Community Action Wiki:About

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This design project is an experiment in imagining worlds together. Created by J Ryan Westphal in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of MFA Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons.

I have arrived at this experiment through a process of trials and missteps; by darting down side paths and tripping over rabbit holes. While much of this is detailed throughout the pages of this Community Action Wiki, there are certain aspects of the research that I felt compelled to elaborate on. In struggling to find a more appropriate place to put these elaborations, I have decided that they will live here as an exercise in explaining what this Wiki is About.

This page, along with all the other pages on this Wiki, is open to editing and discussion. If this project continues, I hope that myself and others will make full use of these capabilities, denoting a kind of success that I have not yet achieved. As of precisely now, this is page represents my best attempt at a half-written historiography. Perhaps that’s all it will ever be.

Designing-with

This design thesis originally intended to interrogate possible modes and methods of designing-with. By “designing-with” I mean those processes that might be collected under such terms such as “community engagement,” “community-centered design,” “participatory design,” or “co-design.”

Protocols

As a starting point, I looked to Karl Palmås and Otto von Busch, who bring design’s role in participatory process into sharp focus. They examine the protocols of design, the nuts and bolts of the engagements and interactions; focusing on the toolkits, worksheets, surveys, activities, and presentations that comprise much of the co-design possibility space. Building on Actor Network Theory, Palmås and von Busch identify these “paraphernalia of artefacts” as the primary actors responsible for limiting participation in design.[1] Specifically, they are interested in the process of “translation,” observing,

When it comes to co-designed urban planning…participating citizens and civil society groups may see their original goals becoming diluted in the process of goal translation.[1]

Palmås and von Busch relate this to Rancière’s notion of mésentente, “the fact of not hearing, of not understanding,” to describe how certain design protocols filter out information that participants themselves find important. They keenly dissect how design identifies and misidentifies “voice” from “noise”.[1]

Their analysis illustrates that the protocols of engagement, the forms and methods of design, can easily limit design’s ability to achieve the stated goals of designing-with. Certain very common processes fail to include a multitude of voices, and as a result, the needs, desires, and goals of community-members are not addressed. Or, read another way, a close analysis of the protocols of design lays bare the underlying limitations of participatory co-design processes.

Prior to its manifestation as a wiki, this work hoped to build on this interrogation. Palmås and von Busch applied a critical lens to the translating capacities of design methods, but what of the others? Namely, what would such an analysis bring to bear on design’s capacity to build community or to distribute coercive power?

Community Action

In trying to find the language to describe what design’s capacity to build community might be; to establish a vision towards which design protocols might aspire, I looked to Sherry Arnstein’s seminal 1969 report on citizen participation in Community Action Programs.[2] Arnstein proposes a model which judges participatory processes based on their redistributive properties; how well they allocate and assign power to stakeholders in a planning process. She cites a poster penned by French students engaged in a student-worker rebellion, claiming that “participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless…It maintains the status quo.”[2] This, for Arnstein, separates “empty ritual” from what could be a genuine benefit for a community. She carefully documents eight possibilities of “citizen participation” These possibilities range from acts of manipulation, to consultation, partnership, and, ultimately, a best-case scenario in her model, resident control.

Arnstein makes the claim that many programs fail to rise above rote tokenism, or placation, of local residents, because genuine control over budgets and proposals is never given to local residents. Final veto power always remains a tool of the city council. She claims that residents “may realize that they have once again extensively ‘participated’ but have not profited beyond the extent the powerholders decide to placate them”.[2]

A number of similar accounts point out the failures and shortcomings of the Community Action Programs. But others, still, recount the successes of the programs, how it provided residents typically excluded from government participation with the skills necessary to assume local leadership roles.[3][4] A literature review shows that historians, public policy experts, and analysts have only recently begun to account for these positive effects of Community Action Programs.[5] Also, not only could you argue that these programs were not the abject failures that early research assumed, but you can also find ample evidence that what followed was worse.

Mark Tigan, a former director of the Model Cities programs, which followed the Community Action Programs in hoping to deliver on the promise of “citizen participation,” compared the successes of these early participatory programs to those that would follow.[6] Tigan’s account of history shows how the federal government moved away from direct participatory engagement with residents in communities across the country, and towards a model of “revenue sharing.” This new model, heralded by Nixon and strengthened by Reagan, focused on dispensing money to community-based nonprofits as its main mode of interaction. In so doing, Tigan shows that it did away with all of the successes of the Community Action and Model Cities Programs; community residents no longer had an avenue for attaining coercive power. Participation, as mandated by the federal government in the United States, was no longer interested in capacity- or community-building.[6]

Counterfactual

Building on these accounts of history as they relate to the focus of this thesis work, I wondered what a counterfactual account of history might render visible; what it might lead to. This Community Action Wiki was originally created to aid in this endeavor. If I was to wonder what community engagement might be had the United States maintained a commitment to maximum participation, if I was interested in developing design protocols that centered capacity- and community-building, I first needed to understand the histories that might have brought such engagements and protocols to bear. This work began as a counterfactual explanatory mechanism, and evolved into a world.

Worldbuilding

A world might be thought of as a “story that tells stories,” an assemblage of tales, yarns, and factoids that generate, produce, and reproduce.[7] In an early experiment which employed light worldbuilding elements, one participant described the importance of “handholds and footholds,” features of a world that allow new storytellers a means of gaining footing. Like climbing a rock or a tree, you need a thing or two to grab a hold of in order to tell a story with stories.

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Ambiguity

One question that has dogged this exercise in worldbuilding, inflamed, no doubt, by the connotations that come with a wikipedia page, is the truthfulness or untruthfulness of the contents. Many of the historical accounts catalogued here are retellings of published historical record, others are reconsiderations of archival research and interviews, others still are fictional (hopefully productively so). Aside from some hints with regard to cited references, there is no attempt to tag, categorize, or otherwise indicate fact from fiction, accepted history from designed possibility. As Ursula K. Le Guin explains, such a task might well be impossible.

The difficulty of translation from a language that doesn’t yet exist is considerable, but there’s no need to exaggerate it. The past, after all, can be quite as obscure as the future…The fact that it hasn’t yet been written, the mere absence of a text to translate, doesn’t make all that much difference. What was and what may be lie, like children whose faces we cannot see, in the arms of silence. All we ever have is here, now.[8]

In posing a counterfactual history, I have found ample room to explore the contested and obscure histories of the Community Action Programs. With over 150 participating cities viewed through the lenses of contesting political ideologies, the truthfulness of any statement about this particular period is contested territory.[5] This thesis was not focused on separating fact from fiction. However, to return to Sharp and Thomas, this obscurity pushed the boundaries on their notion of “ambiguity” as it applies to the experience of perusing this website. They argue, following the work of Gregory Bateson, that an ambiguity of interpretation, one which undercuts “authorial intention,” takes the “form of metacommunication [through which] we can understand something both as it is and as it is not.”[9] In applying this definition to the Community Action Wiki, I understand it to mean that this wiki presents histories in a way that feels like it is presenting histories, while also knowing that, actually, it is not presenting historical fact. However, the obscurity of these histories, encapsulated beautifully and gesturally by Le Guin, complicates this understanding, it blurs the edges of the real and the made-up. In some instances, when participants experienced this website, the effect was confusing. In such cases, the player did not know that they are playing. The experience breaks down, it produces nothing and fails to generate meaning.

Calibrating this ambiguity by managing the experience of encountering this Community Action Wiki has taken on a central role in the most recent developments of this work. In all honesty, many of these attempts have seen, at best, partial success.

Engagement

Worldbuilding is often, rightly, characterized as a singular, lonely exercise. A single worldbuilder, building a single world. J.R.R. Tolkien referred to the process of designing a language for his worlds as a “secret vice”.[10] Constructing this wiki certainly felt similar. However, the Design Studio for Social Intervention re-characterizes this act, calling for a more participatory imagining.

Like DJing and cooking, imagining new arrangements is always a participatory exercise, one which relies on inspiration and creativity, but also the keen ability to sense the flow of ideas, moves, sounds and tastes as a way of collaborating with all kinds of people.[11]

Participation

In first publishing this worldbuilding documentation using the MediaWiki platform, I hoped to draw on the participatory connotations of Wikipedia. Every page has multiple invitations for editing, collaborating, and discussing. However, in presenting this platform to possible collaborators, I found that, in actuality, Wikipedia, for many, is primarily a tool used for searching and gathering information. It is not a tool for creating. In response, I began to use this Community Action Wiki as a platform around and through which other forms of participation might precipitate. None of these attempts have been entirely successful.

Presentation

An early attempt to invite participation took the form of a visual presentation of the histories I’d been exploring and the speculative extrapolations that arose from those histories. This presentation took the form of a slideshow and was conducted virtually over a video chat. At the end of the presentation, I directed the small audience to a splashpage which contained leading questions and invitations to contribute.

Following the presentation, I received a number of interesting questions, many of which have directed the writing of this historiography. But no contributions were made to this wiki directly. I suspect the familiar form of a presentation followed by a question and answer session drove the interaction. There are other possible factors, the presentation was too long, and the request made at the end of the presentation, the ask for participation, was made too gently and openly. There were no stakes.

Interviews

Following the presentation, which failed to engender the kind of participation I had hoped, I began conducting one-one-one interviews. In hopes of inviting a “lusory attitude” by creating a kind of “set-outsideness” I began these interviews with a short description of my (fictional) assumption of an intern position at the, in my words, “long-defunct Office of Economic Opportunity”.[9] I then asked the interviewees, who have all been designers with an interest in governance or participation, to engage in a familiar exercise for evaluating the user experience and user interface of websites. The tasks included clicking through the Community Action Wiki, and verbally articulating all thoughts, confusions, questions, or suggestions. These activities are extremely familiar to anybody who has built a website or otherwise engaged in a user-centered design approach. But after a few introductory comments about the user experience of the website, once the game became apparent, the conversations shifted to the content of the wiki, and the context of the thesis work.

This shift was compelling; the participants each contributed interesting ideas to how the world might develop. However, the task of folding these suggestions into the world still fell on me, which, while preferable to singular worldbuilding, still left the task of synthesis on a lone individual.

Artifacts

Most recent attempts at gently inviting participation have involved the crafting of artifacts which might have emerged from this alternative world. Some of these artifacts take the form of invitations: a resume containing a description of the work an intern might undertake at The Office of Economic Opportunity or a letter inviting participants to partake in a consultation with the Office on official letterhead.

Other artifacts, though, are not simply speculative, but are designed with an eye for their potential to possess a “double ontology”.[12] Namely, I have started to compile the methods that have emerged from this worldbuilding exercise as a set of Alternative Protocols, presented as addenda to the never-before-updated 1965 Community Action Workbook. However, for the time being, this is static cataloging is less interesting than the more easily accessible and editable collection taking place on this Community Action Wiki.

However compiled, these protocols could easily be deployed in actual, present contexts. They are being designed so that, if enacted under current conditions, they may present opportunities for the modern participatory designer to gently “trick” civic systems into distributing coercive power more meaningfully.[13] In so doing, they might serve both as a way to engage with the worlds being built as part of this thesis work, but also as a bridge between present worlds and imagined alternatives.

Community

One of the most interesting aspects of the Interviews conducted as part of the attempts to open up this worldbuilding process to wider participation was the tendency of these engagements to beget more participation. By this I mean, at the conclusion of these particular engagements, the participants would reach out, or offer to reach out, to others who might be interested in participating. This phenomenon points to a particular way forward, both for a collective worldbuilding enterprise, but also in response to the very particular forms of community engagement that this Community Action Wiki is exploring on a thematic level.

From Social Practice

The patriarchal, elitist forms of participation that this Community Action Wiki has taken into consideration are not unique to civic community engagement. Social arts practices, or site-specific public arts, have been grappling with these issues for decades. Specifically, I look to the analysis provided by Miwon Kwon, who identified distinct interactions between artists and the communities with which they were making their art as a kind of template for understanding how this Wiki might evolve, in practice.[14]

The Community of Mythic Unity

One of these interactions between artist and community is a situation in which Kwon describes the artist as engaging with a “Community of Mythic Unity.”[14] This relationship is one where the artist assumes the position of a delegate for a community, and in so doing collapses all of the texture and richness of that community into a monolith. In so doing, they assume an authoritative role over the community; they do not function as partners. Grant Kester, in his essay on “Aesthetic Evangelists” goes a step further and describes such relationships as “paternalistic.” A telltale sign of this relationship are projects in which the artist “challenge[s] the subjects, to expand their awareness and engage them in a process of critical self-reflection and analysis. The artist’s role is to resuscitate their sense of self-esteem and to provide them with a meaningful creative experience.”[15] Far from a real collaboration, the people who are a part of these communities are often relegated to decision-making duties at the behest of the artist. Such relationships are very clearly hierarchical and, as Kester makes clear, can often align with conservative ideologies of morality and individual responsibility.

This interaction aligns very closely with the experiences of, as mentioned earlier, Karl Palmås and Otto von Busch, whose contribution to a design project was filtered, interpreted, and translated away from them. The designers assumed a delegatory role in representing their contributions.[1] There are also ample examples of such behavior in Community Action Programs across the country, as Arnstein describes with the lower rungs of her ladder.[2] Greenstone and Peterson also illustrate, through their analysis of the history of Community Action Programs, how “maximum feasible participation,” in some cases, only served to strengthen entrenched political interest.[3] The values implicit in top-down hierarchies of engagement present barriers to full inclusion; they disempower.

Towards a Projective Community

In response to this, Kwon proposes a preferred model for social art practice; a model which builds community as it goes. She builds on Jean-Luc Nancy’s view of an “inoperative community,” one which is never settled, but is always becoming.[16]

…collective artistic praxis, I would suggest, is a projective enterprise. It involves a provisional group, produced as a function of specific circumstances instigated by an artist and/or a cultural institution, aware of the effects of these circumstances on the very conditions of the interaction, performing its own coming together and coming apart as a necessarily incomplete modeling or working- out of a collective social process.[14]

If this work is to continue, if this form, the Community Action Wiki and the surrounding engagements, is to serve as a test of the ideas contained within it, then Kwon’s proposal is one possible way forward. Truthfully, in the lifespan of this wiki, so far, an act of community-building never quite got underway. There is no inoperative or projective collection of interested participants clamoring to contribute to this wiki. However, some very slight beginnings of community-building were just starting to take form through and around this work. People who I engaged with sent emails to others who might be interested, colleagues and classmates and friends have made time to speak with me about this work, mentors and professors are interpreting this wiki in ways that I, myself, do not understand. Even considering these coming-togethers as much a function of our particular social relationships as they are a function of this project, I still think there is something compelling about this form of engagement, and about the world we’re building. All of this, to me, speaks to the very weak beginnings of a possible projective enterprise.

Such an enterprise might represent a possibility for the continuation of this work, this cataloging of Community Action Histories, but I think it also speaks to the possible futures of community engagement and civic co-design. It speaks to the capacity of design to build community, and the possible worlds that might emerge from it.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Karl Palmås and Otto von Busch. 2015. Quasi-Quisling: co-design and the assembly of collaborateurs. CoDesign 11:3-4, 236-249. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15710882.2015.1081247
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Sherry R. Arnstein. 1969. A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Planning Association 35:4, 216-224. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01944366908977225
  3. 3.0 3.1 Westphal, 2019. Personal Interview with Howard (Haja) Worley on his involvement in the Paterson Community Action Program.
  4. J. David Greenstone and Paul E. Peterson. 1973. Race and authority in urban politics. Russell Sage Foundation, New York, NY.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Bret A. Weber and Amanda Wallace. 2012. Revealing the Empowerment Revolution: A Literature Review of the Model Cities Program. Journal of Urban History 38 (1), 173–192. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144211420653
  6. 6.0 6.1 Mark T. Tigan. 2005. Citizen Participation in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Programs: From the Great Society to the New Federalism. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA. UMI Order Number: 3193948.
  7. Donna J. Haraway. 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
  8. Ursula K. Le Guin. 1985. Always Coming Home. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named sharp
  10. J.R.R Tolkien. 2016. A Secret Vice, Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, Ed. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
  11. Design Studio for Social Intervention. 2020. Ideas Arrangements Effects. Minor Compositions, Colchester/New York/Port Watson.
  12. Stephen Wright. 2014. Towards a Lexicon of Usership, Nick Aikens and Stephen Wright, Ed. Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, NL.
  13. Nidhi Srinivas and Eduardo Staszowski. 2019. Trickery in Civic Design: Co-optation, Subversion and Politics. In Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things (1st. ed.), Tom Fisher and Lorraine Gamman, Ed. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Miwon Kwon. 2002. One Place After Another; Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England.
  15. Grant Kester. 1995. Aesthetic Evangelists. Afterimage 22 (6).
  16. Jean-Luc Nancy. 1991. The Inoperative Community. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN.