Jessica Helfand | DesignIndaba

Making Change 04: Why Vigilance Matters

Yesterday, the highly respected non-profit, Architecture for Humanity, filed for bankruptcy. Their informal tagline—design like you give a damn—is perhaps inversely proportionate to their extraordinary mission, that everyone deserves access to the benefits of good design. Advocates for design as empowerment, crusaders for human rights, they proved over the course of fifteen years that design really matters. 

Or at least it did. 

Still, we can’t perceive this as failure, as their noble efforts were hard-won and thoughtfully executed, proving, among other things, that our role as catalysts for change begins with a fundamental humility. This approach stands firmly at the opposite end of the kind of long-standing imperialistic colonizing that for so long characterized "help" from the West, decades during which those more fortunate would torpedo in with an arrogant, and inevitably flawed, understanding of what kind of change was needed, let alone what was actionable. AFH advocated for local and collaborative solutions, sensitively conceived and empathically executed engagements—observing, for example, that “that vulnerable comunities rarely benefit from  top-down solutions brought in by outsiders.” Design may have played a formative role in these initiatives, but the decisive role was a human one.

Within a day of Architecture for Humanity's filing, an editorial appeared in the New York Times that was co-authored by George Clooney. Will the world pay more attention to the crisis in Darfur because this story is tethered to a celebrity? Perhaps. But before you judge this as a savvy media play, look again. Read the editorial, and consider its sobering observations, which have nothing whatsoever to do with movie stars. Clooney and his co-authors look at Sudan in general (and Darfur in particular) and their links to their own non-profit, the Satellite Sentinel Project, suggest they’re pretty serious. They're not designers. But their platform is stunningly visual: it's about looking, watching, seeing—and taking action. They’re deploying imagery to document human rights violations in Darfur and elsewhere. Their own rather brilliant tagline—the world is watching because you are watching—makes all of us agents of change, by reminding us that to be human is to be vigilant, a word that comes from the Latin, vigilantia, which means to "keep awake." It might not be change. But it’s a start.


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