Power, Equity, and (Re)Design
reviewed by Gladis Kersaint - April 18, 2019
Title: Power, Equity, and (Re)Design
Author(s): Elizabeth Mendoza, Ben Kirshner, & Kris D. Gutiérrez
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641131780, Pages: 184, Year: 2018
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In the introduction, the editors of Power, Equity and (Re)Design: Bringing Learning and Critical Theories in Learning Ecology for Youth state that their intent is to engage scholars and educators with the work that happens behind-the-scenes of their equity-centered projects in order to help build a collective understanding of design that foregrounds equity and learning (p. vii). With the nine chapters in this volume, the editors have managed to do just that. In particular, these chapters expose the sociopolitical, theoretical, pedagogical, and methodological thinking that undergirds the design of equity-focused initiatives involving youth or young adults in a variety of settings.
The authors of each chapter reveal how the design phase of a project is used to make key decisions about the aspects of equity to be interrogated, how the researchers plan to interrogate those notions, the framework used to engage participants thinking (e.g., participatory action research, critical race theory, community-based service learning activity), and lessons learned from the implementation of each effort. Examples are provided from a variety of contexts and settings, which include courses taught at the elementary and high school levels, community service learning efforts, university-based learning communities, and out-of-school contexts (e.g., a hackathon). By addressing this range of topics and contexts, the editors provide readers with multiple opportunities to engage with and gain insights about how design decisions have a direct link to how participants make sense of their experiences.
An important assertion made in the first chapter is that scholars who focus on critical education must attend closely to the roles of adults (e.g., educators, facilitators) and the dynamics of social interactions in equity-focused interventions. This volume is replete with examples of the affordances and hindrances associated with social interactions. For example, of particular interest was the discussion of how individuals influence each other and how other mediating factors can prevent individuals from achieving the intended outcomes. Several chapters position both the educators and students as learners who are co-constructing their experiences, highlighting unanticipated outcomes as they implement the designed activities. In several chapters, the authors explore how the nature of social interactions caused students to abandon the social justice focus of a project. Other chapters highlight the tendency of individuals to avoid perceived conflicts when presented with what they view as a departure from what is acceptable in the dominant cultural group. In such cases, avoidance, rather than engagement in difficult conversations, was used to minimize personal discomfort. In another example, students found that they could not overcome perceptions of privilege despite their efforts to engage in a service learning activity with community members from backgrounds different from their own.
Reading about and reflecting on design decisions and related outcomes is useful for educators and scholars as it brings to the fore potential issues or challenges that might be encountered when designing equity-focused learning experiences. A key message gleaned from this volume is that despite thoughtful considerations in the design phase of any project, there will likely be aspects of the learning experiences and related conversations that the designers cannot control or anticipate. The chapters highlight the need for designers to recognize that learners come to any equity-focused activities with their own perceptions, understandings, and experiences that will influence how they engage in designed activities. As a result, this volume highlights the importance of attending to notions of power and privilege and the ways in which these notions might facilitate or distract from the true nature of the designed activity (or even unintentionally reinforce the very notions that the activity is designed to mitigate). Many of the authors highlight the need to be vigilant and attentive to interactions so that educators can make thoughtful decisions about when it might be appropriate to intervene. As noted by the editors in the introduction, It is through addressing the tensions that emerge or are made evident in the processes of design and (re)design, that our biases, lack of knowledge, or other limitations can be made visible and addressed (p. ix).
If I had the opportunity to advise to the editors prior to the publication of this volume, I would have asked them to include a final chapter that summarized lessons learned across the nine chapters and key considerations for designers who engage in such work. Such a chapter could have been a useful tool for designers to guide their thinking as they engage in their own work.