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Celebrating the Full Spectrum of Human Experience
v.4 | Stretching imaginative possibilities.
Rainbows adorn our coffee cups, temporarily grace company logos, and stretch over Times Square as Pride roars to life this month.
In its most earnest form, Pride is a moment to pause and celebrate authenticity, multi-faceted identities, and the sense of safety, belonging and community that those expressions engender. Understanding authenticity, identity, and belonging is vital for equity and inclusion, but these components are also crucial building blocks of design. The presence—or lack—of these elements influences how people perceive and engage with the world. The choices individuals and communities make about when and where to put their resources and energies are subtly or overtly guided by the resonances they feel with their own identities: what they choose to wear, watch, and give precious time to; the institutions they turn to for healthcare; and the financial establishments they entrust with their money. All of these decisions are swayed by a sense of self, and that self in relation to others.
As craftspeople, artists, technologists, and inventors, it is critical that we expand our vision, tools, and environments to include the vast spectrum of the human experience. Honoring the fullness of humanity is a best practice in human-centered design, in order to deliver the most empathic, impactful, and inclusive services and products to ensure we’re designing the world we actually want to inhabit.
Author Ursula K Le Guin points out that when we fail to connect with folks beyond our own myopic understanding, we risk objectifying them. Instead, she urges us to “subjectify the universe…To subjectify is not necessarily to co-opt, colonize, exploit. Rather, it may involve a great reach outward of the mind and imagination.”
In other words, expanding our understanding of the fullness of life from people vastly different from ourselves widens imaginative possibilities. In our strategy work, we employ the “futures cone” or “voroscope,” based on the work of Joseph Voros, who built upon that of Clement Bezold and Trevor Hancock (1994). This method helps us think about the tomorrows we don’t yet know–the imaginal realm of which Le Guin writes. In Bezold and Hancock’s words:
“Preferable futures, when they include commitment to creating them, become shared visions, a projection of values into the future. Rooted in the concept of ‘anticipatory democracy,’ our approach has been to help people understand and imagine what may happen, but then to look at their preferred future and what it will take to get there.”
There was a time when gay marriage was unimaginable in the United States, when incarceration was inevitably punitive, and when disability, mental health and veteran status were overlooked. The cultural landscape today is kinder, more inclusive, and curious than that time. But gay marriage wasn’t legalized without envisioning its possibility; restorative justice didn’t come to the fore of criminal conversations without interrogating old systems; and marginalized folks had to conceive of structural shifts in order to accommodate their unique needs and desires.
Pride alights the imagination and reminds us that the future is wide open. It is a call to reframe what we perceive as scary and “other,” as alternatively beautiful, joyful, and world-expanding. When we recognize that difference is enlivening (rather than confining), we increase empathy and lead innovation in our strategic and creative endeavors.
Building identity, authenticity, and belonging into our design process and philosophy enhances opportunities, solutions, and breadth. Below we highlight ways in which this triad affects the full expression of what we design, and for whom.
With pride and in advocacy,
Curious about exploring, building and encouraging psychological safety for more creative, cohesive teamwork?
Our intersecting, embodied identities—like age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental health, veteran status, and education—shape us, and both reflect and inform our experience of the world. Some identities allow us to move with more ease, while others inhibit our acceptance. As a result, we sometimes keep our full selves hidden out of fear of being ostracized, or punished.
Kenji Yoshino, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at the NYU School of Law, says of sociologist Erving Goffman’s concepts of “passing,” and “covering,” that “we all modulate our identities to be accepted by the mainstream.” Goffman discerns “passing” from “covering,” by explaining that Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted on being seated at the table before his Cabinet entered. He wasn’t passing—hiding his disability—because it was common knowledge that FDR used a wheelchair. But he was covering, ensuring that his authority was in the foreground, not his paralysis. Although he wasn’t trying to pass as non-disabled, he went to great lengths to hide his own self-perceived weaknesses. For this reason, Yoshino argues that covering can not only be detrimental to people’s sense of self, and overall well-being, but is also an assault on civil rights.
Conversely, mental health improves, creativity blossoms and opportunity arises when we make space organizationally, strategically, and holistically for the full spectrum of experience, rather than encouraging secrecy and covering. Identity is complex, and conveys who we are in all our wild humanness. It is personal, political, and cultural.
Country music is a genre stereotypically confined to a homogenous pool of white, heteronormative, and cis-gendered folks. But queer and black-bodied artists like Orville Peck and Yola are pushing those bounds by bravely and boldly being authentically, radically themselves.
These talented edge-walkers have flipped the script, making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. In so doing, they are joyfully infiltrating, transforming, and shape-shifting culture. It is sometimes authentic outsiders who have the power to bravely and boldly change an insular narrative.
“I think if we keep our heads held high and we keep together and we keep doing what we’re doing and being authentic, I like to believe that it will hopefully not only change the landscape of country music, but it’ll also help change the cycle of racism and homophobia.”
— Orville Peck, Variety Magazine
There’s a deep sense of safety and belonging that follows when we can authentically express who we are, and encourage others to do the same. Feeling supported isn’t just good for the individual—it can also engender stronger collaboration, and embolden more complex problem solving. A sense of belonging leads us to feel safe, and safety, as psychiatrist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk explains, “is the foundation of everything.”
Jennifer Brown designs workplace strategies for more inclusive organizations, families, and communities. She asks that we “imagine the trust and the openness and productivity we’d have if…we all engendered that sense of belonging.”
While psychological safety and belonging can’t be faked, they can be practiced. Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire that gardening is a practice of remembering our belonging in the kingdom of creatures:
“The garden is a place of many sacraments, an arena — at once as common as any room and as special as a church — where we can go not just to witness but to enact in a ritual way our abiding ties to the natural world. Abiding, yet by now badly attenuated, for civilization seems bent on breaking or at least forgetting our connections to the earth. But in the garden the old bonds are preserved, and not merely as symbols. So we eat from the vegetable patch, and, if we’re paying attention, we’re recalled to our dependence on the sun and the rain and the everyday leaf-by-leaf alchemy we call photosynthesis. Likewise, the poultice of comfrey leaves that lifts a wasp’s sting from our skin returns us to a quasi-magic world of healing plants from which modern medicine would cast us out.”
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
We are an insights-based innovation studio that partners with mission-driven change makers. Through human science, we design smarter, kinder, wiser futures—for net positive impact. If that’s you, please drop us a note to share your vision, question, or challenge.
Follow us @theblumline for ways that we’re celebrating diverse identities, authentic expression, and safety in belonging.