DEED (Development through Empowerment, Entrepreneurship, and Design) is a research laboratory at Parsons The New School for Design, The New School, New York City. We are committed to modeling more sustainable and equitable ways for artisans and designers to collaborate and have a threefold mission:
To support artisans in emerging economies in the creation and sustaining of income-generating craft-based opportunities.
Create meaningful outside-of-the-classroom learning opportunities for our students, and to empower them to become agents of change.
To run collaborations between the university and artisans, through on-campus courses and fieldwork programs, which are committed to horizontal pedagogical and organizational structures.
DEED is a collaborative effort by students and faculty from across several divisions of The New School, artisan groups in emerging economies, foundations, individual donors, retailers, external partners, and friends.
Our Guiding Principles
The intensive fieldwork we do can be very challenging for all involved. DEED faculty and students have, over time, developed the following principles to which we adhere. They serve as steps toward more equitable exchanges, and also neatly represent and summarize the DEED ethos.
Once someone on the DEED team purchases an artisan product, the team is no longer perceived and treated as a partner, but a tourist and buyer – therefore compromising the potential for true collaboration. To support more equitable exchanges, we instituted a principle that discourages fieldwork participants to purchase goods directly from our artisan collaborators.
All fieldwork participants are asked to not make any promises regarding their commitment to the project. There have been issues with students, in particular, growing attached to the artisan collaborators and then not following through with promises to send back money, godparent one of the children, or even returning the following year. We know that life happens, and once we’re back on campus in New York City other priorities typically kick in.
This rule has significantly improved our internal group dynamics. We discourage talking about anyone if they are not present, and if there are issues to address, they are discussed in the daily debriefing session (which we have regardless if issues have come up or not).
Remembering the reason for our visit encourages students to constantly learn things about the culture which they can then leverage when working on the project. Furthermore, as we are traveling abroad when engaged in this work, it’s valuable to *be* there as practitioners and not “just” tourists.
Observer and Observed
We are mindful and respectful of people’s reaction when taking pictures, and refrain from using cameras in the first meeting with community partners since it might affect group dynamics. This is an important rule so as not to expand the gap between “us” and “them” and encourage students and faculty to not only observe “the other” but to also be observed. Documentation is important for the project, so this is a difficult principle to enforce. However, there is a time and place for photography, and usually it is uncovered through trust and communication. We also have run great participatory photography and video projects with artisans and their children.
We do not use the word “help”. We encourage our partners to also refrain from its use. The reason why is because we do not want to assume that we should or can provide help, nor that anyone has asked us to help them. Instead, this principle encourages us to describe what the work is focused on: collaboration, exchange, sharing, learning, participating, supporting, suggesting, advising, etc., etc.
Our on-campus preparation course (“Designing Collaborative Development”) is taught with a commitment to horizontal pedagogy. We are inspired by the writings of Paulo Freire and John Dewey, and try to apply their principles of horizontality and learning by doing throughout our work. A commitment to horizontality is challenging but is the basis on which all participants (artisans, students, faculty) are given the same level of respect and understanding. We also flip traditional academic hierarchies by having our students lead out the fieldwork portion of our engagements, and by having artisans be the faculty of summer courses (starting in 2015).
The key to our artisan collaborations is a flexible process that can be adapted in each case, and therefore responsive to artisans’ interests and needs. The following is the basic skeleton of the process which is then refined on the ground.
Faculty meet with artisan groups and/or external partners which they have identified as potential collaborators. Together they identify the needs of the organization(s) and assess whether there is an opportunity for mutual learning, a timeline, and a general plan to proceed.
A semester-long class on campus in New York City called Designing Collaborative Development, open to graduate and advanced undergraduate students from all disciplines. The students learn to collaborate with communities in socially just ways, facilitate workshops, collaborate with others, and practice open listening.
Students travel to meet the artisans in their community. Together they conduct needs assessments to understand the artisans’ future goals and uncover which skills they would like to acquire or develop, and how The New School and other partners can support them in these efforts.
Students and artisans design and present a series of workshops on business, pricing, marketing, and product design.
Artisans and students test new design solutions which have been prompted by the workshops. These design solutions have ranged from new product proposals, to redesigning the interiors of a local store, to co-designing the artisan group’s marketing materials, and even system designs of the artisans – how they are organized as a group.
Faculty, artisans, and students commit to an ongoing, long-term relationship. During the long-term relationship, there is often a revisiting of the above-mentioned steps. What we have developed is a slow, iterative process, that we believe guarantees more sustainable and equitable models of collaboration.