Strangers Gifting Each Other Presence

By: Wendy Roldan, Burren Peil, Calvin Liang, Andrew Berry, Jennifer Turns

Identities are complex. Identities are interlinked. Some identities grant us more opportunities and power than others. Some identities are fixed while others transform over time. Our identities shape the way we show up to spaces, the things we notice, and the ways in which we influence the world around us. For the past 10 weeks, a group of 20 strangers came together to reflect on our identities and to explore ways that design can support reflection on identities.

The group was made up of undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students interested in design. Folks shared their lived experiences as immigrants, as mixed race, and as international students living in the United States. Some people became new dog parents, some were on path to deciding their major, some had just started graduate school, and others were working full time. Everyone had different upbringings and unique relationships with nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. We came together with a commitment to engage in dialogue across differences.

In no particular order, below are seven things that happened during our time together. This list is not exhaustive but is just a way to share out the kinds of things that were possible when we listened to each other, when we took space to collectively reflect on who we are, and what our relationship is to others.

We shared what we wished others knew about our identities.

Responses included a desire for more people to know how to use the singular they pronoun without making a big deal out of it. A wish for people to know what it’s like to be an international student in the United States in 2020. A yearning for becoming a better ally and supporter for others without screwing it up. An aspiration for the U.S.’s education system to recognize America’s relation to Indigenous people.

A screenshot of three books: Longthroat Memoirs, Fierce Fairytales, The Joy Luck Club. A screenshot of Genderbread Person 4.0
Some examples of resources and books shared

We shared who we used to be, who we are now, and who we wanted to become.

Folks shared how their childhood trauma affected the way they see themselves today. Many expressed how the demands of their undergraduate education made it challenging for them to reflect on who they are today. Others named their belief in the stars, in their religion, and in their familial ties to influence who they will become. Throughout this sharing, folks named the identities that were ascribed to them and their invisible identities they wished to share with others.

We reflected on our target and agent identities using a table from Leticia Nieto and colleagues. We later discussed how we could redesign the table to better represent our relationship with identity. We also placed ourselves on Nieto’s development cycle and reflected on what it was like to map our agent identities to different skills of allyship, survival, empowerment, and re-centering.

We spent a couple of weeks engaging deeply with curated excerpts from Leticia Neito’s book: Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone (2010). Each of us filled out a table on how identity categories such as socioeconomic status and nationality mapped to lower or higher access to power. We named how the table made it challenging to represent the intersection of our identities. We named how our identities are contextual, situated, and our relationship to power is non-linear. We considered what we need to move across stages of development and how each of us could become better allies by leveraging our agent identities. Many also became much more aware of our agent identities that often go unnoticed because of the privileges they afford us. We discussed how target identities might be obvious because of the violence related to them.

We told stories of our target identities and shared resources for others with that identity.

Many connected food and culture as they told stories about what cookies, meals, and tea meant to them. Some questioned what defines nationality and shared resources on immigration. We curated many books about racism, sexism, technology, and the model minority myth. Others shared TED Talks and Netflix episodes that others could use to educate themselves.

We had a challenging conversation with someone outside of our seminar and reflected on how it went, why it went that way, and what we would do differently next time.

We invited students to have a challenging conversation with someone who holds different viewpoints than them. Students spent time planning and preparing for these conversations, and we left it up to students whether to follow through with the conversation. Looking back at this activity, we are thinking about the potential pain these conversations could have had on each person. Some chose to talk about political choices around COVID-19, others talked with their family members about how their race/ethnicity influenced their schooling, and some discussed women in historically masculine-dominated spaces. We named that lack of understanding, emotional reactions from lived experience, and fear of saying the wrong thing make these conversations difficult.

We created collages, sketches, and artifacts of our journey reflecting on the identities we hold and interviewed each other in trios about our creations.

From these conversations, we named our emotional journey to reflect on hard truths. We laid out what led to the creation of a counter space, what makes a healthy space, and how we can continue to have these conversations outside of this seminar. Folks created representations of how pieces of their identity make up a whole, what it means to feel empowered and whole when holding space together, and the process of articulating identities with others. One person shared the realization that “we’re all fighting relatively similar battles in trying to be known and seen by others.”

A screenshot of nine people’s journey in the DRG. Images of lines, colors, and words
A screenshot of nine people’s journey in the DRG. Images of lines, colors, and words
Some examples of each person’s artifact on their journey in the seminar

We created zine pages of activities for others who wish to reflect on their identities.

Toward the end of our 10 weeks, we wondered how we could share our learnings with others and what we wanted to create for the public. Look out soon for a collective ‘zine we are putting together. For now, I’ll share that our ‘zines included words of truth we came to know about identity and words of encouragement of how identity is embodied. It includes games and activities for folks to internally reflect on their identities, to reflect with others, and to reflect over time. Behind each reflective activity was a story of each person’s journey to construct their own identity.

Four screenshots of identity activities created in the DRG
Four screenshots of identity activities created in the DRG
Four examples of zine pages created by folks in the seminar

How It Happened

So how did this experience happen? How did a group of strangers give each other the gift of presence during a pandemic over Zoom? We’re still making sense of the underlying commitments within the space we created that led to these fruitful conversations. Throughout the process, we closely documented the scaffolds we put in place and the rationale for why we did each activity. If you are interested in holding a space like this, please contact any one of us and we’d be happy to share more details about the activities we designed.

A top level detail is that we met weekly for 10 weeks through a 2-credit design seminar offered in our department. We met for 90-mins every Tuesday, even on Election Day. Wendy, Calvin, Andrew, and Burren designed activities that would support our collective goals while always foregrounding everyone’s emotional wellbeing. We made sure to share with the group that we did not consider ourselves experts, and that we were all learning together. Before starting every day’s activity, we also had an opener question to learn about others, what our favorite snacks were, what vegetable we would be, our favorite sounds and smells, and the last thing that made us laugh. At the end, we questioned why this experience of listening and learning from each other does not happen very often in “normal” educational experiences.

A screenshot of snacks shared including bread, mayo, chips, and cookies
A screenshot of snacks shared including bread, mayo, chips, and cookies
Snacks shared virtually!

What’s Next

Our amazing colleague Burren took rigorous ethnographic notes throughout the seminar while Andrew, Calvin and Wendy facilitated the sessions. Throughout, we have informed the students that their contributions to the discussions and their artifacts generated can be used for research if they consent. One of our next steps is to closely and rigorously analyze all of the data collected for those who consented and share our insights with others. This blog post is a sneak peek of what is to come!

One thing we know is that our last session was a joyful celebration but also a sad realization that our time together was coming to an end. We are planning to hold monthly sessions to continue conversations.


I’ll close by sharing that when we started this seminar some people asked “What does reflection on identities have to do with design?” “How are you going to make the connection clear between the conversations you’re having and design?” Back then, I had an inkling but not an answer. Today I can say that our conversations have everything to do with design. These folks are the future practitioners who will build our technologies, serve as educators, and design the products we use everyday. We must know ourselves to know others. We must practice listening. We must know who we are to recognize what we bring when we design. We must develop and exercise the tools necessary to know how to reflect on our identities. In this group, we did that in community.

Participants: Burren, Calvin, Wendy, Tiffany, Jeanne, Carolyn, Jennifer, Hoon Yu, Sara, Brian, Thomas, Yuliana, IB, Chloe, Huiran, Kristine, Julia, Monish, Kenji, & anonymous

Wendy is a PhD Candidate in Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington.