In the book Captive Genders, a chapter by Stephen Dillon tells the story of people who cannot imagine freedom.
The narrator sends letters to “C” and “R”, two non-normatively gendered individuals who have been swallowed by the prison-industrial complex looking to learn more about the outside. They’ve lived nearly all their lives chained by the system; either being forcibly transferred from location to location, being born in the foster system, spending years in solitary confinement, or leaving — and quickly returning — to prison walls.
To learn about the outside, one of the people ask about what it’s like to travel on a plane. So, the narrator struggles to do so:
“And so at C’s request, I’ve tried to explain what it is like to fly. My nervousness before the takeoff, my headaches from the pressure change that linger throughout the next day, my daydreams of falling through the sky, and my sense of relief once the plane lands.”
What’s unexpected, however, isn’t how they react to the story; it’s how it’s literally impossible to understand. “C” lives life through the words, policies, and culture of prison, and cannot imagine a world that isn’t plagued by violence, fear, and restriction. The writer, landing on the side of privilege, finds freedom, choice, and pleasure mundane, and “C” is rendered ‘killable’, meaning his daily decisions could keep him seconds away from being shot by local officers.
As a collection of accounts that scrutinizes the LGBTQI experience in the prison industrial complex, the stories challenge you to question the morality of our world. Ingeniously, the narrator uses this context to expand our own understanding of what it means to imagine a world outside of the prison-industrial complex.
In the chapter, Stephen Dillon tells the story to readers who cannot imagine a free society. By playing plan the institutional shifts caused by oppressive structures — queerphobia, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, and more have created a logic that restricts our ability to imagine a world without domination.
Just like he can’t understand a world with planes, friends, and work, we cannot understand a world with the Prison-Industrial Complex and its collateral, policies, and culture.
But what if we could?
In the design and innovation communities, most of their work is to make creative problem-solving valuable. The roles, institutions, and myths we hold about society, especially in Western society — have been designed to slowly, invisibly, and purposefully rid community members of their ability to critique and reimagine modern society.
When running our own brainstorming, prototyping, and staging activities, I’ve usually prefaced the concept with the following:
Now, for most of you, you haven’t done this since you were 5. Trust me, we’ll reignite your creativity.
Recently, there’s been a clear uprising of the value of innovation in the world. As the world’s social, technological, and economic systems accelerate, there’s been a call to understand the complexity, dynamicism of today’s problems. Therefore, books like Creative Confidence and classes on Design Thinking have become the de-facto spaces for channeling imagination, and tools like the Design Value Index make business cases for the value of innovation-centered organizations.
However, even these tools have limits. Communities across the nation — and the world — are still disenfranchised by systemic and historical oppression. Over the years, people in power have developed hierarchies that keep community members from experiencing freedom: economic, political, social, spiritual, or otherwise.
What’s more, communities who do ‘sell’ innovation to powerful companies and governments, literally cannot imagine how to address these issues. Just like our author above, we’re hampered by inequitable policies, spaces, communities, decision-making, and myths that keep us from imagining how we can make the world more equitable.
How do we move forward?
Marrying Equity + Innovation
First, we need to redefine innovation.
Fortunately, there are a lot of different ones we can choose from:
Capitalism itself…constantly goes through a process of ‘creative destruction’: [It] revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”  — Joseph Schumpeter
“Innovation (1) is the creation of a viable (2) new (3) offering (4).” — Ten Types of Innovation
“Design for social innovation is everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain and orient processes of social change towards sustainability.” — Ezio Manzini
But, for many communities, innovations are a bane instead of a boon. Countless products, programs, and services that house the label of innovation have harmed our society in the long run: from how oil and gas power accelerates global climate change, and how sites like Facebook and Twitter become breeding grounds for hate speech, groups, and strategy.
Similarly, there are many different definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion:
“Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective.”
“Equity is promoting justice, impartiality, and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems.”
“Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those that are diverse actually feel and/or are welcomed.” — Source
However, many DEI programs are considered to only affect surface-level issues. Rarely do DEI-based organizations have the tools and space to reimagine — and thus transform — the systems, culture, relationships, and policies of an organization.
Combining the two fields together, however, offers countless possibilities. The field of innovation offers methods and mindsets to imagine, prototype, and develop a new world, and the tools and knowledge of the DEI community guides values, best practices, communities, and visions for a more just future.
What do you need to remember to support equity innovation?
Communities at the margins of systems are the experts in understanding — and fixing — its failures. Because these communities have been failed by the existing policies, institutions, and relationships, they learned and adapted to survive. They’ve built ways of thinking about the world that redefine what is possible; and equity innovation need to learn from their lessons
Innovation doesn’t just lie in places and people of power. Some of the most innovative creations of American society were developed by the most marginalized people. Southern food, American music, and cultural — Cinco de Mayo, Diwali, and Ramadan, for instance — represent a cultural value rarely attributed to the communities at the margins.
Learning collaboration, equitable facilitation, and productive creativity is essential to this work. We build together. Equity innovation must be about building bridges, working across differences, and creating unimaginable possibility. Only by working at the cutting-edge do we realize how we can carve out a new future.
Transformation takes time, tools, and commitment: but once it’s accomplished, you’ll wonder how you lived without it.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” — Arundhati Roy
In the shadow of COVID-19, there have been unprecedented developments that have affected every part of global society. Unfortunately, for those who study systems of inequity in history, the answer became ‘more of the same.’ The pandemic became a global accelerant for inequity, where billionaires make trillions and the poorest become unimaginably more vulnerable.
But the opposite is true as well:
- Through immeasurable organizing, the 45th presidency — and the United States’s descent into fascism — was halted by the incessant political strategy of black women in the moral center of the country.
- The current administration has taken executive orders that, years ago, seemed politically impossible for modern Democrats: shutting down the Keystone pipeline, centering the climate crisis in US Foreign Policy and National Security, and working to eliminate the federal use of private prisons.
- Additionally, there’s been a cultural adoption and shift — possibly in name, hopefully more — towards supporting systemic antiracism across the world. Companies, nonprofits, and multilateral organizations alike posted black squares, donated funds, and spoke about the incessant destruction of black life, liberty, and happiness.
Someone here imagined a better future. It took understanding new futures, new possibilities, and new relationships to shape a new world.
As a global body, we have a historical bias against the slow march of change. As humans, we spend most of our time building and comparing ourselves with the legacy of past generations. Being a change catalyst means we have to imagine — and move towards — unprecedented possibility.
To channel equitable innovation, here are some unprecedented questions:
- What would have happened if people with disabilities were prioritized, if they wanted, put in positions of power?
- Where’s the next world-changing intervention waiting in the wings, because the people who see it coming are hamstrung by the inequitable system we all know?
- How do we move forward towards nudging more equity in all our systems?
Just like our friends in Captive Genders, we can ask the biggest questions:
“What would it mean to embrace, rather than shy away from, the impossibility of our ways of living as well as our political visions?”
Join us in asking the right questions — and building new answers.