This year marks the 20th anniversary of Designmatters, ArtCenter’s social innovation program. Believing that art and design can inspire positive changes in society, the program has offered students opportunities to work on everything from anti-gun violence educational toolkits for schools to spaces for older adults facing extreme isolation due to the pandemic.
Always looking to the future, Designmatters Executive Director Jennifer May recently sat down virtually with three influential individuals—Fatou Wurie, a Mo Ibrahim Leadership Fellow at the African Development Bank Group; Gabriella Gómez Mont, founder of Experimentalista and former chief creative officer for Mexico City; and Sandra Jackson-Dumont, director and CEO of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, scheduled to open in 2023 in L.A.’s Exposition Park—to speculate on how art and design may shape social innovation for the next two decades.
JENNIFER MAY: Fatou, for many years now we've seen that design can play an important role in terms of creating change. In your opinion, has social innovation design become its own field?
FATOU WURIE: I think it has always been its own field, and one that over time has garnered momentum and entered the mainstream, especially when applied to participatory approaches for large-scale impact and strategic change thinking. This field is constantly redefining itself, though. The truth is that the problems don’t change—they just evolve in complexity and nuance.
So the field must rise up to meet the world’s most pressing challenges with the very same nuance. It must do so by self-reflecting on who is leading the design for change? Who is re-imagining the change of today, the change of tomorrow, and the change of the future? Is it inclusive? Is it diverse? Does it have dignity vis-a-vis equality and equity? Are we embracing the space just as an opportunity to flex our skillsets? Or are we coming to the table from a place of empathy and humility at the complexity of today’s social problems? We need to interrogate the lenses and tools we use when going about the business of facilitating systematic change.
I say this because I think social change innovation has always intended to push back at the status quo. It’s always intended to problem-solve and connect the dots in ways that improve systems, places and people. But the field must expand its reach beyond institutions, academia and neat design hubs. Everyone should feel affirmed or provided the space at the “design for social change” table. By this I mean, let’s democratize it!
MAY: Gabriella, you’ve had a personal slogan of “Imagination is not a luxury” that dates back at least 10 years to your days as a TED Fellow. How did that philosophy inform how you tackled municipal co-creation in Mexico City?
GABRIELLA GÓMEZ MONT: When the mayor offered me free rein to invent the city department of the biggest, most stubborn love of my life, Mexico City, from scratch, I confess that initially I said no. I never imagined myself in government. But after giving it some thought, I became intrigued with returning to first principles and seeing government as a way of asking big questions—How do we want to live together? How do we want to move together? How do we want to play together?—and coming up with different answers. I liked the idea of finding other ways for the city to speak.
I also became intrigued with political and urban imagination. And I wanted to see if it was possible to wear our politics on our sleeves instead of pretending that solutions are politically neutral. Instead of being technocratic, let’s have deep conversations about what type of city we imagine, and then create best practices and experiments that will get us closer to that vision.
So, two years in, I completely rearticulated the team. Instead of working by disciplines, we split into different visions of the city, like “pedestrian city,” “open city,” “playful city.” And since one of our main roles was to bring a citizen agenda deep into the core of government, each “city” had a whole ecosystem composed of everything from government partners to foundations to activists and neighbors. The idea was to get people to find common ground.
MAY: Sandra, presenting societal visions is a strong component of what art, and particularly narrative art, historically does well. What role do artists play in effecting social change?
SANDRA JACKSON-DUMONT: I’m a firm believer that public policy, social change, social justice—those ideas don’t become reality until they’ve gone through some type of visualization. There hasn’t been a social justice movement—or any movement of note—in this country that hasn’t been associated with a visual impulse. And that’s because people read differently. They consume ideas differently. That’s one thing that makes our Separate Cinema Archive, which documents African American cinema history from 1904 to 2019, so powerful. Look at the many different ways 1954’s Carmen Jones was presented in movie posters around the world, depending on where it was being shown and who it was being shown to.
When we talk about the vision of the Lucas Museum—What can its impact be?—we believe, as an institution, that narrative art can connect us to shape a more just society. Note I said it can. There has definitely been narrative art that has done the opposite. Sticking with movies, D.W. Griffth’s Birth of a Nation  is a good example of that. There are moments where narrative art, like all art, has created narratives that lead to the cementing of negative perceptions. As a museum, we are dedicated to having those complex conversations. While I believe that safe spaces are few and far between, I do believe that we should aspire to have them in abundance. In that sense, the Lucas Museum can be a safer space for those complex dialogues.
I like to encourage everyone—and this goes for art and design students, too—to think about when and where they enter a conversation, how they’re participating, and how they’re reading the imagery around them. And how does that net up to an identity or a perception? A museum like the Lucas Museum, or museums in general, can be a place where one can exercise that kind of discourse and come to a different understanding of the world, and therefore a nuanced understanding of each other. I like the idea of people also coming to understand when it’s okay to part ways.
MAY: Gabriella, as part of your work in crowdsourcing the Mexico City Constitution, how did your team capture how residents of Mexico City understood their city and their future?
GÓMEZ MONT: A constitution is not only a legal document of the highest order that gives people rights, it’s also a space for aspirations and ideals. As one part of that crowdsourcing project—whose participatory scaffolding was multiple and layered—we created Urban Imaginaries, a social thermometer in which we queried 31,000 people across 1,400 neighborhoods. We asked everything from “What are the three most important things about Mexico City?” to “What are the three biggest challenges that you face?” We also asked “How do you imagine the future?” And even though we were very clearly prompting for people’s thoughts of a positive future, in response we got back mostly Mad Max–style visions. This started a whole conversation in which we asked ourselves, “Are these highly personal relationships to the city—these apocalyptic scenarios—something that matters when it comes to shaping public policy?” And I dare say yes.
Once we had the Urban Imaginaries survey results, the city’s Urban Geography Department put together a fantastic map that made it possible to navigate Mexico City based not only on the traditional kind of hard data that a city collects, but also based on people’s more subjective ideas of a city. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share this map with mayors and other officials while giving talks and workshops around the world, and they would often ask me more about other projects that were more practical in nature. But then Trump won the U.S. election in 2016. And then we began to understand that people’s subjective sense of their world can be just as important as the hard data—that’s how people feel about everything from their neighborhood to the bureaucratic apparatus of government. So we need to be just as sophisticated with our Urban Imaginaries as we are with the hard facts, and know that they constantly influence each other.
MAY: Artists have an important role when it comes to interrogating power dynamics. Sandra, can you give me an example of a work in the Lucas Museum’s collection that challenges preconceptions?
JACKSON-DUMONT: We recently acquired the Robert Colescott painting George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware . If you think about that painting,it’s both historical and contemporary. If you look at the characters featured in the work, it’s both art historical—it’s referencing Emanuel Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware—and popular—Aunt Jemima is one of the characters depicted. This painting isan interrogation of the canon of our history. At the same time, it’s also about the everyday individual and our current social history as it is lived every day by people.
It’s a painting that is so indicative of how critical narrative can be in the world, but it also speaks to what imagery can do in the world. And what it can do to you. In the painting, you have the history of George Washington, and you have an alternative history in George Washington Carver, who was an equally iconic historical figure. The painting is a critical analysis of so many pieces of our lives, and it stands fully footed in all of those different spaces. It’s an amazing example of how complex narrative art can be. We have an active collecting program at the Lucas Museum, and we’re very actively collecting contemporary art, historical work, traditional work and nontraditional work—all of which can help people understand the role of art in society through the lens of narrative.
MAY: Fatou, thinking about our art and design students, what do you wish they knew about power dynamics?
WURIE: To your students, I would say start from a place of truth telling. It is difficult, it is painful, and it requires vulnerability, but how do we begin to understand the power we have, or don’t have, or can have, or should have, if we don’t start from a place of radical honesty?
The act of truth telling is an exercise for everyone. I am saying this as a Black and African woman clear about my socioeconomic privileges—my education, my social capital—yet also with deep empirical knowledge of intersectional systemic oppression: sexism, racism, colonialism. We all have a story that informs how we come to the table, and oftentimes we replicate the same harmful systemic principles, language and visuals we want to disrupt.
I, for one, cannot walk into any space or community, anywhere in the world, without acknowledging the land that I stand on, the blood that was shed on that land, and who gets to be seen based on class, race or gender versus those who—by design of law, policy and economy—are relegated to the periphery.
Remember that your truth lies within many truths. Question while building. Forge ahead while identifying synergies, while also looking around to see who or what else is left behind. Stand in the knowing of who you are, while also recognizing you don’t know it all. Humility is a game changer for sharing power. Humility begets empathy when we speak the truths that must be spoken, recognized, and accounted for.