into a space of being globally dominant platforms. Those stories often are rewritings of history. But there are other histories that are centered in the activist and social movement practices and I try and look those up in the book.
Cathy [12:49]: For folks who want to get more connected to the design justice movements and communities, where can they go?
Sasha [12:55]: That is a great question. So there’s a lot going on with the Design Justice Network. You can learn more about what’s happening at designjustice.org. There are local nodes of the Design Justice Network popping up in cities all over the place now. There are regular meetings in Toronto, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco and a couple of other places.
[13:20] You can also come meet a lot of people in the Design Justice Network at the Allied Media Conference this summer in Detroit in late June. We’re going to have a Design Justice Network gathering at the beginning of the Allied Media Conference. I hope that people will check us out online and in all the social media spaces and also connect with the Design Justice Network in person.
Cathy [13:46]: It seems like a lot of your approach to rethinking how these histories get told, in academic disciplines as well as popular culture or popular media, is tied to both your participation in the social movements that you’re writing about but also the fact that you design technologies yourself. You both make them and you study them and you rethink them in all kinds of different ways.
I find that a lot of the really rich research out there straddles those kinds of boundaries and academia often doesn’t really know what to do with that because it’s not really designed to handle it very well. We’re supposed to be detached researchers over here with no connection whatsoever to the thing that we’re studying. But in many ways your scholarship and the scholarship of many others like you really demonstrates that you just make a better scholarship if you’re writing about the stuff that you’re embedded in, that you’re part of, and that sometimes you make.
I’d love to talk a little bit more about how your design production and your participation in the social movements that you write about has shaped your approach to studying those things or maybe vice versa.
Sasha [15:01]: Yeah, definitely. I mean none of the work that I do, none of the scholarship that I do, would be possible or exist if it wasn’t for the communities that I participate in and community-based organizations that I partner with and work with, or the social events that I feel a part of. So that’s definitely true.
I mean, I would put a parenthesis here, which is that I think there’s a lot of different valid modes of scholarly inquiry. I wouldn’t necessarily say that community-engaged scholarship is the only type of knowledge production that’s valid or anything like that, but I definitely think that it is one important and key mode of developing and sharing new knowledge. It’s one that’s not valorized and is pushed to the margins throughout the academy and that’s really a problem. That’s something that we have to fight to shift I think.
Cathy [15:58]: You make a really powerful case across all of your projects for truly collaborative and participatory media and design technologies—those that are made by, for, and with the specific individuals and communities who are going to be most affected by them, rather than detached outsiders (as brilliant as they might be).
I find that often that idea is championed in academic communities, but the very infrastructure of academia—everything from tenure requirements to course listing metadata to publishing norms, I mean the list goes on—those things often prevent scholars from doing that kind of work. How have you navigated the academic spaces and communities that you’re a part of, while also foregrounding the importance of this kind of community-based or collaborative work?
Sasha [16:48]: Wow, how much time do you have? That’s a huge question. I think you’re absolutely right. There are so many structural forces that militate against people doing effective and accountable community-based or community-engaged scholarship. I think it’s hard.
There are some very straightforward strategies that I try to use and that I also try to teach my students to use in some of the courses that I’ve developed around doing community-led design work. For example, when you’re writing grants or trying to get funding for projects, ideally you’re writing that grant together with a community partner and the grant is including line items that are going to resource community partners to be able to fully participate in the design project or in a research project that are going to let them allocate staff time to really be part of it and be on top of it and lead it.
[17:57] When I partner with community-based organizations, or when I’m working with students who are trying to do that, early on we develop working agreements or memos of understanding that really carefully lay out everything from what are the shared goals of the project to who is going to get credit and authorship for the project to who’s going to own whatever product we develop together if there is a product that’s developed. Who’s going to own the data that’s gathered along the way. All that stuff, it all has to be spelled out and you have to develop shared verbal and written agreements about that that you sign together. I find that too often if you don’t get really explicit about that stuff, all of those sort of power inequalities between the academy and community-based organizations, they just tend to push towards all of the credit and money and benefits of the projects towards the faculty member who’s participating in the collaboration.
[19:13]: You have to be intentional about how you’re distributing resources. And resources also includes the story of the project. So if there’s something that comes out the other side of the project and there starts to be conversation about it in the public sphere, say there are reporters who are writing stories about some app that’s been developed in collaboration between a professor and a community organization. There are a lot of reasons why those stories tend to center the academic partner, especially if it’s a powerful institution, like in my case, I’ve been working at MIT for almost a decade and so even if I’m working on a project that’s led by a community partner, their reporters and their editors often want to talk about this cool new project created by MIT scientists and relegate the community partner to footnotes. So sometimes you really just have to go back multiple times and push to ensure that that doesn’t happen.
Cathy [20:18]: I wonder if I can actually flip this question as well. I think that is some really great advice for faculty who want to do these kinds of projects and want to do these kinds of projects ethically and in a way that aligns with the values of the communities and the social movements that they’re passionate about.
But I’m also curious if you have any advice for community members or media makers or activists to navigate researchers and the often obtuse academic systems on the flip side. How can they work with academics and researchers in a way that benefits them? Do you have any advice on the flip side of that as well?
Sasha [20:58]: Yeah. There has been a really interesting conversation about this question coming from the Research Justice Network. That’s another network that came out of Allied Media Conference over the last five years or so. There’s a Research Justice Reader, there’s a whole sort of history of people writing about this. And of course there’s a long history of Indigenous researchers and scholars like Linda Tuhiwai Smith, I think, who writes about Indigenous methodologies and thinking about the way that historically, unfortunately, a lot of communities have experienced research as oppression and research as extraction and research as a way, frankly, for settler colonial logics and power structures to encroach upon Indigenous spaces and lands and new ways of being. So sometimes I think the response is just to tell researchers to go away.
Cathy [22:08]: That can be vital, important, and empowering in so many contexts., for sure.
Sasha [22:13]: Yeah. And then I think sometimes it’s about developing longterm trusted relationships. Is there a researcher who comes from your community? Can you find ways to support them and lift up their work and partner with them?
There’s a thing you can do where sometimes communities will tell, say, a university, “Well if you want to work with us, we’ll only do that if someone on the research team—maybe if it’s not the faculty member at least it’s some of the graduate students or other researchers—have some type of connection to our community.” So you can actually use that as leverage to say, “If you want access and you want to work with us, you’re going to have to prioritize our presence and the community, in the project.”
[23:05] You can also insist upon the thing that I just described earlier: written agreements about what’s going to happen with this work and who’s going to get credit for it and how it’s going to move. You can insist on line items in budgets to support a community-based research coordinator, who is someone that you get to hire and say, “This is the key contact person for the researchers and the research team who wants to work with us.”
So I think there are a bunch of things that you can do to ensure a healthy research collaborations. But ultimately it’s also about deep relationships that happen over a long period of time and trust building.
Cathy [23:52]: Absolutely. And those, as you point out, take a long time to build and that’s good. We want them to. That’s kind of the point.
Sasha [24:01]: And a lot of times, the cycle of academic knowledge production doesn’t want to respond to the cycles of community trust-building. It’s like, “Oh, I need to get in and get out, get my data and publish my thing.” But a lot of times that’s not going to be healthy. So part of it is just saying, “Well, we’re not willing to work with people unless they’re willing to make a deeper and longer term commitment.”
Of course this is nice to say in the ideal sense but sometimes it’s really important that something get out quickly. I don’t know, maybe there’s an environmental harm happening in your community and it’s something that you just really need people to take action on as quickly as possible. So there are researchers and reporters who want to come do the story and so in the real world you have to sort of navigate and negotiate all these different competing interests and tensions and so on. So I don’t think there’s one master answer but the things that I just shared are some things that sometimes can be useful.
Cathy [25:10]: One of the things that I was recently talking to another set of guests on the show about is the need to recognize multiple forms of activism as activism, rather than just thinking that activism—they were talking in terms of social movement activism more broadly, but I think this is applicable to research relationships as well—rather than assuming they all need to look the same.
[25:33] So your example of sometimes a quicker turn around is actually valuable to the community. Sometimes a slower turnaround is more important and recognizing that both of those should be able to count as research. Both of those should be able to count as activism. Both of those should be able to count as interventions on the scholarly as well as political level, rather than assuming it all needs to look the same.
Sasha [25:57]: Yeah, definitely. I mean, one size fits all and universalization, that’s one of the modes of thinking that’s gotten us into this mess that we’re in where we’re normalizing everything from agricultural systems, crops, strains of food to the way that we interact with information online and so on and so forth. One of the big problems we’re facing now is just a normalization and elimination of anything that doesn’t fit normative models.
[26:49] Design justice as a proposal and as a set of practices is about challenging that and saying no and pushing back and saying that there’s a lot of different types of knowledge. There’s a lot of different types of design. There are processes that are micro local that we want to validate and support and that a lot of times things don’t scale. Through scaling a solution from a particular local context, there’s a lot that’s lost as well as a lot that’s gained.
So how do we transform a lot of our system dynamics so that we’re supporting and resourcing many different local, contextual forms of design and knowledge production rather than saying, “Okay, well let’s standardize everything so that things are more efficient?” That’s one value, but it’s not the only one. And it’s an approach that’s gotten us to the brink of ecological catastrophe and species death.
Cathy [27:44]: One of the things that I find most helpful about the design justice principles is they really do call for rethinking everything. Rethinking what we think design is, rethinking what we think a community is, rethinking what we think the relationship between those things is, rethinking who design is supposed to be for and who gets to decide that. Who gets to tell the story or histories of design? It really is reimagining a different world.
It’s one of the reasons why I was so excited to have you on the show, because in many ways your work in design justice and in the communities and movements that you’re a part of is such a fantastic example of what it means to truly imagine otherwise and to do that in the midst of the world that we currently live in.
[28:29] So this brings me to my absolutely favorite and last question that I get to ask folks, which gets at the heart of the show. I think it gets at the heart of why you do what you do in the world. It’s that world that you’re working towards when you create design collaborations, when you teach your classes, when you write your books. So I’ll ask you this giant question that I think is really important and really is why we do any of this to begin with. What’s the world that you want?
Sasha [28:58]: I think we want to build a world where many worlds fit. We want to build a world of one no and many yeses, which is the slogan of the Zapatistas and Subcomandante Marcos. We want to build a world where we challenged the one-world ontology, which is Arturo Escobar’s term for the monoculture world that erases all kinds of Indigenous lifeways and other ways of knowing, being, and doing in the world. Ultimately that’s why the subtitle of the book is that we want to use community-led practices to build the worlds we need because there isn’t just one vision. We want a open space for many visions.
Cathy [29:50]: Well, thank you so much for being on the show and for writing your amazing book. I’m sure folks will be excited to get that in their hands. It’s really fantastic. I’ll include a link to it in the show notes as well. And I just want to say thank you for sharing all the creative ways that you imagine otherwise.
Sasha [30:08]: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here and I can’t wait to hear the podcast episode.
Cathy Hannabach [30:19]: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.