In the most recent episode of Collaboratory, “Navigating Positionality and Power”, our guests Kaira Zoe Cañete, Emma Blomkamp, Shona Coyne and Jilda Andrews shared their thoughts on the topic of positionality and discussed how our identities, knowledge, values and biases can influence the way we work.
During the episode, Emma reflects on her personal experiences with navigating power dynamics as a strategic designer and co-design coach. Emma provided many important insights on this topic, so we invited her to write a blog post to explore them further.
One of the things I love about co-design is how it offers a way to share power. This is so hard to achieve in practice. And it can be especially challenging for those of us who usually benefit from a privileged position in society.
In my interview for the Collaboratory podcast, I share some reflections on what I have learned about navigating power dynamics in co-creative work. Sometimes this has been clumsy, as when I unwittingly continued the process of colonisation in the health sector in Aotearoa (New Zealand). At other times, I’ve been more aware of both the advantages and limitations of my positionality.
As I’ve acknowledged before, many people employed on co-creative projects belong to privileged groups working in patriarchal, colonial and neoliberal systems — and it can be extremely challenging to overcome these structural and cultural barriers. I also reflected in the Collaboratory conversation on how I’ve drawn on my own lived experience, especially as a young person who faced health and social challenges, without always acknowledging it in my work.
Thankfully lived experience is increasingly recognised as a legitimate and necessary form of expertise in public policy and social innovation. We should no longer feel we need to hide these “biases”, and can instead work with them constructively.
That said, even if we have a certain experience – such as driving illegally as a teenager – we may not be perceived as someone who holds relevant knowledge. As a young white woman growing up in a middle class suburb, I might have broken the rules of New Zealand’s graduated driver licensing system. But this doesn’t mean I can directly relate to the experience of a young Samoan man living in a poorer suburb, who’s being asked by his family to drive his younger siblings to school.
I think it’s always important to ask, “am I the right person to do this work?”. I was honoured to lead a project to increase the number of young people driving with the right licence in South Auckland, for instance, but I wasn’t the best person to go out and interview teens and families about their experiences. Recruiting community members to work as peer researchers was a much more effective way to build trusting relationships and interpret data in a culturally sensitive way. On the Behind the Wheel project, these community researchers helped reframe the problem, flipping the government’s assumption about risk-taking youth on its head. This enabled us to work productively with community members to create activities, events and messages that aligned with their values and aspirations.
So in my work now – supporting others in the public purpose sectors to use co-creative methods – I often try to help people identify and navigate power dynamics, starting by recognising their own positionality. I’ve really appreciated borrowing and adapting tools like Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel’s positionality worksheet, the ‘Power Flower’ from this Practical Guide for Facilitating Social Change and Maya Goodwill’s Social Designer’s Field Guide to Power Literacy. Having reflective conversations and using tools like these can help us to be aware of the various ways in which who we are shapes the work we do.
To hear more from Emma Blomkamp, and other featured collaborative practitioners, on how our positionality influences how we work, be sure to check out the episode of Collaboratory, “Navigating Positionality and Power”.