Unlearning oppression in facilitation: attribution

As a design researcher and group work facilitator, the decisions I make about how people, space and time is organised for achieving a particular purpose is careful work, especially when the work focuses on interactions with or about marginalised groups. Although I prioritise working to design justice principles I’m doing a lot of unlearning and therefore I have a lot of blind spots. 

The scene: 

An open online meeting for group work facilitators who typically sit between institutions and communities to share ideas, stories and experiences of using different facilitation techniques that might encourage stakeholders to ‘become more proximate’ and ‘find ways to get closer to those living on the margins of society.’ 

The sparks: 

During small breakout room discussions, we were asked to note down our ideas in a collaborative document. The breakout group I was in had 3 people, Person 1 noted our names against each of our contributions and Person 2 asked for the names to be removed. Person 1 felt attribution is important, Person 2 felt it was not necessary. Person 1 is not white, Person 2 is. As Person 3 (another white person), I found myself tongue tied in a threshold learning moment about group think and unlearning oppression. 

After the session, someone else fed back that the profiles of people involved in organising discussions like these should be shared ahead of time so people can decide if they want to join in. When the organising team behind a workshop about engaging marginalised people does not include any of the people it is talking about and when that fact is not explicitly acknowledged, it’s essentially a well laid trap for marginalised folk who might attend.

What I assumed:

  • my work is focused on elevating the voices of those who are usually ignored and marginalised by typical design practices, I work to design justice principles- my intentions are good;
  • as a facilitator, I choose particular structures that help create spaces that are as equitable as possible; 
  • the people in my networks hold these same values and principles- the spaces they/we make are intended to be welcoming and inclusive.

What I didn’t see:

  • I was reinforcing and demonstrating a colonial mindset with the facilitation methods I advocate for and use; 
  • the importance of communicating context as fully possible about gatherings I invite people to and design, including the makeup and profiles of the design/curation team; 
  • facilitation communities I am part of are not diverse and likely feel quite oppressive and unwelcoming to marginalised people- intent does not equal impact;
  • I had not been putting the same care and thought into interactions with ‘professional peers’ that I would with others, for example relatively closed community based workshops.

While thinking through my behaviours and assumptions, I got in touch with some people I nerd out with about facilitation and workshop design to ask, ‘Why don’t we ever attribute contributions? Why don’t we have a regular practice of explicitly situating ourselves for the people we invite to gather?’ Some top level answers to those questions are white supremacy and privilege but what things are in the layers beneath?

The people in my facilitation circles tend to gravitate toward systems thinking and complex adaptive systems thinking. As well meaning- and generally overrepresented people- framing our facilitation work in these systems theories means we think about collective idea generation and imagining as a kind of living entity through which emergent ideas appear over time. With this mindset, ideas are things to be set free so they can be discovered by others and built upon in wonderful and unexpected ways- it’s the beauty of networks. In this frame, attribution can be considered unimportant and sometimes attribution is explicitly discouraged. Ideas floating around like delicious fruits and vibrant flowers to be harvested is a beautiful vantage point from which to see the world, all things being equal. But all things are not equal. For all that our work takes from systems theories that emphasise diversity of thought and collective imagination for innovation, there is little to no discussion about power, privilege or oppression in our work. We do not consider how the matrix of domination plays out in our approaches and what that means for hard coding inequities in our relationships and in the things we produce. 

Why attribution is important 

When I am thinking about attribution here, it is not just about note taking for posterity, cosplaying relational practice or briefly name checking. It is giving credit where credit is due throughout the process. It is recognising the origins of ideas, and actively rejecting a tendency toward extractive colonial mindset (read: I come to you, I take from you, benefit from you, then I erase you.) To fail to attribute or to un-attribute through a design or development process is perpetuating oppression by invisibilising contributors. It feeds the hero stories we tell ourselves about design and innovation, which in turn feeds the patriarchal capitalist machine that commissions design work with zero space for marginalised voices to contribute meaningfully. 

Attribution is one small part of having a design justice mindset that steps beyond co-production or participatory design and aspires to shared control, shared accountability and more equally distributed benefits and harms of what we design with marginalised communities. 

Sure, attribution might not be wanted by some people who contribute to our closed group work, or it might be wanted in a certain way. But here’s the thing: we don’t ask people. Situated in positions of relative power, we tend to make decisions for people about anonymity. For example, in the design research work I do with public services and non-profits, anxiety and misunderstanding about privacy by design and GDPR would stifle any conversation about modifying informed consent to include expressions of appreciation, respect and a commitment to keeping links to people who take part in research. Long term paternalistic relationships with citizens and communities means we might default to deciding for people that it’s ‘safer’ for them to remain unnamed but that’s just stripping them of any opportunity to decide how or if they will be acknowledged for their contributions. What about a riff on this: ‘We can’t do this without you. We want to make sure you get the credit you deserve for your ideas in our reports, our presentations and in our final designs. Would you like to be named? How would you like to be named? Don’t want to be named? Let’s talk about what all this means going forward…’ Considering marginalised communities we invite to participate in discussions or design research are probably not being paid fairly for their time, it’s the least we can do as an immediate intervention to work out from.

Deeper conversations needed

What’s here is pretty high level and, in some places, oversimplified. There’s more to dig into around how, when and if we attribute contributions of people in our facilitation work. Some things we can immediately work on individually and collectively:

  • Supporting each other to develop subversive yet safe ways for us to push back on requests to work without somehow attributing all contributors;
  • Developing conversations about meaningful value exchanges with people who contribute ideas in our gatherings and workshops, including prototyping participant-led decision making about monetary exchange or bartering;
  • Grasping trauma informed practices in deep, critical ways; 
  • Create practical ways in which we assess our facilitation planning and work against design justice principles before we make contact with people in marginalised groups;
  • Considering how we communicate and collect informed consent under GDPR and what this can look like when held up against feminist discussions about consent and data bodies, inspired by The Future is Transfeminist and work by Joana Varon, Sasha Costanza-Chock and Clara Juliano

I have not done this thinking alone. Thank you to Janel and Rigoberto Lara Guzmán from Design Justice Network for raising the flags I needed to see. Thanks to Linda Hunter, Noreen Blanluet, Alastair Sommerville and David Heath for ongoing discussions. Let me know if you want to join in the discussions.

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