Empovia rainbow gradient logo made up of three overlapping circles in increasing sizes with the Empovia wordmark next to it in a bold black font in all caps

Designing Anti-Oppressive Products & Services With Sandra Camacho

What are the key principles of inclusive design? How can we use those principles to create equitable and anti-oppressive products and services?

In Episode 129, Sandra Camacho, Inclusive Design Consultant, Educator & Strategist at Sandra By Design, joins Melinda in an informative discussion on techniques for designing anti-oppressive products & services. They discuss the importance of centering the needs of marginalized communities and considering intersectional identities throughout the product development and design process. They also dive into ways we can challenge and disrupt oppressive norms and systems to promote solutions that are accessible and beneficial for all individuals.

Additional Resources

This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.

Watch Episode

Subscribe To The Show

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe on your fav app to catch our weekly episodes.

Accessibility: The show is available on YouTube with captions and ASL interpretation. Transcripts of each episode are available by clicking on the episode titles below.

Subscribe to our Podcast newsletter

I’ve gravitated towards calling ‘inclusive design’ [as] design for social change which can span across not just diversity & inclusion, accessibility…. but looking to extend that towards equity and justice…, ethics, and care & healing…, focusing on how we can use inclusive design— or just design in general— as a way to disrupt oppressive norms & systems to ensure that all sorts of people are able to access, fully benefit from, and find delight in the solutions that we built.
Guest Speaker

Sandra Camacho

Inclusive Design Consultant, Educator & Strategist at Sandra By Design

Sandra Camacho (She/Her) is a multicultural Inclusive Design consultant, educator, and strategist based in Paris, France. She’s also the founder of the Inclusive Design Jam, a global community and academy on inclusive and equitable design. She started her career at Google, where she spent 8 years working in product, innovation, and learning & development in the U.S. and Europe. She left in 2018 to pursue her dreams of designing for social impact under the alias Sandra By Design. Today, she helps product and design teams around the world build thriving work cultures and socially impactful solutions.

Learn more about the host and creator of Leading With Empathy & Allyship, Melinda Briana Epler.


MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & AllyShip. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Empovia, formally Change Catalyst. I’m also the author of How to Be an Ally, and your host for this show. 


What is allyship? Allyship is empathy in action. We learn what people are uniquely experiencing, we show empathy for their experience, and we take action. As a part of that process, we learn and unlearn and relearn. We work to avoid unintentionally harming people with our words and actions. We advocate for people, and we lead the change on our teams, in our organizations, and across our communities. 


In this episode, you’ll learn tangible actionable steps that you can take to lead the change to be a more inclusive leader, no matter what your role is. Want to learn more? Visit Empovia.co to check out more of my work. 


All right, let’s get started. 


Today, our guest is Sandra Camacho, who is an Inclusive Design Consultant, Educator & Strategist, at Sandra By Design. She started her career at Google, working on Product Innovation and Learning and Development, and left to pursue her dreams of designing for social impact. So she currently helps product and design teams around the world to build thriving work cultures and socially impactful solutions. Today, we’ll be discussing how products can reinforce the underlying patterns of oppression, and how we can build anti-oppressive products, services, and technology. 


So welcome, Sandra. Looking forward to this important conversation.


SANDRA: Thank you, Melinda, for having me. Excited to be here. 


MELINDA: Yeah. Sandra, let’s start with your story. Where did you grow up, and what was the path that led you to do the work that you do now?


SANDRA: Yeah. So I love, I was about to say I love talking about myself. But why I love talking about my personal journey is because it’s so intricately connected with the work that I do today. The biggest part of that is because I have grown up and lived in many different countries, and constantly shifted across languages. So where I was born was in South America and Colombia, where I have a big, big, extended family, they’re all still there. But my close family and I, parents and siblings, moved to the US when I was about six years old. I got the chance to experience America as an immigrant, a very young immigrant, kind of learning the ropes of American culture, and how to speak English, and how to assimilate into my new surroundings. I would say that I didn’t know this at the time. But it was many years later that I discovered that the city that we moved to, was actually fairly conservative. And why I mention this is because I had a lot of identity issues growing up, being caught between American and Colombian culture, between English and Spanish, and not really necessarily knowing or understanding my place, and who I really was and where I could be accepted and where I could belong. It wasn’t until about high school and even college years that I started to really unpack these larger systems that we’re living in. So multiculturalism, colonialism, racism, xenophobia, all these sorts of things that I didn’t really understand when I was a kid, they started to really become a lot more clear to me once I started studying them. So I ended up studying international relations and French, but focusing on politics and culture and identity. In a way, it was because of my own journey and trying to understand myself. Ultimately, a love for foreign cultures and foreign languages took me to France, which is where I live today.


MELINDA: Awesome. How did you end up doing the work that you do now? What did that path look like?


SANDRA: Yeah. I would say that there are a couple of different routes to how I’ve gotten here. Because right now, everything’s intersecting, but it didn’t look like that before. So the first starting path is really design, and that started when I was a kid. So I’m a self-taught designer, I was kind of tinkering on the computer when I was like nine or 10 years old, teaching myself how to build websites, how to design graphics, and that became a passion and a hobby. Like I mentioned, I studied politics, culture, and identity. So I was already in the DEI or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion world from an academic standpoint, but not necessarily connecting it to a career. Then ultimately, worked in tech for quite some time, trying to figure out how do I bring together these passions for culture, for design, and for social impact, which was also something really important to me. Ultimately, how I ended up here was by leaving behind my career at Google. 


In the midst of that, I went back to design school, I got to spend some time in an NGO while I was in school during sabbatical leave. It was all these disparate things that eventually, back in, I would say 2018, started to come together in intersecting ways, which is what I call inclusive design now. So bringing together personal passions, design, and then of course, all the things that I learned in the corporate world and in tech, and trying to figure out how can we start to make change in the world. Especially when it comes to building large-scale technology and products and services that people use on a day-to-day basis, that aren’t necessarily built with everyone in mind, and as you mentioned in the very beginning, that end up perpetuating harms, even unintentionally. So that’s how I ended up here.


MELINDA: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. Thank you for sharing your story, too. There’s a common theme in a lot of our episodes, where people have come from different underrepresented backgrounds, marginalized backgrounds, with our personal experience really shaping how we end up showing up in the world with our work. So I appreciate that you’re sharing that. 


I wonder if we could go into some definitions first, before we go deep into the heart of our topic today. You mentioned inclusive design, let’s start there. Can you define inclusive design? What does that mean? What does that look like?


SANDRA: That’s a great question. Because I’ve been exploring this for quite some time, and trying to actually challenge the ways that inclusive design has been “traditionally” defined, specifically in tech, but even across industries. Traditionally, inclusive design is seen as a way to bring in more diverse people, especially those who are underrepresented or underserved, into the design process, in order to value the perspectives and to address their needs in the design process. I would say that something I’ve been working on is to actually break down this definition, because as the topic that we’re talking about today refers to, there’s no mention of equity, there’s no mention of oppression, there’s no mention of structural barriers. We’re kind of living ourselves, so let’s just bring in more people, and then, voila, our problems are solved! We know that the reality isn’t that simple. 


So I’ve been exploring new ways to redefine and expand that definition, which I’ve gravitated towards calling inclusive design, design for social change, which can span across not just diversity and inclusion and accessibility, which are the usual domains that we see associated with inclusive design. But looking to extend that towards equity and justice, towards ethics and care and healing, and really focusing on how can we use inclusive design, or just design in general, as a way to disrupt oppressive norms and systems, to ensure that all sorts of people are able to access, fully benefit from, and find delight in the solutions that we built. So that is my redefined definition of inclusive design that is a little bit broader.


MELINDA: I love it, and the world would be a better place if we all used products or designed products and services that were more inclusive and used. Maybe you could share a little bit about how we go about inclusive design. What is that? What are the main components of it?


SANDRA: Yeah. So I like to think of it along the lines of a variety of key principles that can help to guide, not just designers. I think I even like to point out the word design in inclusive design. Because a lot of people tend to automatically think of a professional designer, so an architect, a product designer, a UX designer or a user experience designer, a graphic designer. I really am part of the camp of folks who sees design as problem-solving, with creativity, and even just making day-to-day decisions, but with intent and with thought behind them. So for me, it starts there, rethinking the design process and who’s involved in it. A lot of the times, historically, products and services and technology are built by people primarily in the corporate sector, private sector, people who have been trained and have gone through certain types of schooling. There’s certain sorts of principles and rules for what good design is. 


The goal with inclusive design practices, we can call it equitable design or anti-oppressive design, there’s a lot of names for it. But the goal with that is really to challenge who is doing the designing, who are we designing with, instead of just designing for people, coming into community with those, especially who are underrepresented and underserved today, and then figuring out what are we designing and how are we designing it? How can we start to challenge and disrupt that? That’s, for instance, making sure that we’re centering the needs and the voices of marginalized communities, that we’re accounting for intersectional identities, meaning that we’re not thinking of people as just belonging to one singular identity group, such as all women or all Black folks, but really thinking about the intersections of identity. The fact that when you’re designing a product, the way that that product will be experienced is going to be different for someone who, for instance, is Black and disabled, compared to someone who is Black and a part of the LGBTQ community, or someone who is not Black at all and who has some sort of other marginalized or dominant identity. So it’s all about thinking of what’s that multiplicity of experiences that we need to design for, and how can we ensure that we’re bringing those people into the design process, and not just including them, but actually shifting power towards them? I know that’s something that we’re going to uncover and unpack a bit further later on. 


But yeah, I would say that’s point number three. That it’s not just about asking people what they want, or doing interviews with people that perhaps we haven’t spoken to in the past. But it’s actually shifting those wheels of decision-making and influence, to ensure that we’re not forwarding that power, especially amongst those who already have the most privilege and tend to perpetuate the status quo.


MELINDA: Yeah, thank you. There’s so many examples of products, tech products in particular, that because there’s such a large scale, I think these examples are so prevalent out there in the world and creating harm. Just taking Google, for example, several years ago, Image Search Engines identified Black people as gorillas. I just read an article recently that they actually haven’t fixed it, that the fix so far has been that they just turned it off. So you if you search for gorillas, not much comes up as a result. So the problem hasn’t ultimately been fixed. Of course, we’re hearing a lot when we talk about AI and the new dominance of AI in all kinds of ways, Chat-GPT, the reinforcement and amplification of sexist, racist, and ableist, and also heteronormative stereotypes that are coming out as a result. Because they’re programmed by humans who have biases and assumptions, and they’re also looking at the historical record of all of those things in the internet. So that’s, I think, what we’re designing against or redefining, so that we don’t want to build those things, so that we’re building them in a new way. 


But could you talk about, we talked about systems of oppression, what should we be thinking about when we’re designing products and services?


SANDRA: Yes, these are all great points. That example I actually use a lot in my decks, and people are so surprised. They’re like, what do you mean that people are identified as gorillas? It just doesn’t even really make sense. That’s the problem with a lot of things, that these sorts of harmful patterns that perpetuate oppression, sometimes tend to fall under the radar. Because you could say, on one hand, there’s a lot of talk around unconscious bias. So people tend to design products with a specific default user in mind, or perhaps the team tends to have over-representation of certain identities. So an engineering team may perhaps be predominantly White or male, with a certain degree of education, certain socio-economic status. So clearly, their perspective, their worldview, their assumptions are going to trickle themselves into the technology that they build. So that is a common argument that I hear. And where I like to challenge that and encourage us to move beyond that, and to start to think a bit more systemically, is to realize that, in fact, racism, or I should say, a system that’s tied to White supremacy, this hetero-patriarchy, these larger systems are embedded in all aspects of the world around us. So it’s not just a question of individual bias, or even team-level bias, meaning just a handful of engineers who unknowingly choose datasets that don’t have a diverse enough, for instance, diverse enough representation of people across skin tones, across genders, across levels of ability, etc. That’s what leads to algorithms that don’t necessarily capture the reality of people’s real experiences. 


But to me, that’s a limited point-of-view. As we start to zoom out and out, we start to see, well, part of that is because of hiring, meaning that these teams aren’t homogenous just because they’re homogenous, but rather because there are structural barriers that make it more difficult for certain individuals from marginalized groups to even enter the tech industry, to get into these teams, and to even have decision-making power and influence over those teams. So there have been many instances of a lot of very vocal whole Black women in AI who have spoken up, not just about culture and about lack of representation, but also about bias, and also about inequities that are built into a lot of these technologies that are being built. They are being gaslit, they are being invalidated, they are even being pushed out of organizations. That’s not simply a result of bias, this is active discrimination; this is a reflection of a larger system. This is hetero-patriarchy and White supremacy combined, that pushes against any sort of challenges, against the status quo that dictates, as I’m sure you’ve talked about in previous episodes, that dictates that certain folks have the most degree of power and the most degree of influence, and that’s how that power balance should stay in place. 


So when I start to think about how can we start to move towards more anti-oppressive products and services and technology and how they’re designed, we have to be thinking about not just the biases that are embedded in the process, not just about the assumptions that we make. But thinking about what are the ways that White supremacy, for instance, embeds itself into organizational culture? How might we be perpetuating certain patterns of the patriarchy with regards to who actually makes decisions, who’s being listened to within a team? How can we start to, for instance, look at the objectives, and maybe the workflows and processes and how they’re defined? So thinking about, for instance, the timelines that are set. So a lot of the time when I hear pushback for inclusive design, or what we can also call product inclusion or product equity, is that we don’t have time for this; we don’t have time to de-bias, or we don’t have time to diversify our teams, or the people we do research with, we don’t have time to unpack and do some critical thinking about what are the gaps that we might be overlooking, or what are the sorts of harms that we might be generating, even unintentionally. That’s what gets me thinking that, well, urgency is also tied to a system, and that’s a system of capitalism. 


So again, we start to see that there’s all these interlocking pieces that are part of the system, that are woven into how we work, and we have to unpack all of those different little pieces. It’s going to take time. The question is, how do we get people to buy into this, to understand the value, and to, in a way, have enough courage to allow for your team or even your leadership to take a chance to disrupt the status quo? Because the world doesn’t always react positively. There are, you could say, business risks associated with it. But I would say the rewards, in terms of human benefits and social benefits, far outweigh the business risks. There are business benefits as well, but that’s a whole nother topic.


MELINDA: Yeah. I would say the business risks in not doing it are pretty significant too, ultimately. One of the things you talked about earlier is empathy. I think there’s a system, or a part of the system that you haven’t mentioned yet, and I think this is what happens when companies grow. You have this big massive Google, or big massive company that you’re now trying to change, and you’re trying to change the systems and processes that you use in order to design products and build products. It starts from the very beginning. I’ve done a lot of work with entrepreneurs and designers who often make assumptions about people. I think it’s embedded a lot in that initial design process that we teach entrepreneurs. 


The other day, I was working with a product team, and I was talking about empathy and working with them on how to deepen their empathy skills. The designers were like: “Oh, we know this, we’re designers, we build empathy maps all the time.” So for those of you listening or watching that don’t know this, many startup models begin that design process with what Steve Blank calls get out of the building, as in go do your user research at the very beginning. It’s usually literally go out of the building and talk to people on the street, and talk to potential users, and get an understanding of why they would use your product, how they would use your product. Then you build an empathy map, a paper map or a digital map, where you’re looking at their wants and their needs and their pain points and their potential gains by using your products. So there’s a lot of those built-in assumptions happening, it’s very focused on how do you make money by designing things for people. It brings a lot of harmful stereotypes, a lot of harmful, potentially systemic issues as well. 


How do you, because I know you work with designers, how do you work with designers on going beyond that surface-level empathy maps, the personas, the customer journeys, and go deeper? It’s a big system that we’ve been using in product and system design for decades, I would say, at least the last two decades.


SANDRA: Yeah. I mean, you’ve hit the nail on the head on this. Because that goes back to what is good design, and questioning even how we’ve been taught to design. I would say, even thinking of my own background, I am a self-taught designer. I did go back to design school, but it was for design strategy, and then I focused on social design. So I started thinking about questions of social impacts. So when we build something, who’s actually being affected, or how can we start to drive change in the world with design? I think when that is necessarily happening in a designer’s educational path, a lot of the times, the way to challenge that is on the job. But then you have a lot of design teams that they don’t necessarily have access to education around inclusion or around equity, they’re not necessarily thinking about it. If they’re even getting exposed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as topics, that’s happening really more on an HR or culture or people side of things. 


So for me, even before we start the actual doing and implementing and activating, what I like to focus on is on that education. So how can we get designers and anyone that is tangentially connected to the design world, so you could be a marketer, or a UX writer, an engineer, a data scientist. If you’re involved in some sort of way in the design or the development of a solution that real people are going to use, to me, this is going to be relevant to you. So that education piece is understanding, once I’ve been taught about, for instance, who are my target users, how do I go about collecting data on those users? There’s these principles that we get from human-centered design or from user centricity or user-centered design. It’s this assumption that when we go and talk to people, we’re able to assess their needs, we’re able to understand and see the world through their eyes. Of course, the definition of empathy. 


To me, it starts from unpacking the fact that empathy is actually very difficult to practice, especially when you are exposed to people who are very different from yourself. There are a variety of research studies, and I’m happy to share them as a follow-up, that show how difficult it is to conduct research with someone who is different from your tribe, meaning who doesn’t look like you, who doesn’t come from the same background. There’s a lot of things that are happening on an unconscious level, where we actually have to actively and very intentionally remove ourselves and figure out: how is my own identity, my own worldview, my own perspective, bleeding into the types of questions that I ask, the types of interpretations that I make, even the types of people that I end up gravitating towards. Even if you’re going out in the field and just talking to people, it’s like, well, who do you gravitate towards? There might be some patterns there, and we’re not always aware of those patterns. So those are the small things to start with. So challenging those preconceived notions and the way that you’ve been taught, figuring out those small behaviors that you may not be aware of that you’re engaging in, that may be reflective of potential bias. 


Then ultimately, I think one thing that we haven’t touched upon is, even rethinking research all together. And what I mean by that is, when we think of research, you’re going out. I mean, the most scientific way of describing someone who participates in research is a research subject. Already the term subject tells us a lot about the power, the power differentials, dynamics between the researcher and the subject, which it makes me think of like a mouse in a lab. Even if you think of a lot of usability testing, testing the usability of a product, it happens in a lab environment. So there’s this notion of hierarchy between the person coming out and wanting to learn about person, and the person who’s getting information. And when we start to think of, well, the wording has evolved, and people call those participants, research participants. But even there, when we think of the word participant, there’s a lack of degree of agency involved in that, meaning that I actually don’t have a lot of knowledge as to what my data is going to be used for. I don’t necessarily have influence over how the data is used, what decisions get made after the fact; no one keeps me in the loop as a research participant, or this happens very infrequently. A lot of the times when you think of compensation, people aren’t necessarily being remunerated for the work that they’re doing, they’re not necessarily getting recognized, there’s no attribution or credit. Because they are providing insights, they’re providing business value, and that in a way is being extracted from them in exchange for sometimes nothing, or a gift card of $25 or $50. 


So all those sorts of things, when you start to look at research through that lens, you realize, this is actually a vehicle for capitalism, the extractive and exploitative nature of capitalism to rear its head. Meaning, we take from people, and we label that as human-centered design, or human-centered innovation, or user insights. But at the end of the day, who’s benefiting? That’s the taker. 


So I think that there’s a lot of work to be done there to start to shift those power dynamics. So instead of seeing people as research subjects or participants, how can we start to see them really more as co-designers, bringing them in into positions with greater degree of agency, where they actually have a say on what’s going to be designed, how it’s going to be designed. They may not necessarily have the same traditional and professional design background, but there’s lived experience that is also just as valuable and as insightful. Especially when the goal is to design something that as many people can benefit from, there is a wealth of knowledge that should be honorably, not extracted from people, but recognized and celebrated and rewarded. 


So to me, I think that’s where there are certain teams, and even in large tech companies that are moving more in this direction, they’re building product inclusion teams, product equity teams. They’re bringing in folks from more diverse communities. They’re partnering with research organizations that recruit folks from marginalized communities; they’re partnering with nonprofits. So I think there’s a lot of work to be done, but you can’t do it all at once. So to me, it’s starting with, let’s just do the education, let’s start just rethinking, questioning, and then the day-to-day behaviors, and then ultimately work towards that workflow, that cultural change, and ultimately, greater systemic change in an organization.


MELINDA: Yeah, I heard you shift that language shifting from subjects, to participants, to partners. That, I think, would be a huge shift in and of itself, to think about that differently. Not just at the beginning stages of designing a product, all throughout both the development of the product and the rollout of the product. Troubleshooting along the way as you find systemic inequities built within that, unpacking that together as well as a partnership. 


SANDRA: Yeah, exactly. Because I think there’s a really good example of this, of what not to do. But I like to actually learn from folks that are making efforts to do things more inclusively, but sometimes get things wrong, because we can learn from that. This is an example, I talk about this regularly. But I think there’s just so many learnings to draw from the work of Nike. So this is really more thinking about physical products, but there’s a lot of analogies that can be made with any sort of digital product or service or any sort of technology that’s being built. And what we can learn from them in terms of mistakes that they’ve made along the way, is that they created, and you may or may not have heard of this, but it’s called Go FlyEase sneakers that came out about two years ago. It’s the latest model of these hands-free shoes, which initially had been designed much more in partnership with the disability community. But in this second release of the shoes, about six or seven years later, they really leaned into the marketing of hands-free shoes that anyone can use. Like, if you’re a mom at home that’s running late from work, and there’s so much going on, you can just slip your feet into the shoes, and you’re going to walk away happy. 


And what fell short in that is that once they actually brought the product to market, they didn’t think about the price point and the accessibility of that price point. Especially knowing that folks with disabilities, if we think of things through the lens of intersectionality, they’re likely to have lower rates of employment, lower degrees of disposable income. There wasn’t any sort of priority access that was imagined for them. When you think of even marketing and messaging, it really downplayed the fact that this was created with and for the disability community, really emphasizing the mass market appeal of the product, that we’re making this better for everyone. But again, thinking back to that principle of inclusive design, of centering the voices and the perspectives of marginalized communities, they didn’t do that. Because they opted for, how can we build something scalable and profitable, but still have the goodwill of the fact that it’s going to also help folks with disabilities? 


So to me, that’s an example of like, not just you have to think, like you said, about doing this work from the very beginning of the process. It really has to also be cross-functional. So it’s not just about the product design team building a product that ergonomically, and in terms of materials, or in terms of just the design itself, can work for as many people as possible. But it’s also thinking of, well, when we get that product into someone’s hands, how are we thinking about those barriers to access, and how can we start to decrease them, especially those who are going to be disproportionately affected? So in this case, those who are lower income, or those who, for instance, don’t even have an internet connection; they were only available online. So those sorts of things, they touch on, for instance, marketing teams, communications teams, PR teams. Again, thinking of that interconnectivity, not just of the systems, but also within an organization, how can we start to think of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, through a holistic lens? And when it comes to the design of products, services, and technology, it’s not just about the engineers and the designers, but about all sorts of folks, including the top decision-makers, and making sure that they’re bought in and that they’re supportive and sponsoring the work from start to finish. 


MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. I want to ask another question here. That we often work with global teams, and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and systems of oppression even overall, are seen as an American problem. So I know that you are in Paris, and you work with a lot of European teams. Can you address that? Is it an American problem?


SANDRA: That’s so fascinating. I even had a conversation with someone on this very, very recently, where we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. I think that, to me, is actually the biggest takeaway, is that my personal opinion on this is that there are definitely a lot of parallels in what we see in a North American context, in terms of history, in terms of the influence of political systems, so thinking about the legacies of colonialism and imperialism, all these sorts of things. This is a worldwide thing, and to be honest, we think of Eurocentrism, like the center is Europe. So for me, I use my background in international relations, and I like to point back to history. Because it shows us that the origins of a lot of these systems of domination and exerting power over others stem from hundreds and hundreds of years ago, if not thousands of years ago. You could say the cis-hetero patriarchy is something that cuts across borders, unless you are talking about a matriarchal society, which few exist. I know there are some cultures that do have these traditions and that sort of heritage. 


But if we’re thinking, I’m just thinking, for instance, of a European context in which I operate. Those sorts of systems are very, very present, and the remnants of that can be found in the policies and laws and the social norms. Something that I experience on a day-to-day basis being here in France, where for instance, immigrants are, I don’t want to say treated here, but the assumption is that immigrants should assimilate into the culture and should become French. In a way, it kind of implies that you leave behind your own identity. To me, that’s already a power system in play, that themes Frenchness, which Frenchness in a way, and they’ll never say this out loud, but we associate it with, or at least I’ve experienced it. Technically, I’m French on paper, but because of my accent, because of the way that I look, and because of my life journey, I will never be seen as French. Even though the French universalism dictates that anyone who is a French citizen is seen as French, and that should surpass any other identities such as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, etc.


So to me, the fact that I’ve personally experienced this, I see it show up day-to-day with organizations I work with in my day-to-day life, to me shows us that racism and xenophobia and sexism and misogyny, these cut across borders. Even if race is defined differently in France, or in Germany, or in the UK, compared to the US, we’re still seeing social hierarchies, and we’re still seeing differences in terms of how people are treated; we’re still seeing barriers. Perhaps the regulatory environment in each country might look different, perhaps the social norms. For instance, I’ve worked with Scandinavian clients, and they talk a lot about Scandinavians exceptionalism, meaning we’re a socialist country, everyone’s equal. They have problems, too. There is a racism problem, there is a xenophobia problem. So to me, it’s important, again, in my opinion, to take the local and the regional context into account. But I personally am of the opinion that these larger systems head across all countries, and they will just manifest themselves a little bit differently in each. So the approach does need to be personalized and localized. But the roots of it, in my opinion, are common across cultures.


MELINDA: I agree completely. So talking about those solutions, circling back to the solutions, you talk specifically about how it’s a huge problem, and you’re focused particularly on the learning side. What are some things that you do that you would recommend people think about, in terms of the learning and the growth that needs to happen?


SANDRA: Yeah. So I personally like to have people feel uncomfortable. But what I mean by that, I mean it’s something very similar to the work that we do on the culture side of things, so with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. So unpacking that power, the privilege, the bias. There are, I think, some exercises that are helpful for designers in particular, who assume themselves to be very neutral, to be very objective. So what I like to do is two sets of exercises. So one exercise is a positionality exercise, which folks might be familiar with. But it’s actually being able to, for instance, take your design team or even look at a research panel, so people who are part of user research that you’re doing or user testing, and being able to identify the sorts of identities that are present and the identities that are not present, and understanding how that has an impact in terms of which sorts of user needs are we prioritizing, which voices are we potentially overlooking, whose voices tend to dominate the discussion? How does that tie to the power that is associated with the social identity that person may have? So I like to do that first exercise. 


A second exercise is actually bringing in folks. So I’ll unpack this. So a lot of times, designers and researchers, they do spend time listening to people’s stories. But usually, they have a lot of control over the storytelling, because usually they have a set of questions that they ask someone. So if your set of questions isn’t expansive enough or haven’t been de-biased in a way, to allow you to collect deeper and richer insights. For me, one thing that I like to do is actually have folks who are part of marginalized communities come in, and just have a chance, if they feel safe and secure to do this. So the conditions that you do this in really do matter, so making sure there’s trust and confidentiality, and even anonymity if required. But having folks be able to tell their stories. So I fid this, for instance, with a French client, where I had a panel of three people, each representing very different intersectional identities. I had just some high-level questions I prepared ahead of time to have them tell us about their experiences with oppressive or with discriminatory or biased products and services. Instead of having the audience ask them questions, I just had them speak freely, be able to ask questions to one another. I was able to guide the discussion a little bit. But the goal was just to really be present, and to just have active listening, and try, as much as possible, just to hit the brakes on those automatic assumptions and biases that crop up and that desire to put people into personas and people into these rigid frameworks. 


So those are the two places I like to start with. So figuring out within the team or the sorts of people you work with, what identities are represented, and all of the questions that cascade from that. Then on the other side is just practicing that active listening, and shifting the power dynamics. So that you’re not asking questions and focusing on you, but rather, you’re just there to learn, and trying to foster that curiosity for others. And what I like to do as well is just ask folks, what were your immediate assumptions, even just when the people showed up in the room? Then after you listened to them, how were those assumptions or potential biases perhaps shifted? How did they evolve; was anything invalidated, was anything surprising? I think just even having a conversation like that is a really good starting point to start to think a little bit more critically about how you do the work.


MELINDA: Thank you for sharing that. So we’re coming to the close of our conversation. I wanted to ask you, based on our conversation today, what action you would like people to take coming away from our conversation. 


SANDRA: Yes. So my number one action is, in order for us to really be able to be more discerning about how oppression shows up in the design process, and also in design outcomes, design outcomes meaning the product or service or technology that you’re using, even on a day-to-day basis, is that you have to know what oppression looks like. So what I like to do is to help folks as much as possible, to start to notice patterns around them, start to jot down: “Oh, I used a product, and if I were a person with a disability, for instance, would this product to actually be as accessible?” If I don’t know this, maybe I need to go out and read, or maybe go on Instagram, or watch a video or a TED talk, about a specific group or an intersexual identity group, and just better learn about their experiences. So to me, it starts from there. 


And what I’ve done is I’ve actually built a Starter Guide, it’s a free guide for folks, that actually unpacks a variety of examples to show us day-to-day. For instance, the metro system in Paris. For instance, policies like gerrymandering. I think even Apple Air Tags, and how those can be used and abused by folks to enact harm and violence on others. So it’s all of these myriads of ways of of how the world around us can lead to inequitable and oppressive experiences, especially for marginalized groups. So to me, that is the very first step. Afterwards, it’s a question of unpacking, so doing that inner work, and then ultimately, the self-education that should be happening at the same time, leading up to small-scale change, the small behavioral changes on a day to day basis. Not, again, looking to transform your design process one day after another. It’s just not going to happen. But yeah, it just starts by being more mindful and being more discerning about how those patterns show up, and how can I start to eventually disrupt those patterns?


MELINDA: Excellent. Where can people learn more about you and your work?


SANDRA: Sure. So as I mentioned in the beginning, or you mentioned this, so my alias is Sandra By Design. So you can find me on all social media under the alias Sandra By Design. Also, SandraByDesign.com. I run a community called the Inclusive Design Jam, and we have a lot of free resources within the academy of that community. The goal is just to try to get this education towards as many people as possible. So you’re welcome to join us in the community, or just check out some of the free materials that we have, to learn a bit more about the topic. 


MELINDA: Awesome. Thank you, Sandra. Thank you for this conversation. 


SANDRA: Thank you so much. 


MELINDA: And we’ll add the resources that we discussed in our show notes. So you can go to ally.cc and learn more about each of those resources, and find those resources on our websites, or in the show notes of whatever podcast, or YouTube platform you are using. Just a call to action to everyone. Please do take action, deepen your empathy, do that internal inner work. Know what oppression looks like, and learn to recognize where your products and services or the technology you use could be reinforcing systems of oppression, and then take action. 


All right, we will see you all next week. Thank you all for listening and watching. 


Thank you for being part of our community. You’ll find the show notes and a transcript of this episode at ally.cc. There you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter with additional tips. This show is produced by Empovia, a trusted learning and development partner, offering training, coaching, and a new e-learning platform, with on-demand courses focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. You can learn more at Empovia.com. 


Allyship is empathy in action. So what action will you take today?