Sloan Leo | Books

The Infrastructure of Care: Community Design, Healing & Organizational Post-Traumatic Growth

Sloan Leo

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection, edited by Anne H. Berry (Managing Editor), Kareem Collie, Penina Acayo Laker, Lesley-Ann Noel, Jennifer Rittner (Developmental Editor), and Kelly Walters (Creative Director), out now from Skyhorse Publishing and is reprinted here with permission of the editors and publisher. The 595 page anthology centers a range of perspectives, spotlights teaching practices, research, stories, and conversations from a Black/African diasporic lens. Through the voices represented, this text exemplifies the inherently collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of design, providing access to ideas and topics for a variety of audiences, meeting people as they are and wherever they are in their knowledge about design.

This essay interrogates the relationship between power, decision-making, and organizational healing. It asserts that community design as a practice offers a theoretical framework for organizational dynamic healing that structurally enables those harmed to set the pace and nature of resolution and repair.

Consider a hierarchical organization of which you are a part. What is your role in the organization? How do your contributions shape the experiences of others in the group? And what would it look like if the needs of everyone in the group were met through a process of participatory decision-making at every level of the organization? These are the questions that the community design methodology seeks to answer through applied theory and a radical dismantling of harmful power structures.

Recent evolutions of community design have brought the forty-year-old concept out of its historical roots in urban planning and into new arenas. Innovative contemporary practitioners have applied the values, beliefs, and tools within the context of social justice-informed work, to grassroots-led initiatives and community-based projects. However, the application of community design as a practice for organizational development is novel and emergent. Community Design as an organizational practice explores, interrogates, and invites creative action-oriented strategies to relocate power and decision-making. Ultimately, community design is a pragmatic strategy for social sector reform.

The summer of 2020 catalyzed an inflection moment in organizational development. The events of last summer, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, as well as the pandemic, have forced most organizations to reflect and rethink their approach to relationships, strategy, and work generally. For many Black folks working in every industry, the issues of equity, inclusion, and justice could no longer be a future priority. However, in the social sector, the urgency burns even brighter. The traumatic dissonance of expressed commitments to equity being so deeply out of alignment with the experience of marginalized team members requires rapid response and remedy.

Black feminist theorist bell hooks, in her lecture “Moving from Pain to Power,” states that that imperialist white supremacist cis hetero-patriarchal structures rely upon an internalized “voice of judgement,” which positions oppressed peoples as needing external validation to catalyze their power, credibility, and legitimacy. She asks—what is it that is truly needed for self-actualization? What does it take to move from pain to power and from power to joy and healing?

Organizational Self-Actualization is the alignment of organizational development, strategy, structure, and culture with the original intent of progressive social sector organizations—to be sites of collective action, healing, and care.

Specifically, How Do Organizations Move Forward—and Heal—From Organizational Trauma?

In order to see sustained progress and organizational growth, community practice needs to be centered around healing and care. Healing happens as a non-linear process. There is no direct path from A to B, and progress can often feel slow and unnecessarily incremental. Sustained healing is an ongoing practice, not a response to an individual moment. The practice of sustained healing is just that, a practice. It requires bravery, accountability, resilience, and the ability to sit in the tension of discomfort. Healing should be a conscious practice, with care at the center of the work. How we show up for ourselves and others will determine the foundation for healing practice.

It’s worth noting that healing in the absence of political analysis is not healing, it’s placating. Healing as an organizational political practice that seeks to address harm requires several critical shifts in the way organizations approach and distill power. True, sustainable healing is about finding justice in organizational decision making and power sharing.

Organizational healing is about finding justice in organizational decision making, culture building, and power sharing. To accomplish this several critical shifts are necessary:

Understanding that nonprofits exist in our capitalist ecosystem—and as such, they are marginalized organizations that often intentionally and inadvertently assimilate into capitalist structures.

Accepting that organizations are one of the many ways that state and institutional governments are built, so their foundation within white supremacy cannot be structurally decolonized

A commitment to practice decolonizing relational infrastructure in organizations.

Community Design as an organizational development practice offers a theoretical framework and actionable approaches for organizational development that structurally enables those who have experienced harm to set the pace and nature of resolution and repair.

Principles of Community Design for Organizational Development

Design with People—Leaders need to meet teams where they are, focus on designing solutions together, and prioritize building new capacities.

Build on Existing Assets—Rather than framing through a deficit lens, focus on building based on what’s working. From this place of strength, support organizational communities to build the momentum they need for the changes they seek.

Hold a Facilitator Mindse—Use collaborative methods to create with people rather than for them. Responding to real needs identified through iterative and inclusive conversations.

Aim for Engagement—Resist abstraction through direct engagement with groups and individuals during workshops, consultations, and cocreation activities. Cocreate using specifics, real opinions, and life experiences.

Design-Infused Process—Infused multidisciplinary processes with valuable design competencies like facilitation, visualization, and modeling, offer a path to more meaningful and durable progress.

In Practice How Does/Can This Look?

Organizational care and healing can take many forms:
  • Cocreating equitable norms and holding each other accountable
  • Recognizing the inherent value within each of us
  • Acknowledging the validity of each other’s lived experience
  • Care infrastructure in organizations creates ease

  • Ultimately, post-traumatic organizational growth is possible when we channel the stress of trauma and harm into working toward specific progressive outcomes. It’s about how we relate to ourselves and each other. Building trust in relationships is foundational to overcoming the harm caused by trauma. Growth depends on addressing the trauma, while also holding onto the things that make an organization strong and identifying what’s worth fighting for.

    How we show up for ourselves and others will determine the foundation for healing practices.

    Systematizing and building these theories into practice requires acknowledgment as the first step. Organizational leaders should spend time exploring their own organizational structures to get a sense of where to start dismantling harmful practices. When leaders take this approach, they are able to build back radically supportive organizational structures that allow people to bring their full selves into community. Only then can there be full congruence between the values that the organization hopes to hold, and the ones that are put into practice. While this work is challenging, it is worth the outcome of developing a strong community with healthier, more fulfilled community members.

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