Co-design is solidarity work: Lessons from a long time thought partner

Earlier this year, we held our first ever online retreat, and were joined by our longtime thought partner Laura Arndt from Feathers of Hope. Laura has walked alongside us for nearly a decade, and has seen our practice shift and grow over time. She graced us with memories, stories, and powerful lessons from our codesign adventures together. We so often struggle to explain what we do and how deep this work can go, so it was illuminating to hear her reflections on our work together. Read below for some inspiring nuggets of co-design wisdom, which left us feeling nourished and reconnected to our studio’s vision.

Design as solidarity work.

Feathers of Hope is an Indigenous young people’s movement, yet we cannot do it solely from an Indigenous lens. We need structures and processes that bring people to understand and practice allyship and solidarity. The question is how to consciously bring this framework into design, how to think of design as solidarity work. Solidarity and allyship isn’t an easy journey. This is about understanding whose voice needs to be heard, how you draw them out into the process, how to be conscious of competing oppressions.”
—Laura Arndt

Hearing that what we do could be described as solidarity work resonated deeply with us. As design justice practitioners, our commitment to undoing injustice and systemic oppression through design often means partnering with communities that aren’t our own.

We’re constantly assessing our relationships to the matrix of domination* both as individuals and design practitioners, and how this shows up in codesign processes. When we share space with others, we don’t leave our many identities and privileges at the door. For us, this entails an ongoing commitment to unlearning white, settler colonial design processes and values, and entering into community spaces with humility, deep listening, and a willingness to be transformed. It entails doing our homework on ourselves and our facilitation practices, such as learning about care-centered, play-based, and trauma-informed practices.

* The matrix of domination is a term coined by Patricia Hill Collins to think of “race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression,” in Black Feminist Thought, 1990.

Co-design is collective brilliance.

“Our collaboration is a community development practice. At no point can you ever speak in the language of ‘this is mine.’ You always speak in the context of community.”
—Laura Arndt

Neither the process, nor the tools resulting from a codesign project can be claimed to be solely And Also Too’s. They are the result of a community bringing its brilliance, creativity and stories to the table. This belies the individualistic myth of the design genius, and reminds me of principle #3 of the Design Justice Principles: “We prioritize design’s impact on the community over the intentions of the designer.”

Co-design leads to real change.

“Co-design process really matters: it takes reports to the United Nations, it gets into classes in law schools across the country. This collaborative process has real, tangible measures of change, because you worked with the community and were able to give emotional strength to the work many people couldn’t do.”
—Laura Arndt

Unlike conventional design processes, co-design has a real impact in bringing about the worlds we want to live in. In our experience, this is because co-design acknowledges that change happens through the process, rather than at the end of our journey together. Relationships, and a shared sense of ownership over the work mark the difference between a pretty design and a transformative one.

As a community-centered practice, co-design offers us the opportunity to build liberatory spaces and caring relationships with each other. We put this into practice the very minute designers and community members enter the room. A codesign project is never a transaction—it is a fierce commitment to uplifting each other’s stories and well-being.

This is our life’s work.

“If you’re gonna do design work and social justice, you have to be informed and understand the landscape you’re working with. I genuinely believe I want to change the world when I get up in the morning. Designers need to understand that they make the possibility of my hopes and dreams possible. There’s an ethical element with regards to the fact that if your heart and your belief system isn’t in this, then you shouldn’t be doing this work.”

“We were truly partners in the work. You felt such a deep connection to what you were doing, it became part of the community, part of us.”
—Laura Arndt

Design justice is not a job or a side activity for us. It is our life’s work, and like Laura, it is what gets us out of bed in the morning. We do this because we have a deep conviction in standing with communities who are being harmed and ignored by design (both communities we belong to and those we chose to partner with). We do this because we know that, as a world-building practice, design can be a means towards  transformation and liberation.

Pushing back against oppressive systems and conditions, as well as rethinking the ways in which we ourselves might reproduce these systems, is a commitment at the interpersonal and professional levels. It begins with recognizing the world-building power that our profession holds, and how that power can lead to harm. Even the smallest decisions we make have a cumulative impact on the material conditions of the world.

If you want to learn more about Feathers of Hope, make sure to visit their website at feathersofhope.ca. Also read our stories: A critique of Canada’s justice system by Indigenous youth, and A graphic novel series by and for Indigenous youth. And if you haven’t already, make sure to read and sign the Design Justice Principles!