What is liberatory design and why does higher education need it right away?

Liberatory design is like design thinking with a healthy dose of self-awareness.
Deven Comen
Deven Comen

As colleges and universities look toward the start of the fall semester, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic was the start of many trends that are likely to persist. This spring’s update from the National Student Clearinghouse found declining enrollment for the fifth straight semester, with community colleges once again hit the hardest. Even more troubling is that though enrollment actually rose among first-year students overall, we saw a 6.5% enrollment decrease of Black first-year students.

These data put hard numbers behind a truth that many institutional leaders and policymakers already know: American higher education is a long way from cracking the code on building more inclusive and equitable systems and structures. Of course, colleges and universities are facing a perfect storm: the need has never been more urgent, and resources have in many ways never been more limited.

With all this in mind, the question then becomes: how can institutions make the most of what they have? What’s the most effective way to build a stronger sense of belonging and community—one that, in turn, can help more students persist on their journey to a degree?

Why self-awareness is key to design

That’s where the principles of “liberatory design” can be helpful. First conceived in 2016 by a group of equity and design thinking experts, liberatory design is described by its creators as:

  • A process and practice to generate self-awareness to liberate designers from habits that perpetuate inequity.
  • Shift the relationship between the people who hold power to design and those impacted.
  • Foster learning and agency for those involved in and influenced by the design work.
  • Create conditions for collective liberation.

Think of it like this: design thinking, which focuses on gaining a full understanding of the problem and then iterating and exploring multiple solutions, was all the rage for the past decade. Liberatory design is like design thinking with a healthy dose of self-awareness. At every step in the process, it encourages designers to recognize their relationship to a larger whole, and to consider how power dynamics, cultural norms, unconscious biases, and even emotions are affecting them. The result is a process that still prioritizes concrete problem-solving but does so in a way that is always geared toward collective liberation and empowerment.

So what would liberatory design look like when applied in a higher education context? Here are a few ideas, based on some of its core principles.

1. Build relational trust. One of liberatory design’s first principles is all about strong relationships, both among designers themselves and with the people they will ultimately serve. In practice, this could look like fostering collaboration between institutional departments that are often siloed (financial aid, enrollment, student success) to give students a clearer understanding of how to seek help when they need it.

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Some institutions are already putting this idea into action, particularly those that have made breakthroughs in supporting students’ basic needs. Consider the Advocacy and Resource Center at Amarillo College in Texas, built on the idea that students should have a one-stop shop for all basic needs. The center includes a library, a food pantry, support with academic counseling, and career services. It’s a diverse range of supports, each with different priorities and team members, but it succeeds because of the trust that each provider places in the others.

2. Take action to learn. Learning is, in many ways, about embracing fear, and not letting risk aversion keep you from trying things simply because there’s a chance they won’t work. The best ideas often begin with small, low-risk experiments that provide opportunities for learning without endangering a community or its resources.

In the basic needs context, that could look like Compton College’s unique cash assistance program. It’s designed to support dual-enrolled students—a very specific approach for a particular population, It began as a pilot and is likely to expand based on what the institution learned.

3. Work to transform power. In many design situations, power is exercised by the designers rather than shared with the community being affected. Liberatory design focuses on the importance of putting power in the hands of those who will ultimately be served by whatever’s being designed. When my colleagues at Edquity first began designing a tool meant for student parents, we worked with a group of students to test and give feedback on the early versions. That level of direct connection didn’t just help us build a more effective product; it also served as a reminder to our team that our work had the potential to make an impact.

As colleges and universities prepare for an uncertain future, it will take a combination of intention, specificity, and empathy to best serve a new and ever-changing generation of learners. That’s what liberatory design is all about: centering students and their needs, without sacrificing the importance of concrete and mission-oriented solutions to pressing challenges.

Of course, one of the other principles of liberatory design is that it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we start implementing it now, we’ll be on the path toward a more just and inclusive future for higher education, at a time when we don’t have a moment to lose.

Deven Comen, a first-generation college graduate, is vice president of strategic initiatives at Edquity. She was previously the chief of staff in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Outreach. 

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