Moving beyond rapport

October 8, 2020

Last Friday I had the chance to attend Greater Good’s Restorative Design Conference. In the before-world, I likely wouldn’t have attended an event taking place on a different continent. And although I probably would have had a glass of wine, it wouldn’t have been from the comfort of my couch. The introvert in me is thriving these days.

Couch-wine in hand, it also happened to be an incredible evening of talks. Today, I thought I’d talk about just one. Sarah Fathallah, a social designer and researcher, and Rachael Dietkus, a social worker and designer gave a talk about trauma-informed design; in which they unpacked how we define ‘trauma,’ how it might manifest in a research setting, and what it means to be ‘trauma-informed.’

The title of this issue, in fact, comes from their talk. Both Sarah and Rachael challenged the default practice of “building rapport,” urging us, as practitioners, to instead move towards cultivating relationships. At its core, participatory design is relational, it involves people. What might we learn from trauma-informed practices? How might this shape our practices moving forward?

Side note: I also appreciated this graphic that Hazel created from the talk.


Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence with Resmaa Menakem

Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.

Resmaa Menakem was quoted during Sarah & Rachael’s talk, prompting someone in the audience to recommend this podcast. In this episode, Resmaa, a therapist and trauma specialist, illustrates the ways we carry histories and traumas with us, and across generations. Sharing stories of his grandmother’s hands, he untangles how race intersects with trauma.

Social Workers Who Design

It is not enough to be empathic. Values, human interaction, and compassion are vital.

If you’re curious about the intersections of social work and design, Rachael Dietkus’ work seems like a great place to start. I’m already looking forward to taking a deep-dive into her practice, in particular, to understand how social workers and designers can support one another, and the roles we might play in collaboration.

Trauma Stewardship by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky

To keep from being overwhelmed, we need to respond to suffering in a thoughtful, intentional way-not by hardening our hearts or by internalizing others’ struggles as our own but by developing a quality of compassionate presence.

I’ll close with a few of Rachael and Sarah’s book recommendations. The first, quoted here, is Trauma Stewardship. Lipsky draws on modern psychology as well as spiritual traditions, to understand how trauma manifests. The second book, The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. van der Kolk, is “essential reading for anyone interested in understanding and treating traumatic stress and the scope of its impact on society.”


As Sara Cantor Aye said:

As designers that build things and solve problems, we can aim for more than transactional, more than productive, even more than inspirational. We can aim for restorative.

This was originally published on my newsletter, Design With. It was archived in 2023.