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Sam Kapila: Small Acts Can Invite More Voices into Design Communities

A conversation about building inclusive spaces through everyday allyship.

By Amy VainieriNovember 2022
DesignInspiration

“What does it mean to be a member of a community? And how do we ensure that our communities—from classrooms to workplaces to meetups—are welcoming to all who want to be a part of them?”

These are some of the questions that Austin-based product designer, speaker, and author Sameera Kapila addresses in her new book, “Inclusive Design Communities.”

Kapila states in her book that “it can be hard to figure out where to start with something so large and systematic” as fostering inclusivity in design communities. She reminds us that the goal is not to convert—but to inspire. There are small but impactful actions that we can each take to be allies for marginalized groups with the broader design community. And hopefully by seeing one small action, a fellow designer is inspired to reflect on their own behavior or pay it forward differently. In this way, perhaps inclusivity can spread in small ways, eventually affecting change at a higher level.

This point is only one thread woven into a rich, thoughtful read. The first section, “Understanding Inclusion” offers a comprehensive and actionable overview of how to create inclusive teams and support a wide range of designers. If you know a coworker, friend, leader, or anyone else who struggles to understand all the issues in our community, I recommend this book—particularly the first section—as foundational reading to understand the underlying issues.

Recently, I spoke with Kapila about why she wrote this book and the kind of changes she hopes it may inspire.

What inspired you to write this book?

I went from being the grad student who thought she’d be the next Don Draper—you know, a creative director—to teaching. It was a great way to get in-state tuition, earn a little money, and continue my education. Then, I left public education for the code-school for-profit model where I managed over 40 people. I also worked as a consultant and became an individual contributor on product teams again.

Those experiences gave me this bird’s-eye view. It was so clear: We can do better. We talk a lot about systems in design—whether it’s an icon system, designing a typeface system of its own, or entire design systems. I couldn’t help but notice all the places where we can improve systems of inclusion, too.

You write about how you find yourself going back and forth between wanting to talk about marginalization in design and not, because some days it’s just tough. On other days, you feel responsible for doing the work. So I’m curious: How are you feeling today?

That changes every day, sometimes even hourly. Right now, I’m in a place to support people experiencing hardships and using my voice where I can.

There were definitely days—especially through the book-writing process—when I felt like I couldn’t. The news is hard. The pandemic is hard. It’s easy for too many stimuli to break you down but it’s necessary to be active and help other people. The pandemic made that tough. I had to have an honest sit-down with myself and say, “You’re doing the best you can with what you have. You have to recharge so you can help other people.”

Stepping back and assessing my emotions was especially important in 2020 though. I’m very vocal online about a lot of things in design and inclusion spaces, and many people felt the need to tell me, “I made a donation today” or “I am enraged.” It was rare that anyone asked me instead: “Do you have space to hold what I’m feeling?” People just assumed I was ready to hold that stuff all the time, so I certainly had some hard days. I wanted to help, but sometimes I had nothing to offer.

As a person who hires, I admit that I haven’t thought about boot camps and other programs in the same light as university degrees. After reading your book, I have a different perspective on folks coming from non-traditional education spaces, and I’ll review resumes differently. Thank you.

You offer great resources for the people you mention in your book who are ready to practice more inclusive hiring. It made me wonder if those who most need to read this book are the same ones who likely won’t because they don’t think there’s a problem. Do you worry about that?

All the time.

It’s hard to write a book for people who don’t want to read it. My editors and I shaped this content for the folks that want to pick up this book, and perhaps their actions may inspire someone who hears someone else stand up for someone. I don’t know if this will convert anyone from another wildly different perspective or anything, but if it inspires positive change in one person, and someone else sees those actions and also feels inspired to improve? If that is what comes out of this, it’ll be a good day.

You also describe how difficult it can be to figure out where to start with large, systemic issues. What advice do you have for those folks who want to throw up their hands and give up because it’s too big?

Yeah, it is too big. That’s why I wanted to break it into specific, smaller actions to take. It’s not like everyone who reads this book should do every example listed—it’s not an exhaustive list. Not every action item will work for every person and that’s OK.

For me, finding one area to make an impact meant putting my education to work. I’m a good design researcher, so I can go to HR with data that show why solving a certain problem is important. That’s me using my day-to-day skill set to educate someone else. It can be as simple as that. You don’t need to donate every cent you have but if you feel like you can have a monthly or yearly donation schedule, then donate. If you can volunteer or help one neighbor, that works, too.

Focus on one thing at a time. We’re not going to tackle the really big things unless we work on the smaller things, affect change, and inspire others to keep doing their one small thing, too.

You mentioned the turning point of 2020, and I was thinking: It’s not that issues of inclusion started then. It’s that light was shed in a big way, and many people had to confront their own privilege. In design education and hiring spaces, have you seen a lasting change? Have you seen a willingness of other people to step up in ways that are more productive in the last couple of years?

People had a lot to process, and they needed to process it out loud. Unfortunately, a lot of people from marginalized identities were the receivers of the out-loud, public processing. When people deal with their guilt about causing harm, they often apologize profusely but that can be a burden for marginalized people to own.

When a person misgenders a colleague or uses the wrong pronouns, and the mistaken person over-apologizes, it can become about the wronged person having to placate the other one about the mistake. In these scenarios, I encourage people to simply say, “I made that mistake. I will work really hard to not do that again,” and move on. That takes the burden off the marginalized person. I will say that the reactive phase may be winding down for some people. More folks are willing to ask questions now. People still have a lot of work to do. We always will.

This book is about communities, not just design work. Whether it’s at a local meet-up, in a management role, or in a classroom, everyone can do one thing and focus on doing that thing really well. If everybody did that, we could move the needle forward on inclusion.

This is systemic. I can’t do anything about it alone, and I think lots of people feel stuck by that. But we’re at a crossroads. Many different folks have the vocabulary now to understand what a systemic issue is but for many, it hasn’t quite clicked that they can still have an impact. For some, the word “systemic” implies that it’s someone else’s problem, or it’s outside of what one person can control. Lots of people stand at that fork in the road, waiting to make a decision on which way they’ll go.

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Your book notes that the people who often bring up and solve issues of inequity are often the ones most affected by that inequity. So I wonder: What advice do you have for privileged leaders (like myself) who can raise a flag early and relieve some of those emotional burdens from marginalized teammates?

Let’s say you notice behavior you perceive as oppressive, and you want to speak up for the marginalized person. It’s important to consider that that colleague may not want you to speak up for them. At the same time, if you go to the marginalized person and ask what they want you to do, they’re left with the burden of assigning those actions or feeling like you see them as representative of their whole group. That’s a hard thing to navigate. There isn’t one right response.

Would you be comfortable saying to a colleague in a meeting, “Hey, I noticed you cut off Meera a bit early? Meera, did you get to finish your thought?” In this example, you give the potentially wronged person the chance to say, “Oh, no, I’m finished,” or “Yes, I have more thoughts.” It’s important to think through all the scenarios. Not speaking for other people can be helpful because then you’re not just passing on their story. Telling others’ stories can create a game of telephone. It can be more powerful to express your observations to help others course-correct.

It starts with that opportunity. Mistakes are fixable. There’s a quote in chapter two by Beverly Daniel Tatum about how trying to walk against the systems is like trying to walk in the opposite direction of a conveyor belt. Some people are so scared to make mistakes, they won’t get on the conveyor belt at all. Or they’ll get on, and move in the same direction as the oppression because they’re not speeding up or feeling progress, so they just stay still. Inaction is rooted in the fear of making mistakes. The internet makes it feel harder to make mistakes safely these days, but I also think the internet is a great place to learn.

Do you have similar advice for people who might be considering how to call people in when they see performative actions or empty words?

Honestly, I wrestle with this myself—not just in design, but in day-to-day life too. Sometimes I wish I had a better answer. It can feel uncomfortable to tell someone, especially a person senior to you, that you found their behavior or words performative.

Instead of presenting something as a complaint, I can explain, “Here’s why that didn’t land.” Or, “Here’s why that solution won’t work, and here’s a way you can help solve for every user.” Coming from your own perspective helps. But I don’t think that’s a good catch-all answer for everyone and everything.

Managers and leaders have more responsibility, and it’s common to hear business-lingo 101. Here are some of my favorites:

“We’re hearing you.”

“We’re working on this, but I think this request makes it harder for the business to meet our goals.”

“If we can just work a bit harder to push this past the finish line.”

Words will never be enough. Action and outlining those actions verbally are needed.

My book is about empowering everyone to lead in the space where they work. I’m not just talking to the c-suite, managers, or capital leaders. Anyone can be a leader. You don’t need a position or title.

I think we also learn and lead better from being around people who inspire us. I’d love to hear about someone who’s had an impact on you and what their story was.

One student, in particular, was someone who left the retail industry. She was one of the first students I interviewed to go through that code-school class I’d helped build. She took the class, went out into the design world, and kept in touch—and a few years later, she was my manager!

Wow, I love that!

Listen, code schools are really good at immersion, right? You’re in a class all morning and in lab all afternoon, and you can learn as much as you want as you’re willing to learn from instructors, classmates, and guest speakers. Getting the most she could out of code school led to my friend managing people, being an individual contributor, and consulting. She’s succeeding, and that makes me really happy.

I loved your section on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) councils because I’ve seen those fail. Do you feel these types of councils are over?

DEI councils offer a chance for people to step up and become a lowercase-l leader, but most DEI councils don’t operate close to the ideal. I think people need to find a personal boundary. There’s “I’m willing to fight for this and try as hard as I can.” And then there’s the level of work that makes someone stop in their tracks and think, “Wait, I’m working harder on this than the person who runs this.” When you feel burnt out (I did), feeling the weight of everything is part of the job. DEI work can definitely be invisible and thankless. The corporate puzzle has many pieces, and everyone needs to set boundaries for what works for them.

I’ve wanted to stay for teams or coworkers at different times and, sometimes, I have stayed. Other times, I haven’t. In the book, I write about how many of the ineffective councils I’ve seen generally don’t have the executive support they should. Perhaps an executive joins a meeting once a month or shows up at one supporter meeting but executive members are still members, which means they have a duty to serve.

When a coworker at the code school, she and I were both on the executive team, we started the DEI council and made more executives join—which they happily did. We didn’t have to force them, and they were active members. And this is important: They weren’t in leadership positions within the council. They were team members doing their job rather than executives asking for superior roles. Half of our executive team sat on the council at all times in rotation, with this coworker and I acting as the two permanent members. It was leadership showing up to serve where we most needed their support and attention. It was great.

OK, at the end of interviews, I always ask: What is one question you wish I would have asked about this book?

One question that comes to mind is: What would you change? It’s hard to write about inclusion and not include every single thing. There is so much we cut from the book because it just didn’t make sense in the context. I have to thank the editors for that. For example, they understood how much the book could discuss the pandemic without just becoming a book about the pandemic. I remember thinking earlier in this process how urgent the book could feel with racial conversations, pandemic days, and US elections in 2020.

This book is urgent in its own way, but it’s a different urgent. It’s more political, more social, and not just about design. Of course, we can’t separate those things. I agree with a lot of the anti-racism activists, and teachers, such as Ken Creighton, who’d say everything is political.

And my therapist will so easily say, “We haven’t even gone through the whole grief cycle from 2020 yet.” That’s a hard reminder but it’s also a good reminder to be gentle with ourselves through this.

Amy Vainiero headshot
Written byAmy VainieriUX Operations Manager at Indeed

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