Co.Design

Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds

Not all American designers are leaving the country to do good.

While sitting in the parking lot of a BoJangles restaurant at 11 o'clock at night, I opened the link to Bruce Nussbaum's recently published "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?" article on this very forum. You may wonder why I was squatting outside a fried chicken franchise, and the answer is simple: It is the only place, aside from the public school buildings, that has wireless Internet access in my home of Bertie County, North Carolina.

Bertie County, North Carolina. 27 people per square mile, 1 in 3 children living below the poverty line

Daily problems found in such rural communities, including the lack of connectedness and access to technology, have become very real and very personal to me in recent months. Earlier this year, I relocated the headquarters of Project H Design, which I founded in 2008, to Bertie County, the poorest county in North Carolina, where one in three children are living below the poverty line, to more deeply explore the role of design in public education in rural America. Having worked with the Bertie County School District for 18 months now on a variety of design initiatives from educational playgrounds to more convivial computer lab spaces, my partner Matthew Miller and I now call it home. In fact, we are about to embark on a long-term design/build program within the public school system for which our business cards will now read "High School Shop Teacher."

As I began reading Mr. Nussbaum's article, which begins by describing Project H Design as an example of a humanitarian design entity with good intentions (with a few key factual errors), I began to see where this was going. I know Mr. Nussbaum personally and greatly respect his voice and role in the design world, and while he is overt and sincere in his personal support of our work, the article takes a critical turn. Quite diplomatically (albeit passive aggressively), Mr. Nussbaum calls out Project H, among others including the Acumen Fund and the designers behind One Laptop Per Child, as design imperialists, "good souls" who are "presuming too much in their attempt to do good." He points to a disconnectedness from the places we serve, both geographically and culturally, as the culprit.

Rural Bertie County's main crops are peanuts, cotton, and tobacco

At this point, I cringed, but nodded along, agreeing with his assessment that too often humanitarian design is a scattershot "fly-by-night" occurrence in which Designers (with a capital D) swoop in with their capes and "design thinking" to save the poor folks. Designers who give a damn are easily drawn to the "poverty porn" of the slums of Mumbai or small acreage farms of Africa, before walking around the block and into a homeless shelter in San Francisco.

I can articulate such disdain for the approach, because Project H has been there. We have made the mistake of being disconnected from the people and places for which we design. The Hippo Roller re-design project was in many ways the biggest error we have made as an organization. Our first project, we undertook the re-design of the water transport device produced and distributed in South Africa, quite simply, because we were a newly-formed organization excited to get started. We had yet to see the value of local work, and were drawn to the simplicity of a device that so clearly has the potential to improve life. In hindsight, the process of redesigning the Hippo Roller was misguided and disconnected because of its lack of direct collaboration with end users, and a minimal shared investment in its success. While the resulting redesigned Hippo Roller is effective, we realized that the process was not. At the conclusion of the project, we put a stake in the ground to only take on projects that are local (that is, where the designer and partner/client are in the same location and call that place home). That Mr. Nussbaum defined our organization's work by its anomaly is a gross misrepresentation.

Computer lab built for the Bertie County School District

Since the Hippo Roller project, we have stuck to the principle of working in our own backyards (in fact, Mr. Nussbaum even quotes this principle in our mission statement: "We start locally..."). Of 20 current projects, 18 are based in the U.S., run by local designers invested in their own communities, in places they understand, with people who are fellow citizens (the remaining two projects are in Mexico City, but designed and executed by a team of talented Mexican designers). We are still learning, but we know this local process to be more honest and productive than our Hippo Roller days.

It isn't about design anymore, it's about an educational process that produces creative capital where it did not exist before.

It is only through this local engagement and shared investment that the humanitarian design process shines. It is through this personal connection to place and people that the human qualities of design rise to the top of the priority list, through which our clients are no longer beneficiaries, but experts and co-designers right there with us. In his infamous address titled "To Hell With Good Intentions," Ivan Illich puts this beautifully: "If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home... You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell." We all have to learn how to be citizens again: citizens first, and designers second. Citizenship is inherently local, defined by our connection and commitment to the places we best know and most love. I believe this is a point Mr. Nussbaum would agree with.

At the end of the piece, Mr. Nussbaum calls for a redirection of humanitarian design, asking, "...why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa and not Native American reservations or rural areas, where standards of education, water and health match the very worst overseas?"

Two of our Studio H students, high school juniors Anthony and Erick

My jaw dropped. Am I not living in rural America, trying my damnedest to tackle a broken education system, in a very real way? Was I not mooching Wi-Fi off of a chicken joint in the middle of the night? Had my partner and I not just gone through the arduous process of getting our teaching certifications to run Studio H, the country's first high school design/build program? Do we not have support from amazing partners like the Kellogg Foundation to explore the scalability of design education in rural America? Please do your homework, Mr. Nussbaum.

I thought of my 13 high school students, whose stories both break my heart and inspire me every day, and the prospect of a design studio and wood/metal shop class that might give them a different approach to learning: one focused on solving local problems through creativity and building. This is the power of humanitarian design: When it's not about design anymore, it's about an educational process that produces creative capital where it did not exist before, in beautiful ways, by underestimated individuals. In our case, you can expect to see amazing things from our Studio H students, starting with a farmers' market downtown built by their own hands next summer.

Developing games with teachers for the Learning Landscape educational playground

There are in fact, plenty of design groups doing just this, working in rural America and on reservations and in our American metropolises. Mr. Nussbaum's incomplete cataloging of the current roster of humanitarian designers ignores them as players and paints an incomplete picture. Catapult Design, led by Heather Fleming and Tyler Valiquette, has done amazing work with solar lighting on the Navajo reservations. Project M bakes pie and brings unexpected people together in their community space in Greensboro, Alabama. And then there are those who don't call themselves designers, doing wonderfully creative community development work in Smalltown, USA, like Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert, who founded Energize Clinton County to save their hometown of Wilmington, Ohio after an economic catastrophe.

For all of us who consider ourselves part of the "design world," the issue is not of geography ("Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?" as Mr. Nussbaum asks), but one of commitment. I may not be born and bred in Bertie County, North Carolina, but I call it home. I go to the post office and ask Tisha about how her weekend pig-picking went. I go to Bunn's Barbecue for lunch and ask Randy, the owner, if he wants to come over for a beer on the porch this weekend. I get defensive when people make fun of the fact that Bertie County doesn't even have a Walmart. And every day, I'm feeling more attached to my students, their families, and the networks of people that make up their collective education system.

Mr. Nussbaum's article greatly oversimplifies the serendipitous chaos that is humanitarian design. It draws a line, mostly defined by the developed and developing worlds, and says "if you're here, and you work there, you're an imperialist." Nothing is so cut and dried, particularly in a corner of the design world that is so new, so misunderstood, and so much still a work in progress, that some days the best we can do is just to keep trucking--eloquently put by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, "To do good, you first have to do something."

Our work-in-progress Studio H shop and classroom space at Bertie High School

And so, Mr. Nussbaum, I leave you with a request and with an invitation. I would ask that you strive to better understand the messiness, the difficulty, and the honest commitment that most of us humanitarian designers work with every day. I would ask that you do not oversimplify the humanitarian design process into a sound byte. And lastly, I invite you, in earnest, to come visit us in Bertie County. As we embark on the first year of Studio H with our thirteen students, come to our studio, do some welding in our shop, lead a design brainstorm, give a lecture, on Project H's dime. I think you will see that we are not imperialists, but young designers trying to do our best, shooting from the hip some days, but ultimately trying to build something beautiful from within this rural place we now call home.

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15 Comments

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  • mamathree

    Hello,Emily,
    i will start by appreciating your positve attitude of admitting of a project that didnt work out in S.Africa,your spirit is commendable.When you fall,dont remain on the ground,dust off and move on.Thats what you have done,what with your marvelous projects in Bertie county.
    Us guys in africa should learn and start initiating our own small projects as far as funds can allow,instead of looking up for help all the time from the west.Am not implying that we dont need the help but of late there are numerous NGOs coming up with well disigned projects,they end up enriching themselves.Common Africa,lets emulate the west and work smart and turn out to be givers not beggers.

  • Brad Johnson

    I was at Virginia Tech a year ago when you and Matt came with Project H to give a presentation on your Design Revolution Road Show. All of my friends said to me that Project H was exactly what I should do, since I was "into" humanitarian design. 

    But something rubbed me the wrong way. It didn't seem perfect, what you all were doing, and I dismissed it as not being exactly what I should do. I think that, in my own pride, I thought that I would do things differently and, ultimately, better.

    The following Spring semester (this January and February) I decided to try it. My professors approved my project, and I flew down to Managua, Nicaragua to work on a trash dump and try to design something. 

    Wow.

    Did I ever have an awakening to my own pride and arrogance. I was coming in, like you said, as a capital D Designer, with my cape and "design thinking," to try to save the world. It didn't quite work out that way.

    I really appreciate what you said about how our clients are not our beneficiaries but are experts and co-designers right there with us, and how we have to learn to be citizens before being designers. Very powerful conclusion. 

    But how do we avoid our own pride from eeking up and out of our work? How do we help but defend and justify ourselves when we feel we are under criticism? I guess, to me, going back to my being rubbed the wrong way back in 2010, Project H was still focused on "look at us, aren't we amazing?"

    My question for you, and to me (as I have definitely wrestled with it greatly myself), is how can we take ourselves out of the equation and serve people because we value them instead of serving them so people will give us praise?

    This is something that we all deal with. I am often at a loss as to how to answer the question as well, because I always want people to applaud how great I am. But the truth is that I am not great. I am just like the people on the trash dump in Nicaragua. Or just like the people in South Africa who use the Hippo Roller. The only difference is that I was born into affluence and opportunity. 

    Having said that, I would love to either work with you or receive any advice you have for me as a recent Industrial Design grad from Virginia Tech. You can look at the project I referenced in this comment, as well as some of my other work, at www.b-waynejohnson.com. Do you know of other organizations or companies that are doing work like Project H? I am looking for something exciting to do.

    Thanks! 

    Brad Johnson

    Twitter: @B_WayneJohnson:twitter 
    Website: www.b-waynejohnson.com
    e-mail: bradleywaynejohnson@gmail.com

  • blairstapp

    I don't know how I just stumbled upon this article, but I absolutely love this response. And I kind of love how I stumbled upon it a year too late. Here are a few specific points that I love:
    1. Emily owns up to the failures as well as the successes.2. Emily responds not in an emotional, heated manner, but one of calm humility.3. The point of how dangerous it is to make sweeping statements, especially when it discourages young designers from even attempting to do something positive.4. The point of how there actually are designers + folks in other disciplines doing positive things in rural areas + reservations in America.So thank you, Emily. For representing our "humanitarian design" in a positive way. And yes, of course we all fail. The key is how we learn from these failures. It's not about swooping in. It's not about ivory towers. It's not even about design. At the end of the day, it's about contributing to something positive in a place that one lives and works.

  • George I

    Not sure how I missed this sweet debate for like a year, but now I just have to comment - of course Emily is spot on, demonstrating more humility and graciousness then I'd be able to produce in response to Mr Nussbaum's deal here.  Incredibly, with the infinite number of amazing issues we're dealing with both here in the US and around the world, Nussbaum found time and effort to rant against the very people who try to realistically solve those problems as a mission.  He could've made simple comments on deeper immersion into markets you're designing for.  Instead he just lost it.

  • anil gupta

    i dont think the issuer really is where from designers come so long as they are not surrounded by greedy or vulture funds and have genuine desire to learn and share. i would not mind involvement of designers from any where so long as they come with open mind, share their learning with/from grassroots learners and also give credit where it is due. the problem arises when some so called do gooders raise huge funds, pay fat salaries and use the partnership with local communities to legitimise their greed. we can do without that but we should not throw baby with bath water. if India designers shy away from engaging with creative knowledge rich economically poor people and some others are willing to have genuine involvement, they are most welcome.

  • Theodore Thomas

    Per Ms. Pilloton's own posts and abundant promotion of Project H and the roadshow, we know that The "H" was founded in 2008 and as recently as February of this year she cites San Francisco as her hometown. Now just 5 months later, after posting endless accounts about having to wash her hair in the sink (god forbid) and announcing Bertie Co. as her "new home" on June 2, She is reproaching Bruce for not doing his homework and seems all-too-ready to tell anyone who will listen how she is slumming it outside the chicken joint for some bandwidth and "living in rural America, trying my damnedest to tackle a broken education system"...Slooooooow doooowwwn and maybe try just a pinch of humility.

  • Emily Pilloton

    Theodore- San Francisco will always be my home town, but we have been working in Bertie County since February of 2009, not June 2nd of this year.

  • KareAnderson

    Emily
    A subscriber to my blog told me about you and your work - so it was most educational to leap into your post here and get educated - thank you. Your passion and humility shines through. Your ideas would be helpful at shareable. I am not a part of their team yet subscribe to it. Am a former WSJ reporter now writing a book on collaboration and speaking/consulting on it so your ideas helped me

  • Viren Brahmbhatt

    Sorry Emily,
    But have to agree with some part of the sentiment expressed/described here!
    There is a paradigm shift in response to the changed world and the social/economic divide that some of us acknowledge and are working towards bridging; however, the 'change-mongers' and the so-called 'design-thinkers' exploiting the opportunities for personal gain has been giving those well-meaning folks a bad rap. -Viren [de.Sign]