Advocating for more equitable futures : Interview with Chris Rudd

We are living in turbulent times. Many familiar social, political and economic constructs are being upended, causing jarring turbulences. Recent social media postings of police shootings, coupled with the current administration’s hostility to social justice, has put us at another major crossroad in a long history of crossroads in our attempt to improve upon a more perfect union.

What blocks progress in achieving equity is pervasive structural racism that permeates beliefs, policies and laws. Khiara Bridges, a professor of law at the University of California, stated that the result of entrenched racism maintains the status quo where  “It’s whites who are winning, and people of color who are losing.”

Chris Rudd, founder of ChiByDesign and faculty member at the Institute of Design at Illinois Tech, addresses structural racism at the local level. Rudd is also a leader of the community-led design for ID’s Chicago Design Lab, which is committed to reasserting agency for people of color. Having grown up on Chicago’s South Side as the child of a white father and a Black mother, Rudd experienced many forms of inequality, both overt and covert. This created the impetus for his journey to confront and address the deleterious effects of institutional racism.

I met Chris at a Design for America conference, where he led a session on community design. His ability to connect with people and distill the many complex issues regarding race and class into understandable language makes him an engaged facilitator.

There have been increasingly urgent discussions about racial equality, but many of them still remain in the rarified air of low level low observation and abstraction — and to just being aware of something is the lowest form of understanding and commitment. When listening to Rudd, you quickly realize that equity is the real battleground. It implies the reallocation of power and resources, and those conversations often devolve into stiff resistance which makes corrective actions almost impossible.

Chris will have none of that. His thinking and actions have been squarely focused on using research to generate data that can shape human-to-human to institutional interactions. He believes that is the only way to directly address organizations that claim they want to be more equitable but continue to support the status quo, albeit with a few — usually highly publicised, but ultimately ineffectual — “socially-conscience” tweaks. Embracing discomfort is critical to making progress on difficult and entrenched systemic racism that benefits many organizations at the expense of people of color.

Are designers qualified to address inequity and create pathways to equity? Yes, but Rudd believes that they need to break with historically bad habits that reduce co-creation to designers and “…come up with a thing and ask people to engage with the thing more as feedback or validation, which is really like prototyping feedback.” Designers need to reevaluate their reliance on empathy because it misses the opportunity to redesign the structures of systemic racism. This will force them to not remain at the edge of a problem, but become much bolder in the way they practice civic design at the core of the problem – systematic racism.

A guarded optimist, Rudd is rooted in both the tradition of social justice, as well as the belief that design can define powerful alternative futures. This is a tall order and we need more people like him, who are creating the language, frameworks and practices to engage organizations. Chris believes that people who are directly being affected by a problem should be at the table and be viewed not as users, but as colleagues. They need to work with organizations to confront their current state and have the courage to address the roots of racism in order to create a more equitable result.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

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Can you share where you grew up and how your early experiences informed you about both racism and interest in youth development?

I am originally from Gary, Indiana and at age five my family moved to the Morgan Park in Chicago which borders the Beverly neighborhood. My first exposure to the effects of racism and discrimination happened when I was five years old. There was a good grammar school a few blocks from where we lived called Clissold (which is a Montessori and IBMYP school) that neighbors told my parents should enroll me at.

My parents called the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and when they mentioned our address, the administrators told my parents that I could not go to the school because we lived on the wrong side of the street. I would need to go to a local underperforming school instead. Our neighbors were adamant that I could not go to the neighborhood school.

My father, who is white, has a deep voice and “sounds Black”, called CPS which was more rude and said that I had to go to the underperforming school. He personally went to the CPS intake building, and when he walked through the door everyone fell over themselves to help him get me into any school in the City of Chicago. I ended up going to a good language magnet school instead in the projects. This is how race affected my life in a direct way.

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The Mikva Challenge started as a bootstrapped idea of running an electoral engagement project in four schools in Chicago. How did your time there inform your trajectory to who you are now?

It helped shape and nurture the belief system that I have. But before joining the Mikva Challenge, I worked for a non-profit called Enlace (” . . . which organizes, and builds the capacity of Little Village stakeholders to confront systemic inequities and barriers to economic and social access). We were doing youth development, but in reality we were focused on violence prevention.

CPS created a program with Enlace called “Culture of Calm” using millions of dollars to reduce violence. Their strategy was to identify the top 1000 children that would kill or be killed and hire mentors to keep these kids safe and actively mentor them. I was assigned to Farragut High School doing very hard work with kids that needed more support than any one person could provide. While the program was successful, I did not like their model which was just to keep kids busy and to wear them out. Because of my interest in youth development, I felt that we needed to instill individual purpose in their world to deal with a society they were so angry about.

Youth empowerment is what I wanted to do and found this at the Mikva Challenge focusing on policy development with middle and high school kids. I created a Juvenile Justice Council working with Cook County to reform their juvenile justice system. The county board president was interested in directly addressing racial inequities in the county system. This provided me a great opportunity to address the intersection of race and youth development which aligned with my passions.

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You created ChiByDesign to be a place where designers of color can explore futures with minority/majority communities. What have you learned so far about your design practice in relation to your original vision for ChiByDesign?

I started ChiByDesign to create an integrated design team. We cannot have one race, one group or one culture running a project because I do not believe that is how we understand and create a design future. While we have a balanced team of men and women, I need to do a better job of recruiting white designers. This is somewhat ironic since people say it is very difficult to find African-American designers.

I feel like we are still following our original vision and now expanding it. I just met with the team and reiterated that they should challenge me to make sure we stay aligned to our vision if I start to deviate from it. For example, we are turning down a project that is not aligned with ChiByDesign.

We also have to start creating new practices since we have essentially been using the same tools since ChiByDesign started. We know these tools are not sufficient to where we need to go and will be our priority aligned with what I am doing at the Institute of Design which is informing my practice.

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On the ChiByDesign website, there is a powerful statement “The world desperately needs different right now.” Your site also states that “We are all limited in our ability to truly understand those for whom we design because of our limited experiences.” If we are limited in our experiences and our willingness to understand the “other”, how can we get to what ChiByDesign calls “different”?

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As Western individuals, we like to believe in self-determination, but in reality we exist in an invisible ether of social, political and economic systems that distort our sense of agency at the expense of others. Many white people do not consider themselves to be racist, but they still default to entrenched systems that cloak racism. How do you help people understand that they are surrounded by inherently racist institutions and systems?

I can appreciate the complexity of the question and my answer is simple : I keep saying it.

ChiByDesign is usually hired by clients because we are African-Americans and focus on how to address discriminatory systems by design. While we can talk to people of color, we will not rubber stamp a client’s racist practices.

It is not just that white people are racist, we are all racist. Since the system is racist, we have no choice but to be racist by association. These systems enable racist outcomes which designers need to confront and reimagine. We do this through research and even then, our clients discredit our data and that our insights are not true. Their rationalization is that it is a perception problem, and not an actual problem of racism. We unequivocally say it is not a false illusion shaped by perception but what organizations are actually putting people through.

When we say the system, what are we talking about? An example is ChiByDesign was working with an educational client. Their advisors had individual case loads of 600 students. We asked a case worker working with students on Chicago’s South-Side that if they met with individual clients for 30 minutes each, could they see all their clients in a semester? Even though she loves her job and had 20 years of experience, she could not achieve this. We used this as a data point as an example of a racist practice in their system, which was hard to hear. We also interacted with a woman of color who felt that she was a champion of the people and could not understand that she was part of this racist system as she took our observations personally.

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Ethics focus on how individuals should govern their behavior through trust and respect. Morals are principles defined by society which govern individual behaviors. If your premise is that many societies around the world were influenced by colonialism and have distorted moral systems rooted in exclusion, operation and exploitation, how do you help make people aware of how these factors shape their individual ethics?

However, I do believe your question is something that designers need to continuously interrogate because your values and world outlook influence what you create. Most of us do not take the time to interrogate systems and personal relationships which affect one’s ethics in a system of racist morals. For example, a value of mine is “integration” and believe this is the way we address racism. In everything I have designed, I try to create moments for integration.

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System design recognizes that we live in a world of man-made and natural systems that often are in conflict and do not deliver value to people. These conflicts arise when there is little agreement on core issues that directly relate to a problem, adjacencies that influence the core issues, and externalities that for whatever reason will not be addressed. How do you address these core, adjacent and externalities to turn conflict into dialogue and alignment?

My belief is that there are certain antagonisms that will never be aligned because one wants to dominate the other. For example, class is an antagonism that started with the slave and the slaveholder. The system of slavery had to be eradicated for the slave to ascend to a different qualitative position. If we did not destroy the system of slavery, we would have been enslaved forever.

This is true today. Exploitation enabled by colonialism is an essential component of capitalism and all of its operations. We are either for or against a system of exploitation and all related activities are influenced by this economic arrangement. Exploitation makes certain people the “other”, and this blossoms to disenfranchise all the others and is the foundation of all of our social ills.

An analog is when the Jewish people talk about the Holocaust and have to defend that it happened to Holocaust deniers. This is what black people have to go through every day with racism. Our pain and the history that propagated it which is still being felt today are still being denied or are telling us racism is not happening takes an emotional toll on all African-Americans.

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“Participatory design” started in the 1960s as a way to actively involve people impacted by an initiative’s outcome in the design process and ensure that the end result actually met their needs. This term has reborn as “co-design” in 2020. What are the benefits and drawbacks of using participatory design in making progress on sensitive issues of racism and equity?

Co-design as designers practice it now is manipulative. Design teams do all the up-front work, and then create a well-designed curated engagement to get people to react to a created scenario. We assume the possibilities of deviation and assume how people will go through our desired scenario. This is not true participation and we need to walk in their shoes first.

ChiByDesign, and what I do with my students at the Institute of Design is to train people in what we know. In education, the highest expression is teaching and we need to make students teach critique and challenge. If we only present because we are the expert, then the people we are teaching will parrot “that’s right” because we have taken their power away by positioning ourselves as experts.

I teach co-designers the tools we use before we use them on our people collaborators. I expect designers to challenge themselves by making sure what we do actually challenges us and levels the playing field between designers and the stakeholders we work with. Language is important. For example, I make sure we do not call people collaborators but colleagues because we are not just researching them, they are joining the team as active participants.

Participatory design is useful to connect design to socio-economics. Designers are usually far from the problem they are trying to solve in terms of their lived experience and education. They have limited vision so if you have not been near a problem that you are being asked to address, then you are missing so many things.

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At an AIGA Design Ethics Roundtable in which you participated, it was predicated that unlike other professions such as medicine, law, and engineering, there is no written code of design ethics that designers can follow. How is this a problem for your work with designers? How is an opportunity?

I am not interested in a code of ethics in design because other professions that have a code of ethics that are inherently racist. For example, in medicine doctors are still taught that black organs are different from white organs. So I do not believe that ethics alone will solve issues of racism. I would rather ask what are a person’s principles because it is what people stand by when racist or exploitative situations are presented to them. Racist systems do that to people.

I have a series of anti-racist design principles that are being formed. One is facilitating critical conversations. It is very difficult to talk about racism that is so pervasive. Challenging the construct of race is another.

I ask students to use these two principles to create a flower pot that is not racist. One student put a QR code that would take you to a website describing that racism is learned. Another student put in small lettering “Black Lives Matter” in a stealthy way. I asked the student why they took that approach, and the response was that this exercise highlighted clients would never let them do something like this in the real world by being bold about it.

However, after the murder of George Floyd, formerly timid thinking by mainstream people has been uprooted. Now we are seeing them participate in bold actions like painting “Black Lives Matter” in yellow on city streets around the country. This shows that social movements can create new opportunities for designers to help define new futures to take advantage of shifts in thinking and behavior.

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ID has many students from South Asia and China. From a cultural perspective, what have you learned from them in terms of how they view racism, injustice and community organizing? Have their perspectives reinforced or challenged your own beliefs?

I love talking with students about issues of racism. Many people from other parts of the world respond by stating that racism does not exist in their part of the world. As we interrogate it, they begin to make connections to racism.

From my students, I have learned about the caste system in India and how it works. Another student from Trinidad-Tobago shared with me that when black political parties won over South-Indian ethnic parties that were entrenched for many decades, violence and killings ensued. Another student from South-East Asia shared with me that she did not know about American slavery and how could the United States do this to people? I had to think about her response from two perspectives: that she was never told about American slave systems; and that there are major events in her county I know nothing about. That is why we need to talk to each other to create broader understandings of different forms of racism around the world.

Even when they are not dark skinned in a country like Georgia, their poor people are called “blacks.” This racial construct has allowed countries to get away with implementing systems of oppression.

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When asked about your view on reparations at a recent ID event you stated that you support the concept but feel that the way markets work that unleashing resources towards people of color could be exploited by institutional racism. You then stated that it is better to invest in targeted interventions. Can you elaborate on this?

How do you give more to those who have the least to catch up? For blacks to catch up in the United States, white people would have to stop making money for 240 years while black people made enough money to even the playing field. This fact reinforced the notion that there will never be equity in the current system simply because the American system is, and always will be racist. We can create interventions and we have, but there have been very mixed results.

There is no incremental change and the pandemic has proved this. In Afghanistan, female access to education and health was a key priority over ten years of American occupation. Any progress that was made in this area was wiped out in six months due to the pandemic. This proved to me that the mechanisms of sexism are so strong that billions of dollars only resulted in incremental change, yet doing nothing to address the pandemic wiped out all the progress.

If we are not directly destroying the levers of racism deterring progress, no amount of money will correct racist systems.

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Civic Design is an important new development on the design practice landscape. The design historian Victor Margolin supported the goals of this new area, but was also cognizant of the massive potential pushback by entrenched governmental systems to give space to the disenfranchised to gain civic equity Given the current administration of the United States’ hostility to supporting many federal laws to reduce discrimination in employment, housing, education and voting, what are your views on how civic design can pivot to make progress in enfranchisement?

It is interesting hearing what the current administration is saying, but I try not to listen too much. I focus on the City of Chicago that for decades said that they support black people – and even have a black mayor. However, my neighborhood is deplorable and is getting worse due to neoliberal economic development that is about gentrification and displacement.

For example in the Bronzeville neighborhood, formerly beautiful homes that were originally built there were sold to for-profit developers for next to nothing – at the same time stating that we should invest in this area. We sell lots wholesale for a dollar, rehabilitate them for new upper class residents and hyper police the neighborhood.

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How do you get designers to understand the basics of economics so that economics is part of the current problems we have talked about?

This is what I am currently working on to make connections between economic mechanisms and the events and trends that are happening around the world. I want to move away from morals and ethics discussions with already progressive students. I would rather address their desire to make $15 artifacts for locations that could never afford these artifacts. It is not that they are racist per-se but their actions track them to service other parts of the city that can afford them.

When I bring these issues up the reaction I get from students who think they are doing the right thing but are really are propagating these racist systems is shock. I do have alot of hope that our field of design can change. While we are not the changers of the world, we can work with others who are the changers of the world.

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” How do you fight for the things you care about and do it in a way where others will join you on your journey?

My training in community organizing is about servant leadership as espoused by Ella Baker. Using co-design methods is about leading from a position of support that I am in service of others rather than others being in service to me to work on a project. I use my team’s strengths and figure out how to build and amplify their confidence to go on the journey they need to go on.

Pay is also important. At ChiByDesign everyone defines their own salary. Part of this is to build their confidence in asking what they think they are worth as people of color and women undervalue themselves economically. They usually give me a low number and I ask why they gave me what I think is a low number for the value they provide and they usually say “that is what I think you will pay.” I say give me the number they want and I pay them that. I do this as a way to advocate for what they are worth, not based on the perception that society expects them to get.

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What role does hope play in what you believe or do?

I stay away from moral and ethical questions and statements. I rather focus on confidence that people want better and can do better. Yet I do not have confidence with people who have power. ChiByDesign focuses on how to give power to people who are usually at the bottom of society. How can we help them amplify their ideas and voices and make connections between them and other people who have the outlook to exert power in ways that achieve equity?











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