Barbara Adams, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Design, Wesleyan University
As designers increasingly turn their efforts to altering conditions for the vulnerable and oppressed, stubborn questions arise around the ethics of engagement. Socially engaged projects seek meaningful change, yet often discourage dissent, reify privilege, remain agnostic about outcomes, and do little to alter larger, structural inequalities. Moving from one social injustice to the next, crises and suffering become ‘sites’ from which to develop serialized projects. Practitioners can easily exit projects deemed failures and write these off as learning experiences. Armed with empathy and expertise, but with little local knowledge, these practitioners struggle to form equitable relationships with partners and collaborators. Too often the designer is positioned as a surrogate or delegate, charged with articulating a cause or a people. This sort of ideological patronage resonates with the reformer tradition and allegorizes groups of people understood as vulnerable and “at-risk.” This paper will examine a range of projects initiated by designers and will challenge the idea that helping is beyond reproach, ultimately asking how designers might better situate themselves as allies through developing practices that foster solidarity, exercise humility, and distribute agency.