How to Walk Through Fire

Three mantras for equity-centered improvement, innovation, and design

After learning my home address, how to tie my shoes, and how to just say no, “stop, drop, and roll” was one of the earliest standards that I mastered in childhood. If I found myself engulfed in flames, it would be “stop, drop, and roll” to the rescue — a conditioned response that would kick in and save me from the danger of the flames. We practiced it in class and saw it on after-school specials. It was automatic and universal.

Conditioned responses like these are ostensibly designed to protect, not harm. Unfortunately, they often do the opposite. Law enforcement shoots first and questions later. Principals and school leaders automatically move younger bodies when certain norms are broken. Struggles with authority for sovereignty that are perceived as threats could be surrendered in the hallway, principal’s office, or even handcuffs. Parents also sanction the movement of bodies in the school house. As a principal, I learned that a white parent chose to move her daughter out of a black space because she feared her daughter would have no suitable suitors. And too many hands grip purses and cell phones more tightly when black men and women are present.

Where “stop, drop, and roll” is a protective response to real and quantifiable danger, these aforementioned responses are undergirded by a set of culturally-coded mantras that perceive difference itself as dangerous. Mantras are instruments of thought. When committed to memory and repeated, they direct the body into action. They are the self-reinforcing physical manifestations of our internal beliefs. And sometimes they keep us out of a fire that does not really exist.

The metaphor of fire is common in anti-racist work. When we are building transformative relationships across lines of difference, especially racial difference, we bring all of our stories and experiences to the relationship. Conflicts, missteps, shame, guilt, and fear can create a bodily response that we interpret as an indication of danger. We may get hot behind the ears; our stomachs may churn. We may sweat. This discomfort makes us want to “stop, drop, and roll” to safety. But when we decide to design for equity and redesign our relationships, we engage in this design knowing that we may experience discomfort. We must understand that we may perceive danger when there is only difference. Instead of running away or smothering our discomfort, we need to walk into the heat and through the flames. But how?

Anti-racist and reconciliation work begins with the self. We must examine our individual “stop, drop, and roll” reactions and begin the process of breaking them down, then bring our individual work into the presence of difference. As we work to intentionally design new safe spaces and new relationships, we must rethink familiar roles and adopt a new set of mantras to help our bodies to balance, behave, and respond in different ways. It means that our identities as designers must extend to welcoming the experience of others, including those who have been marginalized by dominance and supremacy. How we include must expand to include not only the physical body of others. And how we work with each other, especially across difference, must attend to how we make sense of difference and the conflict it may create internally.

To design for equity and redesign our relationships, our bodies need different instructions and thought routines. These new thought routines or mantras need to be able to direct our behaviors as designers—what we design, how we design, who we design with, and how we attend to ourselves throughout the process of design. I offer three mantras that can orient our thoughts, behaviors, and actions towards equitable design and transformation:

1. I am a designer. 

All people have transformative ideas and have the capacity to change the world. This includes me. Being a designer means that I look for the impact of my actions on people, especially the most excluded. I look for design in both intent and impact in old stories and current stories. I look for the language that inspires action. I humbly carry my power to design new stories. I design.

I design to rebuild. To be a designer for equity, is to understand that historical context matters and that many of our experiences and relationships are constructed by forces of supremacy, especially white male supremacy. Our relationships with white male supremacy often determine the purpose of the deconstruction and response. Intent and an agenda is required. Is it my intent to make this invisible system visible? Or is it my intent to maintain its opacity and deny its existence? This acknowledgement of supremacy recognizes the amplification of some stories and the silencing of others. Designers for equity search for and privilege these silenced stories, certify their potential for transformation, and confer degrees of expertise. The first step to redefine our current notions of equitable design requires new language that directs our attention to systems of oppression, our thoughts to the existence of multiple stories, and our actions to the intent to dismantle, redesign, and build anew. Recognizing the impact of supremacy and its power to separate calls for intentionality of reconciliation and remembering. We have to start putting the pieces back together. It means we have to orient ourselves to inclusion. This brings us to the second mantra:

2. I am an includer.

Everyone belongs to the same story. Everyone has divine gifts to share with the world. In order for the economy of grace to thrive, all people must have the chance and the choice to participate, give, and receive. Being an includer means connecting myself to my gifts, sharing my gifts, and creating space in my heart to see and welcome the gifts of others. I include.

I reconcile separation. Including means that we are in relationship with others across lines of difference. We do not give ourselves a pass and rationalize our habits of exclusion. Think for a moment of the words that are used to describe students of color and the schools they attend. Posing this question to school leaders quickly generates words like urban, low, poor, bad, unsafe, depraved, other, low academic achievement. Ask the same question about the adults that work in the school, the words become hard working, servants, noble, martyrs, committed, and sacrifice. Who gets the blame? The children or system? Who gets the grace? Children or adults? Fluency in these words without acknowledging how they justify and allow the powerful and privileged to segregate and exclude is naive and allows the privileged to mutate systems of oppression into common habit.Including means that the powerful recognize the lines that separate the powerful and powerless, and move closer to a shared story.

“Fluency in these words without acknowledging how they justify and allow the powerful and privileged to segregate and exclude is naive and allows the privileged to mutate systems of oppression into common habit.”

The work of coming back together and remembering is often easier said than done. It will be inevitably difficult when hierarchy and separation is convention. In our outcome and results driven world, it is easy to keep our eye on tomorrow without attending to what is happening today. To that end, refocusing our sight on ourselves, how we move in the world, and the relationships we build and nurture is the keystone of equity centered improvement, design, and innovation. The third mantra is about the self as a process.

3. I am the process.

The ways I move in the world are my achievements, my accomplishments, and my possessions. I hold the contradictions that live in myself and attend to them with forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. I practice mercy, compassion, and forgiveness with the contradictions that live in others. I am the process.
To redefine these concepts and expand their meaning is essential speaking a new future.

My relationships become me. We are often taught and coached that our definition of success is defined by how far we ascend from our hometown or origin stories, how much wealth we accumulate, or the clubs, schools, and organizations that grant us membership. But when we commit to equity as our design agenda, when we commit to walking through the fire, our success is redefined as the relationships across difference that we seed, nurture, and allow to flourish. This will indeed welcome contradictions. There might be a declaration and verbal commitment to anti-racism and also a salient commitment to segregated schools because of the social benefits. Others may advocate on behalf of poor people and maintain memberships in organizations that exclude the poor. We may have forged strong relationships across racial difference in college, but maintaining them in adulthood becomes inconvenient. Recognizing this facet of development is essential to being able to walk through fire and design new spaces. As a designer, how we move in the world and the relationships we choose to build and maintain, and how we do so ultimately creates the engines of becoming. We become the process.

Our internalized mantras manifest in what we know, what we believe, and how we act. Wishing for a freer, more reunited world must welcome new ways of thinking, relating, and connecting. It will require our bodies to move and respond differently. By challenging and interrogating our coded thoughts and conditioned responses, by making active decisions to adopt new mantras, we can walk through fire, protected and unscarred.