The Shifting Boundaries of Design Imperialism

My internal anxiety around humanitarian design might have begun in Emily Pilloton’s Studio H exhibit in Portland where I stumbled upon a gallery tour full of PSU students. One of them referenced the conversation sparked by Bruce Nussbaum’s article and challenged the tour guide to a debate about how long you have to live somewhere in order to be an insider, and thus a legitimate candidate for making change. Since then it has become increasingly more complex, and this semester has only served to intensify and expand the constant worry.

We’re all acutely aware of the arguments. On one side, aren’t we natives of the world? Who’s drawing these lines between insiders and outsiders? And if there are no real lines, then isn’t there an imperative to help out our neighbors when they need it? As a matter of fact, didn’t our culture of consumption cause many of the issues that these neighbors are dealing with? In that case, we should absolutely be held responsible for cleaning up our mess.

Sea Level Consumption

[Maps scaled to represent countries’ levels of harmful consumption versus countries that will be most affected by climate change]

On the other hand, who am I to think I can come in to a community, understand generations of experience through a few activities with post-its, sharpies and colored dots, and then pull it together into a succinct idea for them to implement? Why should they give me their time, emotion and hard work to go through that process? We sometimes consider sidestepping these concerns by focusing on teaching communities design skills that could help them address their own issues. But what’s the difference between that and victim-blaming?

These concerns have frozen my involvement in designing from afar. Even within the city where I live, design for communities that I don’t belong to raises many of the same problems.

If the most convincing argument for our involvement is that we (the developed world, the educated, the relatively wealthy, etc.) created the problems in the first place, then maybe we should focus on not creating problems, rather than taking credit for the recovery of our victims. Let’s take advantage of our powerful positions to make change among ourselves. Let’s design ways to be quiet and listen to the voices of others. Let’s pair policy with service design and make laws and social services work for the people they’re meant to serve. Let’s work on racial justice on the white side.

For a few days, I was excited about this idea. Finally, a well-defined line to act within! But then we had our youth employment workshop in Harlem on Monday with six participants who devote their lives to addressing youth issues through programs that offer job training, support for reentry from prison, plus food, clothes, and friendship. I was embarrassed when these participants thanked us for our work on the topic, contrasting our semester of light ideation with a room full of years of experience and painstaking labor.


[Our workshop participants networking around youth employment]

But they really were thankful for our contribution, and that makes me wonder about the maybe-not-so-well-defined line between imposing our ideals through “helping” and impacting the top down systems that victimize communities. Not only that, but where am I an insider? I’ve put myself in a group of privileged white people, but does that really mean I can feel guilt-free in imposing my beliefs and values on that population?

In the end, perhaps it is just about respecting the acceptance or lack thereof from our partners, and bowing out when we are not wanted by those we aim to serve. Maybe we just need to accept the messiness of different and changing perspectives and take it one day at a time. Given the recent workshop reaction, I suppose that means we’re doing okay for now.


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