I first heard about the Black Lives Matter protests reverberating across the globe through my son who sent me a message on WhatsApp. Studying industrial psychology at university in South Africa, he, like his sister, are very attuned to social injustice.
There is an Afrikan proverb that best sums my family’s generational journey that says “‘Those born on top of an anthill take a shorter time to mature”. Within their first two decades of life, my children have been exposed and have had access to news, video, audio, as well as personally born witness to injustice and racism. When I was growing up, it was also my lived experience – and one incident in particular – that changed the trajectory of my life.
My parents moved to the United States in the 1960s, we lived in Maryland and California. As a researcher and professor, my father had accepted a position at a university in Houston, Texas, relocating the family by the mid 70s. Within weeks of settling into our new home, I witnessed a violent altercation between my father and the police outside our home. I don’t remember the reason it began, but will never forget how it ended. A Black truck driver named Washington, easily 6’4”, came over to where the police were beating my father and there ended their assault. My mother, who was a nurse, accompanied my father to the hospital where he remained for a month recovering from his injuries and fractured jaw. Immediately upon his discharge, the decision had been made to head back to our native Kenya. As far as I know, prior to this, my parents had never intended to return.
Many of my friends and colleagues in the design community may be surprised to hear the recounting of this experience. Rarely have I given space or voice to this nor other micro aggressions that I experienced in the United States or South Africa. I don’t see myself or my father, as victims. We are survivors. In the same way, I see all ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ as challenges and opportunities.
Industrial Designers place the human in the centre of the process. We acquire a deep understanding of needs through empathy and apply a pragmatic, human-centric problem-solving process to design products, systems, services, and experiences. My initial trajectory as an industrial designer was product and process motivated, but I came to realize mid-career that the last mile is indeed a human mile.
If we do not read widely, listen actively, engage friendships and build empathy, we risk falling into the trap and dangers of the single story. As the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her TED Talk, “The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity different. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
“Tomorrow belongs to those who plan for it today” is another Afrikan proverb I think fits these unprecedented times and relates to a notion of ‘business unusual’ as I have taken to calling it. We must be able to imagine a world with equity for all people. Where we are all given the chance to achieve on a level playing field and with equal opportunities. Designers can provide the tools. Through design for social innovation and design-led interventions we can contribute towards greater participation and equity, provided that all actors and stakeholders are willing and able to commit to confronting the wicked problems in a constructive and non-prescriptive manner.
One final thought, that of Leopold Senghor, a Senegalese poet, politician and cultural theorist who served as the first president of Senegal for two decades, “I feel the Other/ I dance the Other / therefore I am.” In opposition to Descartes, we must empathize and humanize the would-be ‘user’ or ‘consumer’ of our products and services rather than simply think and connect empathy to action. Don’t be afraid to use the word human. As a human family, we need to interrogate the ties that bind us and confront the underlying inequalities and misinformation that hinder the possibility of a better quality of life for all.