Design Thinking for Social Change

Guest post by Barbara Lau | Director of Pauli Murray Project, Duke Human Rights Center @FHI

The arts are powerful tools in our quest for justice, equity and cohesive communities. I learned this while engaging in a Face Up Public Mural Project in Durham, NC several years ago. Creative process can catalyze community engagement and foster unlikely friendships.

But what does design thinking bring to the mix?

Design thinking has roots in the business world. Briefly, design thinking is developing strategies for creating new products and services. In the world of urban planning, it’s ensuring people participate in community development. Like me, you may have doubts about ideas that come from the corporate world. It took a pedagogy context to alert me to how this can be applied outside the business world.

Recently, I helped design and run a Duke University Teaching for Equity Fellows (TFEF) workshop. Held over a year, these meetings introduce faculty to critical race theory and how this lens can be brought to our classroom teaching and culture. In her insightful book, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know, one of our workshop leaders, Tema Okun writes that our passion pushes us to do and act before we really understand the deeper issues of oppression and racism. This is especially true of people with privilege. To address this, Dr. Okun suggests a process that begins with Awareness, moves to Information Gathering and Analysis, then on to Visioning and Planning followed by Action, Evaluation and Reflection and then back to Awareness: a spiral that ensures we think, collaborate, reflect and consider the impact of our actions.

When I read this I immediately saw the parallels to design thinking. Design thinking begins with Defining the Issue/Challenge/Problem and then moves to Research, Ideation, Prototyping, Choosing among options, Implementing, Learning and then repeating the cycle.  I could imagine how this could apply to the design of a new car model but was just starting to see the parallel to planning a justice campaign or issue awareness event.

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Pauli Murray’s childhood home.

With design-thinking in mind, I organized a new course for this spring called History & Dangerous Memory: Pauli Murray and Social Justice (GSF 290S.05/HIST 290S.04/EDUC 290S.04/CULANTH 290S.06). The classroom will operate as a learning community, focused on disrupting the dominant narrative of American history by embracing the story of a 20th Century human rights champion, Pauli Murray. Murray identified as African-American, female, same gender loving, and politically radical. She grew up in Durham and her childhood home is soon to become a National Historic Landmark. Through her example, she invites us to forward an intersectional worldview in which each person deserves the right and the opportunity to contribute to their fullest potential. We know from recent events that this line of thinking is not shared by everyone. Our class challenge will be crafting public programs using design thinking that push people to learn but do not shut them down. Drawing from neuropsychology, public history and education theory, we will test a few program ideas and reflect on our learning to give our community partner the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice some impactful program models and raise the awareness of their work.

For more information about the class and the Pauli Murray Project, watch this short video.