I went running a few weeks ago. Which, in and of itself, is nothing remarkable. Except that it was one of those rare, sun-drenched, late-spring Saturdays in Portland, when everyone comes out of the woodwork, suddenly appearing like a cheap magic trick, flooding every public space of the city: on blankets in Laurelhurst, with their dogs and their toddlers; on tightropes with hula-hoops, in the middle of Colonel Summers; drinking cold brew at sidewalk cafes and seasonal lagers in beer gardens. It was unusually warm, and I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt for the first time since October. I felt alive in my body, and I felt strong. Running with my face tilted toward the sky, past all of those strangers, alive in the sun at the same time as I was — there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.
And then I ran by two men on the sidewalk.
They were carrying a metal dumpster. Or maybe it was a shipping container. Each one of them flanking one end of the clunky piece, carrying it out to the sidewalk from the large, open doors of a warehouse on Division. I saw them from two or three blocks back. They didn’t see me. My body already knew what to do, and what not to do. I was practiced, as all women in moments like this are practiced.
The exact words one of the men hurled at me only moments later aren’t relevant. I’ll let you fill in the blanks. As I passed through the narrow chasm he and his co-worker created between their bodies and the large metal box, it didn’t matter how I was dressed. It didn’t matter if I had been silent as I passed. Or if I had said, “Excuse me,” or if I had yelled, “Get out of my way!”. That one of the men felt he had license to say something to me at all, does. And how in saying it, he was able to immediately render me silent. To take away my voice, to strip me of every ounce of my own power, by imposing his ownership over the public space I happened to also find myself with the two of them.
“Stories save your life. And stories are your life,” said Rebecca Solnit, in an essay she wrote on the history of silence. Because the storytelling process (“breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories”), she explains, is also the key to our liberation. “A free person tells her own story,” she continues. “A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”
The oppression of those who exist at the most vulnerable intersections of race, class, and gender, and the routine violence against them — on the street, in the home, and in the workplace — is, as Solnit points out, “ ... a refusal of our voices, and what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent, to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.”
So what. So what? Does this have anything to do with an architect or urban planner, an art director or digital strategist? With the commercial work we sit for hours every day to do, in a cube or a coffee shop? With a design festival? With this journal?
Everything, I would argue.
Because successful design — if we are to assume successful to mean design that is also inclusive, which considers the daily lives and challenges and stories of all of the people who may interact with and consume it — relies almost solely on the kinds of human beings we choose to be. How we walk through the world, and interact with the other people we share it with, before we ever pull up a chair and sit down at the table.
Like the Design Week Portland Main Stage, and the week-long festival that follows, this publication is concerned first and foremost with the preservation of voice, and with the sharing of ideas within new territories and across great divides: of Japanese Americans imprisoned by their own nation during WWII; of kids living and going to school in the southeastern U.S., without the necessary resources that make possible an adequate education and equal opportunities; of trans people who lack basic access to essential health care; of empathy, and diplomacy, and not least of all, community. As Amos Kennedy said in his Main Stage talk this April, “This is about our humanity.”
Having a voice is critical — not just to the work that we do, but to our very existence, and that of the people with whom our work intersects. As a safe space where a range of voices may be elevated, to participate, and to be valued and respected, this journal is also a platform that cuts through the typical design platitudes. Because we’re more interested in who hasn’t been heard, than who already has. In telling the kinds of stories that connect us as human beings, not in telling you how to do your day-to-day jobs.
Solnit offers that when the silenced finally do step forward to tell their stories, others begin to step forward, too. We bolster each other in this way; we support, and we encourage. When we ask each other questions and then step aside, something important happens — we open a door to those who might teach us to think and behave in new ways, by helping us to stand outside of our own limited range of understanding.
The man who harassed me that sunny day three weeks ago most likely went right back to work only moments afterward. Back to doing things the way that he almost undoubtedly always does; reinforced by a powerful guise of his own construction, without any care toward the damage of his words. I, on the other hand, was forced into silence, his words clinging to my body as I ran back home, with my head cast down.
I’ve asked myself more than several times since: What if his co-worker had stopped him? Had stuck his neck out, in my defence? How would that small, but powerful act have changed things in my life, and in his? What kind of difference might it have made?
Who cares. Who cares? At a time when even our nation’s highest office is held by an individual more concerned with his own image, wealth, and power than the well-being and experiences of the millions of people he was elected to represent, who we choose to defend, let speak, and give space to, matters. And how we choose to behave in the office, or on the street (even when we believe no one else is watching us, or listening), has everything to do with the kinds of leaders, co-workers, and collaborators we will make.