INTRO — STRETCHING TO THE HEAVENS
“In the future, every child in Chicago has food and a safe place to sleep, and mothers laugh all day and eat Popsicles. Every Fourth of July here are big fireworks and no one shoots a gun, not even police because there are no police, and when you go downtown and look up at the sky, the electric arches stretch so far toward heaven that you feel like you might be the smallest and the most important thing ever to be born.”
-Eve Ewing, Electric Arches
We need to be able to dream and actualize more radically. Our planet is in peril, the health of our public systems are not a priority, our political leaders are disincentived to be public servants, our success is measured by social media likes and revenue instead of values alignment, corruption and employee abuse at the hands of organizational leaders are far too common in our institutions, and we’ve become too numb towards the systemic inequities that girder nigh insurmountable hurdles for oppressed communities including but not limited to Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ2IA+, and working class folks.
We need to be able to dream and actualize more radically.
Radically dreaming of better futures is something I’ve done ever since elementary school in Richmond, VA. At the time, I had no choice but to do so. As a survivor of daily racialized physical and verbal bullying from kindergarten to eighth grade, the only way that I sustained my spirit day to day is through immersing my mind in other worlds via science fiction films and novels, comic books, anime, and role playing games. And whether through drawing a self made ninja turtle comic book for the umpteenth time or crafting a zine in class (shout out to my teachers who kept confiscating them) I was resolute in making space for myself to be free — Emancipated from personal and systemic harm. For me to keep living, there had to be other, better, and more just and free worlds out there.
It’s for this personal reason that the power of radical future narratives when paired with the practice of emancipatory design can take problem solving in the present to more audacious and liberatory heights, no matter how dire the current moment. I define emancipatory design differently than others might — I define it as designing for equitable & just outcomes in the present while simultaneously designing for thriving worlds in the future. An oppressed community cannot thrive just through reparations — being made whole from past injustices — while critical, we must want more than that. To truly be emancipated means to be able to live an existence that is vigorous, whole, and abundant. This requires being able to think in both tangible outcomes in the present and in imagined visions of the future. To some this might seem too ephemeral. Audacious, even.
GraffitiVersal is my way of attempting to catalyze and actualize the audacious and emancipatory. Founded in 2021, GraffitiVersal is a counter-studio that seeks to inspire, elevate, and co-catalyze change and emancipation through design, art, strategic foresight, & Afrofuturism. For us, equity is not the goal; rather, emancipation from oppressive constructs is.
A CONTINUUM OF FREEING DESIGN & VIGOROUS FUTURES
One of the core tools I’ve developed to facilitate change and emancipation is A Continuum of Freeing Design and Vigorous Futures, or simply, the Continuum Deck. The deck is comprised of approaches for both emancipatory design in the present and also in the future. The content of the deck has been developed, workshopped, taught in graduate school, and tested over a 4 year period. But how did the “A Continuum of Freeing Design & Vigorous Futures” Deck come to be?
The spark needed to catalyze this project really didn’t start to gel for me until a point in 2017. At that moment, I was serendipitously working at the intersection of three organizations — At that time…
- I was working as a board member at Chicago Freedom School, an organization that trains Black and Brown youth how to organize in their communities for key resources and issues, and also had been involved in neighborhood advocacy and issue campaigns since 2011.
- I was working as the first Director of Operations at Greater Good Studio, a human centered design firm for social impact, and was in part hired on to explicitly help GGS build an equity lens to its studio given my background in DEI.
- I was working on the board of Creative Reaction Lab, which trains Black and Latinx youth to become the next generation of civic leaders addressing racial inequities in our cities, leading to social, cultural, and economic growth for both cultures, all through design.
Being in all three spaces at the same time was a prime catalyst for my own exploration into equity / emancipatory design and the foundation of the Continuum Deck today. What was critical for my journey was being able to experience not only the assets but also the challenges of DEI, design, and organizing as fields.
I was able to observe that DEI professionals often had trouble making theory into the tangible.
I was able to observe that well meaning designers in the field of social impact often had trouble understanding how design has been developed under a White supremacist, colonial, heteropatriarchal, and hypercapitalist lens which could negate any positive intent.
I was able to observe that organizers sometimes had trouble translating their ideas into visions that people in power (politicians, developers, business leaders) could latch onto.
What was critical for my journey was being able to experience not only the assets but also the challenges of DEI, design, and organizing as fields.
HUMILITY & AWARENESS
And so, in late 2018, compelled by the promise of these intersections, I set off to create my own model of design (let’s call it the GV Model of Design), merging the assets of the DEI, organizing, and design worlds. Where I differentiated with this design model was its central energy and focus of the design process–Humility and Awareness.
For me, Humility was key based on my experiences both locally and abroad. In my career I’ve had the opportunity to work in three nonwhite spaces: at an all Black company, a majority Latinx nonprofit, and a majority Chinese National corporate subsidiary in Shanghai. Internationally, I have lived a total of three years abroad–one in England, two in Mainland China (Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou). My experiences in the PRC, where I had to speak mostly in Mandarin Chinese the majority of my time there, was incredibly humbling. Learning how to navigate in racially homogenous cultures different from my own was incredibly humbling. I made mistakes. I misunderstood cues. I didn’t get all the nuances. However, the way that I got through the experience was by being humble enough to say: “I don’t know everything” and “I need to learn more and listen more”.
As for Awareness, this core value in the above design process came from my experiences in neighborhood organizing and advocacy. From the period of 2011–2017, I humbly stumbled through a journey of cross- economic and cross-racial organizing, advocacy, and self-work through weekly engagement in block club meetings, neighborhood councils, healing circles, community meetings, and organizing campaigns around issues such as gentrification, economic development, and unjust policing, and always intentionally under Black and Brown leaders indigenous to West Side (West Humboldt Park, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale) and South Side (Bronzeville) neighborhoods of Chicago. To be able to be of use in this work, to community members and leaders, I had to take that humility and make myself more aware–of the culture, history, economies, social pains, and other systemic constructs that served as barriers for community thriving.
I made mistakes. I misunderstood cues. I didn’t get all the nuances. However, the way that I got through the experience was by being humble enough to say: “I don’t know everything” and “I need to learn more and listen more”.
There is something critically important that happens when you start with Humility and Awareness. When one starts with Humility, one opens oneself not only to perspective change, but HEART change. In order to truly empathize with someone different from you, you not only have to be able to see from their perspective, but you also must open your heart for transformation — and then it is at this point that you may potentially feel an even an ounce of someone else’s anxiety, pain, and/or struggle. Like, not feel, but FEEL. This is why I steer away from using “empathy” as a design concept in the first place — it never has been strong enough and veers in the voyeuristic. It’s mostly surface feeling. But, when one is humble, they are heart minded and thus more aware of the differences in privilege afforded them versus others. When one is humble, they are more willing to be led by people unlike them, such as folks of other cultures or gender identities or economic classes. When one is humble, they are bought into the fact that there are multiple contexts in which to view a community issue, and they understand that they may not have the right “solution”.
One of the most humble people I have ever known was this White community organizer here in Chicago. You look at him, and he would come off as this mega hipster. But, you put him in a community meeting or block club setting with Black or Latinx folks from the neighborhood, and surprisingly he’d fit in — not fully of course, because he was a hipster white male in a gentrifying community — but he could make his way around conversations and he would listen. Time and time again, when I have shared space with White folks like this guy, I’d just straight up ask out of curiosity — “how are you so comfortable being in these spaces if you don’t mind my asking? So many other white folks who come into this neighborhood seem to have trouble connecting with residents, but not you?”
Time and time again, when I have shared space with White folks like this guy, I’d just straight up ask out of curiosity — “how are you so comfortable being in these spaces if you don’t mind my asking? So many other White folks who come into this neighborhood seem to have trouble connecting with residents, but not you?”
The answer was always something along the lines of “I’ve worked for folks like this. Been led by them, directed by them. And, I’m not here one minute for a resume bullet and then gone the next. I’m here — building relationships, stumbling and making a fool of myself at times, but being humble enough to say I don’t know everything, if much of anything.”
I too, as an upper middle class Black male, have worked through my own humility through working alongside and for Black and Latinx community members who have had less formalized (vs informalized) education than I (and thus less social mobility and privilege). That humility, I’ve been told very often and directly, is why these gracious folks have even kept me around in these spaces, quite frankly!
And so, Humility & Awareness became core to everything that I did, especially as a socially mobile able-bodied cisgender heterosexual male, once I was able to name and codify it as the central and all encompassing phase of design that I ascribed to.
In 2019, I had a hunger and desire to build my own skills in core design capabilities. At the time, the majority of the courses in Chicago were really expensive for someone working at a nonprofit ($3000 — $5000 for an intensive at Northwestern U. or the Institute of Design — IIT, for instance). Other than that, I could either do online courses or travel out of state — at the time I wanted something reasonably priced and local . Concurrently, I had been piloting the design model at my day time job, to the point that a friend suggested I start a public design course. After doing some stakeholder interviews and working through a few prototype offerings, The Graffiti Gym was conceived, where I taught to the model.
The Graffiti Gym provided public equity design workshops for non-profit, for profit, philanthropy, government sector, and community organizing workers. We had a sliding scale for ticket prices, and instead of operating workshops in a fancy design space downtown, they were held in a Black owned community coworking space called Homiey on the West Side.
Things from there started to snowball into more opportunities to use the model. I was eventually invited to teach equity design at Loyola University, where I made the above model central to the entire curriculum. I taught two courses in 2020–2021 and was able to receive feedback on the functionality and clarity of the model.
RELEASING THE BLACK SPECTACULAR
Now, before I go further into talking about the Deck itself, where is the connection to the mystical and the galactic? I would be remise to not mention my narrative around collecting comic books, games, and sci fi since childhood, as it connects to how I found hope in what ultimately is now being called the spaces of Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Futures. As a child, I was a fervent reader of comics like X-Men, Spawn, Planetary, and various indie Image comic book series. That has kept up through today–from Amandla Stenberg’s Niobe-She is Life (2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther (2015), Eve Ewing’s Ironheart (2018) and now Photon (2022), up through Image’s brilliant space opera series Saga at present, I’ve consumed as much as I’ve been able to with two almost twin toddlers in tow. I’ve also had numerous experiences playing role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, Marvel Overpower card games as a youth, and a perpetual obsession with sci fi and fantasy shows / movies like The Tomorrow People, Terminator, Aliens, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Stargate, Stardust, Lord of the Rings, Cowboy Bebop and Starship Troopers. But you have to remember, while Black nerd culture (and nerd culture in general) is having a moment currently, it wasn’t always this way. For those of us Black nerds, our Black contemporaries may have seen such endeavors as uncool, but as I look back, it’s honestly fully understandable. It’s understandable because those aforementioned narratives about time, space, alternate realities, and the mystical are predominantly centered around Whiteness /White supremacist cultural norms. I get it — because as a kid I could feel these stories in my head, but not my heart and soul. With few exceptions these stories subversively told me that I and my people wouldn’t be flying spacecrafts in hyperdrive, wouldn’t be making quantum leaps, wouldn’t be connecting with new worlds, wouldn’t be engaging in any mystical journeys.
Black people aren’t supposed to traverse the fantastical, even though our ability to thrive against all odds would tell you otherwise ! And on top of that we did so communally, bringing everyone along with us on the Nebuchadnezzar ship. It wasn’t just about exploring new worlds for kicks and giggles or galactic space cred like many White-centric manifest destiny narratives are focused on in Scifi (did someone say Dune?). Needless to say, all of this was a huge disconnect for me growing up.
“Black people aren’t supposed to traverse the fantastical, even though our ability to thrive against all odds would tell you otherwise ! And on top of that we did so communally, bringing everyone along with us on the Nebuchadnezzar ship. It wasn’t just about exploring new worlds for kicks and giggles or galactic space cred like many White-centric manifest destiny narratives are focused on in Scifi (did someone say Dune?). Needless to say, all of this was a huge disconnect for me growing up.”
“Where were you when Black Panther came out?” So post 2018’s Black Panther film releasing, writers everywhere were frantically scripting articles about the core themes of Afrofuturism. I remember after reading a number of articles, and saying to myself: “Wait–this is what Afrofuturism is…that’s just daydreaming, justice/liberation in the future, and black nerd sh1t”! That is certainly a gross simplification, but this is when it made sense that there were resonant themes through Black experience-centric media I had just recently consumed — Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid (had it for years but revisited), and finally Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. It felt like the things I had been drawn to and found my identity in my whole life were now converging and relevant, albeit with a more cool conceptual name and a burgeoning field of research and practice.
FROM FRUSTRATION & RAGE TO SUSTAINED ACTION
So, that brings us to the present. Well, 2021.
Because of the January 6th insurrection I made a card deck in 2021 called Racial DeckEquity. My frustration and rage led me to conceive and designed the Racial DeckEquity Cards over the 2021 Martin Luther King Jr weekend. I wanted to hold organizations who posted black squares in June 2020 to actually act on their platitudes.
In making the deck, I wanted to create a usable tool — a deck of cards much like what designers often use — for organizational leaders across sectors to be able to go beyond DEI in an HR context. I was surprised at the level of interest, so much so that I decided to create an LLC in Oct of 2021.
I had, ever since creating Racial DeckEquity, known that I wanted to try my hand at a equity design deck, but over the Winter holidays, while working on an ongoing Afrofuturism/Black Speculative art series called PLANETARY that is now part of GraffitiVersal’s zine Black SpaceTime Ruminations, it dawned on me that I could also create a card deck focused on emancipatory futures. Hence, the Continuum Deck was born.
The deck contains both content detailing an approach for designing for equitable & just outcomes in the present and content detailing an approach for designing for thriving and flourishing worlds in the future. Said content is directly influenced by the work of organizers, designers, strategists, social scientists, and futurists. The GV design framework above is core to both the Freeing Design Deck and the Vigorous Futures Deck–it’s multimodal, in fact. Both decks can be used separately, though, at the same time, in at least 3 different ways.
It’s been invigorating to my own soul to able to release this deck over the past year. Honestly, given I began concepting the GV model of design in 2018 this is the longest project / thing I’ve ever worked on in my life. But, I’m also thankful. Thankful for folks like Antionette Carroll who, through her and Creative Reaction Lab’s ECCD model, really helped pave the way for the Freeing Design Deck. Thankful for the most impactful education I’ve ever received and that came from the Black and Latinx community organizers and community leaders (mostly women) I’ve had the pleasure of working for and alongside here in Chicago. And, I’m thankful for all of brilliant content that other folks are working on right now in the way of Afrofuturism and/or Speculative Future card decks, as I know they are all far smarter than I am (check out the Building Utopia Deck and the dope Black women behind it!). Look, I’m just happy to be here.
My only hope/wish in all of this is that this deck can be of some sort of help and a unique resource to even just a few people.
CLOSING — EMANCIPATION
Speaking of hope, when I am discouraged, I often lean on Mariame Kaba’s words: “hope is a discipline.”
H O P E
How best might we dream and actualize more radically? Well, we *can* hope (verb) and also we can *have* hope (noun).
We can have a hope that allows us to remember that we can resolve complex issues.
can ebb and flow around new challenges,
just like the water
We can have a hope that reminds us that we don’t have to do this work alone, and frankly we shouldn’t.
are made to operate
mutually and collectively
We can have a hope that catalyzes a multitude of ideas and interventions from those most approximate to community challenges.
learn the most when we listen to those who have the least voice
and who are the most oppressed
We can have a hope that is more resilient than capital.
must remember that even though our world’s systems are run on capital,
the most important thing humanity needs to run on is love
To all, I lovingly wish you a radical hope.
In the composition of these thoughts I cannot thank enough the thinkers, doers, and progenitors of this work — people, organizations, and collectives who have directly influenced my work and my journey, a few from up close and most from afar, and most of whom are / are composed by amazing Black and Black Queer women. They are: Chicago Freedom School, Ella Baker, Mariame Kaba, Charlene Carruthers, Creative Reaction Lab, Antionette Carroll, Dr. Lesley Ann Noel, adrienne marie brown, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Institute of the Future, Janelle Monae, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Eve Ewing, & Deepa Iyer. And I am indebted to Black and Latinx community organizers and community leaders who were patient with me as I stumbled through community engagement.
MORE FROM GRAFFITIVERSAL
To learn more about more specific and tangible ways emancipatory design can be applied to solve current and future problems, you can check out A Continuum of Freeing Design & Vigorous Futures, aka the Continuum Deck, from GraffitiVersal.
If you are interested in radically reflecting on how Black people may thrive in the future, check out our zine, Black SpaceTime Ruminations.
If you would like to follow our Afrofuturism MicroComics which touch on the mundane and the spectacular of Afrofuturism through mini comic illustrations, follow our Instagram page for new panels.
If you’d like to explore how DEI & Racial Justice can be operationalized in organizations, check out the Racial DeckEquity Cardset.