Pro Bono Net’s Legal Empowerment and Technology Fellow, Katie Lam, originally posted this blog on Medium, read it here

In late November, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in partnership with Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico and Beytna Design hosted an Equity Design for Legal Empowerment workshop. Led by Beytna Design’s Tania Anaisse, the workshop focused on the role of power and inclusion in the design of legal empowerment initiatives.

Three Pro Bono Net (PBN) team members participated, including myself, PBN’s Program Director Liz Keith and IAN Director Rodrigo Camarena. As part of our OSF-funded Tech for Legal Empowerment initiative, we also had the opportunity to invite project collaborators from Alaska Legal Services CorporationMake the Road New York and Georgetown University Law Center to join us. Together, we spent 2 days in sunny San Juan collaborating with legal aid leaders and designers from Puerto Rico, Indonesia, Argentina, Ukraine and Germany to learn the fundamentals of Equity Design.

Workshop participants grouped around posters to check out each other’s work

Moving Towards Community-Led Engagements

Within the nonprofit sector, community participation in product or service design often takes the form of sending out a survey for feedback, or soliciting input from other organizations serving the community. Traditional human-centered design takes this effort one step further by embedding regular feedback loops into the product or program development process.

In both cases, the community informs the project or design process, but they still lack decision-making power and meaningful ownership over the process itself. How can a design engagement or legal aid intervention move from being community-informed to being community-led?

Equity Design (or Liberatory Design) offers a model of engagement that not only treats communities as partners, but as leaders in the design process. It also recognizes that designers and organizations carry our own set of implicit assumptions and biases that impact how the design “problem” gets framed and interpreted, which can in turn reinforce existing inequities or power imbalances. Equity Design challenges traditional design by factoring in how power impacts a person or community’s lived experience.

By exploring the different ways that social position, current, and historical realities shape lived experiences, designers can help transform power in favor of a community’s real needs. In doing so, designers become better equipped to design with, not for communities.

Taking a closer look at “Design Manifestos” that each participant made

Day 1: Unpacking Equity and Exploring Power

We kicked off Day 1 of our workshop with a series of short lectures that parsed out the difference between equalityequity, and oppression.

One key purpose of understanding these terms is to avoid reproducing inequities. Instead, interventions or programs should be designed towards freedom from oppression.

For the first half of the day, we walked through historical examples of how systems have been designed to exclude. We discussed how utilizing human-centered design thinking without taking power into consideration is often ineffective and can cause serious harm.

Photo of a slide from the workshop describing the flaws of traditional design thinking

After walking through the theory of Equity Design, we examined our own identities and social position through a few exercises. We were then assigned the challenge of designing a “space of belonging” for a partner. Using the framework we had just learned, we applied our training to the traditional design sprint. We broke up into pairs and jumped into interviews, ending the day with paper prototypes and reflections.

Day 2: Measuring Community Participation

Having completed a design sprint on the first day, we spent Day 2 of the workshop learning practical ways to infuse community participation into the design process. Tania introduced the idea of community participation in equity design as a spectrum, with traditional human-centered design on one end and community-led design on the other.

With this framework in mind, we walked through activities that help teams move from traditional design and closer towards a community-led model. A community-led model prioritizes the expertise of a community’s lived experience by giving the community multiple opportunities to shape and change the design process according to their needs, with final decision-making power ultimately in their hands.

A spectrum of public participation produced by the International Association for Public Participation. This graphic provides a useful metric for measuring to what degree one’s program or intervention is community-led.

After Tania demonstrated examples of community participation, we learned how to identify the many types of power relationships that exist between people and/or institutions. We mapped the different power relationships between our issue area’s stakeholders, paying special attention to how one type of power interacts with one another. We ended the day designing our own engagement and used the same mapping technique to reveal how power is unevenly distributed within our own contexts.

Equity Design and Legal Empowerment

Both traditional human-centered design and traditional legal aid strive to make the world a better place. As a methodology, Equity Design aligns well with legal aid’s mission of closing the access to justice gap.

But without applying a power analysis approach, both traditional design and traditional legal aid delivery models run the risk of maintaining power imbalances, even as both methods aim to make positive social change. Privileging the decision making of “experts” like trained designers or lawyers can be more disempowering than empowering. Equity Design and legal empowerment deserves our full attention because both share an important understanding: that community members are the true leaders of change and the power to define that change must be shifted accordingly.