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Rainbow Unit: Networks Big and Small

4B: Community-Centered Design: An Emergent Strategy for Community Organizing and Action

As a teenager working in the family sawmill, I found myself working closely with one of my dad’s cousins who worked at the sawmill over the winter months when he wasn’t working as a road worker the rest of the year when roads and land weren’t frozen. He started referring to me as a buffull — a cross between a bull and a buffalo. While I could often be a bull in the china shop, knocking down the beautiful plates, bowls, and cups all around me, I also was someone who would join in community, backs to each other to take on whatever might be out there. Over time I came to see the deeper meaning of the term.

I was an individual bull from a line of bulls that had a knack for tearing things apart to figure out how to put them back together. We were tinkers. While at times we left a wake of destruction behind us, ultimately we seem to find a way to fail forward. The larger something was, the more small parts could be found inside that needed to be torn apart and rebuilt. The bull side of buffull was meant to serve as a reminder to temper the vigor in my movements but don’t loose it, either. And so it’s been session by session over the book as we’ve learned to tear down and rebuild parts whether on a breadboard, within a microcontroller, or as part of a server. The large is a reflection of the small components of which it is built. The building blocks of a circuit on the breadboard is the base of the building blocks for a microcontroller is the base of the building blocks computer is the base of a network of controllers and computers. Or so it is within the tinker mindset of a bull.

I am also of the buffalo clan. My cousin was a Kublick as was my grandmother Wolske who bore my dad after her arrival from Eastern Europe to the United States. My mom was a Henkelmann born from the womb of a Rosler in Eastern Europe. All for lines were ethnically Germanic but who never had formal citizenship within a nation state as they roamed looking for places of community and space for growing and crafting. The buffalo knows how to bring backs together to form a circle of protection. But it also provides a wide viewing through many different lenses. Different members are able to see different distances and depths depending on their angle of view. Together there is a growing holistic understanding regarding the lay of the land and also what is being told between the lines of that text. And so it’s been session by session that we have worked to build a community of practice in which we could build a circle of protection to support and nurture each others growth with the intent to have as an outcome a whole that is greater than the some of its parts. And it is also to give us a diverse set of lenses with which to see the various social + technical aspects that themselves create a whole greater than the sum of its parts through mutual shaping. Or so it is within the mindset of a buffalo clan.

Being able to identify the electronics that together become networked information systems provides new insights into the raw data – the symbols used to represent real-world entities – that are eventually converted into digital form to be transmitted or processed using binary. And this seeks to help us to see how the large then reflects these smallest of components. But as the networked interchange of data over the Internet included at its origins and continued to require for an extended time the use of the American Standard Communication Information Interchange (ASCII) codes, characters, and symbols, we also can read more fully the lay of the land and the story being told between the lines. Story data is the ability to identify and interpret data from which information emerges that can be communicated in story. Social justice storytelling is to understand the codification within this data sufficiently to decodify it in order to better understand the various contributing social and technical aspects that may be contributing to the stock story and to facilitate a sharing of the concealed, resistance, and emerging/transforming stories that respond to the stock stories, highlight the injustices, and reconstruct knowledge built on the counterstories bucking against the stock stories.

As we worked through the Orange Unit and then the Blue Unit, a goal was to increasingly communicate data with context as story in both form and narrative experience. This required an increasing merge of the social and technical aspects to structure story information, the second part of the Story-DIKW framework proposed by Kate McDowell. The Rainbow Unit has sought to further bring a range of different story data and information together as budding story knowledge. As noted within the Story-DIKW framework, this would be the ability to convey knowledge as complex actionable information through the construction and telling of a story that importantly assures incorporation of  cultural and contextual cues. The Rainbow Unit thus worked to bring together programmable electronics and the Internet of Things with its counterpart, today’s often centralized structures that serves as a primary master device to its many remote slave devices or what Neil Gerschenfeld calls the Bitnet of Things. The unit has further worked to bring together internetworking and the digital Internet which includes multiple and often conflicting paths that include those primarily community-led and those primarily corporately-led, along with many pathways in between. From here the unit has worked to explore ways a restructuring of social welfare systems were done in part through definitions of haves and have-nots through terms such as digital divide and digital inclusion that served as a core aspect of workforce development efforts in United States policies and practices. It was to also find that in demystifying technology through a deep hands-on dive into the codification of the sociotechnical Internet, new opportunities open to reflexively decodify it so as to facilitate knowledge creation and acts of person-centered ‘good trouble, necessary trouble[1]‘ in communities, with communities, and for communities of the oppressed as part of our social justice sociotechnical praxis.

We’re now coming to the finish as we also reconsider the design aspect of the tinker adding a design justice framework to that of the information sciences data, information, knowledge, wisdom framework. It is important to see design not as a start point, nor as a finish point, but rather as itself but one tool within a toolbelt. For design to occur justly and lead effectively towards good trouble, necessary trouble, it is essential that the tools of design are used in support of community and movement work that center on critical person-centered connections, conversations with the people in a room in a moment, of the building and preservation of trust relationships with others, and still other aspects of building and sustaining community. As we’ve discovered, it is then that design and innovation can occur. And even here it is not primarily product focused, but more one of process in which that which is designed can go on to be further designed through innovation-in-use[2].

It is exactly here that we find the strength of the Internet Protocols and Request for Proposals processes from which the core of the Internet has arisen, not as solution but as starting stage for ongoing creative works to solve the needs of local people and their communities. This is the first introduced by Louis Pouzin and the French Cyclades Network in the early 1970s. But others, such as the Freedom and Progress Foundation, have championed and often successfully for federal policies and corporate practices that would allow on nation, the United States, to use the technological breakthroughs to not only accelerate technological and economic strengths, but also social and political dominance[3]. But the core of the Internet and the potentials for networked information systems remain intact and provide us the existence of choice. This textbook strives to facilitate the awareness of this choice along with an introduction into the ways which we can exercise and achieve this choice[4] as part of our work as information professionals when design and innovation become part of community and movement work to address needs and opportunities which the member of these communities and movements have identified.

Reflecting Back on the Learning Objectives of this Journey

Let’s take a moment to reflect back on a few key highlights from the Introduction to the Book. Let’s start with the general learning outcome objectives of this book:

  • Develop a clear hands-on working understanding of the physical and software layers of computers and networks. As learners journey through the units of this book, they will hopefully develop a growing comfort and competency: working with the basic nuts and bolts of computers and networks; appropriately integrating components to serve as tools for computational and information processing; and performing basic troubleshooting.
  • Evolve a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the sociotechnical artifacts we use as a daily part of our professional lives. The physical + software + human + social whole that is a digital artifact is greater than the sum of the parts. Beyond developing technical competencies, we need to develop an awareness of, and skillsets to influence, the emergent properties that come from specific combinations of the different social and technical building blocks of information systems.
  • Develop a critical approach to sociotechnical artifacts. Social systems are constructs of economy, politics, matters of race, class, and gender, social institutions, and other cultural dynamics. Design, diffusion, and implementation of technical innovations both reflect and shape these social systems. Critically examining social + technical information systems from multiple individual and societal perspectives opens up consideration of idealized expectations vs. actual positive and negative impacts within specific user communities.
  • Advance community agency in appropriating technology to achieve our individual and community development goals through a reconsidered digital literacy learning and practice. Far from being just passive adopters of different digital technology artifacts used to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, as Information Science professionals we have opportunities to initiate and lead communities of practice, leveraging the plurality of our community’s social and technical insights.

To achieve these outcome objectives, this is a book meant to be done as part of a community of practice studio. The different units of the book and the sessions within each unit work within a virtuous cycle that includes asking initial questions, joining in active co-learning, reading the words and worlds of knowledge shared in a range of ways, internal reflection, group discussion, critical questions, and journaling. Collective leadership, community inquiry, and action reflection have been some of the key frameworks used within the textbook and hopefully within your community of practice studio to collectively work within the virtuous cycle. Core to all of this is the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered[5].

To help us advance our full range of skills—social and technical—needed to achieve our [craft]making works, each session in this book includes two thematically-linked chapters, one more social-oriented and one more technical-oriented. Each of these thematically-linked chapters along with the various activities, group discussions, and your Reading Notes and Professional Journal Reflections form one session. Sessions are brought together into several larger units:

  • Orange Unit with social chapters providing underlying perspectives and mindsets and technical chapters introducing electronics.
  • Blue Unit with four social + technical sessions challenging us to exploring the histories, mutual shaping, and innovations-in-use through a clearer grasp of the meta-theoretical landscape found within Western science and within indigenous ways of knowing while bringing together electronics and programming code within microcomputer and microcontroller systems.
  • Rainbow Unit with four sociotechnical sessions seeking to tighten our growing holistic and nuanced understanding of the tools and technologies we use as a daily part of our professional, community, and personal lives.

Time to Reflect Back on Your Actual Journey

Before moving on, take some extended time now to look through your packet of Reading Notes and Professional Journal Reflections. Work to write down an introductory section of a Summative Professional Journal Reflection as you consider your journey as part of this community of practice.

  • How have you changed and evolved as a tinker?
    • As a member of a community of practice?
    • As a social justice storyteller?
    • As an information scientists?

Emergent Strategy and its Grounding of Design Justice

In the previous chapter, we were introduced to a range of design principles and practices. Design plays an active role in the mutual shaping of sociotechnical products. But it is not the starting or ending point of sociotechnical artifacts. Rather, a range of individual, community, social, and/or technical contexts first come to play in launching a design activity as possibilities for addressing identified needs and opportunities are explored. And while design may include rapid prototyping, these are generally insufficient to address the underlying individual, community, social, and/or technical context which first inspired the design activity. Design is necessary but rarely if ever sufficient to addressing critical issues impacting people, nature, and society. As Sasha Costanza-Chock notes in her chapter ‘Design Practices: “Nothing about Us without Us”‘:

Ultimately, at its best, a design justice process is a form of community organizing. Design justice practitioners, like community organizers, approach the question of who gets to speak for the community from a community asset perspective. This is rooted in the principle that wherever people face challenges, they are always already working to deal with those challenges; wherever a community is oppressed, they are always already developing strategies to resist oppression. This principle underpins what Black feminist author adrienne maree brown calls emergent strategy. Emergent strategy grounds design justice practitioners’ commitment to work with community-based organizations that are led by, and have strong accountability mechanisms to, people from marginalized communities. This contrasts with most other design approaches; even those that aim to involve users, citizens, or community members typically do so in a consultative process that ultimately is led by the professional designers.[6]

The concept of emergence has been used to understand how many relatively simple interactions become the connective tissue out of which complex systems and patterns arise. The critical connections are thus emphasized over critical mass as strategies are brought forward to build authentic relationships using all the senses of the body and the mind. This is something that is not just a human-centered and -controlled process, but is something that includes the more-than-human individuals and ecosystems as well. Emergent strategy then is a way of noticing the small actions and connections that create the complex systems and patterns. As adrienne maree brown notes on pages 16-17 (Kindle Edition) of her book Emergent Strategy:

Nothing is wasted, or a failure. Emergence is a system that makes use of everything in the iterative process. It’s all data.

Octavia Butler (adrienne maree brown)
All successful life is (Fractal)
Adaptable, (Adaptive)
Opportunistic, (Nonlinear/Iterative)
Tenacious, (Resilient/Transformative Justice)
Interconnected, and (Interdependent/Decentralized)
Fecund. (Creates More Possibilities)
Understand this. (Scholarship, Reflection)
Use it. (Practice/Experiment)
Shape God. (Intention)

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy (pp. 16-17). AK Press. Kindle Edition. Edited to replace (amb) with (adrienne maree brown) for clarity in this context.

There are a number of revisions made in the 2nd edition of this textbook that have at their root the principles and practices of emergent strategy to which I was introduced soon after the publication of the 1st edition. It serves as a complement to the Western sciences and is in part why it has informed the creation of the design justice principles which themselves are rooted in large part within Western framings of design. In so doing, brown brings a Black feminist voice into the conversation similar to the way Robin Wall-Kimmerer brings an Indigenous voice into the conversation as Kimmerer brings together her Western science and her evolving understanding of her forgotten roots found in Indigenous ways of knowing together. And I believe emergent strategy resonates so strongly with me personally. It brings together my various cultural, environmental, ecumenical, and Western science foundations, some of which I’ve shared throughout this book, into a more unified understanding of what I’ve taught, planned, written, and practiced throughout my career as a critically-engaged, community-engaged scholar with a special focus using the discipline of community informatics. Each of the principles of emergent strategy captures well both how I seek to live, think, and work to build a better world. And each is something I hope will also fruitful for others as well:

Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small.)
Change is constant. (Be like water).
There is always enough time for the right work.
There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Never a failure, always a lesson.
Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy).
Move at the speed of trust.
Focus on critical connections more than critical mass–build the resilience by building the relationships.
Less prep, more presence.
What you pay attention to grows.[7]

After a long day of activity with others outdoors, whether canoeing, sailing, backpacking, or cross-country skiing, we try to assure time at the campfire to quietly reflect on the day while watching the beauty of the flames constantly changing shape and form. Most nights this leads to someone sharing something beautiful they saw or experienced over the course of the day – a rose moment. Or maybe it was an experience that hurt them or made them really struggle in some way – a thorn moment. It is to acknowledge that the beauty of roses also include the risk of a prick by the thorn along their stems. As these start coming forward, we also strive to include the hopes we have for tomorrow – our bud moments.

After multiple days, we try to set aside a down day to also just sit quietly within nature for extended time. Finding ways to tune in to one small part of the whole of nature around me helps connect to the small that exists within, and makes up one part of, the complex ecosystem within which we find ourselves to have been navigating. As I sit in quiet contemplation, I see the constant of change within the longer arc that is change across centuries and millennia. I do so by finding the opportunities for conversation with nature. But I also then find it helpful to eventually move from hearing the music coming from the one to hear the choir that results from the voices of the many within the ecosystem in which I find myself.

Listening to the Parts, Listening to the Choir

Take time now to reflect back on your journey and write down a second session of your Summative Professional Journal Reflection, beginning with those from sessions three and four of the Rainbow Unit. What are some of the rose, thorn, and bud moments as we’ve worked to unpack ways that digital technologies have been designed and deployed in ways that have continued or even expanded the web of oppressions found within the social divides around us?

Reflecting further back to the start of the Rainbow Unit, we worked to better understand the infrastructure of the Internet and the possibilities and challenges in broadening our application of internetworking into other realms than just the globalized and corporatized aspects. This was a long journey, but hopefully there were various rose and bud moments amongst the thorns as we traveled through the Rainbow Unit. In what ways did we succeed in demystify the clouds that keep Networked Information Systems within a mist? In what ways did we open up a visioning of the revolution of values that are person-oriented, rather than thing-oriented, as King called us to over 40 years ago?

Now look through the whole of your notes, reflections, discussions, and hands-on activities. As you stand nearing the end of this journey, what are your special rose moments that you will keep preserved as a keepsake? What thorns especially pricked you along this journey or are still pricking you now? What are some buds you see as potentially ready to bloom in the coming months?

Planning Forward

Lets return now to the Person-Centered Network Information System Adventure started in session three of the Rainbow Unit as your pre-season training comes to an end. The chapter ended with a Wrap Up and Comprehension Check. In what ways has your journey sufficiently advanced your sociotechnical skills in ways that prepare each member of our community of inquiry for a deeper, critically-engaged community inquiry during the upcoming season of your life. Such adventures will include in different ways at different times active bottom-up participatory action research in community, with community, for community throughout your lifetime. We’ve worked to advance muscle memory through ongoing pre-season action-reflection collective leadership practices so that these methods are an active part of your daily practices as an information science professional moving forward. To this we could now add design skills centered within principles of design justice and emergent strategy.

It is time to join together in small groups to find that conversation that can only happen in that room with the people there in this moment. How can you build off the work to date to imagine the work to come next?

  • Nimbleness in action is essential but can easily lead to the embracing of “do-acracy” that comes with significant risk of unintended consequences and loss of a sustained and truly systemic impact. True, direct democracy, on the other hand, requires times and places to slow it down if we are to expose issues of power, inclusion, and equity. How is the balance between action and reflection within your community of practice at this time? In what ways, if any, do you need to work in some way to address the ever-present tension between process and product?
  • Over the course of the textbook we’ve worked to first understand the many small components and structures such as electronic circuits, microcontrollers and microcomputers, basic variables, statements, arrays, conditionals and logic that make up programming code, and that base standards and structures that are used to do internetworking. From there we’ve worked to understand the ways these come together to form more complex structures. While change is constant, understanding these underlying small aspects which have remained more stable even as complex systems have changed helps us to demystify these black boxes. To this, we added a range of social components which together created a more complex social web within which the complex technical structures reside. Together exists a mutual shaping of sociotechnical artifacts and systems. In what ways, if any, might you bring this to your future work as an information professional? How can you work to bring others into the more demystified and person-centered approach to the next community of inquiry in which you find yourself within a thing-oriented society that uses the black box to grow people’s dependency on corporations and their interests?
  • Women and those who are black, Indigenous, or within other people of color categories are often excluded from fail-forward and growth mindset as they are instead called on to be perfect. Instead of seeing failure as something that is wrong, we need to see it as a necessity and as part of learning. Hearing from the voices of others and especially the marginalized and oppressed leads to critical connections moving the data and information towards that which is actionable – towards knowledge and power within and with those around us to advance good trouble, necessary trouble. This requires trust in the people, and it requires us to move at the speed of trust. Together we have a more holistic lens with which we can see those things that are not right, not fair, not just. With this more holistic lens we can also stand up, say something, do something. This requires collective leadership as we work to proceed from failure towards lessons that help us ask the better question. It contributes to a virtuous cycle of investigation, design, and creative actions combined with critical conversations that can only happen in that moment with those people. It requires us to be present in that space using a person-orientation, a being-mode of action-reflection praxis, rather than being caught up within a doing-mode in which we are locked within a thing-orientation. In what ways, if any, might you bring this to your future work as an information professional? How can this help your community of inquiry get into the good trouble, necessary trouble to build a better world within the space you find yourselves in that moment?

Diving Deeper

For there to be design justice, it is important to consider all ways possible to bring diverse community knowledge and cultural wealth to bear in the process. Indeed, as we’ve seen throughout the textbook, innovative design and redesign of technologies so often forces into hiding the expansive, diverse works of design and creation of technology done by each human. As Costanza-Chock notes:

Design justice as a framework recognizes the universality of design as a human activity. As noted in the introduction, design means to make a mark, make a plan, or problem-solve; all human beings thus participate in design. However, though all humans design, not everyone gets paid to do so. Intersectional inequality systematically structures paid professional design work. Professional design jobs in nearly all fields are disproportionately allocated to people who occupy highly privileged locations within the matrix of domination. At the same time, the numerous expert designers and technologists who are not wealthy and/or educationally privileged white cis men have often been ignored, their labor appropriated, and their stories erased from the history of technology.[8]

Sasha Costanza-Chock, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need

As information science professionals, we are paid not to just passively and strictly follow a list of tasks verbatim, but to creatively innovate-in-use our designated activities in ways that meet the needs of our patrons. If we are to truly advance existing and emerging social justice parameters within our profession, we first need to move from user-centered design to human-centered design as part of our daily practices. But from here, we need to also move from general design thinking to an essential design justice framing. Funding to pay community members as members of the design team is an essential feature to advance social justice objectives, but one too often difficult to carry out in practice. In addition, many designers have other commitments to work, community, and family that keep them from daily participation. I’ve found at times an effective middle ground is to embed collective leadership within this process through invitation (with provision of funds, transport, and food to every extent possible) of community members who bring essential community knowledge and cultural wealth to bear within the critique process itself.

Finding the Conversation That Can Only Happen Now with the People in this Room

What are some things you should put into your action plan for the days, weeks, and months to come as a community of practice, as a learning cohort within your degree program or community workshop space, and as individuals? Return again to the comprehension check you developed for yourselves at the end of session three. Take some time now to add to this some specifics related to design. What are the specific design-centered comprehension checks you are seeking to assure are reaching the “yet enough” point of introductory development?

  • Often we make use of activities like think-pair-share or two-four-all to do creative works.
  • This time you might consider flipping the script. Perhaps start within larger groups to do some initial brainstorming using a whiteboard to map a broad action plan. From there, begin considering what smaller cohorts should gather to work on specific aspects especially relevant to their own development as professionals moving forward.
  • Whichever path you choose, a final Summative Professional Journal Reflection will be important to bring the various thoughts that have emerged over the course of the textbook and as part of this last session of the Rainbow Unit into conversation.

However the ideas that form from this action plan brainstorming activity get jotted down, be sure to find a way to copy and paste them into your Summative Professional Journal Reflection as a third component.

Wrap Up

Many technical instructions leave unconsidered the embedded social dimensions of technologies that are continuously in tension with the limits and constraints to social justice parameters. Unconsidered, we likely further algorithms of oppression rooted within deductive logic and positivist paradigms in our personal and professional practices. This is also true of design processes, and is why design justice rooted within critical paradigms has been emphasized so strongly throughout session four. And as noted in the session three Wrap Up, if you currently do not have rich diversity within your community of practice, work to outline clearly how diversity would be brought into the collective leadership to assure this is the “good trouble” to which the late John Lewis refers.

Put aside your Summative Professional Journal Reflection for a few days, but keep it relatively close. After a short break, pick it up one last time to read it through. Don’t make any edits – that’s not what journaling is about. But do feel encouraged to add a final section in which you note some reflections on your reflections – that’s the work of recodifying that which you’ve worked to decodify. For only through cycles of action and reflection can the work of community inquiry take on the various situations limiting people from being fully human through good trouble, necessary trouble overcoming these in a strategic way.

  1. Lewis, John, and Valerie Jackson. “The Boy From Troy: How Dr. King Inspired A Young John Lewis,” January 17, 2020.
  2. Bruce, Bertram C., Andee Rubin, and Junghyun An. “Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems.” In Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems, edited by Brian Whitworth and Aldo de Moor, 2:685–98. Information Science Reference. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2009.; Fischer, Gerhard, and Thomas Herrmann. “Socio-Technical Systems: A Meta-Design Perspective.” International Journal for Sociotechnology and Knowledge Development 3, no. 1 (2011): 1–33.
  3. Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler, "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age," The Progress & Freedom Foundation, August 1994.
  4. Kleine, Dorothea. “The Capability Approach and the ‘Medium of Choice’: Steps towards Conceptualising Information and Communication Technologies for Development.” Ethics and Information Technology 13, no. 2 (June 1, 2011): 119–30.
  5. King, Martin Luther. “Beyond Vietnam.” In: Carson, Clayborne and Shepard, Kris, eds. A Call to Conscience, 139-164. Grand Central Publishing, 2001.
  6. Costanza-Chock, Design Justice, 92-93.
  7. brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy (pp. 44-45). AK Press. Kindle Edition.
  8. Sasha Costanza-Chock, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, Information Policy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020), 73.

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