Design for Diversity Opening Forum: A Reflection

The first Design for Diversity event was held at Northeastern on October 16 and 17 to begin the collaborative process of building the Teaching and Learning Toolkit. My takeaway questions, inspired by the presentations and discussions, were: When working with learners to teach technologies and systems, how can we teach learners to be critical of these systems and imagine changing these systems? How might we de-center expertise in the learning environments or projects where we work to allow for more inclusive and imaginative spaces? How can we design healthy project ecologies and document these designs to teach others to do the same? How can we close the gap between those who build systems and those who critique and use these systems?

This two-day event consisted of case study presentations to inspire both larger and smaller group discussions as well as collaborative group note-taking; the Design for Diversity team has made available several of the slides from the presentations (available on links the schedule) and videos of the presentations. These case study examples ranged from how to work on cultural materials with historically disenfranchised communities, to how metadata can be exclusive or uncover previously hidden relationships and networks, to how the constraints of digital tools and platforms’ might help or hinder identity representation.

Because of the variety of topics presented and discussed during the two day event, I will outline key ideas and themes below. The outline below is a synthesis of both the final wrap-up session – when the Advisory Board and invited respondents identified key themes – as well as the Design for Diversity team’s post-event group reflection where we combined our notes with the robust participant notes to draw out additional key themes.


Disrupting Hierarchies and De-Centering Expertise

One of the most common questions during the event was how academics– who are situated in an institution that can continue to perpetuate the oppression of historically disenfranchised communities – can not only work with, but work for these communities. These bullet points explore larger themes in the presentations and discussions that centered around working for different types of communities and encouraging others to do the same:

    • • De-centering Expertise: The academic/community dichotomy privileges academic knowledge; Catherine Knight Steele emphasized the need to de-center academic knowledge and instead create a space where diverse knowledges and expertises can thrive
    • • Decolonization is not a metaphor: Before continuing to work with cultural materials that belong to a historically disenfranchised community or culture, ask if this work is actually benefitting the community or continuing harmful colonizing practices. Ricky Punzalan argued that the effects of projects we do with communities may outlast our time working on them; we can step away while sometimes, the communities cannot.
    • • Accessibility: When when making cultural content available about a particular community or group, make sure it is accessible to that group. Sari Altschuler described how a collection of materials from the blind community were, unfortunately, not accessible for blind communities. How can we be sure to make materials about a community accessible to the community and privilege their ability to access these materials?
    • • Material Extraction: Moya Bailey provided social media platforms, including Twitter, as spaces to gather and extract information. This extraction process, however, must be done with respect to anonymity and users’ values.
    • • Certifying Community-Driven Projects: Giordana Mecagni suggested a LEEDh Certification for projects that sets up parameters for working with communities in collaborative, respectful, and ethical ways.
    • • Cataloguing Identities: In cataloguing and metadata work, Emily Drabinski and Amber Billey provided examples for how to make changes in cataloguing and information systems to allow for a more inclusive understanding of racial, gender, and sexual identities. Drabinski advocated for marking all identities, even those that are invisible and normalized (ex: searching “Black women writers” pulls up Black women writers, but to find white women writers, you only need to search “women writers”).
    • • Social Justice Classroom: Heather Moulaison Sandy used her online classroom as an example for how to have discussions about social justice in a classroom where students might not be thinking about issues of race, colonization, gender, disability status, and socioeconomic class.


Workflows and Methodologies

One place to think deeply about the questions, challenges, and suggestions proposed below is in project management, workflows, and the methodologies that permeate this work. What are the methodologies that will lead to a successful, ethical, and healthy project ecology? How can work practices, methods, and decision making shape this ecology? How can the design of the project set up participants to succeed?

    • • Process: Moya Bailey and others encouraged a focus on process. Instead of thinking only about the end goal of the project, focus on the process of the project and what can be learned as the project is designed, begins, and is propelled forward.
    • • Forming Relationships: Forming relationships and focusing on community needs during the stage of project planning creates a more collaborative space that de-centers expertise and fosters trust.
    • • Documentation: While designing and working through projects, work in anticipation of others taking over the project so that the transition process is easy and others can carry the project forward.
    • • Project Constraints: Mark Matienzo reminded the group that working within certain constraints can sometimes lead to a less-than-ideal output of a project. Talking through and sharing these results, however, fosters a process-oriented learning space.


Critiquing and Transforming Data and Tools

All data and technologies – like projects – have constraints. Designing a healthy project ecology also means understanding what particular tools and technologies have to offer. These points demonstrate how practitioners are already critiquing and attempting to change harmful and exclusive systems:

    • • Recognizing Technology Constraints: How can we understand the constraints certain tools offer and either find another tool or work within these constraints?
    • • Localizing Systems: Julia Flanders suggested using (and the need for more) technologies that can localized, or “modded,” if, of course, the project has the means and funds to do this. How might systems designers create systems that are flexible and able to be individualized according to each user’s needs?
    • • Flexible Data Representation: Sercan Şengün shared the idea of flexible data representation, or creating technologies that allows for users to have fluid and multiple memberships in identity categories depending on the setting and context, instead of viewing membership as a universal “yes” or “no.” This is particularly important for virtual identity, social media, gaming, and any data that is collected on users to attempt to define and understand users.
    • • Changing Metadata Allowances: Cataloguing and Information Science systems can also represent identities through harmful, rigid boxes that do not allow for flexibility. Amber Billey provided an example of attempting to change how the RDA’s categories for gender reinforced the gender binary, excluded queer identities and did not allow for the representation of fluid gender identities. The process to change this, while tedious, led to the gender category becoming more open; Billey also recommended the Homosaurus, a taxonomy of gender and sexual identities that she helped to create.
    • •  Representing Relationships: Linked Open Data shows relationships and networks among data points, rethinking how we imagine information. Karen Hwang, who has worked on the Linked Jazz project, explained how LOD allows for Information Science practitioners to localize their metadata and have more control over the system. We hope to see examples from small scale institutions and projects using LOD as well as potentially templates that allow for localized and individualized changes.


Student Advocates and Centering Justice

Throughout the event, there was an emphasis to include students and learners in the process for change. For Billey and Drabinski, this might look like teaching students how to petition changes in RDA or other systems. Heather Moulaison Sandy’s online cataloguing classroom uses social justice as a lens while still meeting Information Science certification requirements, such as the curriculum instructors must follow in order for learners to receive a librarian certification; Molly Brown also challenged the current certification requirements by re-imagining the Library Information Science curriculum to include an ethics of care. For Trevor Muñoz, Catherine Knight Steele, and Purdom Lindblad, this means creating a community of learners that centers around a particular population, such as their African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities project.

Using these examples and so many more provided in the Opening Forum, I hope we can continue to come together and share how we shape learning environments to foster conversations about justice, dismantling hierarchies, and making spaces for a multitude of ways of being and knowledges. How do we practice this in our everyday work as teachers, learners, and practitioners? The Teaching and Learning Toolkit will be a central place to do this kind of work for information systems design. My central take away from this event, though, is the power of passionate, curious, and determined practitioners across disciplines and institutions who can re-imagine harmful and oppressive systems – information systems as well as larger, sociopolitical systems – and take steps to make change.