I scheduled a lunch with a friend today in uptown Kitchener. The lunch was rather pleasant, we got to do lots of catch-ups. After the lunch, it was only around 1 pm and the place we just had lunch was really close to St.John’s Kitchen. So I thought to maybe I will just go over there and help with the cleaning, they usually run until 3 pm.
I got there at around 1:20 pm and surprised Gretchen from behind. Gretchen is the woman behind the success of St.John’s Kitchen for the past 20 years and she is in charge of everything. She said: “you know what to do!” I said: “yeap!” Except I don’t really know what to do.
I found my way to the cleaning supply room and picked up a broom and a dust bin. I started sweeping from one corner of the lobby and worked my way out to the entrance. I then spent the next 20 minutes sweeping every piece of floor tile, under every chair & table in the area, until it is sparkling and dust-free, well at least I thought so.
Then came a woman, walking in the distance towards me, with a broom and a dust bin in hand. She got closer and closer to me, and said: “Can you work with me to sweep this area?”
“Which area?” I asked
“The one over there.” She pointed at the area that I just swept.
“But it’s been just swept.”
“I have eyes. I can see!” She was getting rather impatient.
“But it’s been just swept.” I repeated.
“I have eyes. I have eyes. Can you work with me please? Can you work with me please? Can you work with me please?” She became upset.
“……” I was going to say something.
“Can you work with me please? Can you work with me please? Can you? Can you?” She became even more upset. “God! ugh…..” Then she stormed away with heavy footsteps and started to sweep an area that I have just swept.
I stood there for a good few seconds, not knowing what to do, but to watch her walking away, and tried to figure out what exactly has just happened.
“Can you work with me?” Those five words just kept echoing in my head for the next 10 minutes and I was both mad at her and myself because she was mean to me and I was mad at myself for being mad at her.
I tried my best not to let the emotions take over me, the hatred and resentment produced as a result of not being given a chance to express my opinion. Wait a second, that sounds familiar, ‘not given a chance to express one’s opinion”, isn’t that what people like her and hundreds of others in our community experience on a daily basis? Community members like her, who live from paychecks to paychecks, who depends on a soup kitchen for a full meal, constantly experience the absence of attention and equal opportunities from others. When they are hungry, no one hears them, or more specifically, no one is wiling to listen. When they can’t find a job, no one wants to help. When they can’t pay their rent and have to move onto the street, no one wants to offer a place. When their children enrolled in gangs, they have no one to turn to for help, no is willing to listen to them.
It makes me to think about a brutal fact about designing for social programs that we hope to help community members, is that sometimes we forgot to take their emotions and mental conditions into account, but rather focus too much on the structure and curriculum. When we donate computers to libraries and hope that they will help members in our community who can’t even afford computers to use them. But we’ve ignored the human aspect of this plan. Many, if not all, people lack the basic training in computer. They don’t even know how to turn on the machine, because they can’t locate the power button. You would think: “why can’t they just ask the librarian?” They can’t because they are scared to show their vulnerable side, that they might get laughed at and it is usually a source of abuse.
Then came along the concept of human-centered design, coined and advocated by design firm IDEO. In plain English, it takes into consideration the people that will be served by a new project and put them as a focal point of everything, especially their emotions, habits and mental conditions. These should be the driving forces for changes that will take place by effectively addressing the emotional needs of the community members. New design programs should be resilient and flexible enough that put people in the centre and work around them, instead of people working around the system, otherwise you will get a group of nagging users that are very likely to drop the service very soon.
But what constitutes an effective social innovation program that puts people first? It is a result of hours, sometimes days, of field research, interviews, talks, listening to stories, and being in others’ shoes. It is a long journey and no one ever said it is easy. But if one truly wants to design a program that has the potentially to truly benefit the people, field works must be an important component in the process of designing for a new program.
Now I think back on the woman who got upset at me for not helping her to sweep the area that I’ve just swept, I feel happy, because it was an extremely valuable lesson.