Alvin Schexnider

Oct 2, 2021

9 min read

Dear Designer People: Your Reflections on Power Must First Be Intersectional

My hardest and certainly one of the most cherished professors throughout all of my educational experiences was the late Dr. Tobe Johnson, the former Chair of the Political Science Department at Morehouse College. And the first thing he said in one of many classes I took from him was that “political science is about the acquisition of power.”

To me, that seemed so ..simple. Too simple. Too Machiavellian! However, overtime, through further study in the U.S. , the United Kingdom, and China, I learned other definitions of political science that were more globally focused, more collectivist, or more institutionally centered.

But, there was something here though that tugged at me — aside from being a professor of political science in a country that tends to put a individualistic lens on most things by nature of our ethos, there was something….else behind that assertion. There had to be. Why was it that, to him, political science was mostly about power?

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but, to speculate, let’s look at Dr. Johnson’s background. He grew up as a black kid in the time of Jim Crow in Birmingham, Alabama — so what would “ power” be to a black family such as his at that time? The same year he graduated from an HBCU/Historically Black College or University (Morehouse) was when the Supreme Court was deciding Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that established racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional. He studied government at Columbia — surprised to see that there were no Black students living on campus he roomed at the Harlem YMCA until Columbia could find him space — and unsurprisingly, Dr. Johnson was the first Black PhD to graduate in political science from there. He worked in Atlanta politics — a researcher for Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, GA and of the South. Just imagine a situation where for the first time in a municipality, the political class at the time both oversaw and came from the same racial background as much of the constituent class.

“Empathy” for those they publicly served was present to the nth degree (putting political power aside).

And so, as I reflect on the small amount of time I spent learning from Dr. Johnson, I have to wonder if at least part of the reason he viewed the study of politics as being honed in on power had to do with how he, his family, and his community had to live directly under the effects of other people’s and institution’s agency without much agency of their own.

I ask us to ponder then, is power a thing to be studied at a distance — ephemerally and scientifically? Or is it acutely and personally felt — from skin to bone — by those who lack it in certain circumstances?

The famous philosopher robot Vishawn J’Arvis Maximoff is rumored to have once said — “what is an institution…if not powerful?” (He also has opinions about drip but let’s forego that for now).

Okay, let’s bring this conversation to design. For at least the last 5–7 years there have been stronger calls for design to be more equitable & just. And more recently , within the last few years, we’ve seen more and more conversations about power in design.

However, for me, while it’s critical we have them, something has been missing about these dialogues on power, and I haven’t been able to put my figure on it until now. I’m referring to the connective tissue between power, identity, oppression.

Power, identity, and oppression are closely related — three sides of the same three sided coin (I know I know). Working for the Chicago Freedom School taught me that a person’s identity can indeed intersect with systems of power and oppression.

And so, it’s key to remember that power is intersectional.

As legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw says, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

And, beyond power being intersectional, the above means that while power can be yielded unjustly, it can happen both intentionally and/or unintentionally.

This means while it is important to be able to reference and have at the ready a series of power-mitigating tools to spaces where the community present is different, it’s wise to not just apply power tools and methods as designers without also being able and willing to first do a diagnosis of power in the spaces we are in. The reason is because without doing so a designer could (1) not actually mitigate the right power imbalance, (2) misapply the wrong tool or method which not only does not solve the imbalance but creates more distrust within the community its applied to, or (3) simply perpetuate the designer as savior dynamic whereby a community’s agency is never honored from the jump. These are all similar cautions that were shared with the asset based community development groups more than a decade ago who tended to be white and upper middle class when trying to help plant community gardens, social enterprise incubators, and the like in Black and Latinx communities.

·Here’s an example, I’ve often observed folks outside of a community (perhaps white people in a room of BIPOC folks, or formalized educated folks in a room of informally-educated folks) attend a community meeting, neighborhood meeting, a rally, or a block meeting. These folks, very well intentioned, might show up, and not say anything at all the whole meeting to avoid taking over the agency of the community they themselves are in. On paper, that’s what one should do right? But here is a question a black community leader posed to me when I was sitting in on a meeting in a neighborhood I was not from but was wanting to support somehow: “not speaking up in a room of people different from you may be your first inclination, but what if by doing so you are holding out knowledge they need? What would it look like to humbly name your privilege and knowledge, and then defer to the community as to when they want you to contribute? Don’t worry, we’ll let you know when we need your help, but don’t skip on letting us know what you are humbly willing to bring to this table.”

I wanted to mitigate my ivory tower education in a space of community-educated leaders so as to not take space. But guess what? Power can not be hidden, at least not for long, in person. People will sense in you whether you have it (or at least believe you have it) and/or they will ascribe it to you (rightfully or wrongly). We all do it. It’s human nature.

Description: Black and white photo of civil rights leader Ella Baker and others at a meeting. image source: https://www.civilrightsteaching.org/traditional-narrative/childrens-book-on-ella-baker

Now, traditionally in organizing circles when we talked about doing power analysis it was referring to a power map of a community/ geography and the actors in the space, with varying levels of agency to get things they wanted when and how they wanted. Here’s a tool I once adapted a few years ago for designers to use.

But an intersectional power analysis is a different tool. Actually, as a designer I’d argue that an intersectional power analysis is probably the most important tool that you could start with as you reflect on what power you bring to a space.

I lament not being as active as I once was with community advocacy work as I was in the early — mid/late 2010s, due to having 2 toddlers at 3 and 4 on top of Covid precautions, but I used to spend much of my time working under, for, and with a number of Black and Latinx community leaders and organizers in Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and North Lawndale (all neighborhoods / communities in Chicago). From my own experience of missteps, and from observing others, I think that power gets misunderstood at best and subtly oppressive at worst when seen through a lens of identity…be it class, race & ethnicity, able- / unable- bodiedness, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, and so on and so forth.

Consider this point from the Auburn Seminary: “a robust, shared understanding of how power works is central to how we think about the world and how we will create justice and transformation through shared struggle.”

And, now, reflect on this perspective on power from Charlene Carruthers’ book, Unapologetic — A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements (pp 105):

“What is power? The word has many meanings. Power is the ability to act and get what you want. Power is built and maintained through organized people and organized resources. Power is not inherently good or bad. For people from marginalized groups, experiences with power are often negative. We are used to people having power over us. The amount of power other people and institutions have over our lives, our children, our mobility, our access to basic needs (food, water and shelter) and even our desire is immeasurable. Lovers, politicians, social workers, teachers, and parents can all wield oppressive power in our lives. Power relationships are based on individuals, but they are intrinsically connected to the systems of power maintained by capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and anti-Blackness.”

Whew, chile. Yes, power transforms, but it is bolstered by the lenses of identity and oppression.

Okay, so, how do we do an intersectional power analysis as designers? Well…there are likely a number of ways out there. For this conversation here and now, below is a freebie tool I have created, called the Intersectional Power Diamond (“yayyy another diamond model for designers, thanks Alvin”) . You can either print the PDF version to be used in person or download the document and use with a Miro or Mural board. Here’s the document.

You can print out the PDF for use in person, or….
…you can use it on Miro or Mural in a digital group setting.

You’ll notice around the diamond that there are four sections : internalized, interpersonal, organizational, and systemic. What you can do here is, before meeting diverse members of your design team or as a part of community level setting in a shared spaced, each person can use this tool to document what aspects of their identity either yield an increase or creates a decrease in one’s power in each of those contexts. If the response adds power, write a plus sign in front of it, and if the response takes away power, write a negative sign in front of it.

After you’ve filled out as many boxes with “+s” or “-’s” as you can, reflect on the total pluses and total minuses across the page as you also think through the “Resulting Reflection” in the middle of the tool. How are you and/or this space affected by your power (or lack thereof)? What about others in the group — community members, designers, et al?

With this knowledge, perhaps it will be easier to know what type of power tool you will then apply.

How have you been reflecting on the interconnectedness of power and identity lately?

Annnd, if you do choose to use the Intersectional Power Diamond, was it helpful? What could be improved? Let me know in the comments.