Bringing Design Closer with Gerry Scullion

Rachael Dietkus 'Exploring what it means to be trauma-informed in design'

John Carter
June 2, 2021
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Rachael Dietkus 'Exploring what it means to be trauma-informed in design'

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** Train with Rachael on This is HCD by taking their Trauma Informed Design Essentials course**

Hey folks, welcome to Bringing Design Closer, the podcast focussed on discussing Designs role in tackling sometimes complex societal issues. My name is Gerry Scullion, and I’m a service designer, and founder of This is HCD and CEO of This is Doing - we provide live online design and innovation classes , providing training for people within the Design and change-making space. We also have our new Doing Design Festival series now, with the next event on June 18 with the theme ‘Doing Design Online’ with some of the TiD talking about loads of related its. More info see

Before we jump into this episode, I wanted to alert listeners that this episode may contain content that is triggering to some people. In it we discuss sexual abuse and working with Design alongside issues of trauma.

Today on the show we have Rachael Dietkus a phenomenal person and advocate for trauma led approaches in design.

First and foremost, Rachael is a social worker, based 2-hours south of Chicago in Urbana Champaign in Illinois. We speak in depth about trauma as a societal problem, that is owned by all. We go into the details around working in this space and the affects it can have on change-makers, and how we, as designer and change makers are very much exposed to this reality. How might we protect Designers from likely vicarious traumas in this space? How can we prepare the next wave of change-makers to be ready? We speak about what Designers need to be aware of when approaching some of the most sensitive subjects known, such as child sexual abuse, domestic violence etc. Can and should Design be seen as the saviour? It is a big conversation, and a wonderful one that is pretty raw.

Episode Transcript

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S1: Hey folks, welcome to another episode of Bringing Design Closer, a podcast focused on discussing Design's role in tackling sometimes complex societal issues. My name is Gerry Scullion and I'm a service designer and I'm the founder of This is eight Seed and the CEO of this is to where we provide live online design and innovation classes, providing training for people within the design and change making space. We also have a new doing design festival and excellent OP is in June the 18th with the theme of doing design online with some of this doing team, talking about loads of really interesting content around the whole space. For more information, see doing design festival that come. Before we jump into this episode, I want to alert listeners that this episode may contain content that is triggering to some people. In it, we discuss sexual abuse working with design alongside issues of trauma. But today in the show we have Rachel Dicus, a phenomenal person, someone who I really enjoyed speaking with, and she's an advocate for trauma led approaches in design. First and foremost, Rachel identifies as a social worker and is based 2 hours south of Chicago in Urbana, Champaign in Illinois. We speak in depth about trauma as a societal problem that is owned by all. We go into the details around working in this space and the effects it can have on us change makers and how we as designers and changemakers are very much exposed to this reality. How might we protect designers from likely vicarious traumas in this space? How can we prepare the next wave of change makers to be ready? We speak about what designers need to be aware of when approaching some of the most sensitive subjects known, such as child sexual abuse, domestic violence, etc.. Can and should design be seen as a savior? It's a big conversation. It's a wonderful conversation. It's pretty raw. We've both exposed ourselves and it's a fantastic one. And I hope you enjoy it. Let's get straight into it. Rachel, how's it going? How are you?


S2: I'm good. How are you?


S1: I'm not so bad. So I'm not so bad. We've been chatting for the last hour or so about everything and nothing. Probably at the same time when we find out you're based close, close enough to Chicago to probably call yourself maybe a Chicago. Wow.


S2: That might be that might be a stretch. A bit of a stretch. Although I did live in Chicago for a few years, though.


S1: Yeah, we've just discussed that there might have been a crossover and I was live in Chicago for a summer.


S2: We may have. I think it's entirely possible that we may have crossed paths.


S1: For anyone listening. When I was a student, I worked in Chicago as a a ticket person for a tour company called Grey Line Trolley Tours. And I used to stand on the street selling these tickets to all these tourists and singing Frank Sinatra songs on the back of these buses for tips. That was me, folks. And just look at me now.


S2: Look, look, look at how far you have come. I know this is quite.


S1: Remarkable, sorrowful. And it's like, you know, on the back of those trolleys going around Wacker Drive and all those wonderful places in Chicago was Chicago. It is a great city though, but what I've learnt, I was living near Armitage, Armitage and Bissell, a couple of great pubs up there and I was like, Chicago's so safe and so safe. And I remember saying it to someone years later, like, Chicago's a city in two halves is a fair to say?


S2: I think so. I think when you just mentioned the north side of the south side, it I immediately drew this connection to the baseball and the red line and.


S1: Misty Park.


S2: One in the summertime. I know. I still think of it as Comiskey, too. I think it's had two or three other names since then. I don't even know what the current name is, but I still think of it as Comiskey. And but in the summertime, when when the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox play each other, the red line, all the marketing for the red line says the only thing these two teams have in common, because you can take the red line from Wrigley Field to Comiskey, which I just I always got the biggest kick out of, you know. But yeah, but you're right, you know, I think any, any city, whether it's a small one like where I am in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, or a much larger metropolitan cities like Chicago, there's so much happening. And and the the dynamics are can be really varied. But when you're living in the city, you don't necessarily feel that. I mean, I lived here for a few years and I, I don't remember feeling necessarily unsafe. I felt comfortable because of the most of your neighborhood. A lot of the neighborhoods in Chicago, you kind of have everything that you need. You have like the small corner grocery, you have the the neighborhood bar or pub, you have a couple little restaurants and places where you can go. And so you feel this sense of home and belonging within this very massive city where there's a lot that's happening. So when we were talking, you know, like during the first hour, I was I was really thinking back to some of those elements. And it's a great thing to be able to experience when you actually live there and you can fully appreciate that.


S1: Let's talk about your work because, you know, the reason why we're here today is one of our mutual connections and friends. Kellyanne McCUTCHEON mentioned you to me a number a number of times, but you're a social worker. Is it fair to say is that how you identify as a social worker first and foremost, because you also work as a designer?


S2: Yeah, I you know, I think I've more recently had a bit of I'm having a lot of an identity crisis. How ironic would that be to say to you, I'm a social worker having an identity crisis? But I think I think when you work in more than one discipline, which is what I've been doing for the past handful of years, it's like, which which identity do you claim first? For me, you know, I'm I am a social worker and I'm an I'm a proud social worker. And I and I've been coming at this work in design and just social work as a as a whole from from multiple different angles and from different experiences. So I often call myself a social worker in design, but I also do identify as a designer and as a design researcher and, and do design strategy. But I think owning owning some of those titles can, you know, can sometimes trip us up. Like, how does that how do we how do we actually demonstrate that in our work? How do we put that in context, depending on who we're talking to as well?


S1: Yeah, absolutely. As a social worker, describe what a social worker typically does. I know probably varies between departments and countries as well. But like, typically, what what what does a social worker do?


S2: What does a social worker do? So social workers are trained helpers in the US at least, and especially in the state of Illinois, where I am. In order to even call yourself a social worker, you have to have gone through a an undergraduate program in social work or a master's program in social work. And then you have to go through a whole rigorous process of getting your licensure and then continue education and social workers work in a number of different arenas and domains. They work in systems, they work within organizations, policy, advocacy. They might do community work. They might do one on one therapy with individuals, do work with the groups. Almost all social workers have received some type of fairly rigorous clinical training. And I mention that because that's that is quite the majority. And even though I'm a licensed clinical social worker, what's that acronym might look like something different depending on where you are in the world. Sometimes it's called MSW license, master's social worker. But for me, I've got my clinical licensure and but I, I didn't really do the clinical track. I studied macro social work. So I went in with this, this thinking and this desire to better understand systems and policy and advocacy and leadership. And what what does that mean to do through a social work lens, but in a variety of different contexts? And I mentioned that on a personal level because I think that helps to explain some of that variety that you can you don't necessarily have to be a clinical social worker to do work with organizations and people and systems. You can be more of a systems thinker and try to navigate and problem solve and advocate for a variety of things with a non-clinical background. But part of that fairly small crew of social workers who did the macro track but then went on to do a lot of clinical work.


S1: Okay. So when you say the macro track, what does that mean?


S2: So macro, you know, in in in the context of social work, there's a I feel like I feel like sometimes social workers are their own worst enemy. We're still trying to delineate one time of social work to another. I mean, it's very similar in design. You know, it's like, are you a graphic designer or are you a human centered designer or are you a service designer or social impact design? In many ways it's like you're just a designer or you're just a social worker. But in the context, in the education. So training and preparation that you get as a social worker, you you are often really encouraged to to pick some type of a track or a specialization and and really hone in on that because it's more it's going to guide you towards the practicum or the field experience that you're going to do as part of the educational training and or really just set you up for what is going to be your maybe like early stage career within social work. So macro social work is really, it's really the, the origins of social work. So if you look back to just formal and informal social work and just a helping of other individuals and groups of people and, and communities, it was really, truly rooted in social justice and, and advocacy. So helping helping individuals on both an individual level, but on a more collective level to have a holistically better life or better outcome, whatever that might be or how that might be defined. So macro social workers are not they are not typically doing one on one therapy or what we have come to know as psychotherapy or clinician or counseling work. You're really focused on organizational health, community health, the what is the overall health and well-being of a system and what is anemic or what is systemic and what might need to be addressed at a root cause? Macro social workers are really thinking in terms of policy. What are the origins of policy, what what needs to be adapted and change because it is not serving individuals or groups of people. What are some of the different ways that that there can be a I would really say just a greater good an impact like more at scale. There are times when you're working with individuals. Of course, individuals make up systems like me, but the more system approach really is, is a just a different orientation and training that macro, more macro oriented social workers get them.


S1: So some of the work that you've done in your past in that macro track is, as you would say from speaking earlier, is includes working with people who suffered from trauma that at some levels is a fair to say?


S2: I think that's fair to say. I don't know if I would have even back then when I think back of some of the work that I've done over the past year, at this point, 20 plus years, it's like it's crazy to say that I want to be able to say, Oh, we do this a few years. But even that would be disingenuous, right? But I, I can look back and I can reflect back and realize that I've worked with a lot of individuals and systems that have been deeply traumatic. And I don't think we would have I don't think we would have identified it as that explicitly.


S1: Yeah. Because, you know, true trauma when you within is sometimes it's it's hard to actually pinpoint that is the trigger. When I was working like in there's a space in Australia that's a project that I was involved in that we discussed and some people, you know, longtime listeners will understand. I worked with vulnerable groups in New South Wales as part of a big project and the justice system and working within trauma. It gave me a new sense of respect for what trauma was like. Before I thought I kind of had a decent understanding what trauma was like. I'd experienced little bits probably in my life was when you get close to people who have suffered what can only be described as extreme trauma in terms of sexual abuse or domestic violence or any type of violence, really, I had a newfound respect what the word trauma meant and could mean. So I'm really keen to understand your perspective on what trauma means to a person.


S2: Well, it's very individualized, first and foremost. So what may be a traumatic experience or a traumatic event for you may not result in some form of either acute or just residual or long term trauma. And I think that's one of the most important things to to distinguish, is there's a there's a psychotherapist, Pat Ogden, who who often says everyone has experienced trauma, but not everyone will be traumatized. And that really helps to just understand that it's very individual and what what your childhood, what your family of origin, what your life experiences up until this point in your life. Are all contributing to how you may or may not respond to something or how it might linger. Or maybe you don't respond immediately right now. But it could it could be either trigger it or if you come up in a different kind of a setting or a situation like later on in life. I've heard of that kind of trauma, that kind of a traumatic impact with a lot of people who are especially probably around our age, like you're in middle age, you're in that you're in that messy middle of potentially caring for family members who are older than you, but also younger than you. And you're juggling like all all the different things and different life experiences that are going to maybe come up or bubble up, that are that are going to make you think about reflect on other things that may have been either extremely suppressed or dormant for a very long time.


S1: Yeah. And I'm just I'm I'm thinking about what you just said there around trauma. And when I when I encountered that project, I started researching more and more and other closer to the world. I realized that my initial target for the scope was going to be children who suffered from sexual abuse. And there was one project in the world that I was that I would never take on. It would have been when I had got close to it, I felt like the sense of obligation or this is something I need to I need to see, I need to experience. And as I got closer to it, I realized that there was so much stuff there that was just out of my league. I was like out of my depth, both culturally like the sensitivity and working with Indigenous and Aboriginal groups in Australia. Like I really had to learn very quickly about I had to work sensitively and inclusively. I felt that for me to approach this effectively and use what can only be described as a standard design process would have been hugely disrespectful because I was not skilled enough as a practitioner to approach this without the support of incredible people in the New South Wales justice system and the health system, both psychologists and social workers. And I realised at that point that it was probably my first encounter into what is now known as co-design, where I realised that I had to push myself. I was no longer the designer, I was the facilitator of those conversations between these worlds because it was bigger than me and I realised what I could potentially do and achieve with these people is far greater and I could have a much deeper impact. So I guess like I know the work that you're talking about here and I've obviously done some research on you yourself, like you called out your community to trauma response of design and practice. So am I right in saying this design generally could trivialize this as being like the who knew? All you need to do was use design to solve some of these problems. Again, it is a sense that that could be seen and that's something that I'm really hyper aware of. That design can sometimes be seen as the silver bullets to to the solution to these things. It's not it's like it's people. And bringing these people together to have these shared conversations and shared perspectives and shared experiences and be respectful to the people that we're trying to to design for.


S2: Oh, there's so much that is coming to mind. I think that design as a whole, I mean, everything is design. Everything in our world and in our awareness has been designed in some way, shape or form. So design is a is a is a beautiful and a magnificent framework to think about how we might address elements of trauma or at least, at least give them some due and very fair, very respectful consideration, you know, but design is not the silver bullets. And if it's done recklessly or careless in a careless manner, unethically, the thing that's that really started to gel with me, I'd say probably during my time when I was at Veterans Affairs and working with a wide variety of different disciplines. There was a year when I spent working with the we call them the the leader of a department called like the chief. So the chief engineer at this particular VA that I was at and I really saw this very clear cut opportunity for two very different people and personalities. And at. Educational training to be able to work together and really complement one another. Now, a lot of other things factored into that. We were roughly around the same age. We grew up within a few blocks of each other. We didn't know each other growing up, but we just we had other things that that where we were we were able to to build this trust and this very strong rapport or rapport. And I and I think about how that experience was so rooted in this foundation of respect for one another, for each other's discipline, that it was a very impactful experience on how I think about this work in a broader design context. Yeah. One of the things one of the other things that comes to mind is just you mentioned you mentioned a couple of things, Jerry. You talked about. You know, I felt like early on I had this I had this obligation to do this work, almost anticipating and knowing that it could be or it might be like too big or too much too soon or might be overwhelming. I mean, yeah, I'm like you. I haven't I haven't done a lot of work with children and I've I've been intentional with that. I know that. And I know that I'm wired a certain way and I have certain strengths. But I also, you know, there are always two sides of the coin. I'm pretty aware of some of my weaknesses as well. Yeah. And I, I, that would be be very, very hard work to do for any, for any person. But the there's this some of this work and some of these experiences. They are they are much bigger than us. And how do we how do we develop these understandings with this orientation of just really practicing with, I would say, beyond just empathy, but compassion and humility. Yeah, the compassion piece empathy is constantly used in this work and it's constant use in social work to you know, I, I remember one year I was, I was working at the, the School of Social Work where I got my degree. I was the assistant dean and I reviewed all the applications. And I, I remember making this, this little checklist on the side and, and I thought, you know, I'm going to track every single time the student uses the word empathy in their application. 100% of the students use the word empathy in their application. And as time went on, I felt like, what is this word even you like? I like the I just I don't even know if I understand what it means to be empathic. And, you know, I sometimes I'm. Anyway sentence in here.


S1: Keep talking about empathy because I mean they go hand in hand with what's typically classified as like, you know, you're working with something where there's just quite a lot of her in a lot of pain. Mm hmm. Like the role of the designers, especially, like that's being practiced and preached about design thinking and stuff is like there's a stage there called empathy in the traditional design thinking framework of empathy. We're going to do the empathy work now, and I won't go in the room. We're going to be empathetic. I always kind of laugh, this is really but deep that this is at its core what I mean, working with people and working with these complex problems, it's hard not to you'd have to be very cold not to to feel some sort of emotional response to these stories. Like it's the heart wrenching. And there's it's not just an incident of where a child lives, life, something happens and then child continues. It's it's a cycle of of mass systemic problems that range from multiple different areas. And I remember being in one of the Sydney Children's Hospitals and saying that there was a quite a low uptake for services around trauma support. I couldn't understand that. I was literally I was dumbfounded when they said this to me. I was like, so the parents bring the child in and there's not an uptake. Why the child must be going through something. And they said, You need to understand this is not the worst thing that's happening in their lives. And it was that moment of realization where I'm coming from a privileged background, I'm white, white male, I'm western European, know I'm sitting here like, okay, so the research took takes on another level, it's a much broader scope of what socio impact has been had on these people. Like, you know, I need to understand that. So it's just layers and layers of pain. It's not we can't use a cookie cutter approach to these problems. It's even wicked problems I feel is doing it at the service. So it's it's huge.


S2: It is huge. And the the piece that you mentioned about empathy, like, you know, like now we're going to do empathy like we're at the if we're at the empathy stage, you know, to me that that has always been that has always been on site. And I know I had some initial early on red flags where I thought like, huh, that's that's kind of strange that there's a there's a stage of empathy. Is empathy not part of the entire process like that should be considered and thought about and incorporated before you even begin. Like once you start out at the very end and then how do you and again like thinking and thinking about this through the lens of social work, like what would be that? How would I take care of that? And how would I pass that off warmly to the next person that might need to take good care of that situation or that individual? And I started wondering, like, is empathy a practice? Is that a muscle that you can build? Or some people just intrinsically they like motivated to do it, like no matter what, you know, I'd say all of the above are very much true. But what I see as a fairly persistent unfortunately, I do think this is changing, but what I see is a persistent way of doing empathy or being empathetic. It's very transactional and it's not relational in social work. If you are a transactional, empathic social worker, you're going to get called out. You're going to make the the life or the lives of the people you are supposedly working with or helping. You're going to make it worse. It might be immediately in that moment, but I remember distinctly just having some rough days early on as a social worker and some of the clients and individuals who I knew I was helping, they would bust me out on it. They would they would point out, like, you're not being very helpful. You know, it's like, no, I'm not. I'm in a bad mood. You know, I had a bad day and I have a baby. Kept me up all night, you know, at the time I think about some of these these experience and how and how they they bring to the surface. Like what? What does it mean to be empathic and present and understand and actually kind of like help hold some of those stories that people are sharing with us. I know we've said the word empathy a lot so far. I, I used the word compassion quite a bit because, because compassion is not without empathy, but it has more of an action oriented angle to. And so, like, what if we had a, what if we have these, like these stages and in design, but then there's just this continuum of compassion like from pre a to like the final stage of what we're doing. I think that would I think that would sit differently for us as designers and for the people we're designing with or for from.


S1: Yeah, compassion is something that I completely agree because one of my good friends, Adrian Tan, who some of the listeners might know from Prod Pod, another podcast but made that, made the point that I had his shift moving and when I was working in those worlds, I moved from an empathetic state to a sympathetic state. And I suddenly was I was wallowing in sorrow because the system was extremely complicated. And it wasn't just like looking at it from an ecosystem map. It was just layered. That was in three dimensions and it was very, very complex. And I got to the point where I just felt defeated and I was like the system from having a pretty successful track record of projects. Up to that point, I had to basically throw my hands up in the air and say, okay, maybe this one is just too difficult for me for me to tackle and let's try and see what I can potentially do to try and make an impact. And it was it's hard, but compassion from your perspective, I guess would be good to understand what people can take away from this in terms of like they might say, well, you know, I do my research. I understand the problems. I don't allow myself to get too, too close to the problem. And I try and remain as effective as possible and deliver something and then iterate from there. But I'm saying in my mind it's very difficult sometimes get out of that state because these problems aren't transactional, as you would say, from designing a wireframe. And people can't use the wireframe because X, Y and Z, these are service design projects and these are policy based projects that really at its core require systemic organizational and societal change, like a radical rethink of how we hold those mental models of our government could or should be. And those failings are really hard for a designer to to come to that conclusion. But it was for me anyway, I really struggled with the fact that my beloved design framework that I held in total regard as like we can actually go through this if we just move to the next stage, we might be able to get to get to some reality and. You might be able to. Okay. There's a lot more work to be done on this. It was bigger than me. I guess I'm keen to hear your perspective on this.


S2: Well, it's these these systems and these these design projects and processes that we are tackling within these much larger systems are incredibly complex. And you could spend your entire life trying to understand them. And I think it's if there if there is an ability or an opportunity to to have not not just compassion for others, but compassion for yourself as well. And knowing that you can't understand all of it, you can't understand all of the all of the the good and the bad and everything in between within some of these very large systems. However, can you do your due diligence to understand as much as possible so that it will be helpful for your overall work? You know, there's there's there's something to be said about understanding the context with when within where you are working. And that is going to give you an enormous onramp to understanding some of the pitfalls, but also some of the shortcomings of what you are actually able to do. I do think that there are sometimes there. I've talked with a lot of a lot of designers from at this point really around the world. So, you know, designers, design educators, social workers who want to get into design designers who are just fascinated by what social workers could and do do. And I there's this something that often comes up is I want to be able to do X, Y and Z, but I just want to be able to do it. I want to do it and I want to do it quickly. And the urgency to just rapidly solve other people's problems, I think, is part of the problem. You know, it's some of these things need time to marinate. They need time to to build that actual understanding, to include the very people that we are designing for or with or sometimes from. And the thing that I, I hear sometimes, but not often enough is this incorporation of self reflection throughout this process. And what is it like? Why am I doing this work? You know, like I almost want to turn the tables on you, Gerry, and ask, why did why did you feel that sense of obligation like all those years ago when you were working on some of the vulnerable projects? Where did that where did that sense of obligation come from? Was it because of your your earned an honour and privilege? Was it this is an issue area that that you don't necessarily understand. There's a whole host of questions that I could ask you and and encourage you to think on those several examples of why. And I, I think if when I've asked especially like younger designers, when I've asked them some of those things, like I realize that they haven't asked themselves, that they've never been really asked, that they haven't even just pause to reflect on like, why do you want to contribute to this particular project for this particular program or this particular process? You know, there's there's a lot of reasons why we might be motivated to do some of the design work that we do do.


S1: Yeah. It's the personal experience. Do you think that's something that makes working in this space more effective? Do you think if someone has experienced some level of trauma, whatever level that might be, do you think that prepares them better for working in this space?


S2: I would say it sounds like I'm hesitating on my response to my immediate my immediate reaction was, yes, absolutely. However, I have a small caveat with that. I think that there is something to be said and there is an immense value in understanding your own origin, stories of your own trauma. I do I do think, especially now that we have we have all around the world lived through and continue to live through a pandemic. I think the the statistics in the US pre-pandemic or something along the lines of 75% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life. I would wager a bet that statistic is now currently 100%. And what does that look like for you? What does that look like for you? What does it look like for me? How are you acknowledging it? How are you potentially addressing it? If it is overwhelming, then how are you recovering and integrating that into your into your life? And then. To your work. I think those latter parts are really, really scary for a lot of people. It's easy to default to, I'm just going to keep busy. I'm going to stay productive. All of the elements of white supremacy culture. To be quite honest, it's like like I why would I deal with my own stuff? I don't have any stuff. Like, that's them. And I think about something that Russell VANDERKAM said in a training I did with him back in the fall. And he was he was start he was all around the body, teach the score in trauma and preparing a ton of clinicians to have this to have this deeper understanding of of trauma and how it would affect us both psychologically but also physiologically. And he he shared this this very detailed and intimate story of of a client situation. And this is all over Zoom. So if you could hear a pin drop, you could have heard a pin drop like he was talking about this. And then he starts saying something along the lines of as clinicians and as people who are who are licensed professionals, we have got to get over this thinking that it is us as the helper and them as the person who needs help. He said, We are them like we are them. And just like that, that had a massive cognitive shift in my head. It's like, Oh my goodness, like that. We don't think of it that way. We think of it as again, like these, these elements of transaction power over like we are here to help you. You're here to save. I mean, this is this is this is a problematic and designed puzzle, but also very pragmatic and social work as well.


S1: Yeah, it's funny because that whole kind of like perspective on things and also they've got the problem. At the end of that, I came to the realization that if people, the people who receive the trauma they get, have the effects of these trauma, we are part of the problem. And like we create these problems within society, ourselves. And as a result, as a result, we have a responsibility to to look at it squarely in the eye and see what role you have to play in that problem. It may seem pretty, pretty simple in terms of being able to dilute it down to that. But in terms of what I do on a day to day basis and how I look at the world shifted after that project and some of that, some projects that you take on in your life and in your career will define you. That's what I've learned and the project that I'm speaking about, they're completely defined to me. It's the reason why a podcast is the reason why this is in existence. But when I look at homelessness and I look at drug addiction and things that I ultimately would have shied away from in my younger self, I know, like when I'm out, I do whatever I can. I'll speak to those people like and I'll say, Hey, you know, the kind of this is not me trying to say, by the way, that I'm a great person or anything of the sort. But I acknowledge their existence and they acknowledge their presence. I'll introduce my my children to these things and say, why is that person sleeping in a sleeping bag? And I'm like, Well, they are not looking or things have happened to them. I'll try and explain these things to to my children to explain that it's not something that we just shy away from and we don't shine the light on us. I think it's really important that in terms of schools and in terms of educational practices, that we we include these problems in our projects because if we are all part of the problem, we're all part of the solution. When we're working on any projects, I'll be in banking or if we're in real estate or whatever it is, they will have 100% an impact on society. There will be another thing in a broader zoomed in perspective of the world that's going to have an impact, and that's very rarely thought like that. It's being very much focused on, we'll achieve this to get our own personal and great, our business good, but it won't be considered in the socio impacts on on the project it's going to have on life. Do you think that's fair to say that this is where the shortcomings in design comes? It's it's a very narrow focus and the framing is very narrowly defined within projects in terms of we get our outcome, we're happy. Whereas they don't we seem to consider the whole total zoomed out perspective of, well, what are we designing out of the broader life ecosystem?


S2: I mean, like looking at things like intersectionality, root cause analysis. I mean, if you if you really you're just looking at an issue like homelessness, housing and homelessness, if we really looked at the root cause, we would be going far beyond the individual who is currently at risk of homelessness. Or is how? Insecure. We would look far beyond that. We would look at where like where is the where is the policy? Where is the the profit driven aspect of this that is contributing to this problem? We will look at it. We would really we would look at the power asymmetry that is that is truly significantly imbalanced and is contributing to to this plight. You mentioned something about that particular work, and and it had a lasting lifelong impact on you. And I think there's I think there's something to be said about that and thinking and reflecting on that and and considering, like, what what is that for? For us as designers? You know, for me, I can I've been a social worker at this point for 11 years, but I've been working professionally, whatever that means, professionally. You know, my air quotes for 20 plus years. And I'd say the the most the most significant work that has impacted how I think about this, which is something that I don't really talk about all that often was was capital punishment work in Chicago back in the early 2000s. That work had a profound impact on my psyche, my way of thinking in terms of systems, helping individuals, helping family systems that are impacted by maybe one individual. And that that has that has really shapes and molded and led to a why I became a social worker, why I like to think about design beyond just the like the project scope that we have at hand for this tangible, doable thing. Like I get, I get the aspect of why we, we need to have a narrow scope to, to, to maybe I can do something, but, but can we build in a broader understanding of what that context is? I mean, there's there's a, you know, thinking, thinking about and bringing it back to some of these elements of trauma. I, I think about this I think about this line that for a minute, as a social worker here in the U.S. and a a well-known trauma specialist, and the first time he said that trauma decontextualized can look like personality and like trauma in a person when detected, decontextualized can look like personality. I thought, oh, my God, you know how how much of my own stuff has been, you know, maybe distorted or influenced or put through this lens of, like, what my personality might be, you know, whether it's being cynical or being funny or being like maybe more optimistic on this particular day. I mean, those context really, really matters, but I don't think that is explicitly built into some of the projects that we work on. I don't think it is given the due diligence or the value within a lot of organizations. I think that there are individuals. This is something that I've been seeing anecdotally. I think there are a lot of individuals and teams of people that who have reached out to me who have said, you know, I feel like we're working on a blank project and we don't know what we're doing and we are not prepared to hear some of the things that we are being told. And I feel like we need to get some kind of training or build up some kind of competency in terms of being trauma informed. Can you help us? And I think, you know, what is the leadership of your organization? Who's the design director? The design lead? Are they are they aware of this? Are you are they aware that you're having some of these thoughts and reactions? You know, some people you know, there have been some who have who have explicitly shared with me that if they bring up that they are impacted by the work that they are doing, which is commonly known as vicarious or secondary trauma, that if they bring that up in organizational setting, that they are they don't use this language to how I, how I, how I've been interpreting some of this. They're seen as well. Why did you ask the questions that you ask? What did you do that elicited that kind of a response from someone? I mean, that's that's shaming behavior. That that is a shameful response to to people who are having a true human reaction to.


S1: To these.


S2: Problems, to really challenging problems.


S1: It's funny because for the listeners will know that I experienced very extreme vicarious trauma from that project. And it took me a long. Simon still kind of lingers within me, that vicarious trauma, and it's something that I had to seek professional help for for quite a while. But I felt at that time, working in the space I knew when I was within us, I was like, I'll just get through this because I need. I was that superhero syndrome where I can I can do this. I can, I can I need to be able to get through this. But just dealing with this sort of let me come to the conclusion of the weaknesses that we all possess. And I wasn't prepared so mentally, physically prepared for working in that space, you know. So as researchers, how do we better train and prepare people for this? Is is this a case that if you're that I mentioned that you're licensed? So presumably that means that you've studied some skills mechanism around self-support and support identification. I know there is and there's. Is that right.


S2: Yeah, I think that's that's fair to say.


S1: It's fair to say think as design designers and service designers, sometimes we find ourselves in these places that you don't find in the books about where to find, use a research or whatever you want to call it, a design research. They don't prepare you for some of the conversations that you're going to have around rape or child rape, these things. And you're you're sometimes stunned when I was definitely stunned in several conversations where it's still kind of like even saying those words, just they're like, you know, has a triggering effect for me. I wasn't prepared. I just was not prepared. And I think it's one of the things that we need to become better us as designers to prepare designers and design researchers for these real conversations because we shy away from them. We can't talk of them. So how do we do this? How do we prepare the next generation of designers as they're leaving universities or learning on the jobs, whatever it is, the next wave. How do we prepare them better to become more, as you would say, licensed.


S2: Self-aware or just trauma informed and informed? Yeah. You know, I there are a lot of different ways to to maybe answer that question. You know, one is one is the assumption that if you receive a formal education in design and then you have this linear path into like into doing design work, you know, whatever that aspect of that specific aspect of that might be. One way to address this is in the design curriculum in education. So whether it's these cert programs that are trying to churn out trained designers and these like eight week rapid sprints, which I think that there is good opportunities with some of that, but I think there are also massive shortcomings if we avoid some of these more difficult things. But I think in design, education is one where this is this is starting to shift at a at a higher education level, which I think is great. That needs to happen across the board and across the globe, though. So that's one. I think another is that is is really looking at this distinction between, you know, me as a social worker who has a clinical licensure who's also working in this space of design, that's that's fairly unique there there there are other social workers who are working in this context of design, which I think is which is I think that's amazing. But, you know, I'm as a as a social worker, I am held to a different standard. You know, I have my profession has a code of ethics that I have to abide by. Yeah, I had to study for a very expensive test and I had to pass that test in order to be able to call myself a licensed clinical social worker. As part of that requirement of licensure, I have to get a certain number of continuing education hours every two years, and I have to renew that and pay a fee to maintain my licensure. So there's something there's something that is that's built into this this professionalism of of of social work that is that's been around for decades. At this point, there's not an equivalent for that for design, you know. So if you have a and I'm not necessarily calling, calling out, calling that out, I guess I am kind of calling that out. And I'm not I'm not calling for a no. There should be a licensure for design should be a code of ethics for design. But I guess I would maybe a different way of thinking about this is why isn't there a code of ethics for design? Why don't you have some expectation that you have to do some type of competency based, culturally aware training on some kind of. Recurring cycle because the only the only designers who are who are thinking about these things critically and are, to be quite honest, kind of troubled by this this lack of that structure are the ones who are seeking it out on their own. So they are intrinsically motivated. They're feeling some kind of like either moral injury or a call to action to actually address this, either for themselves internally or for their team or their project that there might be working on an organization that they might work within. I So I would encourage those who are feeling that either call to action or that compass insight is guiding them to like, I need to learn more. I need to understand this better. Like keep following that feeling that you're having because there is education out there. There are different things that you can do and that you can take advantage of. Now, training for me as a social worker might look very different than training for a designer. And that's that's one of the things that I've really been as I've been partnering with different different people and talking about trauma informed design. I'm really trying to make sure that there is not this like I'm a social worker and these are things that you could and should be doing, although you are not a licensed professional design practitioner. I think that there's there's a way to at least build some foundational understanding of what it means to be trauma informed. There are some principles that are there six explicit trauma informed care principles in the US, but other parts of the world have sometimes they have four, sometimes five, sometimes it's seven. And those can be very, I think, fairly easily adopted in a design context. There are there's a handful of us who have been talking about this and are really trying to pick this apart and really think, okay, if we apply this outside of a social service agency or a health care setting where these trauma informed principles were originally designed and kind of created for like how how would this apply in the context of a design project or in the context of interviewing someone or in participatory design and co-design like this? It's I'm biased when I say this, so I'm almost hesitant to say it, but I'll say it. I think it's easily transferable now. It is a mindset shift and it is a practice that is something that I am constantly championing. So even though I've been working within a lot of social justice space for two plus decades at this point, I've been a social worker for over a decade. I am still learning too. So I have all the education, I have all the earned and underprivileged, I have all of the training and all of the practice and the experience, and I am still learning too. So I think because I think that's important to acknowledge, because I do know some things I do have a, like a grounded confidence in how I approach this, but there's still a lot to learn. And then I'm open to evolving as I as I incorporate this in my practice as well.


S1: It's really interesting you've called that out because working with people across governments, especially in Australia, they all have one thing in common and it was humility and it was the sense that they can work, work with each other and they knew what they knew, but they were also open about the fact, what they didn't know. And that's one of the most important mindsets, I guess, for designers to work in these complex spaces to to retain that humility and say, well, actually, there's an awful lot I don't know about this. What can we do as as a unit, as a team, or as I used to call them, the super teams, because they were greater than than me. But I think, like, if there was one piece of advice that you could give to designers out there who might find themselves working in spaces that we might on doing air quotes here find traumatic. How should they approach us both in terms of conversations with their design leaders? I also approach it in terms of methods, in terms of inclusion of, say, social workers or psychologists or whoever that might be. What advice would you give to them?


S2: I would definitely encourage them to. I would encourage them to include social workers in that process, whether it's ideally if it can be done throughout the entire phase of that process, which I think that there are some there is some growing interest in some demonstration projects where that is being explored and people are wanting to do that. I think if there is if there is any one piece of advice, it's to really try to detangle those psychological. Physiological reactions that you're having to this work. And so the first step really is acknowledging that something is off or something is you might be out of your league. You need to bring in some other people. I'm hesitant to suggest that there is a checklist because I think that gets us in this trap of of more transactional versus relational. However, I do think that there are some specific methods that can be incorporated and in what it might mean to be trauma informed, to trauma responsive when you're doing design. I, I really think that if you suspect that you're out of your league, you're 100% out of your league when you're you're doing some of this work. I have I've had those feelings myself, even as a social worker. I remember early on and again at Veterans Affairs helping someone, you know, I have this training and I'm and I'm bright eyed and bushy tailed and I'm ready to help and solve all these different problems that are coming my way. But sometimes someone will come in and they are so overwhelmed with their own tension and anger and frustration of the system that I could not with all my skill sets and all my training and all my experience, I could not de-escalate them effectively in that moment. I had to bring in an additional person to help me like run interference with that. I think I think just knowing that sometimes you have to call in others to assist. And that's what we call that failure in design. I would actually call that a massive strength.


S1: And one of the things, as I called it afterwards, was working within the team had this kind of self check in where it was. It was mandatory to talk about these things amongst the group. And even though like I was part of a team that was really, really brilliant, they had identified some things, I guess, but it was only, only due to my own kind of doings of seeking external help of a psychologist that I was able to do that. Like I didn't want to show weakness. And that was more of a cultural thing and it was probably a personal thing as well, where I just didn't want to show that the work was piling up. But I mean, from it, from a method perspective, I totally agree with not making this a checklist activity and saying, okay, well, you could do these three things and then it would be alright. It's not, it's, it's really these topics and these things that we find ourselves sometimes researching and designing for and design with, they need greater emphasis on and we need to be able to give it as much respect as possible. I just don't think it's possible from a design perspective just to approach us unilaterally. I think it has to be an inclusive process. So any any of the work that needs to be done needs to be done within the team, not just design meeting way, but also like having social workers, psychologists like what we're actually part of the team that's going to try and understand this together. I think that will make much more that make better sense from a design perspective in my world and my perspective and thoughts.


S2: And then I would, I mean, I would say the same. And I something that I started wondering just even a few weeks ago was, well, if there if there isn't a code of ethics for design as a whole, design as a discipline and as a profession, what if we started thinking about it again? Let's start with so what? What would be your personal code of ethics? And you don't necessarily need to share that with anyone. But but if you were to outline what you are willing and able to do and what you are unwilling and unable to do, that's going to give you some significant insight on where your strengths might be, where your weaknesses might be, and where there is potential to do more harm or to retraumatize someone then to add to not. And we start literally with the micro, which is understanding your sense of self, your motivation to do this work and really doing almost like a, you know, an analysis of what are you what are you able and capable of doing? Now, this might not apply to every single design scenario. I would I would wager a bit that everything is is deeply interconnected, though, and that any of these practices of being trauma informed for any of these methods that might be done as a team like you're actually acknowledging that there might be vicarious trauma that individuals on our team may be experiencing. Is there enough trust within that team to be able to bring that up? If there isn't, then you might be hearing about it ten, 20 years later, when you have an interaction or a run in with that person and they share, Hey, when I was working on such and such project, I was, you know, I was. I was. So young and I didn't understand what was really happening. But when someone shared like fill in the blank traumatic thing, it really had an impact on me. And it's and it's kind of lingered for a really long time. I have heard dozens of stories like that from from people from all over the world. Now, if I if those are things that people are really sharing with me, someone who ostensibly that they do not know, then that I would I would think that that is probably happening on a much more wider, unknown, systemic level.


S1: Absolutely. Rachel, we're working towards the end of the episode on my first one case, I forget. I want to thank you so much for giving me your time this morning. I know you got extra early to speak with me, so in case I forgot to do it on the podcast. Thank you for your time is truly appreciate it. But if people want to reach out to you and learn more about what you do, what's the best way for people to connect with you? And also, I can put those links into the show notes.


S2: Yeah. So I think probably the two probably the two best ways. LinkedIn is definitely a good way. I have I have probably connected with nearly a thousand people just for me. Then I used to really underestimate the power of LinkedIn.


S1: Yeah.


S2: Feel like I'm like a spokesperson for them and I'm totally not. So finding me on LinkedIn is definitely, is definitely one way, but also through my to my site and to my work. Social workers, you design is definitely a good way.


S1: Fantastic. I put those links into the show notes. But Rachel, thank you so much for your time.


S2: Yeah, this has been awesome.


S1: So there you have it. That's all for this episode of Bringing Design Closer. If you like this episode, feel free to visit. This is eight sitcom where you can access our back catalog of over 100 episodes with episodes related to service design, product management, design, research, and much, much more. If you're interested in design and innovation training, feel free to check out our business. This is doing e-comm where you can join online classrooms and learn from the world's best design and innovation leaders. Join that. This is eight city newsletter where you receive updates from the network and also, if you're interested, apply to join the Slack community. And this is Stay safe. And until next time, take care.

John Carter
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