in our class is—I’m wondering about this in relation to your own students—is whether or not you believe it’s possible to instill a sense of agency in others through this work? Do you see that rabble-rousing spirit being taken up by your students? 218
EP: That’s a really tough question. The short answer is yes, I think you can, but it doesn’t happen often. I don’t mean that in a pessimistic way, I think that’s just the reality of it. Especially because of the nature of the way designers work—even if you’re the most democratic of all designers, you’re still gonna be viewed as a designer. There will always be a little bit of resistance to the way designers work. With our students, it’s very hard to judge because this is happening within their school day and they just all hate school. I know there are a couple of them who really enjoy the design process and will take away something very tangible from this both in attitude and in skill sets. But I think one of our flaws at Studio H is that we wanted to do this in this public high school, which is powerful because it is part of their school day, but at the same time, it means that the students are attending our class with the same sort of gloss that they attend their other classes. That’s a tough thing to overcome. So yeah, I think it’s possible but I think it’s very individually specific and very environmentally specific. You probably have more luck with less, what’s called, I wouldn’t say ‘high risk’ youth…but I definitely consider Bertie Country to be on the extreme side of the social scale. Whereas, we did a workshop with a charter school in the Bay are and the students got it within 15 minutes and they were so excited and they were ready to go, and I was like, why aren’t our kids like this?
It’s just different ends of the spectrum and it becomes a sort of catch-22. You want to work with the extreme side of the spectrum, but I think your opportunity for agency and nurturing something that will exist even when you are gone, is probably more likely on the more moderate spectrum where there’s less convincing to be done and more—I want to lean the skills, teach me the skills and I’ll walk away with them. JA: That’s really interesting—the confines of working within a public school system and the way that students are so disempowered in that system. They really don’t engage, on so many levels. I work with a group of youth here in Providence in an amazing after school arts program [New Urban Arts] that’s all about instilling agency. You see the way the program revolutionizes their thinking about their own education. But it’s outside the school system, so I think there’s more freedom in that—to be a little more radical. EP: The real tragedy is that on a one-onone basis, our kids are just great. The minute they’re in a group though, that whole— school sucks, we’re all pissed off—thing takes over. So yeah, I think with an after school program we would probably get a lot more done but we would lose a lot of the potency that Studio H has now because it is part of their day. It’s a catch-22, I don’t know what the best answer is. JA: Emily, can we ask you one more question before you go? EP: Yes! Of course. JA: We had this great interview with John Thackara about a month ago. We’re using his
book, In the Bubble as one of the texts for our class. One of the questions that he brought up with us was the question of making a living versus creating a livelihood—and how we will reckon with that now, or in the future, as designers. So I’m curious to hear your response to that—what you think you’re doing in your professional career. Is it closer to making a living or would you consider it a livelihood, and if so, what does that mean for you? EP: Definitely not a living, and a livelihood on good days. Someone asked me if I would like to come speak at an event about social design as good business, and I was like, I’d like to but I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want me there. My partner Matt and I, we’ve never taken a salary. We’re not even technically employees of our own organization. Our only source of income right now is the community college, where we are adjunct faculty, through which we offer classes for college credit to our students through the high school. It’s never been about money to me, to a fault. I’ve just sort of accepted that. I trade in a different currency. That’s the best way I can explain it. If someone could figure out how I could make a living, I would for sure, go that route. But I haven’t figured out a way to do the work that I want to do and make a living, without sacrificing the integrity of the work I want to do. There’s a lot of, hey, why don’t you come write for our blog and we’ll pay you $20 per post, and yeah, I could be doing that but I would rather be spending four hours on a weekend working in the wood shop with one of my students who wants to come in on a Saturday than writing blog posts, so it’s a big trade off for me. I’ve always chosen the route, that coincidentally, equates with zero money. I’m OK with that. For now, I just want to do
the work that I know to be important and fun and challenging. To me, that’s success in my own definition. ESW: This idea of trading in another currency, is absolutely it. John Thackara also said that he’s under no delusion that designers are going to be making the kinds of salaries that they’re making 10 years from now. I think we all have to get used to the fact that there are a lot of things out there that bring value to our lives. EP: Yeah, I was talking to this friend of mine who is Indian, and just a very spiritual man, just by nature. We were talking about the exact same thing, about trading in different currencies and finding things rewarding in other ways than in just a paycheck. He was like, well don’t you find it’s so interesting that it costs $10 to go to a movie but you can see a sunset for free? That was the perfect way to explain it, it’s just a different kind of—yeah, it doesn’t cost anything, but it doesn’t make it any less wonderful. That’s, I guess, the best way to plagiarize his words, but that’s what it means to me. It’s just a different kind of reward. JA: That’s a great note to end on. Thank you, it’s been great talking with you. EP: Oh, you’re welcome. Good luck in the last few days.