Jessica Bellamy is an information designer. She tells visual stories using data and personal narratives. She started her design career working with nonprofits and community groups to create visuals that break down complex service and policy information. In 2015, she created a small design agency called GRIDS: The Grassroots Information Design Studio. In this episode, we talk about how design can be used as a tool to help fight for social justice and the problem with “askholes.”
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.Episode Transcript
Jessica Bellamy: Why do I do what I do? I do it because I get personal fulfillment, but I also think it’s imperative right now for us to start using the data at our fingertips in ways that actually mobilize change. We all know that data can help persuade people on issues. But we’re also in a time when data is being misused, misrepresented … it’s even being under-represented. Critical data points are getting lost in industry jargon or scientific language or giant texts that no one’s ever going to read.
And because I had the opportunity early on in my design career to realize that when you put the data in the hands of the people who are most affected by that issue … well, I felt like a weapon-maker.
I think any career has its own wibble-wobble path. I knew going in to college that I wanted to do something within the arts that would help with a lot of the issues that media has with poorly representing people of color. I didn’t know what that looked like. I took a lot of classes in college, which is why I ended up triple majoring and completing a minor. I was really interested in studying more about the Black cultural experience and how it works in the world, in studying power dynamics. I was a Pan-African Studies major.
I was also really interested in what the art institution can do, conceptually, to create more conversations around race and to increase cultural competency. I was a drawing major, but I began to realize the place where people were actually having conversations was the digital stream. So I became a graphic design major. Then I realized I didn’t know enough about media as a whole, and about how people think and how they interact, so I also minored in communications.
I realized early on in my career that putting data in the hands of people who are most affected by it makes you feel like a weapon-maker
I was taking all these courses and I thought, “I might as well get degrees for all this work.” At that time, too, I was working as an undergraduate research assistant in the neuroscience lab at the University of Louisville, where I went to school. That lab’s in the psychology department. When I graduated, I was offered a full-time job there. They said, “Jessica, we really like your work, we like how you do things, you’re great with this population, and you have the skills to learn more about this.” When I became a research analyst in the lab, I began working more with grad students, helping with data collection and even testing participants who were coming in to the lab.
I was in a really data-heavy, technical world after spending my college years in art environments. (I had only taken a few research-methods courses for my Pan African Studies degree.) I wasn’t fulfilled as I transitioned into this science-oriented life, so I was doing a lot of volunteer work, in my spare time, for organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Network Center for Community Change. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is a state-wide organization that has multiple platforms: voter registration and obtaining voting rights for former felons, for example, or economic, environmental, and racial justice. I was on the team working on economic justice, which got me tapped into a lot of projects that had technical components. You can’t say “economic justice” without money, and money means you have to study policy, and so on.
So I began doing community-organizing work on the side while being a researcher, and because of one specific project I found myself bringing all these worlds together.
Paddy Harrington: Can you talk a little bit about that project?
JB: Smoketown is the neighborhood where I’m from. It’s the oldest historically Black neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s the only place where African Americans were allowed to live after the Civil War. The name Smoketown could be derived from a number of things: it could be because of the factories that were in the area, or the color of the population. It has a long tradition of being denied the entitlements given to the average neighborhood in our city. The city does not attend to its infrastructure: we don’t have many connected sidewalks; we have a lot of urban decay—those sidewalks are crumbling; our streetlights don’t always work. My family has been in the neighborhood for years. It’s where I grew up and it’s where my family remains; they run a business there.
About five years ago Hope VI took effect in our city. Hope VI came out of the Obama administration. It was meant to take public-housing units in cities, tear them all the way down, and then rebuild new mixed-income housing to stimulate the economy in low-income neighborhoods that have little opportunity. Hope VI hit Louisville and a lot of housing projects started to come down. One such project was Sheppard Square, and a lot of people that lived in those housing units got spread throughout the city.
There was a ripple effect after the fall of that complex. Once the public housing was gone, the neighborhood was still predominantly Black but the only community center in the neighborhood wasn’t able to meet its requirements for continued funding from the city. They were serving a certain percentage of the population, but the demolition meant it lost a large chunk of people—those who had been pushed out. So that community center, which had been in the neighborhood since Smoketown’s early years, had to close its doors. It actually had held a lot of historical photographs, quilts, and other pieces that held cultural memory. So that those wouldn’t be lost, they were given to the University of Louisville. Now those items exist in the archives at the university; they’re no longer displayed in the community itself.
So, we’ve got a huge displacement of folks, we’ve got a lost community center, we’ve got historical objects that are hidden … well, they’re not hidden away, you can request to see them, but if you don’t know where they are you’d probably get lost and give up. That history is no longer present in the community.
I want to find new ways to intervene in how my city is planned. Local change gives people more hope, and galvanizes their investment and interest, in social-impact design.
All those things had happened and suddenly there was huge interest from developers to try and do something in this area of town. Smoketown is located right next to downtown Louisville, so now there was an opportunity to “expand the urban core.” Developers began buying land and property pretty cheaply, since the neighborhood hadn’t had many resources flow in to it. They bought houses in bundles. Some folks were trying to re-brand it. Like I said, Smoketown has been around since the 1800s and has a very strong culture and community. But some folks tried to rename it the Creative Innovation Zone so they could start marketing it to modern-day creatives, to millennials, in order to capitalize on the interest that folks have in moving into more walkable neighborhoods. People want to live next to shops, to be closer to downtown.
With all these different things happening—developers spending money to buy property, developers spending money to try to get web addresses for neighborhoods that didn’t even exist, construction of the new multimillion-dollar apartments to replace Sheppard Square—with all this interest and focus on what was going to happen in Smoketown, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth decided to do a survey of folks in the neighborhood. We wanted to ask them about their priorities and their concerns. With all this money coming in, we asked, what do you think should be done?
We also asked them what assets in the neighborhood could use more resources, more funding? We were collecting demographic information and found out that about 86–87% of Smoketown is registered to vote and votes regularly. It is already a very civically engaged community. The potential of this project was not far from our minds. But our initial idea, when we were collecting this data, was to create a report that we’d put in the hands of developers coming into the neighborhood. The office of the Jefferson chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is actually in Smoketown, so we were seeing these changes every day. We knew we wanted to put a report into the hands of policy-makers and developers. But we ended up creating an opportunity by literally putting these—for lack of a better term—weapons in the hands of people who are already actively engaged and who give a damn about what happens in their neighborhood. Now they had something they could refer to in community meetings and public forms.
Because of the rising tensions around what the report demonstrated, and because of the energy in the community, policy-makers had no way to escape: they had to come and listen to what was going on, they had to actively participate because the media was watching. We did all sorts of events; the community revitalized its neighborhood association. The [city] council member for that area actually ended up not running for re-election the following year. And the people who ran to replace him were under extreme scrutiny, which was lovely—it was choice. The developers of any project in the area had to engage with the community, had to go to the neighborhood-association meetings, or we’d end up protesting and it’d be in the news again.
More people should be allowed to participate in content creation, to create their own narratives, to educate themselves and explore their own perspectives through information design.
PH: A last question for you: what’s next?
JB: I want to find new ways to intervene in how my city is planned. Local change is the change you see more readily. So it gives more hope, and galvanizes people’s investment and interest, in social-impact design. So many people should be allowed to participate in content creation, should be allowed to create their own narratives, to educate themselves and explore their own perspectives through information design. As we know it today, information design is more rigid. The real problem with policy change specifically is that folks in charge don’t have enough empathy. Even if they have a front of compassion, they utilize shallow promises and a lot of really high-minded rhetoric to make it sound like they have people’s best interests at heart. But there are no formal commitments, and it’s a huge problem for any type of social impact or community good.
A lot of people know how to co-opt the language without intending to actually make an impact, without giving projects sustainability and longevity. Getting authentic, equitable work done is the challenge. If we’re going to have an affordable-housing program, it should be run by people who have faced housing problems. They’re going to know the specific issues that need to be addressed. You don’t want the leaders of a movement to have never experienced the challenges it is trying to address. That’s when you start to get shallow projects, ones that actually discourage members of the community, that diminish trust. You become, essentially, a … well, there are a lot of dirty terms for people who do shallow work, like askhole.
There’s a great blog called Nonprofit AF that describes people going into communities and saying, “I’m going to do this survey, because this great good will come after you fill out this form. Do another survey.” Those people are called askholes if they don’t fulfill their promises. Which happens all the time. It gets masked with, “Oh, the bureaucracy and the red tape is why.” But whenever you give that community, one that’s constantly being pushed to the side and having their priorities and concerns devalued … when you give them the power to argue against shallow excuses, or the power to begin critically and publicly challenging high-minded promises that are made to them, that’s when you start to see change.
That’s why you need weapons of data. Let’s be real: policy change doesn’t happen unless there are concerns. But concerns don’t get met without a study. There needs to be some type of data. Our country is used to collecting data by watching people suffer for an extended period and then collecting some quantitative data that prove, “Oh yeah, when you take away subsidies, people’s lives become worse.” I don’t think we need to experiment with people’s lives to prove that. But if you give people data to refute the argument that a study even needs to exist, then there’s no counter-argument, especially in the public sphere.
First Things First is produced in partnership with the Association of Registered Graphic Designers. It is hosted by Paddy Harrington and edited by Max Cotter. ’Frontier’s sponsor music is an edited version of “sketch (rum-portrait)” by Jahzzar from the album Sketches. This episode features an edited version of “get out” by Jahzzar, from the album Sketches; an edited version of “Once More with You” by Loyalty Freak Music, from the album Minimal Ambient Bounce; and an edited version of “Murmur” by Broke for Free, from the album Layers.
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