Walking the Walk: Putting Equity Into Practice

Walking the Walk: Putting Equity Into Practice

Over the years, each of us has experienced or seen firsthand organizations practicing social impact design with the best of intentions, but with unsustainable and sometimes outright unethical practices towards their own staff and collaborators. Too often, the sense of urgency and the penny-pinching necessary to get projects done on limited budgets are used to justify poor organizational practices. But as the field matures, our working group believes it is critical to make these practices consistent with the larger push towards social equity.

In this post we have outlined a number of areas in which we think our field can do better, including the way we hire and recruit staff, the types of workplaces we foster, and how our financial practices sustain the work we do.

Diversifying the Field Through Hiring and Onboarding

As previous posts in this series have mentioned, the social impact design field remains fairly homogeneous, with few people of color and many of the most recognized leaders in the field white men from backgrounds of opportunity. As in other fields, when challenged to do better in hiring practices, the response is often “we try, but it’s hard,” or “we just can’t find folks.” As the interest in the field among young designers soars, we believe that, as a field, we can all do better. Using other fields as examples, we can understand how to more effectively recruit a diverse range of people to the field.

In the legal profession, it is common for large firms to compete for top performing law students to be summer associates. Often being paid handsomely, these summer associates are also taken to expense account lunches and happy hours during their summers, with the hopes that they will form a rosy view of the firm and agree to sign on for the years of drudgery and long hours. The continuance of this trend leads us to believe that it must work, although we’ve certainly heard many complaints from the very summer associates that are being wooed. Obviously, most design firms, and especially those with even the slightest glean of a public interest focus, don’t have the recruiting budget to organize whole summers full of training and socializing without expecting those summer associates to contribute real hours towards billable projects. But there must be some middle-ground between the isolation many young designers feel in their early career jobs — picking up redlines or verifying zoning setbacks — and the manufactured glamour of legal summers. And perhaps it can be more meaningful than a simple happy hour?

Among the design world’s few parallel opportunities is McCall Design’s Summer Studio program offered to interns in the firm’s San Francisco office. McCall hires a group of interns each summer, and every intern gets the experience of working on a small retail project through all of its phases. At the same time as they contribute work to real, billable projects, the interns work in small teams within a studio seminar, exploring conceptual issues of urban planning in San Francisco.

Photo credit: Jess Zimbabwe

If this high-end design firm with clients like “national and international retail and hospitality giants” can pull together an intellectually engaging summer for interns in parallel with billable work, shouldn’t the creative problem solvers of the social impact design world be able to do the same? Small design firms or nonprofit design centers might balk at this analogy, saying that they don’t have the luxury of hiring more than one or two interns each summer, or that even if they had such a group, no one on senior staff would have the time to devote to creating trainings or intellectual exercises for them. But what if a group of firms and nonprofits got together each summer and coordinated a summer studio, where each firm was responsible for one or two weeks of the training and team building and critical thinking exercises?

Another model worth examining is that of the public service fellowship. The social impact design world is familiar with the revered Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, but several other non-design models exist: including the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, the Skadden Fellowship in law, the Global Health Corps Fellowship, and the Venture for America Fellowship for entrepreneurs. Several of these programs include a rotating system of departmental or agency assignments, allowing fellows to experience work projects in several different settings. One such program, operated by the District of Columbia Human Resources Department is the Capital City Fellows program. This program affords recent recipients of graduate degrees in public administration or related fields to rotate through three six-month-long assignments in three distinct city agencies.

Photo credit: Harry Connolly

Law firms, large market-rate design firms, and big city governments have developed these programs because they need access to a top pool of young talent. Smaller design firms and non-profit organizations have a hard time making space to invest in attracting and grooming new talents for the community design world. But these programs also accrue benefits to their larger fields, beyond the immediate employer that a recent graduate signs with. What if there was a way for small firms and organizations to pool resources and offer new employees or interns some of the benefits of the programs described above?

The Association for Community Design (ACD) has recently launched a micro-fellowship aimed at advancing many of these goals. The selected fellow will spend two weeks working full time on special projects in an office under the supervision of a leader of ACD. It’s easy to see two weeks of paid work for one person as a mere drop in the bucket. However, an organization with the long-standing credentials in the field like ACD is bound to share lessons from the experience of raising the money, selecting the fellow, and supervising the work that could translate into better thinking for how the social impact design world builds a better, more equitable pipeline of skilled employees ready for the challenges of this work.

Good Work Comes From Good Places to Work

One of the barriers to joining the field is the dismal employment practices that await young people in many social impact design organizations. Low or no pay makes it impossible for people with significant student loans or no support from home to enter the field. This not only limits the talent pool, but prevents us from better serving the broad range of communities within which we work.

We need to pay our staff. This is critical. A reliance on unpaid work means a field reliant on people of privilege to do the work. It will not be possible to achieve the larger goals of social equity in this field if we do not commit to paying our staff. As leaders in nonprofits and organizations that fund them, we have a deep understanding of limited resources. Salaries may start out low, and they are likely to remain lower than in other sectors, but it’s important they exist. But how can we work towards social change when our own internal practices are inhumane?

Models that rely on unpaid staff have high turnover and low accountability. People work hard, burn out, and move on. We lose all the knowledge they have built and then start over from scratch. This not only hurts our work, it hurts the communities we are serving, who bear the extended timelines and slow progress this engenders.

While we’re at it, we should pay our interns too. Nonprofits may not legally have to, but it’s still a good practice and critical to building the pipeline that brings folks into the field later on. When Christine Gaspar started working at the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), she drew on her own experience in college. She had watched friends from wealthier backgrounds take the most exciting — and always unpaid — internships. CUP now pays interns (with the exception of the occasional extern working for degree credit), and they have found this helps to draw a more diverse pool of people into the office, including people from lower income backgrounds and people of color. They have also found that this has created a pipeline for later hiring full-time staff who might not otherwise have applied to work with them.

A note on pro bono. Pro bono means “for the good,” not “for free.” In the field of law, for example, pro bono services are provided without charging the client, but not without paying the lawyer. The lawyer is still paid by the firm, as in many pro bono architecture practices, but the client benefits from free services. In the field, some have taken the practice to mean that no one is paid for the work. While there may be moments when this kind of support is appropriate, we cannot build a sustainable field on the expectation that this be the norm.

One of the unfortunate things that our field has ported over from the mainstream architecture and design professions is the sense of heroism in the work. We convince ourselves that we must work every hour of the day to make a difference. We have to answer that crucial weekend email, or… what? While our work is incredibly important to us and to the communities that benefit from it, we are not performing surgeries. This may be a calling for most of not all of us, and so we all push ourselves hard, but we need to make time for self-care so that we don’t burn out and ultimately leave the field. This is a huge problem in fields like community organizing, where the sense of urgency leads to worker burnout and a loss of skilled people in the field. The net result is not more work getting done. There is an ethical responsibility to treat our staffs humanely, but also to give ourselves the space of self-care, and to create workplace cultures where that is valued and not seen as laziness.

The heroic mindset doesn’t help us get work done in the field. Let’s leave the overnighters to architecture school and let our people go home. We have found that establishing a realistic work week, creating boundaries around weekend and night-time emailing, giving people sick leave and paid vacations and holidays, and encouraging them to use those days bears out what the research shows—more boundaries and time away from work lead to more productivity, not less.

Putting Your Money Where Your Values Are

Finances are sometimes seen as a necessary evil, but creating good, sustainable financial practices is important for organizations who want to contribute — and keep contributing for a long time — to the field. You can’t do good work if you’re not around to do it.

As a document that shows where you will get your money and where you will spend your money, a budget is not just financial plan, it’s an expression of an organization’s values. We know we all have fewer funds than we would like, but what do you prioritize in your budget? Do you include funds to pay for community members to give you feedback, or do you expect them to donate their time? Do you pay artists, designers, and other skilled collaborators?

Photo credit: Studio Hinrichs

It may feel like you have to skimp on these things due to limited funds. But even contributing small amounts of your project budget to these kinds of collaborators can show that you value them. As your budget grows, those items can grow as well, but if they are missing, it shows that you don’t value those contributions. Could you create your project without the community partners, without the designers? If they are key to your project, they should appear in your budget. When Public Architecture conducted extended interviews with day laborers to get input on the development of its Day Labor Station project, they hired the laborers for the day, allowing them to be part of the process without forgoing a day’s wages.

Photo credit: Francesco Fanfani for Public Architecture

Similarly, is appropriate staff time included in the budget? We will never have enough money to pay our staffs appropriately if we don’t make that a priority in our budgets. Many of us try to fit too much work into too small a budget. While that seems like a good way to get more work done, it ultimately undermines our ability to do this work: we set our costs wrong, we can’t do the work for the amount we have, we can’t sustain our organizations, and instead of creating more work, we close our doors.

Finally, budgets are plans for how you will sustain your work. Is your budget realistic? Are you diversifying your funding sources? Are spending more than you’re bringing in? Does your funding come with too many strings attached? Are you shifting your programming to meet funder needs or finding funding that supports your priorities? It can feel like you have to respond to any opportunity, but budget decisions must be led by an organization’s values and priorities. Nonprofits large and small go under every day, leaving behind unfinished projects, unemployed staff, and unmet needs. A budget isn’t something to be feared, but a tool to help you plan for sustainability and long-term impact.

Designing Equitable Organizations

It’s challenging to build and maintain a practice in the social impact design space. Addressing pipeline, diversity, staffing, and financial issues is a heavy load, but our work won’t really be design for equity until we take on these issues and make sure our own internal practices are consistent with our values and the larger social equity goals we are fighting for. If we’re going to talk the talk, we as a field need to start walking the walk in our own organizational practices.

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