A message from HCDE Professor & Chair Julie Kientz

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Dear HCDE Community and Friends:

As we close on finals week of Spring quarter and the 2019-2020 school year, I wanted to take this time to write a message to the HCDE community. Although I have sent messages of support and action to the students, faculty, and staff throughout the past month, I want to take the time now to address the broader HCDE community, including our alumni, friends, and the general public specifically regarding HCDE's values and our commitment to our community. I do this because we believe it is important to be held accountable to all the stakeholders who have imparted their trust and time to HCDE over the years.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to address our graduating class as we celebrated HCDE’s Class of 2020 through our virtual graduation ceremony. To the graduating class, I shared the following sentiment: “To our students of color, we see you, we recognize just how difficult the past weeks have been, and we recognize also that your successes occur against a backdrop of systemic racism.” Our commencement speaker, HCDE alumnus Phil Spencer and VP of Gaming at Microsoft, also told our graduates that, “racism is not a people of color problem, it’s a human problem. It is not a U.S. problem, but a global problem.

I want to broaden this statement to our whole community, including our current students, alumni, professionals in the field, and friends of the department. This year, HCDE launched a strategic plan with five goals; one of those goals is a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a central part of our department culture, this goal demands active engagement. We can and should do better to not just promote diversity, but also to help dismantle the structures in place that serve as barriers for our current and future Black, Indigenous, and community members of color.

The HCDE department has spent the last week making accommodations in support of a student petition and request by UW’s Black Student Union. We strongly believe that no student should have to choose between fighting for justice and doing well academically. Thus, we encouraged our faculty and instructors to reconsider end of year assignments by either making them optional or canceling them altogether, reached out to instructors to make action plans to ensure that no students would fail their classes, and offered consulting with all instructors on how to provide accommodations while still achieving course learning objectives. 

But we want to do more than temporary accommodations, and so today, the HCDE department participated in the #ShutDownAcademia / #ShutDownSTEM strikes in support of racial justice. We were scheduled to hold our last faculty meeting of the year this morning, and instead of our normal meeting agenda items, over 20 faculty and staff came together for 2.5 hours to discuss systemic racism, brainstorm actions, and commit to making changes to advance racial justice.

We generated a list of both short-term and long-term actions we are taking, which include the following: 

  1. Expressing that Black Lives Matter. I am writing and sending this letter to the community and publicly committing to address systemic racism within academia so you can hold us accountable.
  2. Engaging in department-wide self-education on issues of systemic racism and anti-racism. We are committing funds to create a library of resources and to host allyship training for our faculty, staff, instructors, and students. We also committed to attend and hold a discussion of an upcoming talk on Critical Race Theory & HCI and schedule discussion sessions for how faculty can ensure the content of our classes better represents voices of the Black community. This is in addition to the Diversity Committee’s work earlier this quarter to apply for funds from UW Resiliency Lab to form a partnership with the Sustained Dialogue Institute. Through this partnership, we aim to bring a series of workshops aimed at promoting dialogue around inequity and oppression, with the goal of expanding this to become a course in the Department. 
  3. Establishing more channels to listen to and learn from our students, faculty, and staff of color. Earlier this year, HCDE’s Diversity Committee proposed a plan for an external organization to conduct focus groups with our students to identify areas where the department needs to address its support of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We had postponed this due to COVID-19, but we are committing to finding a way to do these focus groups remotely. The Diversity Committee is also supporting our Graduate Student Association and Student Association to launch affinity groups in HCDE to form ways to connect as a community. We are also having the Diversity Committee explore additional channels to report issues of bias and racism to department leadership.
  4. Examining and revising our practices around hiring. This year, we conducted training for our faculty from the UW Office of Faculty Advancement hiring and significantly revised our process to adopt their best practices in how we assess and recruit applicants for our faculty positions. We are committing to doing more by focusing efforts on scouting, preparation, outreach, and retention.
  5. Examining and revising our practices around admissions. While HCDE already engages in holistic review of our applicants to all our programs, we commit to understand the role that items such as standardized tests or letters of recommendation play in limiting access to our programs and make adjustments to our program admissions requirements in the coming year.
  6. Adjusting our department fundraising priorities. We are focused on generating donations for scholarships, fellowships, and support for students who contribute to diversity, equity and inclusion (if you are interested in contributing, please contact Zoe Barthlowmew at zfinnb@uw.edu).
  7. Empower and resource HCDE’s Diversity Committee, which consists of students, faculty, and staff, to make additional decisions and actions beyond this list.

In support of #6, my husband Shwetak Patel and I are taking the first step by announcing our commitment to establish an emergency student support endowed fund for students in HCDE. This fund will allow the department to award grants to students who face unexpected economic hardship, such as an unexpected medical bill, food insecurity, theft, or car repair. We know that students of color are more likely to be impacted by these situations, and these short term funds can be the deciding factor in whether a student can continue their education. Especially given the economic impacts COVID-19, we want to provide a safety net for our most vulnerable students. While I know not everyone is in a position to contribute in this way, we know that all of you are able to contribute in your own ways through your work, your scholarship, your connections, and your activism.

This has been an extraordinarily difficult quarter for many reasons. From the coronavirus pandemic to the pandemic of racism, everything feels heavier and more difficult, but the vision of HCDE is that a more just future is possible. Human-centered design applies to more than screens or technology. I saw a photo of a sign from a Black Lives Matter rally that said, “The system isn’t broken - it was built that way.” This served to me as a reminder that we have power as designers. We design and build systems and technologies, and we can do that for better or for worse. Students in our department learn the skills to understand and innovate new ways of thinking that support equity and account for our differences and build a better system. I am optimistic that we will use this moment as a catalyst to design a better world that is both more just and more sustainable, and HCDE will play a key part in that. Please hold us accountable to this vision.

Thank you,

Julie A. Kientz
Professor & Chair
Human Centered Design & Engineering