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Transformative Principal is 

Jul 17, 2022

Dr. Susie Wise is a design leader with experience in the education, tech, and the social sectors. She coaches leaders in equity design and innovation practices. She teaches at the at Stanford. Previously she founded and directed the K12 Lab at the and co-created Liberatory Design. She is the author of the book Designing for Belonging.
She was a previous guest on Transformative Principal Episode 121 Where we talked about #shadowastudent and Episode 122 where we talked about the design thinking process. I credit much of the work I did to write my book SchoolX to that conversation with Susie.
One of four books that kick of a news series for
- Equity vs. Equality
- Belonging is the feeling we are going for when we talk about equity.
- Work that I was doing with School principals.
- Design cultures with their school.
- John Powell work around othering and belonging.
- using design tools differently.
- Contributing is a powerful way to get to belonging.
- Flow is one of the moments of belonging.
- Creating a container of belonging.
- We’re not just trying to get to one version of belonging.
- Feel it, see it, shape it
- Shape - create safe-to-fail experiments
- Understanding comics with Scott McLoud
- If people could only read one part of your book, what should they read? Exercise on page 137 - Design an activity to inspire belonging.

  1. Why is it so important for groups of any size to hope its members feel like they belong?

When people feel like they belong, they are able to do their best and be their best. When we work toward belonging, we’re working toward creating a space where collaboration and cooperation can flourish. This is true for every kind of group, big and small. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, business manager, community organizer, or leader of any sort, your group is unlikely to thrive if the individuals don’t feel welcome, included, and valued for who they are.

  1. What is Design for Belonging?

Sometimes when we hear the word design, we think it means visual design – like logos or web design. Design for Belonging provides tools that any group or organization can use to build inclusion. These might be rituals that bring us together, spaces that keep us calm, roles that create a sense of responsibility, and systems that make us feel respected.

  1. How do you use design tools to create a feeling like belonging?

The tools in Design for Belonging help bridge the gap between the logistical planning of your office meeting or organizational restructure and the way you want people to feel when they participate.

Here are some great examples from teachers and school leaders who have used them:

  • Reimagining the kinds of assemblies hosted at school to be more culturally relevant.

  • Creating new roles to support English language learners.

  • Reinventing parent events to help parents build relationships instead of just sitting passively in an auditorium.

We could quickly see how the kids benefitted by changes like this. However, we were most moved by the teachers. The redesign connected them to what they hoped to create for young people. They were able to care about their students in ways that related to their own understanding and feeling of belonging. They tapped into their own creativity and the reasons they wanted to teach in the first place.

  1. Your book describes what belonging and its opposite, othering, feel like. Can you summarize that?

Belonging feels like you are seen and heard. You feel alive. You’ve been invited into any given group, and you know you can be honest with the people in it. Students I’ve worked with describe it as being in a good place and being with people they’re comfortable with. They feel validated.

Othering feels like you’re not wanted or that you’re not welcome. Feeling like you have to hold back in order to fit in. Some people will have negative roles or assumptions unfairly projected upon them based on their race, outward appearance, or other aspects of their identity. My students have described it as feeling like they’re invisible or erasable. Being uncomfortable and disconnected from the group.

  1. Do you think this book about belonging will be received differently now than it would have before the Pandemic?

Yes, the Pandemic has disrupted many of our rhythms, which gives us the opportunity to rethink how we do things. In addition, we’ve seen the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has given us a greater awareness of the inequities embedded in our culture. Seeing the need for change is the place for design. Design for Belonging can help us redesign our schools, workplaces, and organizations to support people more effectively. It can also help us focus on belonging as the experience we are intentionally building.

I have an exercise in the book: Assumption Storming. It’s a classic tool of design. This is a moment where we can ask: "What are all our assumptions about working in the office? What are all of our assumptions about working online?” We can then lay out our responses and see which ones we want to recreate and which ones we want to let go.

My hope is that the book will help people see with a new lens and empower them to create change.

  1. What do you want people to understand about design for belonging?

When you are working on diversity, equity, and inclusion, what you are really trying to get to is a feeling – the feeling of belonging. This book helps you use the tools of design to start building belonging and reducing othering in the places that matter to you.

We all want to educate ourselves about racial equity and we want concrete changes in our worlds, but so many people are overwhelmed by the breadth of the problem and don’t know where to start. The book is designed to help people who are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion to get started.

  1. How do you define equity?

Equity is important to distinguish from equality. In my work, the need for equity looks at how we each have different access to education and other resources because of history and all the cultural or systemic forces that we are (or aren’t) embedded in. Reaching equity means ensuring that one’s race or socioeconomic status does not predict the outcomes of their life and that everyone has what they need in order to evolve into their full potential.

  1. Belonging has become a hot-button topic lately. How do you feel about the current environment in the U.S. as your book comes out?

I’m excited about the current focus on belonging. There are discussions everywhere. People from all walks of life–city leaders, businesses, transportation–are thinking about it. It will be interesting to see what happens as we come out of the social restrictions that were created during the pandemic. We have an opportunity here to look ahead and be intentional about how we rebuild.

  1. How can leaders and group organizers use this book?

The possibilities are endless. The tools and levers in the book will help you recognize the opportunities you have in your context and to reimagine how people come together and are supported. Hosts of any space can experiment with how to create not just more welcoming environments, but also ways for people to be seen and contribute.

I recently had someone reach out to me who was running a summer music camp and they wanted to be sensitive to persons of color who will be entering a historically White space. I’ve never run a summer music camp, but the book will help them seize opportunities to create a cohesive group in the planning. They can ask: How do we want to welcome people in? What kinds of norms and procedures do we want to change or build from scratch?

10.How is the design community evolving conversations around inclusion, and what excites you most about that space?

Traditionally, design in the US has been a very White, male-dominated field that has centered Western European traditions. But as the design community has grown to be more inclusive of women and people of color, these new perspectives are shining a light on issues like gender and racial bias. Important conversations are now being had on how design can be and has been used to other and exclude, and ways in which we can address this legacy.

There’s also a very positive shift in how designers are thinking about the long term consequences of their work. Designers have to take responsibility for the outcomes of their work, not just the outputs. This shift makes it increasingly important for designers to consider not just how to solve a problem, but how doing so will impact others. This requires paying attention to outcomes as they emerge, always choosing to work toward belonging, and responding when unintended negative consequences emerge.

  1. How have you applied design for belonging in your private life?

I’ve been really interested in what is happening on my block. It is a microcosm of our country where you have new people moving to established neighborhoods, resulting in communities of mixed ages and socio-economic backgrounds. Last week I hosted doughnuts and coffee on my front stoop. Some neighbors who had lived there for over twenty years each met for the first time. New neighbors met old timers and created new connections. This moves me because I think if we can be in a relationship with each other we can help each other to belong. For me personally, I find belonging in gathering people.

12.Can you tell us about the early days of the and your founding of the K12 Lab?

Part of my drive to start the K12 Lab at the was for my middle school self. I was a bored, miserable middle schooler (On one level, who isn’t? Also, my dad had moved away and my mom had just gotten remarried). I figured out that I could leave class if I was working on “projects." For one project I’d go around the school every day and pick up cans from classrooms for a city-wide food drive. Not only did I get out of class, but it felt good, like it mattered.

I founded the K12 lab because I wondered about that 8th grade kid. If I had been able and empowered to work with the design tools I have now to make a difference, what could have been? It was also deeply grounded in a desire to see those furthest from opportunity be able to have greater opportunities and really be able to succeed in our systems in multiple ways.


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