Episode 13

Design for Belonging

Leader + Designer Susie Wise shares her ideas about design for belonging: a powerful way to think about human connections and the feelings we want to create within our groups and communities. Listen in to a story of exploration and tool crafting, about a journey leading to awareness and lifelong learning, and the recognition that belonging helps to define the powerful, creative and nurturing connections we hope for in our learning environments and other structures within our society.

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So one of the things that I think about, I mentioned earlier, the moments of belonging. I like helping people think about how to lay out the different moments that their organization or the learning experience that they're designing represents or holds within it. And how they can tune any of those different moments of belonging, whether it is a kind of experience or deeper engagement or something further downstream, that also talks about the kind of dance. Susie Wise


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] I would like to welcome us all to the ONEder podcast, I am CCB, your host, and today in a series of conversations around Design for Connection, we are very fortunate to have an accomplished educator and a lifelong learner, I'm going to say, around Design for Belonging, Susie Wise. And so I would like to first say welcome, Susie.

Susie Wise: [00:00:26] Hi, thanks. Thanks for having me.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:29] And I would love for you to take a little bit of time and explain your journey through education and design, because we're going to link those things together. But you have a very interesting background and however much you'd like to share, we'd love to hear.

Susie Wise: [00:00:46] Sure. OK, great. So, yeah, it's a meandering path that brought me really to design. I was meant to be in politics, worked on the Hill during college and was meant to go there. At the last minute I decided I didn't want that path and I didn't know really what I wanted. That led me to move out to the Bay Area where I started working in education, thought about becoming a teacher and never, never pulled the trigger on that, but worked with a bunch of different projects that went into schools and learning environments and found that I really liked that ability to work with educators, but not be the one standing out in front of the classroom, you know, 24/7 or however many days a week you have to do it these days. And that led me to fall into some work in the in HIV and AIDS education, which led me to the Exploratorium. I was really fascinated with museums as a context for learning and while doing some work with the Exploratorium, I also fell into kind of the early days of what we now call EdTech. But then we would have called just edu-tainment or CD-ROMs. So early CD-ROMs, became a game designer and did early work in that space. That led me to work at SFMOMA, where I was the senior producer for Interactive Educational Technologies. And so that was our work, really thinking about all the different ways we could use emerging media to help visitors think about their experience with art and museum. And so we did experiments in the early days with handhelds, this is pre iPhone, of course, and different ways that museums could use their space, their collection, and technology, what was happening at that intersection?

Susie Wise: [00:02:40] That led me to pursue my doctorate in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford, where I fell into the early days of what would become the d.school, I took the series of courses that product designers took as part of my doctoral work and really discovered the design thinking was actually kind of the way that I had been working without knowing it. I was never a formally trained designer, but my interest in kind of reaching out to visitors, for instance, at the museum and working with children when we were designing children's games was kind of a very human centered approach to really understanding what people needed for their learning experiences. And then I also had just this orientation towards moving quickly and doing prototypes, which is another real hallmark of human centered design. So those pieces of empathy and prototyping, when I saw David Kelley, my very first quarter at Stanford, kind of lay out a design thinking process. I was like, wow, that's that's that's me. That's it. That's it. And so I became involved in the early days on the early teaching teams when we started the d.school. And as part of that really got grounded as an educator in that context, but also found that I really wanted to get back to the roots of thinking about K-12 education since I had done a bunch of work in that arena. And so I founded the K-12 lab for the d. school and let a bunch of our work there that just let in all kinds of different directions, working on spaces, working on curriculum, working with school leaders and really rich contacts to think about how design could help with innovation in the learning spaces. That has led me to a.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:04:34] Yes, don't stop just go, you have to.

Susie Wise: [00:04:37] Yeah, yeah, So I'm now a freelance designer and I'm really focused very much on this topic of belonging and the intersection of design and belonging and how do we use design for things that really matter and in particular, this this idea of belonging. How can we use it? I've done a fair amount of work in the diversity, equity, inclusion space. And as I started doing work with that with school leaders and other educators, sometimes all the folks were situating themselves in a way that diversity, equity, inclusion was kind of being redefined as let's do "DEI". And of course, that is incredibly important work. But I've found that for some folks, then it kind of got locked in a box and it wasn't, they weren't using all of their creativity necessarily to approach it. And so what I found is taking up this notion of belonging, which I want to give full credit to. I learned of it through my mentor, Victor Cary at National Equity Project and particularly drawing on the work of john powell at Berkeley and what used to be called the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society is now called the Othering & Belonging Institute. So powell and his colleagues really help us think about belonging as what we are seeking to do as we take up civil rights, as we take up greater inclusion across contexts, that belonging is the thing that we're going for. And the othering thing is the thing that humans do that we are working against. And so belonging is this powerful way to think about this is what we're really trying to create in our groups, in our communities. And to your word, connection, right, belonging is a way to understand the kind of connection that we're looking for in our learning environments and in other structures in our communities.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:06:42] So that's a life in a, you know, two to three minute description, which is completely unfair. And there were so many pieces of your path that we'd love to spend a little bit more time talking about. And the first one that comes to mind because of our world, is the connection between place and people and how design and your using design and very broad sense, which is the most wonderful because, you know, is it in our design? Is it of our design? But how does your experience frame your perspective on place and the connection to the people and the belonging?

Susie Wise: [00:07:39] I'll say that I think, a piece of it for me was that I was a quirky learner as a kid and I was always seeking to bust out of the actual classroom and work in other spaces, which is partly why I think kind of game design and museums as learning contexts were so intriguing to me kind of in my early career. And I saw when I got introduced to the formal process of design thinking, that felt like the thing that would have appealed to me as an 8th grader if I could have used design to organize my thinking in my work and my projects. Wow. That really resonated with me. And that's what led to our founding of the K-12 lab, was thinking about how could the design thinking process really be something that educators, all kinds of educators, not just arts educators. Right. Not just people that were deeply entrenched in project-based learning, but all kinds of educators take up design as an approach to learning. I fundamentally believe that design is a way of learning. It's a way of learning about the world and how people are interacting, how people are feeling that we get to belonging and already the feeling that you have. So we know that spaces and context shape our feelings and design is a thing that helps to do that. And so bringing the kind of helping educators as well as others think about what was designed, that's really powerful. How are you feeling in this particular space or in this particular experience? What was designed to make you feel that way? Was it the space? Was it a role? Was it the rituals? Like what were the kinds of things were created? And so I love getting to work with people and just kind of opening up that lens to see what was designed and how it's making you feel. And then there's an important piece in this can get very political or stay political. But like you're in the space where then you can say, what was designed that's really causing harm and how can we redesign it? Because once you recognize it, even our systems of oppression were designed to create the outcomes that they're creating. We can actually fundamentally say, well, no, let's stop and do and invest in that redesign work. That becomes really important. And then I think the participatory nature of kind of a human centered design approach is really helpful there as well.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:07] One of the concepts that we had been exploring in the broadest sense of design for connection was creating meaning through connection, through the redefinition of physical and virtual. And you have been speaking to that in the game design and almost in the museum design. But when you think about what's the furthest out that redefinition of physical and virtual or how is it coming together in what you're working towards at this moment in time?

Susie Wise: [00:10:41] That's a great question. I mean, where my head goes right now, because we are speaking in this moment of COVID times with lockdown and we're speaking on Zoom and we might have done this in person. It's feels that much more urgent that we not just let ourselves get sucked only into the virtual. So there's this interesting moment now where I think there's a real opportunity to remind everybody that as we Zoom in right in our Zoom land that we are human beings. I mean, so fundamentally, right? We have to recognize not only are we in our broader environments, but we're in our bodies. And that interaction of our bodies and space really matters. And I feel like I might have slightly lost this thread of your question.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:11:31] No, no, no. I mean, I think yeah, it's your answer, which I think is important. And it was through the conversation and all of the work that you've been doing, that, again, your path keeps weaving you towards, you know, a greater understanding and kind of a linking of those two in a way that I would give you credit for.

Susie Wise: [00:11:58] Yeah, I know. I think it's really interesting. I mean, it takes me back to kind of museum based work, but also classroom based work, the d.school is that you're always I mean, even from just the fundamental design perspective of, "Let's use all the tools that we have available. Let's not over indexed on one just because it's the hot new thing." Museums and other learning environments are really interesting spaces in which to explore that, because if you're looking at one hundred year old piece of art and you're wanting to like make it relevant to the tools of the day, you're automatically thinking right of both of space, what's happening in this, you know, the architecture of the museum, et cetera, and all the things that come with that from a kind of societal lens and the privilege and power to have that collection, et cetera, et cetera, and also who I am. Any person looking at thing is, from my opinion, is perfectly, I'm interested in their own experience of that. And that's an embodied experience where they're bringing their own, their history, their experiences to that. And then it's not just happening there. It's then as I walk out of the museum and now I'm in an urban environment or wherever I am, how is that experience that I just had kind of bouncing off against the art that I just saw, how's it bouncing against this experience that I'm now having out on the street? And that's the kind of a way to think expansively about what learning experiences are. Is are all of those juxtapositions that you as a learner, you as a human being, and in your body are having and holding?

CCB (One Workplace): [00:13:37] Right. So there's been any number of articles. Internal to One Workplace, we've been having a number of conversations about the classroom as an ecosystem. And if you look at learning in the ecosystem, then what are the types of specific environments that support different types of learning within that whole classroom ecosystem? But the whole COVID experience now, there have been any number of articles about taking learning outside and bringing it back to, you know, a balance between the inside and the outside experience. And you kind of started walking us towards that. And in your mind, where else can that possibly go?

Susie Wise: [00:14:22] Yeah, well, I think it can go to a lot of different directions, one way to think about is participatory design, like who are you actually designing with? Who are all the people outside of your own contacts that you're having the opportunity to work with, then flipping totally the other side in thinking a lot about the role of nature and being in your body as a way to think not just about belonging, but also about creativity, which is like fundamentally, I think part of what I care about in my work is how to help people build their own creative confidence and their own creative agency, really. And so in this Zoom world, like the importance of walking out on the street and seeing whatever it is that you see, it might be a flower. It might be a piece of trash, it might be a neighbor, it might be a large building, whatever it is. How do you look at that and bring that back then to your next conversation in Zoom. And some of the work they do, I do a fair amount of teaching still in the context of the d.school. I'm in some of our executive education programs. So that's the context of thinking about people that are coming from different kinds of corporations and also social sector organizations. How can they take up the practices of design thinking?

Susie Wise: [00:15:40] And we're doing that in this moment in Zoom and we're really carefully designing into the flows of those days and those chunks of time, both time to go out and seek inspiration from the world. And oftentimes that I'd be on Zoom and would be collaborating with people that are from around the world. And then importantly, like I think in all of this, we also have to remember, too, the importance of rest. One of the things that we know about creativity, it's the one you turn away from your projects, is oftentimes when you have some really interesting thoughts about what you might bring to it. That's not the only way. I'm not proposing that. It's like you walk away and you get hit by the lightning bolt. I am proposing that you walk away and rest and your brain releases a bit and you have other thoughts, which is just as important as getting to work really hard and also to get outside and seek new kinds of inspiration. So do a lot with just how do you build that into the rhythm of a day where your collaboration might be happening on Zoom, but a lot of it, you want to be stepping aside.

Susie Wise: [00:16:52] You also want to be bringing in like I'm sitting here with a background of purses which know people on the listening podcast aren't going to see. But I have this background of purses that I've collected from over my life and people have given to me from even from times before I was alive. And I use those to bring in to conversations that I'm having with people. And everybody has something that they can pick up, whether it's like they're a random tchotchke on their desk or just to tell the story of the pen that they're using so that we remind ourselves that we're not just these digital representations, but we are embodied in the world in that really matters. That then can help us, I think, get back to them designing those spaces in more interesting ways so that they serve us in those conversations.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:17:40] With idea of incorporating the story and all the stories, all peoples’ stories. And how do you create a space that is open enough and engaging and accepting enough so that all stories are valid and all stories can be heard? I mean, I think that's a gigantic challenge. But I wanted to steer us a little bit towards your Design for Belonging and I think belonging. And it was curious. I love going back and doing, I have a master's in history, which has absolutely little or nothing to do with anything that I do. However, it is that ongoing curiosity about trying to understand and I looked up the word "belonging", and do you know, over time the use of the word belonging from the eighteen hundreds down to they had it up to 2010 and I couldn't find it further, but it's been decreasing in use.

Susie Wise: [00:18:32] Interesting.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:33] In a fascinating lowering curve up to 2010. Now I would posit perhaps, you know there's been an increase now over the last decade in using that, that word. However, the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of belonging doesn't have as much to do with the feeling as, as your use of, you know, belonging has evolved. And I'd love you to spend a little bit of time when you say, "Belonging means more than just being seen -belonging means..."

Susie Wise: [00:19:16] I do think it is multiple. Right. So it is more than just being seen. Is being, and here again, like honoring the work of john powell and others, but being able to fully participate and that means showing up as who you are. That means being able to contribute. What you are, who you are, what your skills and strengths are, what your questions are. It also means being able to make demands and dissent. And I don't have the quote in front of me, but that "make demands" piece, I think is a critical piece from john powell. But the role of dissent, how is that a measure of a community where there is real belonging that we can actually hear what is and isn't working for people in a community. That is, I think, a powerful, if not definition of belonging, a measure of belonging that I think is important to think about. I think there are other, and I like to call these out as some of the moments of belonging. How do you, what are the experiential moments where we may or may not feel belonging? So there's that being invited into a context, entering a context. What's that kind of even in spatial terms? What's the threshold? Right. These are both literal things and they're also figurative things. And they speak volumes. So one of the things that I've been doing as I've been exploring belonging is having other people tell me what belonging is to them. And usually that's through some kind of a story. Often it's a story first of a time when you didn't feel belonging. And that is really powerful.

Susie Wise: [00:21:07] So when you entered a new context and you weren't sure in you were in the right place. So even like a wayfinding kind of scenario, like, "am I in the right place?" That tends to not feel like a great sense of belonging. It might not be all the way to the extreme of feeling other. But it is not necessarily a profound moment of belonging. And so thinking about moments, those entering kind of moments and then also like the sense of what are the deeper engagement moments, how can you actually participate in different ways? What is it to contribute again? Then those deeper things of like actually getting to this sense and recognizing that everyone's participation in any given community isn't going to be the same. Right. And that's OK. And then that gets us to remember, too, that belonging is not a zero sum game. We don't all belong in this, have the same feeling of belonging across all of our contexts. We always carry with us multiple identities. And our feelings of belonging may go along with that. I think that the reason that I really want to call forth belonging as a feeling is because I do think it has its embodied peace to it that we want to hold on to.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:29] I would definitely agree, and I would say, you know, just the use of language over time. It represents the context of the time, the language, you know, and the evolution of language I find fascinating because it is picking up reference and context from the time that it is being spoken, which is also, I think, another fascinating, fascinating study. But that's not where we're going. OK, I was going to ask about if you would share a little bit about your current work and what's most exciting to you at this time.

Susie Wise: [00:23:16] Yeah. So two ways to talk about it. One is I am working on a book project, which is a way to share a lot of different voices who speak to belonging. So I've mentioned john powell and Victor Cary, but also people like Brené Brown, who talks about her understanding of true belonging, kind of from the psychological sense and how you carry that with you. Folks like bell hooks, but also educators that I know, outdoor educators and curriculum designers who are working on diversity, equity, and inclusion, curriculum work, bringing their voices forward. So we get the sense kind of to your point of the how the definition changes, what are all the different voices on what belonging can mean right now? Because in some ways, my approach to design is very much and maybe partially because I'm not an officially trained designer in a particular discipline of design. For me, a lot of my approach to design is about bringing together different voices. It's also about bringing together then different tool sets. So one of the things that I think about, I mentioned the kind of moments of belonging. I like helping people think about how to lay out the different moments that their organization or their learning experience that they're designing kind of represents or holds within it and how they can tune any of those different moments of belonging, whether it is that kind of experience or deeper engagement or something further downstream, that kind of also talk about kind of like the dance.

Susie Wise: [00:24:47] What is it when you're in a context and you really feel right, that feeling of belonging is flowing and I don't mean a literal dance, but figuratively, what's that dance like? So sharing kind of those frameworks of those moments really helps people to think about the context in which they're designing in some interesting ways. And then the next piece is really talking concretely about the levers of design. How do you think about what are the concrete things that you can design and then test? Did this create more belonging? And by the way, for whom? And for whom did it create more othering, and who was that? And are there patterns related to that that we should investigate from an equity perspective? Or are there or is there some other way to understand it? So thinking about levers of design and of course, that space, huge lever of Design for Belonging, role, ritual, other things too, like communications in the education space where I've had a bunch of experience. Communication is like the overly relied on lever of design. And many organizations, if we can do it in an email, isn't that good enough? But thinking beyond that to things like food and gatherings and affinity grouping's, events. These are all things that we can concretely design and really look to see whether they're helping to promote belonging or not. So from my perspective, my work is designed for belonging and to help show kind of these different layers of design and how they intersect with belonging so that people can take that up and investigate. And that way, I guess still very much an educator in the sense of wanting to open up toolkits for people. So I'm doing some of that in the context of the book. And then I working on a city, I'm thinking of it in the context of cities, and it could be communities of different scales, but a community based design toolkit to help folks. And this could be the mayor that raises their hand, but could also be a neighbor who says, "I want to work on belonging on my block". A tool kit for folks to come together and maybe they're coming together on Zoom and maybe they're coming together with nice physical distance in a park to share some of their own stories of belonging. And point to them, are there some places in their community, again, at whatever scale where they think there isn't great belonging or there isn't belonging for some groups. And in this powerful moment of kind of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and a real new conversation, I think belonging can play a role because it is a felt experience that almost everyone has had feeling belonging or not.

Susie Wise: [00:27:38] Everyone can share some kind of a story. And it makes for a really great way to step into the conversation and then build from there with more of a toolkit of what of the things that you can design and how can you kind of from a learning perspective, try things and learn from them? That's, of course, the ‘prototyper’ in me and the believer that we have to get to big change. We have to start small and try things and see what happens. And we do that in that has to be here, I'm quoting, "that has to be safe to fail". We can't try things that are going to do harm to people, but we can try things in a kind of enough with a low resolution way, a rapid way that we can actually build a little bit of momentum and really learn from that and point in the right direction. And so I'm excited about that work. That's pretty new work for me. So I'm working in a number of different cities in the US and testing out this kind of new tool kit to see what kinds of groups can can really use it and where they can get to with it.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:28:48] We all think it's, you know, really exciting and I think the timing could not be more perfect given the fact that there is emerging interest and passion towards hearing more stories. And there's a word that keeps coming up to, in my mind that I don't know, I'm going to put it out here and say, how do we feel about it or how does it fit into the work that you're doing? Culture.

Susie Wise: [00:29:17] Yeah, yeah, so I have been doing a lot of work on culture, a little bit more in the corporate space with my business partner, Jill Vialet from Playworks and culture really matters, and culture is hard to take on as a monolith, right, and to bring and culture, my belief about culture is that culture happens every day. The culture is all the way, the small ways that we interact, the small ways that we design our contacts. That is what builds culture. So if you believe, like I do, that culture happens every day. It's not just one person, like diversity and inclusion work, culture work is not just one person's job. You can't just have a culture czar. It's everyone's job. And you have to be able to open it up enough so that people have ways into it because you can't just sit down and have a meeting to work on culture. You can sit down and have a meeting that you know is about culture and start to share some stories about what is and isn't working and what you might want to take up to create some change. And that's where and so some of the moments, I think, are very much these important cultural moments. But taking a moment is much easier than taking culture. And then it's really powerful then to work with the levers of design. Again, the full range of that, whether it's space role, ritual, food, communication, events, etc., to think about what's a thing that I can try and did it move us in the direction that we wanted it to? If we're trying to build a culture of greater belonging and that might be for specific subgroups or that might be for a cross, we want to see like who did it work for and why? What about it worked? And so that's that that way of just from the very beginning. For me, design is a way of learning. It's a way of learning about what's important. And so it is. We set ourselves up to try small things, to see how they work and to then to move from there. Oh, wow. That didn't feel good at all. OK, let's try something else, maybe with a different level of design, maybe with a different configuration of who's working on it or who's generating the ideas that moves us towards learning about what we really want to learn about. And I think that's the only way to work on culture, is that kind of an iterative cycle of constant learning because it's being built every day?

CCB (One Workplace): [00:32:02] Exactly. It's what we do. I. My mind is just like swirling right now because there's so many directions that the conversation could go, but it's getting close to the end of the conversation. So I kind of want to stop myself and say, Susie Wise, is what wish do you have to share with all of the folks that are listening to this conversation?

Susie Wise: [00:32:29] I think I want to say I let's not squander this moment. Let's not, we've seen initially with COVID, we saw, wow, lots of organizations can pivot and make change in different ways and we can learn and work in different ways. Let's use it then for the things that really matter. Let's use it for greater equity. Let's use that for greater participation, for hearing from people that our society and culture haven't heard from in far too long. Let's be inspired by John Lewis and his passing to make great, good trouble. That is the power of design and we can use it for the things that matter most.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:33:15] Design matters and Susie Wise, you matter, and I want to say thank you again very much for your time with us on the ONEder podcast.

Susie Wise: [00:33:23] Thank you so much for having me. It was great to talk with you.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:33:26] Excellent. And for all of our listeners, you can hear our podcasts on all of the streaming services that you listen to podcasts on. And as with each episode, we'll have information about Susie Wise and her endeavors on our website. So please, we look forward to spending more time with you. Thank you and goodbye.