Empathy at the heart of faith-based and social justice changework

Empathy at the heart of faith-based and social justice changework

// By Christian Clansky

Upswell is about turning empathy into action — harnessing the insights and experiences of changemakers to positively impact the communities we serve. But what about the community’s insights and lived experiences? In the rush of life, do we unintentionally lean toward a “bias to action” — designing solutions without fully understanding the challenges and needs of the community and the humans at its center?

During Sojourners’ “Summit 2018,” a three-day gathering of faith-based and social justice leaders in Washington, DC, IS held a special Upswell Lab on human-centered design (HCD) to help empower leaders to create innovative and impactful solutions by incorporating HCD techniques in their changework.

The quick-paced, 90-minute lab provided attendees with an overview of HCD principles, along with tools, techniques, and tips they could use to turn insights into ideas, and ideas into prototype solutions for testing in the real world.

Led by Pickett Slater Harrington, one of several IS staff members who were trained in HCD design during a month-long immersion at Civilla, the session covered a five-step process to help attendees see their work through “design thinking”:

Human-Centered Design 5-Step Process

  • Empathize – “observe, engage, and immerse” to better understand the situation of those you’re designing for, and to inform your development of solutions to address their concerns.
  • Define – “focus” your empathy findings into compelling needs and insights and reframe the challenge, with the goals of deeply understanding your users and based on that understanding, developing an actionable problem statement or “your point of view”.
  • Ideate – “flare” or explore a wide quantity and diversity of ideas from which to build idea prototypes to test in the community.
  • Prototype – bring the “ideas in your head” to life through a wall of sticky notes, a storyboard, or other ways that help you deepen your understanding; develop, create, and test various solutions; and interact with and inspire others by showing your vision.
  • Test – inform the next iterations of prototypes, build additional empathy through observation and engagement, and assess and refine your point of view, if needed.

Lab attendees participated in two follow-up exercises to “practice” what they’d heard. In the first, each partnered with a table member to reflect on their faith and justice work, and discuss their changework challenges — including finding ways to include and engage people who are marginalized, and identifying storytelling methods to best tell the story about the work of the faith-based and social justice community.

During the second exercise, attendees discussed developing an empathy plan to gain a deeper understanding of their work challenges, including how to immerse themselves in the experience of others, who or what they could observe to gain a deeper understanding, and five questions to ask to better understand an issue or challenge.

The exercises revealed that while the HCD process was new to some lab participants, others were already incorporating human-centered design concepts into their work, and found the process helped them “codify” the natural desire to turn empathy into action.

It was our pleasure to have members of the faith-based and social justice community join our Upswell Lab — and our Upswell wave. Their deep-rooted faith is a powerful force for good — and we look forward to more fully engaging this important part of the social sector as we continue our work to make the world a better place.

1600 900 Christian Clansky
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