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2022 HCDE graduation address by Dimeji Onafuwa

Dr. Onafuwa on the stage with HCDE faculty behind him

Dimeji Onafuwa at the 2022 HCDE Graduation & Awards Ceremony
Photo courtesy of Junchao Yang

Dr. Dimeji Onafuwa delivered the 2022 Commencement Address for the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering. Find the full text of the address is below, and the recording on YouTube.

Make Space for Others

Dr. Dimeji Onafuwa

Thank you to Julie Kientz, the Chair of the Department of Human-Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) here at the University of Washington, the board, faculty, staff, and students for inviting me and for this wonderful welcome. It is an incredible honor to be speaking to you today. Your vision for a just future resonates with me and it is one to which we all must contribute.

And Congratulations to the class of 2022! Wow. You did it! I can feel the excitement. It is palpable, even from up here where I am standing. These are and have been difficult times, but you prevailed. And I celebrate you for that. Some of you are here as the first generation in your family to graduate with a college degree. Others withstood intense adversity to be sitting here today. This is a big, big deal and I am incredibly happy for you. 

Also, as the Yoruba proverb goes, Èkù ò mọ̀ pé ara ńta àdá: The cutlass handle may never understand the stresses of the blade. What this means is that our successes never happen in isolation. Instead, they are intertwined with the kind gestures of others. For this reason, we must be careful to acknowledge them. So, Class of 2022, I want us to stand and take a long moment to recognize you parents, families, friends, faculty, and all the people who contributed to making this moment possible for you. Let us stand and give them a round of applause. 

And to my family, including parents who happen to be here with us today and are sitting in the front row, I too am forever grateful for your love and support. And I know that for the life of you, you have no clue what it is I do for a living. But I want to assure you that you did a noble thing by letting me veer off the medical path and take the road less traveled to pursue my passion.

As that proverb hopefully gave it away, I am a Yoruba boy. From Nigeria. I like to think of myself as a Lagos boy. But the truth is that I was born in Sagamu, in nearby Ogun State. That said, all I remember about living in Nigeria was in Lagos. One of the earliest of such memories was as a young boy, only a few years old. My parents had just moved us from Ogun State to a small community in Lagos called Obanikoro. I recently learned that those times were tough for them. My dad had just started a job at Cocoa Industries (a cocoa exporter), and mom was hired by Baptist Academy, a local high school, to teach French. 

Like many of you in the room today, my parents were just starting a new adventure together. At that time, flats were expensive for the average working-class Lagosian family. So, my parents had to settle for a micro-apartment in a tenement building. Tenement buildings were fondly called “face me, I face you” because of the proximal mode of living that was prevalent in Lagos at the time. In most cases, the landlord would own a single storey building that housed multiple families. And while mom and dad were privileged to have access to several rooms in their “face me, I face you,” many other families had single-room apartments with the rooms separated by a narrow hallway that ended with a communal kitchen and shared bathrooms. That mode of living meant that all your business was out in the open. The children would play together in the same courtyard, as their parents constantly negotiated how they would share basic amenities. Hence the nickname “face me, I face you” was often corrupted into the less flattering “face me, I slap you.” Domestic disputes were not rare since these buildings were designed without privacy in mind. But somehow, neighbors often worked together to resolve their disputes.

You see, class of 2022, the times we find ourselves in are in many ways similar to the face-me, I face-you experience in Nigeria back then. The COVID19 pandemic, and social justice issues we are facing today (and God knows we continue to face more of them), and terrible gun violence perpetrated on our most vulnerable people, remind us that our collective lives are indeed intertwined. 

Negative externalities are disappearing
They also remind us to recognize our privilege as well as the responsibilities that come with it. Class of 2022, I know you have interdisciplinary backgrounds but I dare say that despite those varied backgrounds, all your degrees afford you a fair amount of privilege. 

For many years, we have all been warned about the negative impact of the technologies we create on the lives of others. We learn that while it presents us with great possibilities, technology also has the potential to cause great harm. This is why many of you decided to work in this space and on human centered problems. While I agree that the warning still holds true, I want to propose to you, as my dear friend Matt Wizinsky recently wrote in his book, that negative externalities as we call them are disappearing. In other words, the direct effects of the things we create are now felt closer to home. The things that we are designing are not only designing us, but they have the potential to design away the good in us.

Be political. An apolitical designer is dangerous
Class of 2022, I want you to remember that we are future makers. You are agents of change. And because you are indeed shaping futures, your work bears politics. And I don't mean politics as it relates to enabling political discourse, but more in terms of shifting differentials and influencing decisions. Without the latter, the agency you have can be controlled by every market whim. You can’t afford to sit on the fence - an apolitical designer or technologist is a dangerous one. So, we must instead work to change cultures from within. This means that sometimes, we will need to be comfortable with relinquishing our expertise to others. This also means that we will be humble enough to know that not all problems can or should be solved. When we deemphasize the orientation toward solutions, we make more space for learning. 

Your mandate
So, the question to you is, what will you do with what you have learned and how do you make sure that learning is part of your lifelong journey? I understand that part of my purpose here is to give you some advice, and maybe to assure some of you that things will be ok. And in keeping with that expectation, may I propose just two things that you must think about 

The first is to make space for others. Provide the spark for their lived experience to be fully recognized and supported and amplified. Many will be taking jobs in a wide variety of fields, from working in government, to nonprofits, tech startups, and even big technology firms. Others will start businesses, grassroots initiatives, and even movements. In those jobs, I charge you to bring those who are  historically excluded, or underrepresented, across that threshold into your privileged space. 

The second is to make space for yourself. Life is messy. And you will find yourself continuously fighting for those values that you hold dear. For this reason, I want to ask that you find time for rest, relaxation and self-care. Please don’t wait until you achieve your definition of success before you decide that you deserve rest. The work you will be committing to requires staying power, which means that you must ensure that you prioritize your mental, spiritual and physical health as you embark on this journey. Trust me, the future you will be grateful. 

Our time in Obanikoro was short. We only lived there until not long after my younger sister was born - and she's only a couple of years younger than me. But if you ask my parents, they will probably tell you that those were fond years. 

In a similar way, Class of 2022, I hope that you remember your time at University of Washington with a lot of fondness and sense of nostalgia. 

And as you go out into that big bad world, no matter how tough things get, I want to encourage you to not forget why you decided to get this important degree. Your role in the world can't be more crucial today. Through your dreams and imaginations, you are ancestors of future generations. Our world needs you now more than ever. Your minds, your vision, your tenacity, and your sense of purpose. And when, (not if, but when) things do get tough (because I assure you that they will), you can’t afford to relent or to lose hope. 

As my parents realized in that little face-me-I face you in Obanikoro, that their futures were bound with those of their neighbors, you must realize that we are all sharing the small tenement building called life; some of us having more privilege than others. So, you must strive to ensure that our collective livelihoods are enhanced and celebrated in your work. This means that you must not rest on your oars. Instead, you must persistently push open doors for others, or as Donna Haraway puts it, you must stay with the trouble.The good kind of trouble that the late John Lewis talks about. And whatever that trouble is that you choose to address, you must commit to it.

Class of 2022. You did it! Once again, my hearty congratulations to you.
Now go take this world by storm. 

Good luck and be well.

View the recorded presentation on YouTube:

Originally published June 10, 2022