Shifting Ontological Orientations Wrestling with Dominant Positionalities and Worldviews in Social Design Practice

Kate McEntee 2023

This website comprises the exhibition portion of Kate McEntee’s PhD thesis, Shifting Ontological Orientations. It is designed to be viewed alongside the exegesis document that contextualises this work. Here you are invited to take your time sifting through images, recordings, stories and artefacts produced and gathered through this practice research. A teacher of mine once shared with me, noticing is not a mental exercise, it is an experience. This exhibition seeks to provide an experience for the viewer to notice and become curious about shifting ontological orientations in their own practice.

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Shifting Ontological Orientations
Wrestling with Dominant Positionalities and Worldviews in Social Design Practice

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© Kate McEntee 2023

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Relationships

At this agency, I came to understand a lot more about Māori people's experiences of New Zealand, experiences of the workplace, experiences of projects, experiences of design, and how really ill-fitting a lot of that is and was. I went more into increasing knowledge and relationships. Because I think, yes, knowledge is one part, but relationships are another part. Relationships are pulled a bit away from the type of action that is ‘doing projects’ and are more concerned with the type of action that might be about shifts. Shifts in government policies or processes, or our priorities. Relationships create a context for other people who perhaps are better at leading those projects to come in and work within a changed set of conditions, still inside of the system.

I learned from teachers Lina Patel and Seanna Davidson that social change can't be anything other than what happens within a small circle. The dynamics or relationships in that circle will be reflected in the work that you do.

I have a preference to explore things in community, in a way that's less hurried and structured than design or project management approaches might demand. In doing that, exploring with others who are looking through different eyes at the world, I feel an intuitive sense of, what is my role in all of this? What is being uncovered? What does the community around me need from me? I know it sounds a bit woo woo, but it is getting a vibe about what's going to be helpful and dignified, and what's going to be overstepping and overreaching and just not not my place to do. That develops through relationships and with time.

Lived Experience

Almost everyone I work with is people in their late 30s and early 40s, white middle or even upper class kinds of people. There's a huge amount of discussion I’d have with my friends and things I would think about that I totally cannot bring up with these people I work with. It's incredibly difficult for me to maintain social relationships at work because a lot of the people I work with are so very different from me. When it comes to social advocacy, when it comes to decolonial practice, it's like is this the space? I don't know...working with a bunch of upper middle class white folks who are highly educated, in well-paying jobs? Just the sheer social nature of that environment makes it difficult for me to feel like this is a space of social advocacy for a reality that is so distant from what any of these people are experiencing.

On the discomfort of differences—sometimes, one would get to the point where they feel so uncomfortable with others who have had different life experiences than them, that they do not allow for a common thread between them to exist so that they can then engage with each other. You just tell them, or perhaps more importantly tell yourself, that you're not allowed to engage with these people, because you're so far off from them. Whether that’s because they have a totally different socio-economic status or some other kind of situation you haven’t experienced. So you tell yourself that you are not able to connect with these people, and so you can’t do this work. And it’s all because of a fear of sitting with that uncomfortable feeling. It takes a lot of work to be secure in the face of that discomfort and engage despite it.

I'm connecting with them [people living in a refugee camp in Jordan] on a level that, yes, [my white American colleague] will never be able to connect with them. The simplest and most immediate barrier is that she'll have to run the workshop or conduct an interview in English- a language that is alien to them and diminishes their ability to try and be vulnerable and generous with their thoughts. Because I spoke the language and came from a neighbouring country with similar recent histories- We were able to share our war stories. They were showing me their scars from shrapnel. They just huddled with me for a half hour after the workshop and we just tried to say everything and nothing to each other about our lives and war. The level we connected on is deeper. But also, and this is important, I don't actually get them and they don't actually get me. I am way more privileged. I speak their language, but I'm Iraqi and they're Syrian. I'm from a major city while they came from rural areas. I think what all of this has taught me is we [designers coming in] are always going to be outsiders even when you think you're not because your skin colour says you're not or your history says you're not. In a way it's freeing, because then you're like, any project I get, I am an outsider to these people, and it's my responsibility to have us reach understandings and a common language that we can speak to each other, so we can communicate in a meaningful way. But in another way, it's deflating because it just feels like…then I will never really understand the context, therefore, I will always be failing at some level.

Expertise

Having worked at IDEO opened all kinds of doors. I would get hired for projects I probably shouldn't have been hired for. Without any further qualifications, somebody still would hire me to solve racial justice.

Having trained as a designer, there's a lot built into design school that's very much about positioning a designer as an expert, as being the person who can name a problem and is responsible for that problem. A lot of this model of design, and the ways of being and doing, are in real conflict with anything like decolonising or the decentering of white supremacy.

Not doing

I feel like we just need to understand and explore and hold the disconnects, not jumping into one thing or the other just yet.

The thing is, inaction is also action. Not doing or not saying something is a response. And sometimes saying or doing something imperfectly is actually much better. But it's context dependent. I chose not to make a submission on the Indigenous Voice because I decided I didn't understand it. I had one drafted, but I decided I didn't understand enough. And it wasn't my place. So those two things go together, I think.

I at least felt uncomfortable enough to have a sense of, I don't know if I'm the right person to do this. I don't think the role that I'd imagined was actually going to be helpful.

Discomfort

I was part of a book club on decolonising solidarity. One of the things the reading and working through it with a group helped me to do was get comfortable with the discomfort. By really naming it and saying, if you're someone who's been living your life not facing up to the history of where you live, not facing up to the unfairness of your privileges versus others, and all those kinds of things, it feels uncomfortable. And it's hard work. It was really good to practice the discomfort in a safe and supportive space. The big thing it taught me was sometimes there's not a clear right thing to do, like, in these situations where there have been terrible injustices.

I think what I'm always doing is noting the discomfort as a kind of learning, hopefully. ... You're noting your discomfort because you're completely out of your depth. .... Maybe that's the practice, constantly kind of checking how badly your ego is being bruised. And then you're going, Wow, like, what a great gift that is. Let's, let's walk that way, don't go and lick your wounds... There are three things: trying to balance, trying to see and make connections, and trying to learn from each time. There's discomfort in that.

The main thing I’ve noticed is the fragility around us comes from people just not being able to sit with the discomfort, because it just really breaks down their idea of how good they are. Like they are human beings, who are trying to use their resources and power and privilege they have in ways that benefit others. That's the narrative they have. Which is a true narrative. But also having to sit with some discomfort illuminates other things that are also true. It just doesn't sit well because it conflicts with that narrative for them.

Bridge

Bridge

The Possible reminds me of a bridge that was named after a dictator in Brasília. A group of activists made an intervention in the sign with the name, temporarily changing it to a popular musician's name. By doing that, they were not proposing an actual new name, but performing a possibility that was not considered before. After the intervention, there was an official referendum to ask for new possibilities of names.

Ice

Ice

It was all of the small and large moments over a period of time that made me realise The Rub. For me, it developed slowly. It started when I was working in the automotive industry which made me realise how much my workplace contradicted my personal beliefs regarding environmental sustainability. This was my first year out of university and I had big dreams that the car industry would be exploring all of these advanced things like alternative fuels. They weren't, and many laughed at 'alternative' ideas. Like actually laughed. I was in one meeting where someone from China was presenting concepts for a single person Segway-type vehicle for getting around Beijing and people actually laughed. I changed to a small design studio that focused a lot on design for sustainability and degradability. After a few years of working in product design, I realised that making more stuff to sell to people who already had stuff was at its core misaligned with my personal beliefs. So I refocused my career towards working on public products and services. I started working more directly with members of the public and businesses implementing those ideas to make those products and services as good as they can be. So it was a gradual rub, but if I was to suggest one obvious moment that it happened then I would say it was that meeting where people laughed at a colleague for presenting some actual alternative, context-appropriate thinking.

Butter

Butter

I experienced this feeling in the situation described on the card. It was a major moment of re-prioritisation for me, a shift away from wanting to know what to do next to allowing myself to move with a group and to support that group and the people in it. I'm not sure what to make of it all looking back, because it was also a moment of shifting from having a positive image of the kind of practitioner I wanted to be to having only a view of what I didn't want to be (positive and negative intended here like photographic film, rather than good and bad). The most important part of this story though is the people that were around me at the time, who I was able to learn from and adapt with (or maybe re-impress myself on—a new positive image to work towards).

I melted like butter, and butter never goes back the same way after it is melted. But, what was most important was the shape of the vessels around me that I was recast in.

Exit

Exit

I was invited to be an “expert design thinker” on a team with others, for a project with a non-profit. The employees of the non-profit questioned so much about our sacred design process. It was so frustrating, I didn't realize until reading about Decolonizing Research THAT is what they were trying to do. I felt the shame of not seeing that earlier, or understanding how important it was to them to protect their participants from “Research.”

It was like taking an exit ramp off the mainstream path. These moments can be signs that invite you to shift…“come this way, you don't need to keep going with the flow of traffic. This path is quieter and better. You'll see.”

I like that there isn't a destination listed on the sign, just the opportunity to get off. You don't always know where it will take you, you just know you don't want to be on the highway anymore.

Egg

Egg

Right now I'm exploring the potential for comprehending and incorporating large, complex amounts of information through voice, rather than visual means (including writing). I'm noticing there's a 'rub' inherent in this as I challenge my own, and potentially the outside world's, idea of what is important or necessary about this task, particularly in terms of timeliness. I'm also hopeful that the way this different method remoulds the task holds potential to change and broaden the way we think and do.

I'm playing around with the semipermeable membrane of an egg as a metaphor—I'm not quite sure if it is apt! An egg can take some elements from outside and incorporate it in itself. I imagine therefore it's able to release certain things to the outside as well. I'm not sure what happens without this osmosis, but I imagine it would result in the egg going off. The membrane is only semi permeable though—while the egg is transformed and meets its ‘needs’ better by the transaction, it still remains an egg.

Artefact

Artefact

I did a Masters in Design Anthropology and my ‘major’ was Indigenous Studies. I went into this research with so many strong ideals, desires to help and advocate through my practice as ‘Designer’.

We spent many months reading, educating ourselves and being educated from those from Country, from Community and responding reflexively, critically.

When I went out into Community to begin research, I was confronted immediately by the disconnect between our high sense of Designerly Purpose and arriving to help and the reality of this not being ‘needed’ in Community from a Western Design paradigm such as Design or Anthropology; both of which have had devastating history and actions on First Nations peoples. We were met with a very deserved distrust and confusion. I felt an immediate shame that has not left me since and drastically changed how I think of Design, my own practice and an everyday need to de-centre western self-authoritative design and research practices in every way I can and to get out of the way, advocate and support the work being done from within community.

This was made and given to me by an Elder, and Aunty, during time I spent with a small local Arts group. We met once a week together for over a month creating together—talking about creating, imagining, fighting for your voice, to find out who you are and what is your creative essence.

The last time we met, she gave this to me. it means to never be stopping your thinking, to never rest and or have an end point. It is covered in language of meeting points and with free space all around. This is really what we were talking about that whole month, and what she believed I should be cultivating in myself.

This generous, beautiful conversation-artefact is always with me. And it helped me to cultivate the opposite of what I thought I was doing my masters for.

Error

Error

I chose 'The Dance' because it's probably the hardest but the most common aspect of my participatory practice, and I continue to be fascinated by it, in terms of thinking about positionality and 'shift work'. This makes it harder to pick 'one' experience to describe. It happens in my teaching, or in meetings, or in any project work. I try and now 'prepare' for contingency, so I can be my best in generous and open ways, and I also notice when I'm not (or poorly prepared) because I'm stressed out, and worse, reactive and inconsiderate.

I think contingency and uncertainty is part of most people's lives, I assume? It depends on whether this is the focus of their practice (which it is for me), or whether it's taken so habitually that it's an automated response. In that case, I would wish we attend to our self-awareness, from moment to moment, not in a self-conscious way. This means giving more time. More care, more room. I know this is very hard, as even in this moment, I'm not quite 'present' when typing text into this box.. Ha! It is hard to capture a dynamic thing. This was an 'error' photo I found on my phone, god knows what I was trying to take a photo of. I'm using the photo as the dynamic condition and the dots, which might represent moments of emplacement. The red lines for stress and mindless reactions. In fact there should be more red lines than the blue dots, if I'm being honest!

The Rub

The Rub

When the conditions of reality (work, capitalism, neoliberalism) rub against one's ideals (values, beliefs, 'right' methods).

The Rub reveals previously unconsidered constraints, or unknown challenges. The Rub is often uncomfortable and can generate strong emotions and reevaluation of your role in your work.

After design school, I started working on a project about taking a change in legislation around vulnerable children and turning into a service, which had a particular focus on Indigenous families. The model I had in my head was, I'm gonna go in there and facilitate these workshops and move towards a solution. I probably had some ideas, very arrogant, like people aren't doing what they should be. And I'm gonna accelerate them along. I also had an idea that to facilitate would mean to be at the centre, and have solutions. This was so naive in a context in which there are not necessarily solutions. I remember one workshop at a place with a very strong Indigenous presence and Indigenous governance models. I'd spent all this time making the agenda and all the materials. I stood up to start the workshop, and someone was like, "No, who are you? Why are you here? What are you doing?" I was thinking in my head: I don't know!, the client asked me to do this work, can I do this work?, my performance is being measured on this... The group had to go away and have a caucus separate to the workshop. I was just like, Oh, my God, I've really misunderstood this situation in a fundamental way. It caused a point of reflection, wow, maybe it's not really my role to come in trying to have answers about this, or even to lead this.

The Invisible

The Invisible

When conditions around us change such that our own understandings and worldviews are affected.

The invisible reveals the limitations of our present worldview; how our abilities to make change are limited by how we experience the world. It can generate humility and inspire us to be more open and listening to different experiences.

There are things that everyone thinks is good and fine right now, but we will have different kinds of revelations later. In different fields, in activism you see when something like feminism, which was all about women's rights and defining women's rights. Well, hang on, okay, what about people who identify neither as man or woman? A few years ago, I was pretty oblivious to that. And I think a lot of people, well-meaning people were. So what is it that we are going to realise that we are being really horrible, or oblivious to, now in a few years time? I am aware that there are shifts over time. It is shifts within me, but it is also shifts within society. I think there is a need to trust my moral compass, and know that things are shifting over time.

The Long Learn

The Long Learn

When material learned through reading or listening converges with a real-life experience or example.

The Long Learn transforms previously held information into experiential knowing. It can create a deeper level of connection, trust and commitment to ideals.

A point at which it really clicked for me was running a workshop for farmers...around regenerative agriculture. We were essentially getting them to determine what regenerative agriculture meant for them...[O]ne of the (regenerative) farmers was talking about...how over the decades, they've been practicing this way on their farm and they're now at the point where they're succeeding to their children. She was talking through how what her son chooses to do with that land or not can be very dependent on what other people around him are doing. She's not talking about him personally, as a person, but the influences and the support structures around what people around him are doing, and also what emotional support he's getting to be able to keep doing this work. And at that point, when she said, "You've got to look after the people to look after the land," my brain made the connection between what I've been hearing Aboriginal elders say for ages, which is around caring for land and caring for people, but also making the connection with the stories I've grown up with my whole life around looking after the mental health of farmers, through droughts and stuff like that. It's suddenly just, if I don't make sure that people are whole and healthy, then they cannot look after the land.

The Disconnect

The Disconnect The Disconnect

When an experience in real life contradicts or discredits closely held ideas learned through reading or listening.

The disconnect reveals a gap or conflict in our understanding of 'right' or 'good'. It can generate deep reflection and new understandings about being rather than knowing, as well as disillusionment and cynicism.

Describing attending a workshop by a respected and well-known critical design theorist and professor: It was an experience of being schooled on how to design a new world by someone who was a fucking asshole, with no compassion at all. Here's this call for decolonizing practices, here's how we remake the alternatives to alternatives, with no consideration for the people doing the work. This was a pivotal moment for my reflection and journey as a designer. I was previously really interested in critical design, in this modernist image. The single designer moving through the world making changes on their own. I was interested in that: A designer offering critical thought and changing the world themselves. And he was that turned up to 11. "I'm the only person who knows how to change the world for the good, and build the right new world." At that time, after my last year of studying, I idolised [the professor]. And now I'm here going, I do not want to be him. I do not want to be him at all.

The Possible

The Possible

When conditions change such that something new enters the realm of possibility. It is now able to be considered, practiced or attended to.

The possible reveals something that was previously unknown, not considered or an ignorance. It generates an opportunity for change in beliefs or behaviours.

I had been watching things that come from Australia, and I had been seeing this acknowledgement of land, or ritual, every time a public event starts. I find it interesting and curious and fascinating in many ways, but it's very different for me. This is not something that I am used to, especially in Brazil. And I've seen it many times, then one moment at a conference someone said, "Can you please put where you're speaking from on the chat." People started putting things like, I come from the unceded lands of the Kulin nation and other places, and then in parenthesis (Melbourne). And it was not until then I just realised I had no idea where I am and on whose unceded lands. At that moment, I was embarrassed about not knowing, or not having thought about it. I also had trouble finding out about it. I became very, not worried, but was curious, and thinking about it a lot. I had a conversation with a friend. She did her PhD in anthropology and she has more of this Indigenous knowledge that I was curious about. That was very important to me recently and was able to share with me about the land of my city. Before this was not something that there was very much interest, or I didn't know anything about. It was not in the realm of possibilities or on my radar for any reason.

The Dance

The Dance

An experience of uncertainty, negotiation and not knowing what to do.

The dance reveals our limitations (individual and/or organisational); it highlights the importance of relationships and community. It can generate new perspectives and reflection about what or where to work, and also how those decisions are made.

Reflecting on a difficult decision about about working on complex project on the national digital children's health record with Aboriginal communities: I should have known it was actually not something for me to do. I wasn't asking the question if this is the right thing to be done, and going far enough into the historic context of what this means. I knew about children being removed from parents and the scepticism that remote communities have of government. But to take it a step further is when it meets reality. Initially it's, okay, this is good work. I think we should be doing this work. Let's do this work. But you're then not asking those next questions, which are more difficult. It's more complicated. ... We constantly have to ask ourselves to hold back but also be courageous. The courageous part is, it's easy to step away. That's the easiest thing, do no harm. Don't be part of any of this stuff. And then we leave these parallel worlds happening. That's kind of easy. But the thing is to say, what is my role as an ally or as a person? To make a connection to another entity who should be leading, and we step back right away? Or maybe they say, let's do this together? I feel like it's those experiences that really cause shifts.

Use accurate language and information

Use accurate language and information

When working across diverse populations, use terms and descriptions that reflect contemporary and culturally appropriate understandings of identity and culture. Avoid biased language.

Be consistent across identity descriptions

Be consistent across identity descriptions

Marginalised characteristics and identities are often overly-represented. Only emphasising marginal identities, and not naming dominant identity characteristics, creates default assumptions of ”'normal”.

Make ideology and positionality explicit

Make ideology and positionality explicit

By naming our backgrounds and ideologies, we acknowledge where we are from, and how we are located. This makes visible how the world is being interpreted, potential biases, and which worldviews are being privileged.

Embrace diversity

Embrace diversity

Supporting diversity values and respects non-dominant identities, values and narratives. Avoid simplification and convergence for the sake of ease or expediency.

Avoid conflicting narratives

Avoid conflicting narratives

Take care not to place ideologies, religions, identities and experiences into inaccurate or offensive relationships. It can be misleading and destructive to approximate conflicting narratives, or connote particular values and ideologies for disparate purposes.

Letting go

Letting go

Positioning your knowledge as incomplete and partial can break appearances of objectivity and power. Creating processes that use language and information surfaced in context, and systems that provide continuous review and revision allows for ongoing engagement and learnings.

Embracing complexity

Embracing complexity

People experience the various aspects of their identity as a complex source of pride, marginalisation, and targets of tokenism. Acknowledging and embracing casual, disruptive and expressive descriptions can help reveal the realities of complex, imprecise experiences and relationships with identity in the world.

Relationally constructing our worlds

Relationally constructing our worlds

One's ideologies and positionalities are constructed in relationships with other peoples, places and worldviews. This recognises s a dynamic multiplicity in how we move through worlds, as a process of constant destruction and rebuilding, rather than solidifying singular narratives.

Naming and understanding identity as a process, not an outcome

Naming and understanding identity as a process, not an outcome

We exist in constant, illogical states of relating, creating, destroying and changing. In each moment, we are engaging in dynamic processes which create and perform identity.

Attending to how our contexts create meaning

Attending to how our contexts create meaning

We are creating new meanings and relationships as we share different ideas and work in the world. Attending to how our sharing, or that of others, changes the meaning of the ideas, recognises a relational process of how ideas move through worlds and change through relationships and contexts.

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