Editors’ note: This article was excerpted, with minor edits, from Ideas Arrangements Effects: Systems Design and Social Justice (Minor Compositions, 2020), for the summer 2020 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly. This edition of the magazine is about the need to understand the often unacknowledged and unspoken design principles behind some of the practices and structures that pervade our work. We recommend the book highly. All illustrations are by Ayako Maruyama.


Activists, artists, philanthropists, young people, academics—all manner of folks—constantly battle injustices and negative effects in their lives and the lives of others. We take to the streets, to the Internet, to the voting booth, and more to fight for better outcomes. To the same degree, we argue vehemently about the ideas that underlie these injustices—from notions of public and private to ideas about categorizing our bodies, to all the “isms” that say some categories (and people) matter more than others.

But the arena for intervention that we at DS4SI want to make a case for is a less obvious one: that of the multiple, overlapping social arrangements that shape our lives. We believe that creating new effects—ones that make a society more just and enjoyable—calls for sensing, questioning, intervening in, and reimagining our existing arrangements. Simply put, we see rearranging the social as a practical and powerful way to create social change. And we want those of us who care about social justice to see ourselves as potential designers of this world, rather than simply as participants in a world we didn’t create or consent to. Instead of constantly reacting to the latest injustice, we want activists to have the tools and time to imagine and enact a new world.

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, wrote in her 2018 debut op-ed for the New York Times:

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history….Those of us who are committed to the radical evolution of American democracy are not merely resisting an unwanted reality. To the contrary, the struggle for human freedom and dignity extends back centuries and is likely to continue for generations to come.1

With the weight of lifetime Supreme Court appointments or healthcare or climate change seeming to hang in the balance of our elections, it is easy to get stuck there. But as Alexander points out, our fixation with politics and policies as the grand arrangement from which all other forms of social justice and injustice flow serves to “set our sights too low.”2 When do we get to imagine the daily arrangements of “human freedom and dignity”?3 We know this won’t happen overnight. It takes time and investment for social arrangements to institutionalize and endure, and it will take time to change them. But it is critical that we try. And to do that, we need to be better at sensing arrangements, intervening in them, and imagining new ones.

BREAKING DOWN IDEAS ARRANGEMENTS EFFECTS

Ideas are embedded within social arrangements, which in turn produce effects. One simple way to explain this premise is in the arrangement of chairs in a classroom. When we see chairs in straight rows facing forward, we believe the teacher is the head of the class and that knowledge flows in one direction—from the teacher to the students. In response to this, many workshop facilitators and adult-ed teachers rearrange the chairs into a circle, with the idea being that knowledge is distributed across the participants and could emerge from any place within the circle. The rows are one expression of ideas about how learning happens; the circle is another. The effects that rows or circles of chairs have on learning are important, but they are not the point here. The point is that the arrangement produces effects.

When we scan out from the common example of chairs in the classroom to the complex social arrangements of everyday life, the principle still stands: Ideas-Arrangements-Effects. They just get more intermingled and complicated. For example, arrangements like “work” flow from a myriad of ideas—weaving together ideas about value, labor, capitalism, citizenship, gender, etc. Effects of our current arrangement of “work” range from unemployment to burnout, from poverty to immigrant bashing, from anxiety to loneliness, etc. As activists, we often attend to the effects because they are urgent—fighting for an increased minimum wage to decrease poverty, for example. As social justice practitioners, we also think a lot about the ideas that often lead to negative effects—like how racism or sexism influences who gets the higher paid positions (or even who gets hired). But the underlying arrangement of “work” is often taken for granted.

To compound this, effects don’t naturally send us to inspecting arrangements. They send us back to other similar acute experiences, rather than the distributed elements of arrangements. And if we do think about arrangements, they can seem daunting.

The rearranging of chairs is much easier to do than rearranging our conceptions of time, sociality, or other institutions that glue daily life together and give shape to our collective experiences. To make things more challenging, the older and more codified the arrangement, the farther it falls from the capacity to be perceived, let alone changed. These larger, sturdier social arrangements move into the realm of social permanence. For example, cars. We might argue for safer cars, greener cars, fewer cars, or driverless cars—but do we ever ask the question, “Are cars as a social arrangement still beneficial? And if not, how do we proceed?”

We believe that the I-A-E framework can both deepen our understanding of the social contexts we hope to change and improve, as well as expand our capacity for designing the world we truly want.

To begin, we will share some insights we’ve developed about each part of the I-A-E framework—ideas, arrangements, and effects—and then lessons we’ve learned for how the parts relate to each other and interact.

Ideas

Many times, as humans attempt to create change, we go back to the ideas behind the injustices we are trying to address. Whether those ideas are notions of democracy, justice, or race, we often get trapped in familiar discourses—complete with familiar arguments and even familiar positions and postures. (For example, when conversations about democracy get limited to Democrats and Republicans, or debates about education revolve around school budgets.) We argue heatedly and repeatedly about the big ideas, and we get trapped there without inspecting smaller ideas and what opportunities for change they could open up. The discourse itself becomes a trap. It rehearses itself and normalizes itself and ossifies the conversation, falling into well-worn grooves. It ceases to have rigorous curiosity, because to vary from the beaten conversation feels dangerous or odd. We want to look at ideas both big and small, both well inspected and largely uninspected, as we think about how they relate to arrangements and effects.

1. Ideas are big and sturdy.

Oftentimes, we jump right from unjust effects (achievement gap, gentrification, police violence, poverty, etc.) back to the big ideas that repeatedly produce them—ideas like racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism. Big ideas aren’t limited to the “isms” of course; they also include long-held notions about freedom, progress, the American Dream, private property, gender, democracy, and many others.

Big ideas remain sturdy because of how they embed themselves in everyday life. This used to be more obvious than it often is today. For example, racist ideas in the 17th century were explicit in institutions like slavery, and then just as obvious in the later public infrastructures of “white” and “colored” water fountains and whites-only bathrooms in the South. While we no longer have slavery or whites-only bathrooms today, we clearly have racism raising its sturdy head in countless other ways. In addition, we have examples of other “isms” directly embedded in current arrangements today, such as transphobia and the renewed ban on transgender people in the military, or adultism and the age limit on voting.

We need to name “isms” when we recognize them, and we need to listen to others who recognize them when we do not. Using the I-A-E frame can also increase our repertoire for recognizing them as they embed themselves in the arrangements and smaller, trickier ideas shaping what we call everyday life.

Lee Russell. Oklahoma City streetcar terminal. 1939. Wikimedia Commons.

The ubiquitous “white” and “colored” water fountains of the past have been removed, but the countless ways that Blacks are targeted while doing daily things like driving, shopping, or resting show that racism continues to be a sturdy idea.

2. Ideas are small and tricky.

We deploy (and hide) our big ideas by embedding them in our beliefs about daily life—they become whitewashed, so to speak, as more “innocent” values, beliefs, and ways of life. They fall from the realm of critique and dialogue and into the realm of expectations and assumptions.

A few examples of these “innocent” ideas include:

  • How to dress (or eat, or speak) “appropriately”
  • Who should be listened to, believed, or trusted
  • How big your body should be or how loud your voice should be
  • What healthy food is, what good food is, or what food you should (and shouldn’t!) bring for lunch
  • Who the audience is for public life and culture
  • What and who is attractive
  • What qualifies someone for a job
  • What makes a neighborhood “safe” or “dangerous”

We know how to call out racism, but do we know how to intervene in “appropriate” or “trusted” or “welcome”? When the whites-only water fountain gets replaced by the whites-mostly coffee shop or beer garden, we only know how to point it out when a Black person is explicitly treated unfairly. We don’t frequently challenge the numerous tricky ideas (consumerism, aesthetics, etc.) that whitewash those spaces in the first place.

The clearer we get on the specifics of the coming together of arrangements and the ideas embedded in those arrangements, the more ideas we might have for creating change, and the more site-specific and useful points of leverage we might find. We need to get better at understanding how big ideas have become ingrained in the operating system of everyday life—how something as seemingly innocent as being a fan of a major sports team (complete with its jerseys, rituals, parades, stadium, etc.) can stand in for tribal whiteness and manliness. When we can find the more subtle and tricky ideas expressed in the workings of our lives, we get better grips on the kinds of changes we can make.

How sturdy ideas like racism get embedded in tricky ideas like…

Arrangements

Arrangements give shape to our shared experience. They are all around us, at all sorts of scales, overlapping, creating both order and chaos as they flow over us and under our consciousness. Arrangements include the football season with its schedules, stadiums, and fantasy leagues; the highway with its cars, speed limits, and exits; the grocery store with its rows and stacks, prices, and cash registers; Christmas with its work holidays, shopping, wrapping of gifts, and assumptions of Christianity; the 9–5 day; the police; and the list goes on. We tend to participate in the arranged because it is our shared social container. And for the most part, we simply take it for granted. This is one reason we at DS4SI pay so much attention to arrangements. They are a rich and frequently overlooked terrain for creating change.

We can talk about such arrangements as “how the chairs are arranged in the room,” which is what we call a “hard” or physical arrangement. We also talk about the chair itself as an arrangement for learning, as something that conveys that bodies should be passive while they learn. When we overlap that with how students are supposed to listen to their teachers or raise their hands before speaking, we start to point at what we call “soft” arrangements—which can be even sturdier than the chairs themselves, but harder to point to.

What soft and hard arrangements can you point to?

1. Arrangements are hard.

We have the architectural and industrial arrangements of built things like desks, buses, and cities. These are the easiest to point to but in some cases the hardest to rearrange (depending on scale). It is a lot easier to rearrange chairs than to rearrange a built environment. Hard arrangements range in scale from the toilet, chair, or bed, to airports, strip malls, and industrial farms.

We explored the hard arrangement of the kitchen in our intervention Public Kitchen. We wanted to point to how many elements of our daily lives flow from the assumption that everyone has a private home with its own kitchen. We wanted to explore how daily life could be more convivial and affordable if we had an arrangement like a public kitchen. We began with the question: If we had public kitchens—like public libraries—how would it change social life? What other arrangements—both hard and soft—would grow out of such an infrastructure?

Mobile Kitchen design and photography by Golden Arrows.
2. Arrangements are soft.

Soft arrangements are the less tangible arrangements—how routines, expectations, and long-held assumptions shape the everyday. They include routines like how the day is punctuated by breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or arrangements that put “girls” and “boys” on different sports teams or in different bathrooms, or that there is such a thing as “normal” or “deviant,” and we create arrangements like jail for the “deviant.” A relatively new set of arrangements have cropped up on the Internet—from social media to online shopping to fantasy football, each with its own ways of shaping our everyday.

Since arrangements are both hard and soft, looking at and for social arrangements requires a fairly broad set of competencies. To make things more complex, arrangements are constantly intersecting and interacting. Think about two youths grilling each other. They are in the immediate arrangement of grilling, while simultaneously being in the hard arrangement of a school hallway, public bus, or street, in the soft arrangements of identity (“big brother,” “butch dyke,” “new kid”), or the multiple arrangements of hanging out with friends, heading to work, etc. In that sense, effects are emergent properties of multiple overlapping hard and soft arrangements. When we want to fight effects like “youth violence,” we would do well to look at multiple arrangements: the overcrowded bus or school hallway, the lack of youth jobs or affordable transit, and even the agreements embedded in the grill.

In the Grill Project, we explored the soft arrangement of how youth feel that if someone looks at you hard (grills you), you have to grill them back.4 It felt completely unchangeable to them. If they didn’t grill back, they were a punk. We were trying to uncover and disturb the often dangerous daily arrangements and agreements about what it takes to “be a man” or prove your toughness (including for girls).

 

 

Creating new effects—the ones we believe will make life more just and enjoyable—then calls for questioning, changing, and reimagining multiple arrangements. Just as activists call for intersectional thinking in how we think of ourselves and our struggles, we believe we need to understand the intersections of multiple hard and soft arrangements if we are going to truly challenge social injustices.

Effects

We use the term “effects” to talk about the impacts that ideas and arrangements have on our everyday life and larger world. These include the large-scale effects of injustices based on racism, classism, sexism, etc.—effects like the achievement gap, vast income and health disparities, and the underrepresentation of women in the U.S. Congress. They also include the more mundane effects generated by everyday arrangements like public transit, men’s and women’s bathrooms, Facebook “likes,” etc.

1. Effects are the big things we’re always fighting against.

Effects are dramatic. They are everything from climate change–related flooding to the police shootings of Black people. They stir up our passions. They make us want to act. Effects are the things that make the news on the one hand, and are the topics of our conferences and meetings on the other. Food scarcity, the opioid crisis, low literacy rates, school shootings (or closings), climate chaos, and gentrification all fall under the concept of effects in this framework.

On a brighter note, as we look to create change and address injustice, success can show up in a variety of big effects, some of which we can hardly imagine. These could range from soaring success rates for students in fully resourced public schools, to zero police shootings in a city that disarms its police force, to an uptick in Gross National Happiness (GNH), the index put forward by the small nation of Bhutan to contrast with capitalism’s obsession with the GDP (Gross Domestic Product).5

2. Effects are the little things we experience every day.

We experience numerous effects all the time. We live them as good or bad outcomes of the arrangements of our world. They are the bus always running late, the stress of rent we can’t afford, the water we can’t drink, the lack of jobs for our kids, etc. They are the fight at school between kids who spent too long sitting in those rows, or the feeling of invisibility for folks of color in a city that whitewashes its public spaces and promotions. Conversely, they are the good mood after playing basketball in a public park, or the feeling of friendship after discussing your shared love of books with a fellow commuter.

With I-A-E, we inspect the small effects as much as we do the big ones. We hold them up to scrutiny, and speak to the meta-effects of the accumulation of small effects. What level of constant suspicion, surveillance, and disrespect adds up to the “toxic stress” that contributes to the higher rate of heart conditions in the Black community?6 What combination of job discrimination, rent going through the roof, and widespread homophobia leads to homelessness in the LGBT population? While we dedicate protests, nonprofits, campaign speeches, and conferences to the meta-effects, how do we measure or make sense of the vastly different experiences we might have just getting to that protest or conference? We posit that a deeper awareness of small effects will give us new ideas for interventions or even whole new arrangements.

HOW I-A-E COMES TOGETHER (and wiggles around)

I-A-E is meant to be a useful framework for those of us looking for new ways to create change, be they new “levers” or points of opportunity, new approaches, or even new arrangements. We find it helpful in catching us when we default to familiar arguments or put too much weight on a particular candidate or policy. Here are a couple of ways that I-A-E helps us broaden our palette for understanding how to make and assess change.