Civic design focuses on the common good, and no one quite sums up just how vital that is to our local communities than this week's guest, Sabrina Dorsainvil. As the director of civic design for the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, MA, she uses her skills as a designer and illustrator to develop strategic, human-centered designs that address some of the city's most complex issues. Of course, I was fascinated to learn more about this, so Sabrina described what civic design is about, how she approaches new projects, and the challenges she faces creating solutions that inform and serve hundreds of thousands of people. She also gave some great advice for designers and creatives who want to get more involved in their local communities, and even talked about her work as a design advisor for NY-based design studio designing the WE. Sabrina attributes trusting her passion as her main motivator for success, and I think you'll get inspired from hearing more about her story and her work!
Civic design focuses on the common good, and no one quite sums up just how vital that is to our local communities than this week's guest, Sabrina Dorsainvil. As the director of civic design for the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, MA, she uses her skills as a designer and illustrator to develop strategic, human-centered designs that address some of the city's most complex issues.
Of course, I was fascinated to learn more about this, so Sabrina described what civic design is about, how she approaches new projects, and the challenges she faces creating solutions that inform and serve hundreds of thousands of people. She also gave some great advice for designers and creatives who want to get more involved in their local communities, and even talked about her work as a design advisor for NY-based design studio designing the WE. Sabrina attributes trusting her passion as her main motivator for success, and I think you'll get inspired from hearing more about her story and her work!
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Revision Path is a Glitch Media Network podcast, and is produced by Maurice Cherry and edited by Brittani Brown.
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Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Hi there, my name's Sabrina Dorsainvil. I'm a multidisciplinary artist, designer, illustrator, and I spend my days right now as the Director of Civic Design for the mayor's office of New Urban Mechanics out in Boston, Massachusetts.
Maurice Cherry: Wow. So for our listeners, can you describe a little bit about what civic design is?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah, civic design, as a concept, was really new to me four years ago when I joined the team. But it has been an interesting journey so far trying to do the work and try to articulate what it is, and really unpack the opportunity that that framing brings. I have hesitations over putting design into these really constrained buckets. But what civic design has allowed me to think about is the context of cities where design shows up, both as a process, but also as a way of thinking, seeing, and a way of really tactically both visualizing things and rethinking services, and, I think, really concretely thinking about where design shows up. And so, for me, civic design has been about pulling in qualitative research, and really trying to understand how that pairs with quantitative research. It's meant trying to figure out who's not in the room and how we can bring them really along for the ride. But also sometimes, and I think in a lot of cases, my desire is to make sure that we're co-creating opportunities. So yeah, civic design has really been thinking about the cities, thinking about how do we intentionally navigate their future in a way that is thoughtful of who tends to be left behind, and the different ways that I think we can, I think, collectively bring a better future together. Sounds vague still, I feel like, but yeah, really excited about what it's evolving into.
Maurice Cherry: It sounds very lofty. I mean, when you said, like the context of how design kind of shows up in cities, that could be anything. That could be street design, that could be neighborhoods, signage. It could be a number of different things it sounds like.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah. Yeah. That's exactly how it has been playing out for me as well. So I studied industrial design when I was an undergrad, and then went on to study in a program called Design in Urban Ecologies. And it was really asking that question of how different practices could come together to solve our wicked problems. And cities being not the only place where that sort of critical thinking needed to happen, but in a place where rapid change and inequity and contradictions existed. And so it was exciting to find a role, and I guess a field, really, that responded to that, responded to the desire to make and create, and really try and think about how we can do things differently, and do that in an active way. Right?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: As well as really trying to navigate social issues. And so in this particular role, it does show up as sometimes thinking about street signs, other times thinking about retrofitting vehicles, other times thinking about physical spaces for folks who are experiencing substance use disorders and in need of spaces where they can congregate and recover and with dignity, right?
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Sometimes it means trying to help young people navigate how they can be more civically engaged. And so it does offer myself and my team the opportunity to wear a lot of different hats and really figure out how do we support a future, both of government that I think works for the people, and the way that I think we're really pushing for and, I think, for years obviously have interrogated and asked that of it, but also just thinking about how do we find ways of making everyday life better, and knowing that it can show up in a lot of different ways, whether it be policy or services or an actual object.
Maurice Cherry: So given the variety of work, I'm curious what does a regular day for Sabrina in the office? What does that look like?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: No two days look alike. And so I think it's helpful, I guess, to share a little bit about the team, because it does lend itself to understanding that we do wear a lot of different hats, which means that every day asks a little bit different from us. But the team has been around for about 10 years. The mechanics got their name based on the previous mayor of Boston, because he was called the urban mechanic. He was the if that pothole's broken or the sidewalk's broken, we should just fix it. We don't need to spend forever doing these long-term plans and not really showing people that we're going to take action. And when that mayor retired, the new mayor really saw value in both doing that long-term planning so that we know where we want to go. But doing that testing along the way, doing that prototyping, that exploration, that experimentation along the way.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And so the team has been able to, for 10 years, really think about what are the gaps that exist between the departments that are really trying to do thoughtful work in the city? But at some times the dots can't be connected, or they need support in thinking differently or asking a different set of questions to the challenges that they're facing that they've been facing for years. And so some days it's us being that open door for external folks to government, right? Taking meetings from a startup from a community member, from a young person that is really interested in working with the city or working in alignment with a goal that they see that the city should be solving for.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And we either are able to take that project on ourself or pass it on to folks in the building. And we're also, we get our hands dirty, so we often are not in the building and doing a lot of work in collaboration with both internal departments, but also external folks. And so on any given day I could be talking about climate mitigation on our waterfront, or talking about, again, what can we do with our public school youth to make sure that they feel excited, prepared to engage with the city and that if they want support from city government that the folks in the building are ready to receive them to, again, working on things related to recovery, and trying to navigate how built spaces really work for folks who need it the most.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Is this type of work, I guess, specifically that you're doing within the mayor's office in Boston, is this unique to Boston, or is this something that a lot of cities have? Like, they have a similar type of department that is thinking about these sorts of things?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah, so I'll say, I'm excited to say that the mechanics is one of the first, if not the first, in the United States. I think there are a lot of examples in Europe and others spaces down in Mexico city of folks trying to do this type of imagination, and not just imagination. I use that word because I think it's important these questions around delightfulness and imagination, but really trying to think about how do we be thoughtfully designing with the city in mind, and what does that look like given that governments are, in a lot of cases, and especially in a city like Boston that's so old, right? This is a fortified system, right? So we have been, it's been working the way that it's been working, and whether folks want it to change or not, there are a lot of the foundation that I think we're working from, it isn't always that inclusive, right.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I would argue a lot of folks would say it's not inclusive at all. And so it's been exciting to see teams beyond ourselves pop up. And I think the challenge is some of them are framed in a bit more constrained way, right? About being about performance management and things like that. So I do feel like we and a few others operate in a unique position where we don't try to limit ourselves in terms of we're just thinking about data, right? Or we're just thinking about how we can be more efficient and more cost effective. We're thinking really critically about, well, what does it mean to think about making life better for residents? And while that feels lofty, situating it in the context of each challenge and each thing that we're trying to navigate, it becomes important. And so I do think there are teams out there, and there are especially in the context of civic design, with the rise of Bloomberg Philanthropies innovation teams, there's a lot of cities like LA, and I believe they're from Baltimore, Oakland. There are a lot of different folks that have innovation teams that are looking to do this type of work, which is exciting.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. How do you approach new projects? What tools do you use? I know you mentioned a lot of looking at different types of research, qualitative research, pairing that with quantitative research. What tools do you use most day-to-day in your work?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Ooh, most day-to-day. Yeah. I mean, so I think I've spent a little bit of time talking about the thinking behind it. But yeah, I mean, whether it be trying to think about where we can I think physically imagine things with folks. So I can use an example. We, about a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, we partnered with our health commission out here in Boston to create this temporary space for folks in an area of the city that really has a high concentration of resources for folks experiencing substance use disorders. And so trying to navigate how do you create a space, a space that feels welcoming to folks was the question that we were all trying to ask. And I think from their perspective, they were really prepared to provide a space that responded to the clinical needs and the needs that they already knew about. That they had been working on for years. And I think for our team, we said, it's exciting that you have that clinical perspective and that we're aligned on this welcoming perspective, but we want to actually drive home what it means to build on that and say, what would it look like to have a space that is both creative, welcoming, and allows folks to be connected to the resources and people they want?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So oftentimes we are working in collaboration with a department that has a set of goals that I think by us understanding them, we can say, well, what if we went beyond that? Or what if we imagined on top of that? And sometimes it's not something, it's not always this grand gesture that needs to happen. Sometimes it's a small thing. So I say all this to say that sometimes the tools that I'm using is asking questions. Not being the expert is an incredibly useful tool in that it allows me to say, I may not be the expert on the clinical piece, but what I do know is that as a person we tend to want to feel like a space is ours. And part of that is from doing qualitative research and actually navigating with folks. What makes you feel like you're thriving in a city? What makes it feel like you're home? And getting a sense from that work and being able to apply it to a different space, but really founding all of that and asking really thoughtful questions that will get people to unpack the things that they usually don't get asked. People don't tend to be asked from their city governments beyond just the yes or no questions to I think planning practices. We don't often get asked to imagine very concretely about certain things.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And so trying to figure out how do we bring in a different set of questions? How do we bring in qualitative research? How does that show up sometimes as these really in-depth interviews, but also sometimes as really a quick and dirty. I wish I had a better word for that, but a really quick ways of trying to navigate that with folks, and then building on that. I think part of the interesting part of doing this work in government, because I would say that civic design as a practice I imagine is incredibly important to have thoughtful people inside city government. But it's not the only place that you can be civically active that this work can show up. And so the reason why I am pointing to some of the simple things that can be done is that I think there are reflexes that are built up in spaces like these.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And so much of the work I feel like we get to do is on the simple side, again, of being listening, being a friendly face, trying to help folks unpack and get to the root of what they're actually trying to accomplish, and realign themselves to that, and figure out where do their value show up. And then to say, yeah, there are practices that designers have done, that sociologists have done, that other practices have done, that we can look to as guidance, but that we can imagine in the context that we're working in. And so it shows up in a lot of ways. And I get excited that I also personally get to develop visuals, and do storytelling, and design in a physical way as well. But I really want to point to the fact that there is a lot of need for thoughtful thinkers who come from diverse backgrounds to ask the question of where do our values really come into play, and how do we not just take policy as policy and say policy is an active design. And so we must think about what the implications might be and who is helping design those things. And so, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Now, I think it's really interesting that the tools that you use the most in your work are not technical tools. It's asking questions and active listening. Those are the two most important things, which, I think, as designers in general is something that is just a good skill to have. I tell this a lot to entrepreneurs specifically when dealing with clients, being able to ask the right questions, or being able to get the information you need just by listening to the client can save you so much time and energy just later on down the life of the project. So what have you found has been the biggest challenge so far with this role?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I think early on one of the challenges was getting folks to understand why I was showing up as a designer into some of these conversations, because I think we think about, I say we, but I think, maybe it is, I would say it is all of us. We fall into this track of who belongs where, and I think knowing that I was entering into these spaces as a young black queer woman of color that was not shy about that, but also can't erase the reality that I show up in a room and you notice, there was that barrier. But also then I was also layering that in that I was a designer, and there aren't very many people who work in this space that carry that title, or I think lead with that title.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And so getting folks to say, "Okay, I get why she's here," is something that is still a hurdle. It's less of showing up and being like, "I'm a civic designer, and I'm ready to do a thing." It focusing, like, "Hey, I'm showing up and I have a perspective, but I'm also here to help try and get to the bottom of what it is that you're hoping to do and would it be possible if we do this together?" And so it's still a work in progress trying to make sense of where the change I think can really happen at a larger scale. But I think I'm excited about the small things that we've been able to do. And I think there are some large things that we've been able to influence, and it's constantly this interesting balance of you're trying to not put design on a pedestal, but say that this is an entry point to remind folks that people from a lot of different walks of life can be a part of this decision making. And that is one thing that I think about if I think about challenges.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But yeah, I have a long list given that we're trying to work within really difficult structures, and trying to figure out really how residents really show up as really key decision makers, and processes that, again, have been working and the ways that they've been working. And there's a lot of excitement and desire to do that. But I think really having the tools and not thinking about those tools as finite things, but as flexible context driven things is really hard for some folks, because we don't get taught to care. We don't get taught to be inclusive in a lot of our practices. And so if we're working within those silo fields and those spaces, we go as far as we understand to go. And so trying to figure out and constantly be reflective about that, and do that in collaboration with folks is one of a major goal, and I think a challenge that I see other folks who are really struggling with. And so trying to be a partner in doing that is a really exciting position to be in. But it can be really draining and frustrating, and not just for me, but for folks who are hoping to do more and different things with the sort of work that they've been doing.
Maurice Cherry: We don't get taught to care. That's a really interesting, I don't know if I've really thought about designing that way. I mean, certainly I think, for people that may go through traditional design school methods, it's less about, I guess the empathy of the end user. It's more about making sure you've achieved a business goal or something to that effect. But it's different with civic design, because the work that you're doing is directly affecting people's lives. If you go into a ad agency and you're making ads for some, I don't know, new soft drink or something, that's ephemeral. Yeah, certainly people might like it now, but then in a month or two that's probably going to be gone. Whereas the changes that you're doing with civic design, those impact communities and people for years.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah. And, you know, we don't always get it right either, which is why so much of our work is about prototyping and experimenting is to say that we don't always have the answers, and it's okay. But we need to be doing it in a transparent way that allows us to grow and change and move with an understanding and of where people are, and where people expect or want or feel like we need to be moving. I mean, it's hard to, I don't mean to say it so abruptly, we don't get taught to care, but I do think a lot of practices, yeah, like you started to say, you get taught to care enough to get to your end goal, but to imagine doing the work of constantly holding space for actually it might change, or actually it might not. You need to look that way forever.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Actually, we might learn by doing this thing that it's kind of problematic and we need to go back to the drawing board. And so I think that there's a sense in that I have gotten from government, and it's not wrong, because I think historically that has probably felt like the desire is to be the expert to walk in and to know the answer to solve it for people. And I think that there, while like yeah, a lot of things have happened and maybe some have been good, I think there's a lot of danger in that just assuming you know. And I think that that vulnerability that might come from admitting that you don't and trying to work through that is a hard place for everyone to exist in, which is why I think the space that we hold is really important, because not everybody feels comfortable taking risks, especially because it's people's everyday lives that are at stake.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And that I think we try not to go into anything with the desire to disrupt major systems that could collapse tomorrow in terms of folks wellbeing. But we try to think thoughtfully about whether the spaces that can change that are either connected to the root cause, or can really discretely and thoughtfully shift something that will allow us to see that aspect of the world differently, and give us the space to imagine. Because I really do think that it's incredibly hard and scary to admit that you have the capacity to change someone's life, and it's also really exciting. But I think what I've seen from a lot of design practices, but even urban planning and other fields, is yes, you get taught about empathy maybe in the stays, but sometimes it's situated in imaginary projects that don't really force you to have to understand nuance challenge.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: ... Don't really force you to have to understand nuance challenges of the every day and to admit that sometimes you're not designing for the people who are there right now, but you still have the capacity to be inclusive and bring people, true real people, into a process that doesn't strip you of your ability to support the world with your skill or your talent. But says that by opening that up, we get to do things better. We get to do things thoughtfully. We get to do things with a true desire to positively impact the world. Right? Or impact our spaces. And I'm seeing more and more of that shift. Right? I'm seeing graphic design programs say, "Actually what would it mean for folks to think about who early on, to ask thoughtful questions early on? And how does that actually make our work better? Right? More thoughtful?" So it's exciting to see, but I know that that's not the foundation that all of us have.
Maurice Cherry: Now, we've had service designers on the show before. We've had people that have designed at different levels of government. We even had the former creative director for the Obama White House here on the show. And one thing that I've asked all of them about is design and government because that still seems to be an area that designers tend to stay away from even, I would say, now in these current political times, where, certainly, I think the ways that different policies are being enacted and the ways people are protesting those policies and such, it's a prime opportunity for designers to be involved in some way to make civic change. But why do you still think that designers are reluctant to get into this space?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So I myself did not think that I was ever going to end up in government. Still, when I introduce myself, that sometimes comes out, I was like, "Wow, I'm here. It's been here, I've been here." And I never thought I would be. But I didn't say it earlier as one of the challenges, but I think one of the first ones that I felt being in this space was trying to carry my multiple identities. Right? Trying to carry this tension of understanding really what the institutions of government has done historically to not just people that look like me, but folks from all walks of life. Right? The challenges that folks who face the trauma that's been passed down and the trauma that's being enacted in so many different spaces by way of government is hard to ... You can't ignore that. Right?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And that fuels the passion to want to be in this space and say, "What can I do from inside these spaces?" Right? But that's also not an easy place to be with someone who ... I think that trauma is passed down to me too. Right? So I can imagine that, similar to my hesitancy about stepping into this space, there are plenty of people who just don't see themselves here. And there's not an open door that's saying, "Hey designers, come on in." Especially, I think now, in the digital age, there's a lot of spaces being provided from, I think, a digital aspect, but this broad "come as you are" and the skills that you want to use, it's not widespread. Right?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So if it doesn't feel like the door's open, then not only do you have to carve that space for yourself, but you also have to do it carrying and wearing that trauma, that baggage, that tension of "How do I exist with and in community while also operating in a space that has, for so long, been the antithesis, has felt like the enemy or has been the enemy of spaces that I value and that I care for and that I appreciate?"
Sabrina Dorsainvil: What I was pointing to is that when I first started, I remember being at a community meeting, and I had seen childhood friends protesting the folks that were hosting that meeting. And I was like, "What side am I on?" Right? I was like, "Wait, wait, wait a minute." And I had to really spend time trying to unpack this ... It's not as simple as this, but I think we are in a moment where even in the spaces where it feels like government can change for us, there's no promise. Right? And there's also no guidebook. Right? There's no promise, on behalf of residents and folks just engaging out their everyday life, it's like, "I don't know if I can believe that you're going to be there for me." And on the side of folks in government who do want to see that change and do want to go beyond the practices that have perpetuated that feeling and that reality for folks, they don't have the guidebook for how to do it right, how to convince, how to really make people believe that.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And really, I think on both ends, where does the follow through happen? So I think this mentality around, we're experimenting, we're trying, we're taking steps to try and imagine what that looks like and be vulnerable and be transparent, I think is an interesting thing that I think we're not the only ones necessarily doing. But it's not obvious that that space exists in every city government, that exists in every facet of government. And I would argue that it's very different thinking about design from the federal level, from the state level, and from the local level. And I think the exciting thing about the local level is that I see those changes tomorrow. Right? In a lot of ways.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So to imagine trying to carry that urgency and not really see these spaces always carry that urgency as well. Right? To carry that trauma and not really see these spaces respect or create healing moments for that. And then that sense of, how do I show up or come in, hasn't existed for me as an individual, let alone me as a designer. I can definitely see how hard it is, and I have felt how hard it is to feel like this space is for me.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So I was excited that this team existed and that that call was made for people were curious and who maybe weren't experts but really saw a value in trying to use creativity as a way to interrogate and navigate city challenges. And I would love to see more spaces like that be created, but also more designers to see the opportunity to try and influence those spaces because you don't have to be employed here to do that work. And I've been excited to see students and other folks get involved with that. But I totally see that there's an endless amount of reasons why we don't trust a space like this, or we're not ready to even imagine ourselves here.
Maurice Cherry: So I guess to that end, is there any advice that you would give to designers out there who are listening that might want to start getting involved with civic design?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah. I mean, so it sounds like ... I feel like my last response was a little bit of a downer. But I do want to say that I've been really excited, especially here in Boston. But I've been able to connect with a lot of folks throughout the nation and abroad. And in city after city, I've been really excited to see a lot of people asking this question on, "how can we do better and who can we bring into the fold," and really seeing spots for not just designers, but folks who want to lead with their creativity, to have a role in really thinking about the future of not just policy, but everything from how do we engage with technology, how do we think about the public realm, how do we really go beyond what we're doing today, how do we rethink our democracy? I think the space is there.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So while there are some formal roles that you can make your way into, I do think that my point about you can be practicing civic design without being in this particular context. And it, to me, is in some ways thinking about designers being civically active. Right? And saying, "I have this skill set, this way of looking at the world, and if I was to use my energy to think about how I would support making something change for the better in my particular neighborhood, or in my school, or in my workplace, as it relates to some sort of social challenge, what would it be like to do that?" And do that with prioritizing that thoughtfulness, that desire to think about who, why, and to what end, in a way that I think goes beyond just empathy but thinks about compassion, thinks about care, thinks about delightfulness, thinks about healing, thinks about really how do our spaces and experiences and interactions with each other really have the potential to shape the future for the better if we understand them and understand where they're failing and where they need to be.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I think thought differently about.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. We were talking right before this interview about the Black in Design Conference. And the first conference I went to in 2015, that's exactly the thing that they talked about. They looked at reclaiming space and what that looks like from these, I guess, different viewpoints. They started small with the neighborhood, and then they branched out to the city, the, I think, States, and then the region or something like that. But they expanded it out. So they had people that talked about, oh, what's it like to make change in your neighborhood. And then someone comes and talks about what's it like to make change in the city by designing this public plaza or something like that.
Maurice Cherry: And that was the first time that I really looked at how design can be so broadly, I think, applied in a way that changes the environment. It changes people's lives. It makes an impact on a very visceral scale. I mean, this isn't Photoshop brushes and stuff like that. These are real things that are actually making a difference in people's lives. I think one thing that's probably important to point out about civic design, and I don't know if you really touched on this, but that it doesn't necessarily have to be politically involved in order for you to be involved with civic design. Would you agree to that?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's exactly what I'm trying to get at, is I think there's a need for designers to be working. If the context of government is going to exist for us, we should be at the table. A lot of different folks should be at the table, but it is not the only place where you can try to think about your everyday life, think about your city, think about the spaces you exist in and how they can be better, and do it in a way that is like a civic action. For sure. For sure.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So when did you first get involved in all this? You mentioned going to college and studying industrial design. But was design like this always in your life? Was it a part of your childhood? When did you get the spark for all of this?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah. As a little kid, I used to draw in front of the TV. So there was a sense that I'd go, and I'd work for Disney, or I'd do a thing and become an illustrator. I'm still excited that I maintain an artist's practice outside of the work I do, that I think feels more specifically civic design, but I think there's no way that even that work and not be civically minded.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But I remember being in high school actually, and I went to high school in a technical school. So I was really lucky to be able to study desktop publishing and just dip my toes in a communication design, as well as really understanding that art was the important part of my life. And I remember being a part of a youth development program that taught young people, I believe ages eight to 18, I'm definitely getting the numbers wrong, but everything from dance, to music production, to fashion, to graphic design, illustration, you name it. And I was really moved by that program.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But at the same time, I was working at another youth program that was centered around a ... it was called Groundwork Lawrence. So it was a green team, and it was centered around having young people interact and engage with environmental issues in their neighborhood and really trying to navigate that world. So I spent a lot of time saying, "I want to design, but also I really want to figure out how to make my neighborhood better." Right? I want to be pulling out those tires out of the river. I want to be working in collaboration with folks to really interrogate why things are the way they are.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And I have this distinct moment in my mind, where I had heard the governor had come down to that one of those youth programs and was talking. And I caught wind of predatory lending as a concept. Right? And I remember being like, "Wait, so we're allowing and selling homes to people at the river's edge, and then we know that they can't afford it. So their homes get flooded, but they can't afford the insurance. But of course, the river was going to go back the way that it wanted to go because, man, changing it" ... I was trying to piece together these concepts, and I really didn't have words for it.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But I knew that I had retained that desire throughout undergrad, of really wanting to pair design with a social practice. And I think I had tried in small ways to try to do that and really maintain that while I was in undergrad. And I think I was really excited about the parts of industrial design that really taught me how to think critically, think about by understanding people, how you could design differently, how you could be thoughtful. I just didn't want the application of it to just be physical products. I wanted to be guided by that understanding versus thinking about an object in mind at first. Right?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I went through the program, was really grateful for the mentors that I had met. And then it was like, "I'm going to take the risk, and I'm going to go to this grad program." So I went to Parsons, The New School and studied design and urban ecologies at a point where it was a very new program. It was the first year that it was launching. So I was in a cohort of about 30 people, and every project was a group project. Every project was situated in the context of a real neighborhood with a real community group with real challenges, that we had to think about not just what we were doing, but the impact that our absence afterward would have on the thing that we were working with them on.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So this was not "how do you parachute in and out" really, but "how do you bring the support and the expertise that you have but also know that you're not the expert." Right? And trying to figure out, what is that negotiation? What does that work look like when we are trying to acknowledge that in order to solve any of the big challenges that we have, that we're facing today, whether it's immigrant rights or street vendor rights or really some of our environmental challenges, that it's not going to be one practice alone? Right? It's not just going to be the scientist. Right? It's not just going to be politicians. Right? It's not just going to be designers. Right? It's going to be teachers. Right? It's going to be therapists. Right? It's going to be all of us that come into play.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So I think from that program, I had that itch. I was like, "Okay, well now I know where I want to spend my time," but I really didn't know where that context would fit. And I think in between ending that program and starting with the city, I had gone back to the world of industrial design from the lens of a design and innovation consultancy. And it was a good experience. But again, I was itching for, where was the social value, beyond just delivering on this company's goals and their bottom line. And I think there was a lot of thoughtful work happening, but it wasn't in the context that I was excited about or wanted to spread my wings into.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: So in between, I think that uneasiness and saying, "Okay, this isn't bad work, but it is not the work that I feel fulfilled by," it was at the rise of technology's role, I think, in highlighting something that we, folks of color, have felt. Right? But the rest of the world perhaps couldn't align on it until we realized that technology was that way. Right? So during the Black Lives Matter movement, I asked myself, "How can I not just design in this corner for this particular context, but design toward really critical social challenges we face in the city?"
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And I actually reconnected with some friends in grad school, and we did some of that work through Designing the WE, the social impact design studio based out of New York. And I really admired the work that they were doing, and I was excited to be a part of the beginning of that. And I think through that, opened myself up to saying, "Okay, maybe this open position with the city is one that might make sense for me." And it was someone in that consultancy that actually said, "Hey, this sounds like you."
Sabrina Dorsainvil: This is not a linear path at all [crosstalk 00:38:26]. I will say that every step that I took, my parents were like, "Wait, so industrial design, what does that mean? Design [crosstalk 00:17:33], what does that mean?" And now that I'm like, "Oh, I'm with the newer mechanics," they're like, "I have no idea what you do."
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But it really has been an effort of following the things that I've been passionate about and really communicating out loud the things that I am struggling with and the uneasiness and the excitement. And it often isn't the, "I know exactly what I want to do next," but it has been a, "This sounds interesting. This is how I want to spend my time. And if I have the capacity and the ability to navigate that, I would really love to." And yeah. And here I am.
Maurice Cherry: What does trusting your passion look like for you right now in your life? Because that seems to be a guiding principle for you throughout your career. You trusted what it is that you want to do, and you have strong beliefs about it. And you've been able to make a way in your career by doing that.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah. I think the first time it happened probably was in my ... I mean, I'm sure there are other times, but a really strong memory, I think, was in undergrad, and I was working on my final project. And it had gone down this path. I was really, really interested in helping people unpack the both positive things and the good things that they were experiencing every day so that they could be more reflective. Right? And I think it was an introspective exercise for me, but one that I thought could exist with the role of design. Right? I thought that design had a potential to allow us to navigate really difficult things, like mental health. Right? Just those everyday challenges. And I was going down that path.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I had a good amount of professors say, "I don't know what you're doing." Right? "I have no idea what you're doing. I'm a product designer, so I'm going to teach you product design." I'm like, "I get that, but you've given me these tools that I feel could be applicable in this particular context, and I really want to run down that path. And yes, I will fulfill your minimum requirements, but I can't ignore that this is something that not only I care about, but is being reinforced by the people that I'm engaging with, by the research that I've been doing, by this attempt to really ground it in people." That was maybe one of the earliest moments, I think, career-wise that I acknowledged that I had to choose. I had to choose to either fold into the mold. Right? Or decide that I was going to deviate in a way that made sense to me.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And that wouldn't have been possible without one professor saying, "They're not going to understand you. I am not sure I fully understand you, but you have to do it for you and accept that you're just going to have to communicate. You're going to have to be a better communicator, and you're going to have to be there for yourself in a lot of ways." And I think she was there for me, and I'm grateful for it. Even now, looking back and spending a lot of time with that same professor, I'm grateful. I'm grateful for ... And I will say that to anyone trying to be a mentor. Even if you don't get it, to encourage folks to trust themselves and be a support however way that you can, I think is incredibly important, because we don't all have the answers already. And I don't think we ever really will. So the willingness to accept that it's not just about your passion. Right? I think that's...
Sabrina Dorsainvil: To accept that, right? It's not just about your passion, right? I think that's incredibly important. That's a guiding principle, but I used to try to call it my ethos compass, or something. It's like what do I value?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: It's like what do I value, and how do I find a way to not compromise that, and use what I'm excited about in the world. I couldn't pick one thing. I didn't want to just do design. I didn't want to just think about our ... I wanted to figure out how to do them together, and that's still a challenge today, but that's one of my goals.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: The other goal is to do no harm, and be thoughtful. And so trying to hold onto those things as well as whatever other values you have, I think helps ... At least it's helped me guide myself into the next steps that I want to take.
Maurice Cherry: Tell me about a low point in your career. I'm curious to know. And I'm asking this question because ... Granted, yes, we do have people come on and they sort of talk about the highlights of their work, and I think that's really important, too, but you know what it sounds like with the work that you're doing, going this sort of nonlinear type of path means there's going to be hills and valleys, ups and downs sort of things. What was the low point in your career? Where were you, what was going on when that happened?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah, a low point. There's definitely been a ton of bumps and hurdles, and I think through every step that I've taken there's been this moment of, wait, what am I doing? Am I ... Like this imposter syndrome narrative I think is one that I for sure identify with in its basic sense, and that so many of the spaces that I operate in, or I have operated in, there's always that moment of wait, do I belong? And I sort of have to sort of reframe, and say is it belonging that is the goal?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But yeah, I mean, I think I've personally have had a lot of challenges, I think, with mental health issues, and really trying to stay above water in terms of caring for myself and seeing value in me as a human, let alone me as a professional, or a person with a perspective on the world, but just as a fundamental human that has a right to exist. That has been hard. And so it's years, and still to this day it's an ongoing process of trying to say I may not love myself, but how do I like myself and how do I see myself as valuable enough to exist another day and to keep working toward it, whatever the goal is.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And so, I think that's a consistent learning point rather than low point, I would say. It's a point of tension that I don't ignore, and I'm grateful to be in a space where I think this was the first job that it was so explicit that folks are like, yo, you need to take of yourself. If you need a therapist, if you need all these ... Find the support that you need, because this work is not easy. It's not hard. You are always going to be trying to be on the side of good, but it's going to be confusing, and it's going to be hard.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And the day to day of working in a space that is inherently political, but also and just generally trying to think about this isn't just ... I mean, there's a lot of really, really painful things that people are experiencing, right? We're talking about everything from someone mourning the loss of a loved one who has fallen victim to gun violence, to a vehicle sort of ... As a city, we're thinking about things like Vision Zero. So what does it need to protect bikers from going under the wheels of vehicles, to thinking about people who are experiencing substance use disorders.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: This is challenges that people are truly feeling, experiencing viscerally every day. And even when we're trying to be our most awful, we can erase that pain from folks. And so, I think every day there's a question of, wait, how, what? And being excited about trying, even in the smallest sense, to support, I think, the narratives of positive impact, but knowing that you yourself, if you're not 100%, which I don't think all of us are ever 100%, right?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: It's not an invisible feat. It's difficult, and it doesn't ... I think you asked what are the biggest hurdles or the challenges? I think just interpersonally, I am still who I am, and I've had to deal with things beyond microaggressions that I've had to sit back and sort of hold my tongue and really try and figure out ... We had a couple of folks articulate it as are you shoving justice through a window or are you flipping the table over? And really trying to navigate both in the space that I'm working in, but in my everyday.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: When is that moment for us? When is that moment that we feel like we are our full selves, and that we're not compromising, and that we're not policing ourselves. And I think that that's a constant struggle, and that low exists. But I've been grateful that it's been paired with this moments of finding people, both inside the spaces that I work in and in friends groups, and in these spaces where ... I've recently been invited to these dinners where I'm just meeting with folks who are talking about F no futuristic futures.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Just finding spaces where you can re fuel and care for yourself and recognize that yeah, it hurts and it's not easy, and I'm not perfect and I need to learn how to love myself so I can continue to love everybody else, and try to bring us all up. But it's hard.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, it's amazing how ... And I think this is mostly just kind of in the ... I'm thinking more like product design, visual design community, but there's very little talk about sort of self care, and about the impact that our work has, and how that impacts us as people. It's rare to, especially I think as a person of color and if you sit at the intersection of multiple identities, just being able to show up as yourself, 100%, to work is a challenge enough, let alone actually doing the work. Just even being there can sometimes just be a challenge enough, and I don't feel like there's enough talk or enough, really I think, attention given to kind of self care in this profession as a whole.
Maurice Cherry: Because things move so quickly. That's another thing. And I'm, again, speaking more about on the digital land, I mean, people pour so much stuff into work that's only going to exist for a very short amount of time. It may live on forever in your portfolio, but in the next year or two it's a blip. It's nothing. So what's the next thing that you're doing? And what kind of impact does that have on you in terms of how you feel about the skills that you can even do the work about the impact that you're having.
Maurice Cherry: If the work that you do ends up getting written over or erased in a few years, then what was all that energy and time that you put forth into something that now no longer exists? I can imagine how that would weigh on people, especially, well ... Yeah, I could see how that would weigh on people. So, I wish there was more talk about that sort of impact and what designers do to kind of deal with that.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah, yeah. And I've been grateful to hear it articulated, actually, about ... It's not just about self care, right? It's about how do we care for each other as well. It's not just an act that we should expect everyone to go off in their corner and figure it out and come back better than yesterday. But how do we see our care as being a community effort? Of being one that it takes a village, whether small or large, to make sure that we're all able to be present, and when we're not, when we can't, that we're covered. That it's okay. That I can have a day where I just can't get up, or I just don't feel like my full self. And that's something that I feel like is missing in larger spaces.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I feel the sense that self care is coming in, but I also don't want us to lose sight that it's not just an activity for one person alone to do for themselves. It's that and, right? So yeah, I mean, I do think that part of it is how do we create a culture of that? And I do feel like it's something that is missing.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And so, speaking the truth to that, right? Saying out loud, "I am caring for myself today," is also one way that I am actually doing that. I try to be really vocal about a lot of the things that tend to ride invisibly, but impact a lot of people. So yeah, I mean, I hear you, and I think with this particular work, at least from the perspective of the team that I'm on, we really do see ourselves as not here to save the day, but really be a support system.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And we're often written out of a lot of stories, and I think we have to be comfortable with that to some degree, because if the ultimate goal has been achieved, if the ultimate goal of building a new reflex or allowing folks to sort of take the risks that allows for more opportunities that look different than the way that we have things today, then we can be okay with that, which is why pouring your energy into the process rather than the product alone is incredibly important. Because you want to build a foundation that hopefully also gets passed on, whether or not you're there.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Do you have a dream project that you'd really love to do? I mean, let's say you had carte blanche with city money, city services, just in general, what's a dream project you'd love to take on?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Oh my gosh, that's such a hard question. Man, yeah.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I'm not so sure. I don't mean to take the easy way out and be like, "This many." I don't have anything that can think ... But I will say that there's no shortage of things. There's no shortage of things that we could focus on, and I do think that the stuff that excites me sort of right now are things that I would still love to be able to do. But I am really curious if there is anything that can be done on the city side to navigate some of the issues around ... Actually, no. I think that is true. I'm very curious how we can think thoughtfully about community healing from a perspective that thinks about mental health, that thinks about women's health, and this is me being all encompassing.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But some of the things that have been irking me, is personally I've been really thinking about how women and folks who menstruate, how they are told about their experiences. And this is one example, but I see it at so many different spaces, and that's why I'm really struggling to have a clear answer. But I've just been really, really frustrated with our healthcare system, with the way that we talk about mental health, the way that we sort of navigate really long-standing social issues that I know have been passed down, that even if it feels like a hypothesis, we are feeling the impacts of redlining, and policies and practices that have not only shaped our physical space but mentally.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I think there's so much that we have yet to unpack, and to actually work on a project that would require us to address those things head on and think tactically about how to create space. And I say this, but I know that there are folks already trying to do this work. So it is to say that I want to spend my energy interrogating, and creating more opportunities for, again, folks who menstruate to feel like they are not in a vacuum, and that they're hiding this part that is quite natural about themselves. And if they're going through pain that is unnecessary, that they're not being told that that's on you, or everyone experiences that, or that we're told that our pain is real, and that folks are there to help us navigate it.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And I say that from like a physical perspective, when I'm using the example of the sort of menstruation bit. But also think about it from like the largest social perspective. I'm tired of us feeling gaslit, right? [inaudible 00:55:11] being told that no, we're past that. No, we're not. We still, in every corner, have been reinforced by the lack of attention that's been been given to the experiences of women, of people of color, of queer folks, of non-binary folks, the folks who experienced the world in a different way than CIS white men feel and experience the world.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And that's not me trying to point fingers, though I am. I do [inaudible 00:55:39] that I want to see the city fully ... Cities fully lean into to questioning how systemic and institutionalized racism shows up. How all the isms really, I think, unfold in our healthcare system, and unfold in our education system. And this is work that's, again, already being done, but I would just continue to pull my energy and time into doing more of that, because I think when I think about the things that make me sad, and angry, and frustrated it's the fact that some of us have words for it, others don't. But we are still able to find ways to ignore it in some levels, and it feels wild to me that that's possible.
Maurice Cherry: Do you feel like you're living your life's purpose right now? Or do you think you're still searching for it?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: I think I'm still searching for sure. I mean, this is an exciting place to be, and a really interesting, frustrating, but potentially exciting time. And I'm really grateful for where I've been able to to go, and how I've been able to show up. But I am still trying to figure out how to be my full self. I'm still trying to figure out how to, to make sure that I am not just doing this for myself, but doing this with folks, and doing this ...
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And I think young people are often ignored in terms of having narratives around the future of our cities, and that to me is also a passionate place that I'm trying to figure out how does that happen? And how do we do that more thoughtfully? And I'm open to this being the space where those things can happen, but I'm also willing to admit that there is no shortage of places in which this work can be done, and which I can sort of think about what my role is.
Maurice Cherry: What's next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next five years or so? What kind of work would you like to be focusing on?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: For my long-winded sort of non-response, but very intricate response on what project I want to do next, I hope that in the next five years I'm still able to do a lot of the work that I'm doing right now. Again, whether or not it's in this context is one question, and I don't feel pressured to answer that right now. But what I will say is I do hope that I am working in a capacity where I've allowed myself to do that self care, do that sort of we care, do that really grounded work, and I don't expect to be incredibly ... I figured it out in five years.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: But I want to make sure that I am bringing my community along for this ride, and that I'm opening myself up to being brought along for someone else's. And so, I'm excited to continue to and figure out what civic design looks like in the future, and what it looks like for me. And I'm hoping that I'm able to continue not just teaching, but I think it's been really interesting to exchange with young people. I've learned so much by trying to share what I've learned and really understand the way that they're seeing the world.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: And so, being in those spaces would be great, and I really want to continue to make art. And I think that's one of an exciting part of the current work that I've been doing is trying to work with the folks here to say art itself as well, as design, has more than just the utility of a product or an end thing, and that it can be incredibly crucial to how we think about our cities. And so, what does it mean to lead with creativity in whatever aspect of the world or the city, or whatever spaces I'm in is going to be the goal. And so, I also hope I'm relaxing a little bit.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Now just pointing back to that self care, I'm like, yeah, we should all just take vacations, and tell your loved ones you love them, and spend time with them. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, absolutely.
Maurice Cherry: Well, just to wrap things up here, Sabrina, where can our audience find out more about you or about the work that you're doing online?
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Yeah. So, I'm both on Twitter and Instagram at O-H underscore S-A-B-E-E-D-E-E. So, [oh_sabeedee 00:18:21], and you can find some of my personal work on sabrinadorsainvil.com. And I think it'd be great if you could also follow along with what the new mechanics are doing, and they're on Twitter at @newurbanMECHS.
Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good.
Maurice Cherry: Well, Sabrina Dorsainvil, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I think first of all, thank you for sharing just so much about the work that you're doing. I think for a lot of us out there, whether we're designers or not, just denizens in the city, this type of work, while it's super important, can often go, I think, uncelebrated, or unrealized.
Maurice Cherry: A lot of these things are happening kind of right under our noses, and we don't necessarily know. So I think just being able to shed a light on why it's important, and the type of work that you do with just how much research and everything goes into it is important. But also just the conversation that we had around self care, and making sure that, as designers, as creative people, regardless of, I think, the scope of the impact of our work, and it's important that we are taking care of ourselves within this process, because creativity, as we know, is not an untapped resource, as much as we would like for it to be. That's not the case.
Maurice Cherry: So, it's important that while we are putting forth our talents to help others, that we also take that time out to help ourselves. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Sabrina Dorsainvil: Thanks so much for having me. This was great.