Co-Designing Feathers of Hope

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“Our people have been living under colonialism for centuries — we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought this process would be easy.” Real talk from Laura Arndt, Director of Strategic Development at the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth (OPACY).

The process she was referring to is the creation of Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan. It’s a monumental document, not just of the colonial legacy inflicted upon young First Nations people, but of their brilliance and power. In their own words, more than 160 youth from 64 First Nations communities in Northern Ontario reflected on the issues that most affect them — issues like loss of culture, the continuing impact of residential schools, mental and physical health, and youth leadership — and made concrete recommendations on how people in various levels and positions of power can support them in healing and making change.

I was honoured to be invited by Laura and the Feathers of Hope team to provide the graphic design for the action plan, as it was an opportunity to design in solidarity with First Nations youth for a community and movement building project that they would lead.

The brief:

  • Give form to the words and visions of the youth
  • Do this in a way that will speak as strongly to their communities in the North as it does to elected representatives in Toronto and Ottawa
  • Do not sugar-coat the issues to make them less guilt-inducing
  • At the same time, convey a message of hope and optimism

We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was not prepared for just how difficult it would be. I am still considering the ways in which this project stretched me, but I’ve been chewing on two key things since we wrapped up in February: firstly, the emotional labour that goes into collaborative and youth-led processes, and secondly, questioning what actually constitutes collaboration.

Why I work collaboratively

A designer’s hand is powerful — unchecked it can be too powerful.

This is often the case when the organization is oriented towards social impact rather than profit. After spending their days rolling their eyes at corporate clients who tell them, “I’m paying the bill, make the logo bigger,” many uneducated designers treat a non-profit or community project as a chance to finally show the world what they’re made of, creatively speaking. A project like this might dazzle in its cleverness and clean up at the awards shows, but if it creates no substantive change for the people most affected by the issues, it is actually causing harm by wasting the time, energy, and funds of under-resourced organizations and communities.

Collaborative and participatory design processes are critical to social justice projects. To me, co-design is about creating the conditions for justice through the process and not just at the end of it. It shifts the locus of power from those with the most resources (the organizational partner and the designer) to those most affected by the issues. It prioritizes the expertise of those with lived experience of the subject matter. This results in design outputs that are actually relevant and useful for the communities they are serving.

As a child of immigrant settlers with a postsecondary education and class mobility, my professional opinion could hold more sway than the voices of the youth, and this tendency needed to be counterbalanced. As with many collaborative graphic design projects, the co-design strategy involved more in-depth briefing conversations to gain a fuller understanding of the issues and challenges, conceptual and aesthetic input to ensure that it would speak to the communities it needs to reach, and a process of iteration based on community feedback.

Why this is sometimes really hard

It is acknowledged that — in comparison to conventional client-design relationships — these processes require more creative and intellectual labour on everyone’s part. But what isn’t as readily acknowledged is the emotional work involved.

With Feathers of Hope I had the pleasure of collaborating with a team of “Youth Amplifiers.” These young people (four First Nations youth and one ally) were hired by OPACY to lead the organizing of the forum in Thunder Bay where the 160 youth gathered, to make most of the critical decisions, and to write the action plan based on the statements from the forum. A separate advisory was assembled from youth who participated in the forum, to ensure that their voices were being accurately reflected.

A moment from the Feathers of Hope Youth Forum. Photo by Noterlee Johnson.

I met with the Amplifiers to draft a brief and consult them on how they imagined the book. I learned that the experience of the forum had been incredibly transformative for all the participants. Few had ever been asked how they would address the injustices their communities face, so they were, unsurprisingly, timid. At first. As they connected more deeply with each other and shared their experiences, they became more attuned to the power they held. By the end of the weekend, when they presented their recommendations to decision-makers from all levels of government, the stomping of their feet in support of each other made the conference centre floor shake with power. Could I make it look like that?

Photo of youth holding string and the resulting concept: an eagle feather made of knotted string

I reviewed the video footage and photographic documentation from the weekend and returned to them with three ideas. The selected concept was inspired by a skit presented by one group — each young person in the group held a long string at different points as a metaphor for the historical connection between their nations. When settlers arrived, they said, it was as though the string was being cut. To them, Feathers of Hope was about repairing those severed connections. The image I proposed was an eagle feather made of knotted string, held in place by hands extended from all directions, sort of like a sculptural cat’s cradle.

The Amplifiers fell in love with the idea, and I invited them to jam on it. They made several suggestions, like photographing the string-feather against a drum, over embers, or including elders in the shot. I headed back to the studio and got to work on new mockups. I knew it would be challenging to make the artwork make sense with hands and everything else added, and boy was I right. All the comps were uniformly terrible.

A small sampling of the terrible comps

Meanwhile, the Amplifiers were struggling through the writing process. They were keenly aware that the action plan needed to represent the voices of the 160 youth and that it would be used to put pressure on all levels of government. At the same time, many of the struggles they were writing about were very present in their day-to-day lives. Healing from the loss of friends and family members to suicide was not a theoretical issue to most of the Amplifiers — it was a lived reality. Writing with this tremendous sense of responsibility about topics so close to home took a serious emotional toll.

The co-design process put an added burden on the youth when the design refused to work. I returned to them with multiple iterations, inviting them to provide input so we could arrive together at a design that worked on aesthetic and strategic levels while reflecting their ideas and experiences. With each comp that missed the mark, I could sense in a very acute way their growing discouragement with the project. Although the process put the balance of power into their hands, the sense of responsibility that came with it must have been incredibly overwhelming without the benefit of years of experience doing creative and social justice work. Both demand a great deal of emotional labour to stay grounded in oneself while working on behalf of others, to absorb the inevitable turbulence, and to have faith in one’s own abilities. This has me thinking deeply about how I can adjust my collaborative approach so this burden can be lightened, or at least better supported, when working on a youth-led co-design process.

Letting go of my assumptions about co-design

The medicine bundle

After one particularly difficult design meeting, the team presented me with a medicine bundle. I brought it home and, struggling with my own discouragement, smudged with purifying cedar. I don’t know what shifted, but something did. Later that evening the image of an eagle feather made of light, cutting through darkness and shrouded in protective smoke came to me. (I can’t say I came up with it because that’s not what happened.) Knowing this image was meant to be the cover of Feathers of Hope, I left the original concept behind and got to work bringing the new image to life. I made the feather by hand-cutting a stencil into black paper (in later versions it was laser-cut), then backlit it with sage burning in the foreground and photographed the result.

Photographing the feather

The team was thrilled with the new direction, and with the story of the smudge that gave rise to it. But I couldn’t help thinking that I’d abandoned co-design in favour of my personal intuition and inspiration. It’s taken a while for me to recognize that that was not what had happened. Instead, I had entered into a different kind of collaboration. When I was still struggling with the first concept, the Amplifiers had sent me links to their favourite Indigenous artists and galleries of woodland crafts. I had no idea what to do with this visual material — I studied it carefully but was not about to venture into the realm of cultural appropriation, so steered clear of trying to reproduce it. I wondered why they hadn’t hired a First Nations designer instead of myself.

It wasn’t until I opened myself up more fully to the cultural sharing they were offering that things shifted. The collaborators showed me what they needed collaboration to look like, and it didn’t look like picking Pantone colours or typefaces. Instead, they needed me to understand, beyond the colonial history and the political analysis and in a visceral way, where they were coming from and what was at stake.

As one of the Amplifiers said when she first saw the artwork, “it wasn’t alive before. Now it is.”

Feathers of Hope divider page

Fittingly, the divider pages hold the four sacred medicines, photographed with the same treatment as the feather. The layout pages hold photos from the forum — of youth opening up, laughing, and speaking up together. A photograph of a sage bundle burning in an abalone shell on the back cover concludes the book.

On March 30, 2014, a copy of Feathers of Hope was placed as an offering in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Bentwood Box, which is an archival tribute to the survivors of residential schools. Many major unions, NGOs, and legislators have signed on in support as well. This is just the beginning of the project — much more is in the works.

Feathers of Hope at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Photo by Irwin Elman.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the Feathers of Hope team for their patience and generosity.

Read/download the Feathers of Hope PDF
See more photos of the action plan

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unaCo-Designing Feathers of Hope

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