Ep. 6 - Building Communities Together

April 19, 2023

In this episode, we explore the power of collaboration between rural communities and design professionals to create meaningful solutions for local challenges. Monique Blough and Raïsa Mirza, Associate Director, Communities Building Youth Futures" at the Tamarack Institute, discuss experiences and insights on community engagement, design thinking, and sustainable development. They delve into case studies of successful rural co-design projects and highlight the benefits of community-driven design approaches. Through their conversation, they aim to inspire listeners to explore co-design as a powerful tool for building resilient and vibrant rural communities. Join us on this journey of discovery and collaboration in rural co-design.

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Apr 19, 2023; Building Communities Together



Welcome to this episode of Responsible Disruption Podcast. My name is Monique Blough, Project Director of the Social Impact Lab. Today I'm talking about rural design and community co-design. A collective approach to problem solving and decision making that involves working with rural communities to design solutions that address their unique needs, challenges and priorities. We will be experiencing and exploring the benefits and challenges of co-designing solutions with rural communities. For this discussion, I'm very excited that we've managed to invite a subject matter expert who has extensive experience in the practice of rural design and community co-design.

Raïsa Mirza, who is currently working as Associate Director of Community Involvement Fund for Communities building Youth Futures and is a consulting director at Tamarac Institute Learning Center with a focus on community innovation and engagement. She is a human centered designer, researcher, facilitator, and socially engaged artist with the experience implementing and co-creating participatory systems, strengthening programs in more than 20 countries in a variety of sectors and roles, supporting the sustainable development goals. We are so lucky to have Raïsa with us. Welcome.


Thanks Monique!

01:36 MONIQUE: So to start us off, I mean you and I have met a number of times and have had an opportunity to be exposed to some of the work, but I think it would be great if we started by you telling us a bit about yourself and how you started in this work. What's the work that you do and why you're so passionate about it

02:01 RAÏSA: Hi Monique. Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to have this conversation with you. Yeah, I'm joining you from the unceded lands of the Beothuk, who unfortunately are no longer with us. And also the Mi’kmaq who have traditionally used this land for millennia. And I’m very excited to be here from this island on the other side of where you are on this spring day. So thank you for having me. So my name, like you said, is Raïsa Mirza. I am a systemic service designer, but to be honest, that kind of changes day on day. I kind of do the work that needs to be done and I guess the work I do is to bring voices of people who are affected by any program or by policy and service, and to amplify it and put them at the center. That's really the work I do, and I do that across organizations and fields. I can be in spaces to build collaboration and to make things together. Make programs, make services, create new ways of thinking, build new mindsets. But to do that in a way that is kind and caring and reciprocal. And I do some research as well. So I do research on those same things in a way that puts people in the driver's seat of their own work and their own lives and try to do that in a way that puts the onus on people within a system that have or to use their power to amplify others and also build citizen accountability.

So I guess I do a whole bunch of random things, but it kind of fits neatly in this idea of design because design has a terminology to be able to do that and I got into this work really young. I'm an immigrant to Canada Turtle Island from a very young age, was very involved in my community. I had really good teachers who have always supported me and being involved. So I had an environment club as a kid and then things really set off. When I was in high school, I got to be involved with the Mayor's Youth Advisory Committee in Mississauga. Mayor, Hazel McCallion, who is a legend in the municipal politics and so really since the age of 12, I've been involved in politics and governance and seeing firsthand really how young people especially, but citizens can and should be part of the programs and services that are part of their community. Yeah, I started there and then I was very lucky I got accepted to go to school in BC called Pearson College, which is an international school that brings together at that time 200 students from 90 countries on full scholarship. And that again really was an amazing experience in developing my own sense of responsibility and to not only my community, but to the world and to communities around the world.

And then, yeah, I guess after that I kind of tried to follow my curiosity a lot and work in both at school and internationally, and in all kinds of projects around community engaged research. I was never very theoretical. I didn't like the theory in university very much. I really was always craving that, like how do I get this back in community? How does this translate? I was always really a little critical of academia as this institution that sets apart. So really started going more into community work and worked through university on a really cool project. And yeah, kind of sort of ended up... I don't know if there’s definitely a central thread to my career, but I don't know if it's very planned, necessarily. I kind of just go where the need is and also try to have fun doing it, to be honest.

But I guess I became really involved in rural communities in grad school. I came to Memorial University in Newfoundland to study geography and was working with a professor who was doing community engaged research here. And that was my research. So I spent a lot of time with young people and in communities in central Newfoundland just talking and understanding what and how to do this work. And then, yeah, just kind of kept going and somehow I looked back and I was like, oh, I've only ever worked in rural communities and it was funny because I noticed trends right when I was working in rural communities. I grew up in the city myself, but I've been lucky to live in rural Newfoundland for a number of years now, and I notice a lot of trends around how this kind of work was done with rural communities that..., would say it started bothering me a little bit because I think people just assume that things work the same way everywhere and they really don't.

And I think a lot of people make assumptions about rural communities all being the same, and they're really not and so yeah, I kind of just had lots of curiosity around that, and then a few years ago my curiosity just kind of... It's like, what if I just put out something somewhere about world design and what it might mean and what it might look like and started the Rural Design Network as a community of practice really to think about these questions and to have more people helping me think about these questions and helping each other.

07:55 MONIQUE: Yeah, that's so great. Thanks so much for sharing that. I think your history, your background, the passion, and what's led you here has sparked for me so many new questions that I want to ask, but I think for our listeners, a good place to start is for us to define two things: one co-design and rural design so maybe, Raïsa, why don't we start by defining co-design? What does that mean?

08:22 RAÏSA: Sure, I mean, I think again practitioners will think of co-design different ways, but for me, codesign is really a mindset. It's a process with different types of tools where we are working with people who are the ones who are most affected by the problems that they're encountering or the challenges. So it's really about challenging power dynamics and ensuring that important decisions about the lives of people are taken by themselves.

08:58 MONIQUE: Yeah, I think that's a great way to define it. I think you're right. Many practitioners will think of the method or the practice in a way that might almost be serving in that moment around how to think about diverse ideas, diverse thought, how to bring creative ideas together to solve some of those. So then why don't we talk about how you define rural design? I mean being that you've seen so much in your experience and starting the Rural Design Network, yeah, how do you define rural design and why is it important?

09:35 RAÏSA: I mean, I think I'm still unclear of the question of the answer to that actually and it's one of the reasons I started the Rural Design Network because I was hoping that someone else would have an answer for me. So far, most of the definitions around rural design have involved some sort of architecture planning, and so the urban planning world moving into what does that look like into a rural context? But for me, I think there's a wider discussion to be had around what is rural design because design is a discipline that is very urban based, it started off really on this idea of urban planning and a lot of designers are urban. So for me rural design, it's a field really. It's a new field of design that is looking at how can the methods and the processes of design of like the design world kind of reflect the realities and the needs of rural communities and putting that front and center.

10:43 MONIQUE: So I'm curious then if can you give our listeners an example of where you've seen that practice be successful like this, this notion of thinking about how do we a think of it as a discipline? How do we bring these diverse groups together? To actually create something so whether government working alongside citizens, nonprofit organizations. I don't know, maybe you have an example that our listeners might be able to, not relate to, but further understand what we're trying to explain.

11:18 RAÏSA: So for example, right now I work for the Tamarack Institute and we have a program called Communities Building Youth Futures and as part of this program we have 19 communities across the country, small and rural communities across the country that are engaged in collective action sort of building groups of stakeholders that are coming together with the objective of supporting youth graduation rates in their communities and to support their success really in their communities and in one of our communities in Sudbury, for example, CBYF Sudbury started a network for youth called Futur Nord or Future North, and using some of the funding that was provided as part of this, as well as we have a Community Innovation Fund, so they use some of the Community Innovation Fund. And they actually co-designed a digital strategy to improve service access together. And it was all youth led starting from defining what the issue is and where the issues were, defining what the assets were and what the youth needed and felt was most needed by their community. They designed the graphics of what it would look like. They designed the website and program. And really created an entire service model and service delivery model that was led by and co-created by young people in the community based on their own needs.

So that's really what I think is important to consider and for example, in some rural communities potentially around Sudbury, like digital access, is not a given. And Internet connectivity is not a given. And so when you're designing digital access and digital like let's say service delivery, you have to think about that. But often what happens is an RSP goes out to create a website for a new service and some firm is … they'll do their best, I think more and more people are doing the personas and the UX stuff that you have to do, and then they'll come with two designs that they show young people or whoever is using them for an hour and get really kind of cursory feedback. And then that's it. The website's design is put up and whatnot, and it's launched and then it's used. And there's some form of iteration, but it's all. It's very mechanical, right? So I think that co-design would look very similar to what I described in Sudbury where maybe the website doesn't even need to be built like I've worked on projects in contexts where the funder thought that there was a website that needed to be built. But when you get to the community, no one in the community is using websites. They don't have Internet access, right? And so it becomes this entire process of redefining actually, what is it that you want in terms of service delivery with the community and thinking that through not only from the end user perspective but also where is this going to be housed? Who's going to be updating it? Are they in rural areas? Are they close to the problem? So it's really rethinking that the entire participation kind of delivery.

14:57 MONIQUE: I really appreciate that and I'm glad to use that as an example. I think it's interesting as designers, design strategists, service designers, I mean, we are putting people at the center of our work. That is what we do. That is our primary reason right for kind of doing what we do. So we can ensure like you had said at the beginning, to amplify the voices to give them space to be heard and to create that faith. I'm curious when we think about rural design and at the beginning you talked about things that you saw that were trends, things that were different. And I think in our work spend a lot of time in urban settings and now with the Social Impact Lab Alberta, we're specifically working in rural communities and being extremely mindful that the process and approach we use is created alongside community with the community. WY come in with the practice, but we are designing our approach with them. I will tell you it took us some time to adjust our speed to honor the speed of the community and to honor, in fact, all the steps forward and backwards that we needed. But your experience probably could shed a lot of light on us, on our team, to better understand what are other things we should be observing, what are the trends that you've seen then in your work between the difference between rural and urban.

16:17 RAÏSA: I'll be very generalized here because obviously each community is a world on its own and it's really important, first of all, to acknowledge that. So let, let's start there. How is the community defined and who gets to define it? Is it a municipal border? I live in a community that isn't an official community, for example, where a local service district, right. And so how do we define a local service district and who lives there is? Is this a rural community? Who gets to define it so that would be a one question. You mentioned tempo and time. I think time was kind of my first foray into thinking about rural because you're right, rural communities have in general very different time scale and are often reliant on being closer to sort of nature, not in a like weird kind of way, but really, often they're depending on their primary industries, let's say are dependent on natural cycles, so there is a.... If you're going into a farming community, there's cycles in a year. Don't go in the middle of harvest or maybe go in the middle of harvest, depending on the cultural background, right? But in some places, going when seed planting is happening, you're being a bother, right? They have three days to plant seeds and you don't want to be there at that time.

So timing, in that sense, but also timing in terms of social gatherings. I've been in places where I'm going in with a client, for example, to do research, and there's a funeral happening. This happens in many communities across the world, but also Indigenous communities I know. If there's a funeral, everyone goes. You can’t go in with your research agenda talking to people on a funeral day. It's extremely disrespectful. And then you get that clash ofthe urban researchers, designers, whoever, who've come in And are like, yeah, but my budget... I have two days budgeted to be here and the hotels here. It's too bad. You're going to break the trust of the people; if you break kind of those social codes. I think there's very different social norms that exist from community to community, depending on the history and depending on who's there now that people have to be very attuned to who holds the power. I think often people assume that the formal power structures are the people to engage with, and often that's just not true. That's really important.

Often there's a lot of stereotypes around how diverse and complex and complicated rural communities really can be. Often I've seen people assume, “oh, I've talked to two or three people, I must know how this works.” So yeah, I think it's really if I was to summarize, timing, tempo, life, natural rhythms, and industry, social norms, governance structures, really everything is very different, just like most place based work, you know like I can say that and you know even in urban areas if you break down to the level of like a small community. All those things will be also different, right?

20:07 MONIQUE: I completely agree.

20:10 RAÏSA: Sorry, the last thing I will say is that the difference I think especially nowadays, there's two, that one of them is that rural communities often face a lot of out migration. And so assuming that only the people who are physically in that community at that moment are the ones who are in the community is a huge mistake that people make because actually most rural communities have large populations of migrants who influence a lot because they're the ones that own in between the boundaries. So that's also, I think, very important to consider, which is often different from urban areas.

20:48 MONIQUE: Thanks for highlighting some of those. The diversity, the complexity of the community and in fact often what we're working on is complicated. At the same time, complicated and complex. Yeah, I completely agree with you. I'm also really curious about, well, like one of the things that we've done in our work and we continue to do with the Social Impact Lab Alberta is to find this lens of common purpose with the actors, so that ideally, if we're designing from a place of trust, working with these actors and we find common purpose. Does that then give us a bit of momentum and sustainability in what we're trying to achieve. I do think though, there's sometimes a risk of missing on some of the voices. WY can only know so much and we hope that everyone's introduced us to all the people and we hope we've understood what the needs are, but sometimes we can still run into challenges of not understanding the needs as deep as we should and not having the voices that we need to hear in part of the process and what have you done or seen that's worked to ensure that the needs and voices that may not be represented can be and or that we are aware of that in our process?

22:15 RAÏSA: Yeah. I mean, I think, like coming back almost to your first question, in my rural co-design, I think first of all... OK, a few things. So there's a lot.  There's different ladders of participation right to like, if you want to get really geeky about engagement, our ... ladders of participation shows you know a range of how you participate from and it's important to understand that because often I think people think that just because you are asking someone to be part of a process, that it means that it is co-designed or that that is engagement. But often what it is just asking a question that's very outside of scope. So I think, but coming back to your current question, it's really important to ensure that people feel really safe in that work and also the way that I try to do the work is really by centering ownership, so Sara Cantor did a talk at the World Design Conference that we held last fall around this idea that buy-in can't be bought. And I really believe that it is a function of the process that's involved in also in the trust of relationships that you're building and how you're doing it.

Will there be voices that aren't at the table? Almost definitely, we're all a multitude of thoughts and things and all can be very paradoxical. But I would say that, as designers, as government, as local government or nonprofits, our role is really to come in and amplify the role of community leaders that are already there. So the first question would be, have you identified the various community leaders that are already there? And to give them the tools to go back to their community, to do the work. And we're there as scaffolds, right. We're there to kind of support and taking the minute notes, making them pretty, building the dashboards, creating the posters, helping, coaching people around how to do this and then just let them do the work right, like how can we kind of take as much of the burden of the tactical off of the leaders who are doing this work and allow them to just build the relationships and to do the thing that they want to do is really the work, no matter where you are, I think, and without taking too much of their time, right?

And sometimes, and this is especially true in, I think here as well. But when I was working internationally, I saw this a lot where because the power dynamics are just so big between a funder, myself and a rural farmer, let's say in Ethiopia or somewhere else. I have immense privilege and power and that they don't have. Often a lot of our programs with the best of intentions end up actually putting more burden on people who actually can't afford to participate at the same rate. Just because they are facing the issues and their challenges doesn't mean they need to have the answers for them because they're structural systemic issues, and they're the most vulnerable, right? They're the most at risk. And so as designers, whoever we are in that process, I think our job is to look at a situation and say “Ohh who is missing? Why are they missing? How can I amplify their voice in a way that is part of their own environment?” I don't know if I'm able to engage people of different, I wouldn't say backgrounds. I think we can all share different backgrounds, but creating that safe space and really finding people that those that we want to engage trust is a very crucial in the process.

27:11 MONIQUE: When we do our work... and I appreciate that we often speak to we start from a place of designing for trust. But that notion of what trust means within different communities, different actors is unique. I think you've highlighted some challenges that exist, right? And how we work in communities, power and privilege culture, there are there are a number of other, I mean, whether or even we have all the right voices at the table, these are some of the challenges that we face, whether in urban or rural community settings when we're thinking about co-design. Are there any others that come to mind for you? And if so, what can we do to address them?

27:57 RAÏSA: So I think it's funny even in the language we use, right? So you just said we bring people around the table, but in my experience in rural communities, that's not a good idea. You shouldn't bring people around the table. You should actually be spending the first however long you have, as long as you want as you can, meeting people where they are going to, the docks, going to the fields, going to the bingo hall where people are playing, going to church and meeting people where they are. So that's the first rule, I would say is that. And then once you've done that and understood, not even understood, but like built that really tiny little bit of trust, can you then hope to bring people together? Or alternatively, if you have a community champion, it's for them to tell you what is the best place to meet people. I think often formal ways of gathering are overrated. Personally, and again, this depends by designer. It depends by manager. Everyone has different ways of working, but I think that to build trust, you really need to get out of the institution and build it in a very human way and in showing real interest in the lives that people are leading.

And that's true whether in rural or urban settings. Even from like for example, I've been in conferences where we've seen participants not engage and then we're like, OK, how about we change the rules around everyone has to sit in a chair. And we've moved the tables around and you are now allowed to sit on the floor or stand. That creates a very different dynamic where again, some people will feel super way more at ease and others will be like, this is very threatening to my way of life and how I frame things, right so. Anyway, I think that's just for me. That's the interesting part about this work, right? It is extremely complex and you can't please everyone, unfortunately, but the more humble and human you can be, the easier it gets because you kind of stop engaging on the level of the bureaucracy and the project and the program, and really just kind of cut to the chase and they're like “I don’t know, this food is really good”, or “ohh isn't this a beautiful beach that we're walking on together?”

31:09 MONIQUE: I love how you articulated that and thanks for calling me out because the turn of phrase that we bring people around the table is that it's a turn of phrase, but we couldn't agree more with you.... So we're active in Brooks, we're on a Brooks design lab. And when we held our two day Lab with a number of community and social impact champions, we gathered around food. Like we started there. Right. And to your point, even earlier, like we slowed down, like we acknowledged the rhythm that those that trusted us with two days shared with us, right? I think that's so important.

31:57 RAÏSA: And it's so cool because, we're saying, that's a rural, quote un quote, rural community thing, right? But that's just a human thing. And that's one of my curiosities around rural design, because I think that if we come from this frame of mind, there's more, slower, more human, more.... Yeah, this type of way and then brought that to an urban setting, we'd actually be designing more sustainable products. We'd be designing things that are more aligned to nature and our lifestyles and services that actually account for trust and care. But what we're doing is we're coming in from the with this, “let's do this fast” and we have things to do and efficiency mindset and we're bringing that to a rural area and that creates a whole set of other issues, right?

And it's created this tension, I think in most countries between this idea of urban, rural divide which I think it's a little manufactured. It’s manufactured by design, almost by the way that we have approached urbanization and the massive industrialization of our cities and our way of life in a very short period of time. So that's one of my calls about rural design is like, what if we actually started from there, right? Like I really think that we have many cues to community and human thriving and flourishing that exist in these communities that would actually, if we use those and translated those to an urban area, maybe. I don't know. I have a hunch that maybe we would design differently.

34:16 MONIQUE: Yeah, I think that's an interesting hunch. I couldn't agree with you more though. The lens of... So we've prioritized efficiencies, right? Effectiveness over, in many ways, relationships and I think you make such a really interesting point about if we actually take time to slow down and recognize some of those trends and themes that we're seeing in our rural practice, how that might influence the decisions we make in our urban in our urban practice and our urban design approach. I suspect you're right.

34:56 RAÏSA: Yeah, and I think it's interesting because in rural areas, again, we're generalizing to that degree, I think and it's important to note that for listeners, but it's narratives, there's a lot of assets in rural areas, but there's narratives as well, that are almost pitting these areas against each other and the reality is we need each other, right? Like both need to exist and coexist. And so, yeah, I'm always kind of stuck with that.

35:29 MONIQUE: So then on that note of.... We need each other. We need to coexist. Like if an individual in a community, whether that's urban or even like those smaller communities within an urban setting or a rural community, right, an individual in the setting, wants to lean into this idea of rule design or rule co-design practice. What would they do? Where should they start?

35:52 RAÏSA: I'm a self-taught designer, I guess. I don't really know how I got into this practice which I find sometimes difficult, but I would say that start where their passions are, right? WLat is the change they want to see? Where are the assets they want to amplify in their community and go from there. Do the work that needs to be done and use the tools that you need to use. Whether they're co-design or qualitative methodologies. Personally, it doesn't matter what you call it, right. As long as you're kind of leaning into what is here? What is this place? What makes it special and how can I make it better for the beings that are around me and the people I work with and yeah, just go from there. Some people might accuse me of being a little artsy fartsy, which I will take and I will take that because the other part of, in my experience, again working with people in rural communities is that they're very action oriented, right? So often I'll come in with all of these, oh, like we have to take time and build trust and do all these things.

And they're like, we have a problem. We have a real problem and we don't... I've been trying really hard and we've been doing all these things. Like I don't have time to spend time on you building these relationships right, which is totally fair and so which is why, again, it's really thinking about, OK, well, who do I know? What is my power? What is my privilege in this situation? Who are people who might help me, who might amplify this question, who might people have maybe some ways that they are responding to the challenge in my community already? And what are small things I can do to make things better? And then how can I learn from what I tried  and get feedback about it and then make it better? It's kind of like a recipe sometimes. You're like, yeah. And that's really the design process, right? I listen and understand and look.

I would add. Listen to your gut. Listen to what you're seeing. Because sometimes I feel we'll go in and it'll be like people will think that they don't know what they're doing. Like, oh, I'm, I and I do this myself. Even like, oh, I don't know if that's true, but I observe this and there's a part of it which is trust your gut. If you are seeing issues. If you're seeing assets. Then go with it, right. And it's for those of us who are building the services and the programs and the structures to have enough flexibility and enough grace to say we are here to amplify and we are here to do the work that needs to be done, right. And if you come to me with something, I don't know the answer. I 100% more times than not, do not have the answer to any of these thing. But I can be a mirror, right? I can be a coach. I can be a sounding board. I can walk through a process with you and see if it works well in your community and in your setting. And as designers it becomes how do we make those real? How do we make this into tangible assets that people can see the invisible things and in real life.

39:49 MONIQUE: It's beautifully said, Raïsa. I'm just so delighted we got to spend some time together today and I'm really grateful. Is there anything else you'd wanna leave with our listeners today?

40:01 RAÏSA: Yeah. Well, thank you for having me. This was a great conversation. I think we're at a very interesting stage of history right now where we're being called to make drastic changes to who we are, how we're doing things and the narratives that underpin this. And I think that rural communities and rural people and non-people ecosystems have a really important role to play in where we are now in this common history of the planet and yeah, I want to see them thrive. I really do. And I hope that everyone considers the role that they play and that everyone is really, really important in this time and age and that all actions are important and all, especially when they're built on care and trust and reciprocity and I just hope that that's what we move on to doing as humans on this planet.

41:18 MONIQUE: Yeah, that's awesome. Thank you. Great closing thoughts. So thank you, Raïsa again. And we hope that the listeners of Responsible Disruption and this episode in particular gained a deeper understanding of rural design, community co-design, some of the benefits, and challenges, some of the experiences you've had and how they might play a critical role in what's possible for change in their communities. So to our listeners, thank you for tuning in and we hope you join us again, for our next episode.

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That's all for today's episode of Responsible Disruption. Thank you for tuning in and we hope you found the conversation valuable. If you did, don't forget to follow, rate, and share wherever you get your podcasts. To stay up to date on future episodes and show notes, visit our website at the Social Impact Lab dot com or follow us on social and until next time, keep on designing a better world.