Moving Equity Work Toward Action in the Age of COVID-19


The world will eventually recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. But when we start getting back to “normal,” we need to remember that school doesn’t have to.

As schools scramble to establish a stable and balanced posture in the face of COVID-19, the need to do so with equity at the forefront is greater than ever before. The student–teacher relationship is being transformed daily as educators scramble to teach virtually and parents — especially the most marginalized — step into the role of managing instruction (often in addition to many other responsibilities). This universal experience has forever changed our relationship with school.

Although our immediate future is uncertain, this time of upheaval has proven one thing: School doesn’t have to look the same as it always has. And as we react to the new parameters the COVID-19 pandemic has given us, it is imperative that we do so with an equity lens.

It is here that design thinking can come into play. In recent years, design thinking has left its roots as a tool used for product design and emerged as a powerful problem-solving methodology across fields and sectors. This shift in how design thinking is used has come in concert with a societal shift in the way we identify problems and understand solutions. Problem-solving is no longer about inventing things; it is about recreating systems. And in a world that continues to increase in complexity and technology, design thinking can simplify, humanize, and order this chaos.

This shift in the way we define problems necessitates a shift in the tools and mindsets we use to solve them. Design thinking provides a framework for complex, iterative, and targeted solutions: It emphasizes the need to define the problem well and build sooner to get better feedback, and it has fundamentally changed the relationship between designers and those they are designing for. This focus on the end user is so central that design thinking is often simply referred to as user-centered or human-centered design.

While elevating the user in the design process has been the key to its success, it is also the reason why our current approach to design thinking needs to be retrofitted. If we believe design thinking is the right tool to use to redesign products, systems, and institutions to be more equitable, then we must redesign the design thinking process, mindsets, and tools themselves to ensure they mitigate for the causes of inequity — the prejudices of the human designers in the process, both their explicit and implicit personal biases, and the power of mostly invisible status quo systems of oppression.

The role of implicit bias is particularly distressing as we consider the design thinking process. In its current state, it may be doing as much harm as it is good. While engaging with end users, many forms of design thinking still grant the designer the power in the relationship — the power to decide with whom to do empathy work, the power to interpret the results, the power to decide the framing of the problem, and the power to pick the best solution. Thus, it stands to reason that any problem definition or solution created by biased individuals — which we all are — will perpetuate inequity if the process does not actively acknowledge and combat bias.

In response, we offer the equityXdesign framework — a set of beliefs and practices designed to mitigate bias and design solutions through an equity lens. This framework hinges on three core tenets:

Historical context matters.
Evolutionary science tells us that the most beneficial traits survive; we are the recipients of the genetic legacy of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. And social inheritance mimics this genetic inheritance: We inherit the traits and characteristics of legacies of privilege and oppression. We must see both who we were (our historical selves) and who we are (our current selves). In order to understand the present time and space we occupy, we must understand the inherited legacy surrounding the thing we are designing, the place we are designing in, and the community we are designing with.

Radical inclusion is the foundation for equity.
equityXdesign is intentional about bringing diverse stakeholders together across race, role, gender, and socioeconomic status to build relationships and lay the groundwork for community. Inclusion is not merely the absence of exclusion: Radical inclusion requires going further — identifying barriers that exclude and eliminating them; welcoming different people, stories, and experiences to the innovation conversation; creating spaces where everyone can truly bring their full selves and be equally valued. Radical inclusion is not simply about reducing hate or respecting difference; it is about truly loving others.

Process dictates product.
In order to design for equity, we must design equitably. The practice of equitable design requires that we are mindful of how we achieve equity. Inclusive design practices raise the voices of the marginalized, strengthen relationships across difference, shift positions, and recharge our democracy. Because exclusion feeds inequity, we can no longer argue that there is not enough time to include the community. We must make time for the magic of human connection, especially across difference.

The world we face today is frightening and uncertain. But it also offers us a priceless opportunity: to design a new system to come back to, rather than redesigning the one we already have. Especially during this time of crisis, designing new relationships requires courageous interrogation and assessment of current toolkits and processes. This work is challenging, to be sure. But to choose not to engage in it is to be an active participant in further entrenching an exclusionary status quo.

Read more about the equityXdesign framework at 228accelerator.com, and download our new Equity Provocations Tool to help with your design work.