I am a mom of two wonderful kiddos. My littles are young—both under age six—which means my parenting currently involves a lot of reminders about what it means to take care with people, animals, plants, and objects. I think children generally have an innate desire to be good stewards of what’s around them, and it’s our job as caretakers to help them learn how to do that.
I say, “Be careful with [insert thing]” quite a bit, followed by guidance on what that means. But as I was reflecting on the concept of care leading up to this month’s publication, it occurred to me that I usually say that only when I want them to avoid a harmful or messy outcome.
“Be careful on the ladder—watch below you so you don’t accidentally kick the kiddo climbing up beneath you.”
“Be careful while roasting the marshmallows—the fire ring gets hot and I don’t want you to burn yourself.”
“Be careful with the bowl so it doesn’t spill—try holding it from the bottom.”
Of course, it’s important to identify when care is needed in order to prevent harm (and sometimes to prevent inconvenience—removing tomato-based chili from a rug is a situation). But it does make me wonder why being careful is so often associated with caution, rather than with actively showing consideration and respect.
It’s a minor distinction, but in the context of design, it matters. Yes, we should look out for the ways we might unintentionally cause harm and mitigate those possibilities. That’s essential. And we should prioritize providing collaborators and others impacted by our work with what they need to feel respected and validated.
So what does it mean to show care in our work as designers? And how can we create the conditions for care to be thoughtfully shared and received?
These are some of the questions we’re exploring in April’s issue of The Magic Word. This month, we are thrilled to share our conversion with Rachael Dietkus, Founder of Social Workers Who Design and current Digital Services Expert in Design at the United States Digital Service. Rachael is a leading voice and practitioner in trauma-informed research and design, and a collaborator who I’ve consistently seen walk the talk when it comes to prioritizing care in design.
Thanks, as always, for tuning in!
Some thoughts on
I’ve really been looking forward to this interview, Rachael! To kick things off, can you share a bit about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to your work?
In conversation with...
Any opportunity to interact with you is one I welcome, Lucy. I’m excited to have this exchange!
First and foremost, I am a mom* to an extraordinary 11-year-old. I’m so proud of her and humbled by how being a parent shapes how I want to design. I am a social worker, design researcher and strategist, a Gen Xer, and a former indie rocker. I consider myself a design activist and advocate for emerging, responsible, ethical, anti-racist, care-focused, and trauma-responsive methods, practices, and ways of being in design. During this work season, I focus on a blended practice of design, social work, and traumatic studies.
I get asked a lot about my journey in design work because it’s still rare to be a social worker in design. I started as an art and design student in the early 1990s when I first went to college, but then taking classes in sociology and studying social movements was far more interesting to me at the time. If I take a step back for a minute, being a native Midwesterner and growing up curious and caring about the world around me is what has been the most definitive molding for me as a social worker-designer. As a kid, I was a big observer and processor and often wanted to understand all bits and parts of everything. I became more multi-passionate in my teens across activism, music, and photography. And then this led to intersections with social justice and activist work throughout college and beyond. At this point, I’ve been in or around social justice, design, and care work for most of my life.
All these years later, it led me to start Social Workers Who Design, where I focus on social work and design practice and have the honor and privilege of working with remarkable people (like you!) around the world and on issues I care deeply about. In addition to my consultancy, since the fall of 2022, I’ve worked at the United States Digital Service as a digital services expert in design. I am the first social worker they’ve ever had, and most of my work focuses on ways design and tech can move toward trauma-informed and trauma-responsive ways of practicing.
*Here’s a neat side note: I learned about the campaign to add “mother” to your resume or social media profile from colleague Adriana Valdez Young. Here’s the inspiration for it.
What does care mean to you?
Care, to me, means safety. Care is also compassion for self and others in ways that foster connection, consideration, dignity, and respect.
Care, as a concept and practice, is rarely discussed in mainstream design, let alone prioritized. In some ways, that seems contradictory within a field that is supposedly human-centered. In other ways, it’s not at all surprising, since mainstream design—like so much else—is underpinned by dominant culture values, which place a premium on urgency and profit above people and the planet. It’s heartening to see more conversations happening around the importance of care in design, but when it comes time to walk the talk, many companies will defer to practices that prioritize time and money over care. What tips do you have for designers who are working to integrate care into their practice while also navigating less-than-supportive cultural conditions?
I know we could dig into this topic for hours, but alas, this publication is fairly short and sweet. The good news is that you’re writing a book that will be coming out next year! Where can folks go if they want to learn more about you, your book, and your work in general?
Thanks for these shoutouts, Lucy! There is such an uplift in celebrating one another, isn’t there? Thank you for this.
I’m slowly but surely working on two book projects: one on trauma, design, and social work with MIT Press and another on trauma responsive design and practice with A Book Apart. I’m also very excited to share that I contributed to Feminist Designer: On the Personal and the Political in Design, a book edited by Alison Place and coming out on MIT Press in September.
People can connect with me on LinkedIn, Social Workers Who Design, ResearchGate, and Medium. And since there are sometimes hidden web barriers, here are direct links to some recent writing: Cultivating Resiliences for All: The Necessity of Trauma Responsive Research Practices (co-authored with Matt Bernius) and The Call for Trauma-Informed Design Research and Practice.
Thank you, again, Lucy!
Why does care matter in the context of design? And what is at risk if we don’t prioritize care in our work?
These are such important questions, Lucy. Sometimes I wonder if care might be the only thing that matters in design. When we don’t prioritize care, we risk misalignment of our purpose and values. I’ve been part of important conversations over the past several years around one’s purpose and values in design. What are they? How do they show up? Where might our values be challenged or compromised? A few years ago I started talking more intentionally about my personal and professional values across social work and design. When I was teaching in higher ed, students often shared that they had never been asked about their values. So, I find this to be a critical aspect of practice. I have found that knowing and adhering to my values is what keeps me grounded and connected to an ethic of care as a social worker-designer.
All this said, there’s something that I’ve been observing in design for several years. Much like ethics, I see designers sometimes opting in for care-focused practices – or seeing them as additive or distracting from the main mission. I would counter that we need to make time and space for care. There is no mandate, global expectation, or duty of care in the design context. Instead, we rely on one another’s intrinsic motivation and obligation of care. This makes me wonder what it would look like to cultivate and sustain an ethic and commitment to care throughout all design systems? What would it look and feel like to have a responsible code of care in all our work (not when it’s serious, complex or sensitive)? We can all act in ways that minimize harm and recklessness in design. But we need to have a conviction of care and continua of care.
[Image description: Rachael is staring directly into the camera with a slight smile in this portrait photo. She is wearing a black shirt and is sitting in front of a blue wall and an arm chair.]
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.
Model of Care Cards (tool)
Learn how to care for self and others before, during and after co-design! The cards break-down each aspect of the Model of Care for Co-Design into simple prompts for individual practitioners and teams to use while planning and doing co-design. They are based on the book, Beyond Sticky Notes, and draw on a range of practices, particularly trauma-aware practice and strengths-based practice.
An Ethic of Care for Research Participants as Trauma Survivors by Sarah Fathallah (article)
How can researchers identify and respond to signs of distress from research participants, grounding their practice in an ethic of care?
Getting Started with Inclusive Design (event)
April 6, 2023
To help beginners get started, we've built the Inclusive Design Starter Guide, which will launch on April 4th 2023. This is a free robust learning guide on key concepts, definitions and practical examples related to inclusive design. In this live session, we'll review the learnings from the guide, answer your questions, and show how you can leverage it to catalyze conversation on inclusive design!
What does it mean to be trustworthy in the social sector? (event)
April 13, 2023
We want to talk about the idea of trust and how many often say that we can only move at the speed of trust. But who defines trust? What are the elements of power that influence that definition? What does it really mean to be trustWORTHY and how does this affect our work in the social sector? The Possibility Project will be joined by three amazing guests to dive into these topics: Sabrina Meherally (Founder and CEO, Pause and Effect), Terrance Smith (Bloomberg Public Innovation Fellow, The Johns Hopkins University) and Pia Infante (Senior Fellow, Trust-Based Philanthropy Project).
Studio Magic Hour © 2023
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