December is a time of reflection for many. As the Gregorian calendar comes to a close, we do variations of a year in review, with an emphasis on what we’ve done and experienced. We might reflect on personal highs and lows, celebrate goals met at work, unwrap our top Spotify streams. And then we look forward to the new year, and sometimes resolutions, as January approaches.
Much of this process is focused on the what. What did we experience, do, or not do? And what do we want to continue—or do differently—in this next go around the sun?
These are important questions to consider, but they don’t encourage us to do the deeper reflection that gets at the why and how of our experiences and decisions. What values and principles have informed what we do? How have those served us, our communities, and the planet? Will they do so moving forward?
As designers in the food system, spending meaningful time with these questions can be tough. Even if a team is eager to go deep and get vulnerable, holding the time needed for reflection and conversation can prove challenging. In a dominant culture driven by urgency and a pressure to produce, qualitative project and program reflection often gets the short end of the stick.
That’s why I was struck by a reflection my friend Brett Ramey, Climate Resilience Planner for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, wrote in late 2019. At the time, he had just left the University of Washington, where he was the Director of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. As a part of his transition process, he wrote and shared back with the program a document titled Reflections From the Field, which outlined his design politic, the design principles that guided his approach in the role, and the program elements that were shaped by those principles.
When I first read his reflection, I was inspired not only by the critical content he was sharing, but also by the process he intentionally took to get there. I’ve referenced it numerous times over the years, and it was on my mind as I headed into my own reflective work this month. So I asked Brett if he would be willing to revisit the document and, importantly, what reflection means to him, in this month’s interview.
And as you enter your own period of pause and reflection this month, I invite you to consider not only the what, but also your why and how. I hope you enjoy a meaningful reflection, as well as some rejuvenating time off in the coming weeks. See you soon!
Some thoughts on
Brett, I'm excited to have this conversation! To get started, can you share with folks a bit about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to your work?
In conversation with...
So good to connect again, Lucy, especially since you were one of the first people I shared this with three years ago.
My family is from what is now Northeast Kansas — my mom’s side from the Ioway Reservation along the Missouri River and my dad from a small farming community nearby. I’ve been in food systems work for the last 20 years or so, working at the intersections of health of lands and health of people, in a range of ways that mirror the identifies I hold — Native/non-Native, rural/urban, institutional/grassroots, traditional/western medicine and education systems. I work within and across all of those spaces as a land-based educator and program designer.
I’m currently based across two places within Ioway homelands — along the upper Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Dakota territories — where we lived as recently as the early 1700s — and on our current reservation lands near White Cloud, Kansas, where I work as a Climate Resilience Planner. I’ve also found myself working in food systems funders circles in recent years, too, currently leading a participatory grant-making process for BIPOC-led food and farming work through the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation.
You were previously the director of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) at the University of Washington in Seattle. When you transitioned out of that role in 2019, you created a document reflecting on and outlining the foundational principles and practices that guided your work. We'll talk more about your Reflections from the Field in a moment, but I first would love to hear more about what inspired you to document your reflections, and how you hoped your reflections might impact the program, or conservation field more broadly, once you departed.
I really appreciate the chance to think about this again (to reflect on the reflections doc). I finished it in early 2020, just before COVID set in, so I never really had the chance to engage with it in a real way.
Initially, it was a small request to write up something that could be passed on to the next director. The previous person left some things behind for me, and a lot of it was about the mechanics of the job — annual timelines and tasks, a spreadsheet with contacts, which was all helpful. So at a minimum I knew I needed something like that to pass along, but as I got into it I realized I also wanted it to speak to some of the behind-the-scenes practices and philosophies I aimed to design and lead through. The main audience I had in mind was current and future staff in Seattle and also the young folks who came through the program. And given that our work was connected to a broader community — or several communities, really — I also wanted it to be accessible to the four other DDCSP programs across the country and our partners in the region doing the all day, every day conservation work.
As I was getting started, a friend shared her recent experience of learning the need to articulate not just the what, but the why and how they do what they do to a new set of colleagues. The first step though, they said, was being able to articulate those things to themself first, before they could effectively convey it to others. That set the course for my whole process. I was no longer just trying to leave a few sticky notes and theories behind; it instead became about trying to name some of those often unspoken, day-to-day ways of being and doing we take for granted when we’re with our own communities and families. If I was trying to offer a different way forward for conservation — one that intentionally sought to disrupt deeply entrenched norms — I had to first be able to name how I be to myself first, and then try to spell it out in a way that could be taken up by others.
That’s the basis of what I was trying to do with this program: put forward a framework for supporting young people in conservation that doesn’t uncritically reify a western science-alone paradigm, especially when the stakes are so high. And do it by actually being different in everyday ways — and not just in what we do, but how we do it. It became a personal healing and reflection practice towards making visible and explicitly naming the ways we can disrupt dominant systems and offer other ways forward just by being who we are.
Had you communicated those values and principles when you were active in your leadership role there?
When I was directing the program, I think there were some small ways I did that. But later I reflected that I could have done it more. I realized I hadn’t done more because I hadn't necessarily articulated these things myself. I came to that realization going through this reflection process.
The design principles in this reflection are where those things really show up — Center Land, Storywork, Process Orientation, Multiple Ways of Knowing, and Center Community — and they came from this process. These offer deliberate ways you can operate a program that doesn't reify western constructs. And it shows young folks — who may or may not have deep connections to community-based land practices — that there's power in it.
In your reflection, you documented several practices you implemented in your work at the time, which are specific to the program itself (e.g., how to recruit program members, how to host convenings). But from my reading, the core of the reflection is really about what you call your design politic—or the guiding orientation or design goal associated with the design focus of your work—and your design principles—or the values key to moving forward your design politic. Why do you think it's important to pause and reflect on not only the work you've done, but also the goals and principles that drive what you do?
The how matters just as much as the what. When I reflect, I go back to the idea of circles, and to disrupting linear time and dominant ways of thinking about progression in the world, which is often very linear. Like the “climbing the ladder” analogies, which are very unidirectional and hierarchical; if something happened [and you want to reflect], you have to go backwards, which is seen as failure. Similarly, doing things like our ancestors did is seen as going “back”, which by extension has led to a lot of tropes about us and our ways being “backwards” ourselves.
With cycles, you’re going forward to come back again. It’s a circle. When you put into practice a world view that’s inherently cyclical, reflection is just a part of it. It’s the harvest. You plant the seed, you come back around. Then you save the seed and decide what you want to replant, and which ones you don’t because they no longer support your vision. Some seeds you know you want to plant next year, because they’re the same ones you’ve been planting for countless generations.
And there’s probably an in-between space, too — seeds maybe not for this year, but maybe for next year. Don’t presume that something won't ever have a role. It might not have one right now, but it might again in the future. And maybe you just don’t know how to plant it right now, but ten years from now, you might say, “I didn't know what it meant then, but I can see now.”
In my experience, intentional reflection is often left out of project and design processes. Urgency permeates so much of dominant culture, and as soon as we "finish" one thing there's pressure to move on to the next. What do we lose if we don't take that time?
Making time to develop reflective practices helps bring a vision forward. When we don’t, not only do we miss that time to harvest, to learn from the previous season and consciously decide what to take forward to the next, we miss an opportunity to reaffirm and clarify our vision, both to ourselves and others.
It’s important to name, especially in times that feel so urgent, that intentional reflection is a necessary part of doing. (And really, intentional time given in the earliest stages of design is similarly critical.) And because it so often deprioritized in the ‘produce at any cost’ pattern of the dominant society, each time we act in a way that disrupts that we’re breathing new worlds into being. Even just being differently in everyday, unprofound ways does this.
We saw that opportunity in a massive scale, briefly, during the COVID lockdowns and uprisings in 2020. There was that brief moment where business as usual was disrupted, and there was space and time to collectively question a lot of the basic foundations of society that had been seen as a given. We saw a glimpse of what is possible when things slow down; the air clears, animals return, people grow gardens, neighbors talk to each other and we mobilize ... that was all possible because we had time — because we took time — to reflect on what we’ve already done. And from that decided what to do again and how to do it as we build more just worlds together.
Thank you so much, Brett! Where can readers go if they want to learn more about you and your work?
You can find me on Instagram at @brettlesting and you’re welcome to reach out to me at email@example.com!
[Image description: In this photograph, Brett is smiling while harvesting a plant. He is wearing a yellow shirt, jeans, and a backpack.]
Every month we'll share a variety of books, articles, podcasts, and other resources on the month's concept and other topics at the intersection of food x equity x design.
Unpacking Our “Why” by Sara Cantor on Medium (article)
In this reflection on measuring impact at Greater Good Studio, Sara Cantor looks at their impact measurement journey over the years. “I hope that if anything, reading this will inspire you to look more closely at your own definitions of success, the impact you can and can’t claim, and whose feedback you are centering. These lessons have been invaluable for us.”
Liberatory Design is a creative problem-solving approach and practice that centers equity and supports us to design for liberation. It is made up of mindsets and modes. Mindsets invoke stances and values to ground and focus our design practice, and modes provide process guidance for our design practice. Liberatory Design generates self-awareness to liberate designers from habits that perpetuate inequity, shifts the relationship between the people who hold power to design and those impacted, fosters learning and agency for those involved in and influenced by the design work, and creates conditions for collective liberation.
Design Justice: Community Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock (book)
This book explores the theory and practice of design justice, demonstrates how universalist design principles and practices erase certain groups of people—specifically, those who are intersectionally disadvantaged or multiply burdened under the matrix of domination (white supremacist heteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and settler colonialism)—and invites readers to “build a better world, a world where many worlds fit; linked worlds of collective liberation and ecological sustainability.” Along the way, the book documents a multitude of real-world community-led design practices, each grounded in a particular social movement.
Inclusion & Equity Community Insights (event)
December Community Jam: December 13, 2022
This month, we'll be hearing from two of our Inclusive Design Jam members who will share some fascinating insights and learnings from their inclusion & equity work! After each share out, we'll discuss our questions and reflections as a group.
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