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Jason Ulaszek on Healing Social Rifts

“I am because you are, you are because I am.”

Jason Ulaszek is an experience designer, activist, entrepreneur, and educator. He is the founder of Inzovu, a design collective, and UX for Good, a nonprofit that aims to provide elegant solutions to messy problems. In this conversation, we discuss Jason’s work on just such a problem: helping Rwandans heal after their 1994 genocide.

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Jorge: Jason, welcome to the show.

Jason: Thank you very much.

About Jason

Jorge: I’m very excited to have you here. For folks who don’t know you, can you please tell us about yourself?

Jason: Sure! My name is Jason Ulaszek and I’m an experience designer. I say that broadly, but I enjoy, creative problem solving. The hairier and more complex the challenge, the further that it stretches your anxiety and vulnerability and desire to learn from others that you work with or the subject matter of who you’re working with, to tackle a challenge, all the better. So, I don’t know what role that really makes me outside of experience designer that pulls on a variety of different disciplines. That’s me. I have an independent design collective called Inzovu, for the last several years, and I have a nonprofit called UX for Good and I teach and speak. I teach as an adjunct faculty at DePaul University in their master’s design program and I look for all sorts of other ways to get into trouble sometimes!

The Rwandan genocide

Jorge: You talked about the sorts of problems that you tackle as being “hairy and complex,” and the reason why I wanted to speak with you on the show is because I saw you speak at a conference a few years ago, and you presented a project that stuck with me for a situation that I think fits the description of hairy and complex. It had to do with the Rwandan genocide. And I was hoping that you would tell us about that project.

Jason: Sure. Yeah, that’s, you know, near and dear to hairy and complex problems and I’ll say it’s both impacted me personally and professionally in ways that I still think about today and still process and reflect upon on a regular basis. I have a nonprofit organization called UX for Good that we started years ago, at the center of what it was really about at that particular point in time for this story. We had really looked at social challenges in the world and nonprofits, NGOs looking at ways to address their response to their challenges in a different way. And, at the center of UX for Good was standing up design challenges with these types of nonprofit organizations and getting some of the best and brightest creative thinkers together to go through a design and innovation effort, if you will.

So, we stumbled upon and had a rare opportunity come to light with meeting somebody, from an organization called Aegis Trust, who happened to also be a genocide survivor, share his testimony and a bit about their organization, Aegis Trust, several years ago, and developed a relationship with them. And one thing led to another and we wound up taking a team of international designers to work with Aegis Trust that had created and manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda to look at the visitor experience associated with that Memorial and Museum of which it is both… because connecting it to the story of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, there are more than a quarter million people who are laid to rest in mass graves along the hillside there, which is the Memorial part. And there is a museum that tells the story: the history of Rwanda, but in particular, the story of the ’94 genocide. And we were very fortunate to partner with Aegis Trust and their challenge really around not wanting to create more memorials or museums necessarily, but to really harness this… what we both kind of felt was this excess capacity to help people to become perhaps better human beings.

Jorge: Some folks listening might not be familiar with the Rwandan Genocide. What happened?

Jason: Yeah, the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi took place between… the start of it was really kind of April 7th, 1994, and it ended in July that year. So, over the course of a few months’ time, and of which took the lives of nearly a million individuals. And it was a mass atrocity, very similar to other mass atrocities we’ve probably heard stories about and was pretty raw. My exposure and experience to it, having not been to Rwanda or even Africa before, and hearing the story and listening to survivors, listening to others tell their testimony, hearing the story of the history and what transpired, was pretty profound. Nearly a million people lost their lives and, in many cases, extremely brutally. And in a country that [had] I think, maybe 14 million [people]? Something like that. You know, to have a million people no longer part of that country, that’d be almost like wiping out a good generation here in the United States, right?

Jorge: Wow, that’s really distressing to hear of something of that scale. The victims of the genocide, you said were the Tutsi. Who were the perpetrators?

Jason: Yeah, over the history of Rwanda, classes developed in Rwanda. And, over that course of time, I’ll just say that a lot of those things were kind of weaponized against their own community in some form or another. And so, that was the Hutus, and there was, a power struggle between those two predominate classes. And, over the course of time, a number of different, significant events continuing to ignite action by many Hutu. And I mean, there’s so many stories about the ’94 genocide against the Tutsi, but I mean, that’s kind of at the highest level, I’d say.

Jorge: It sounds to me like these were not — correct me if I’m wrong — that these were not racial distinctions, religious distinctions. It sounds like they had to do with… is it socio-economic class that you’re talking about?

Jason: Yeah. Power struggle, perspective — a variety of kind of just elements that existed within that. But the Tutsi and kind of moderate Hutu were in power and so there were a number of different acts that took place… pretty violent acts that took place, cascading into a significant mass atrocity and a supporting campaign to enable it. And these were significant acts. You know, we tend to think about maybe in this day and age, guns, right? And that was certainly part of it, but these were militant gangs going from town to town, village to village, home to home with things like machetes and rifles. This was extremely savage and brutal.

Healing the rift

Jorge: Wow. That is really distressing to hear of this… the depths to which divisions can lead to disaster. How does a society move on from something like that? Like you said, the genocide lasted for a few months, and Rwanda still exists as a country. I’m assuming that the descendants of these people, and maybe some of these people as well, are still around. How does a society recover from something like that?

Jason: Strong leadership, a strong sense of cultural values. Putting others first. There’s an African proverb that I think… from an outsider’s perspective, “I am because you are, you are because I am.” You may have, heard that? It’s pretty popular, but that’s a really great way to describe, I think, the sense of it? You know, strong leadership, strong community organizers and people really who were influential in obviously stopping the genocide, but also leading the way and rebuilding. In 2014 when we worked with the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Aegis Trust, our mission was not about helping them to resolve conflict of genocide, but look at the visitor experience, around the Memorial and Museum, which is… when I say that, it is very broad and has led to a number of different things since that time, including work with helping them think about it how to distribute and scale their Peace and Values Education Program.

And so, that Memorial and Museum is used as kind of a centerpiece to be able to drive an understanding of the story, to pull and push the connection with dignitaries and state leaders across all over the places around the world. There are a number of different types of people that come and visit, and the story is empowering and impactful in a variety of different ways. The director of tourism for Rwanda at that time said individuals come -tourists- to Rwanda for the two G’s, somewhat jokingly, genocide and gorillas. To learn about that. And that’s a big push, those two things, from a completely outsider’s point.

But what has to happen inside of visiting places like the Kigali Genocide Memorial is an understanding and connection to the stories so that people are so moved to not allow, to always condemn and stand up… condemn the wrong behavior and stand up for what’s right after having learned that so that there are hopefully less challenges out into the world. What’s really important is: it’s an opportunity to help influence social change perspective. That’s a big lofty, hairy goal, and doesn’t happen just because you visited the Museum and the Memorial and took a tour. It’s by how the information is distributed and how you connect with it and the stories that are told and who, and how, and what you interact with. And for some people that is something that transforms you there on the spot. Something that could transform you months and infect your, perspective or point of view months later. Depending upon who you are and how you have a tendency to… I’ll say, ‘reflect on that,’ it can infect you in different ways and in different timelines.

So, our work was to look at like how we might have a greater chance to influence the perspective of others, through the visitor experience. Our work, you know, research work there — all your typical forms of kind of design research — looking at the experience, not just digitally, but overall, the visitor experience, was pretty broad and also included going offsite, and looking at what kind of things that they were doing to support their mission, like these Peace and Values education workshops that they were doing in local villages for youth. We probably know elementary and middle school aged individuals that were having profound impact on the success of the country for the next generation as well. It was looking at all these different things that were occurring or not occurring and thinking about that. The design of that experience; what happens before, during and after, to help influence change.

And we landed on a model, something called “The Inzovu Curve.” The Inzovu Curve is, if you’re a service designer, you’re thinking about an experience map or a service blueprint of sorts. Let’s abstract it far enough if it’s the basis of it. But it looks at the distinction between all those interactions over the course of a journey… this distinction between empathy and compassion. And picks up, from some of the research at that time, we were learning about, from a neuroscientist named Tania Singer and her studies about empathy and compassion, and that too much empathy can actually lead to — potentially — a couple of different outcomes: 1) a burnout or 2) a shutdown.

That was actually a really interesting moment for us as we were doing this work and doing our synthesis from all the research and study of the experience, because it was like a light bulb effect went on. I was like, “Whoa, wait a second!” Because we were able to use that to describe what the visitor experience was like. And in many cases, instances of where in amongst that experience, were likely so heavy handed in terms of developing empathy, that people were burning out and shutting down. Because people would exit the experience, have no means to process it, have no means to unpack it, not know what to do with it, sit on the bench in the hot sun, and just literally melt. Right? Literally, and physically melt, or just not know how to process. And so that’s because there weren’t enough moments to pause and collect yourself and reflect, or somebody there to help guide you through that process, or even show you ways that you yourself can act.

Helping them to re-think and recalibrate that experience and what other things might be helpful to include in the experience because of some of these gaps, was where the work was at that point in time for us. They made, since that time, significant, different types of changes, both physically, architecturally, structurally… even now, in the last couple of years with some of the work that we’ve done, have launched some new programs and new ways of reaching people that I think is actually pretty interesting to the conversations we’ve been having about how to structure information environments and provide greater accessibility to some of this kind of insight and understanding.

Jorge: This idea of giving people space to pause and collect themselves… and space might also be time, right? Am I understanding correctly that the Memorial and Museum project came 20 years after the genocide?

Jason: Our project came 20 years after. The museum itself was created in 2004.

Jorge: So, about a decade after.

Jason: So, about 10 years after the genocide against the Tutsi. And that’s when Aegis got involved. Two really wonderful human beings were so moved with their involvement there in Rwanda, actually from the UK. Two brothers, the Smith brothers, who do a lot of different things inside the space of helping to prevent crimes against humanity and telling their stories, started Aegis Trust and partnered with the Rwandan government to develop the museum and the memorial as well. And they have turned that into — over those years — a place that tries to balance both history, reflection, unity, reconciliation, celebration of arts and humanity. Because there’s a number of different kinds of spaces there on the grounds. It’s a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted thing.

When I say, “experience,” that’s hard for a non-profit organization that’s dependent upon international funds and aid and those sorts of things to do. To continue to evolve, in that nature. Many of us as designers are used to working with heavily funded corporate organizations. There was some startup that’s got some venture capital and you’re focused on cranking out iterations of digital products and services with as much velocity as you can, right? That’s… this is slow change. And it’s not just a digital thing. It’s like, “okay, this connects to this and this person who tells this story.”

I’ll give an example. One of the things that we found was challenging was there really wasn’t a great starting place at that point in time. When we first visited, you would get out of your car, you would go down into a plaza, and was like, where do I start? You start in museum building… there was a little lobby there, but that really wasn’t as great of an opportunity to orient you about what you’re about to see. Over time we’ve worked with them now to develop some design principles about the Memorial and the Museum itself, the overall experience. And that’s led to them building a new… I’ll call it a visitor center. And I mean that from the broadest sense. It’s just the place to start. It’s a place where you’re welcomed, where they now have before you go through the Museum and the grounds and Memorial — as a visitor, not as a family member or necessarily a Rwandan, who’s just coming to pay respects, maybe more so if you’re coming from like a school group, a school tour, or just the general visitor — that you’re oriented by sitting and watching and being welcomed to the experience by some genocide survivors.

That’s important because first and foremost, the Kigali Genocide Memorial is home for more than a quarter million people who lost their lives and all their loved ones that come and pay respect. If you didn’t have something like that to set the tone, it can come off much more as a… like, “we go to the museum!” Let’s go to the cultural arts center or the whatever. Which is a different vibe. Over time, it’s got to continually shift and change to set those expectations that you were an invited guest into this world and start to prepare you, much like when you organize information. There’s a big reveal to get into the depths of information. In order to do that, you’ve got to start by setting kind of the framework a bit.

So, that was a big change that they made. And also including some other parts of the experience to showcase and talk about the work that had been done and continues to be done out in the field around the Peace and Values education, which has now become a really big piece because through our work, what we believe is that Rwanda has really tapped into kind of the secret code, if you will, around unity and reconciliation. They are experts in it, from my point of view.

Learning from the Rwandan experience

Jorge: I know you’re not from Rwanda, but I’m very curious, given that the United States, where we’re both living, is living through a period of great polarization, where half the population has a set of values and perspectives, and the other half of the population has a different set of values and perspectives. And I’m wondering if, as someone who knows both cultures and who has been exposed to these principles of peace and reconciliation, if there’s anything that we can take from that experience that would help start healing the rifts between us, maybe?

Jason: Yeah. We talk about a word… I think it’s so overplayed and over pronounced so much time, the word ’empathy.’ That’s an important part of what you can take away from this story. What was part of the Rwandans cultural value system well before the genocide against the Tutsi and is now swung fully back — and they’re working hard to ensure that that’s the case — is a really strong sense of cultural values. What they’ve really tapped into — and I think this is where it gets into design a bit — is that they’ve tapped into ways to embody these cultural values inside of the experiences people have within education. And there are lots of different ways that they have work to focus on unity and reconciliation inside of the country, amongst its people.

I’m speaking on just one element, right? There’s lots! But in this particular one, the Peace and Values education that Aegis Trust has been working on with the community and with the government, is now part of the national education system. It wasn’t before, because there was still not finalization of agreement around the history and the facts that occurred and did not occur. As you can imagine, recounting and putting down on paper and getting agreement on what happened over the course of a mass atrocity event is not a small feat and took years and years to get to that point. So much so that they weren’t even teaching that inside of the school system.

These Peace and Values education programs were like mobile workshops that would go out in different villages and teachers would take their kids to these seminars, these workshops, or they would take them to the Genocide Memorial for these workshops for the day where they would learn about these cultural values. And now since that time, since the success and the positive impact that these things have had, now they’re teaching them inside of the classroom. It’s a cross-disciplinary way of embodying things like critical thinking in science class, empathy in science class. Rather than having a class on empathy, it’s woven through the education that you receive as a youth.

I think that’s a huge piece to this. Think about the disparity around education in the United States for just a small moment. I can’t even begin to describe that, but it is… you can find wide variances, not necessarily by the subject matter, like third grade math, but by how things are infused throughout that, right? Throughout the country, I would bet. And so, that’s a challenge. There isn’t a… I’d say in the United States, as strong of a connected effort around some of these things. Around empathy and critical thinking and personal responsibility, as much as maybe there should be in our education system.

But they’re focusing heavily on that for the next generation. And they’re putting tools in the hands of teachers and school leaders and community leaders and religious leaders and moms and dads. In fact, some of the work that we’ve done in the last couple of years was to help craft a bit of a brand around that and a bit of a story and a digital platform to support that. Because it was like locked up in CD rom drives, and flash drives. And just up until several years ago, not everybody in the country had access to electricity or running water. I mean, it’s still an ongoing thing. And think about access to broadband, to the internet, to dial up? I mean, how do you get- these materials? So, they’re making a lot of investments in the country and in local communities and those sorts of things, but distributing the Peace and Values education was one of them.

We helped them craft this brand called “Ubumuntu.” And it’s translated in Kinyarwanda to mean “greatness of heart.” And that is a symbol that embodies these Peace and Values, and they’re using it to help further a connection. It’s a storytelling device, in many different ways, not just for delivering Peace and Values education in this digital platform, but also connecting people when they visit the Memorial Museum near and far, both in person and virtually.

Making values tangible

Jorge: It sounds to me like the Memorial and Museum serves this role of making the shared values tangible, like giving people a thing to point to — much like the Statue of Liberty is an icon of something. But, to your point, it sounds like coming up with an icon to help align our values is only something that can happen when enough time has passed, where the wounds are not still raw, right?

Jason: Yeah. I mean, I think so. I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to sit and talk with genocide survivors. To be in reconciliation villages, where you have survivor and perpetrators sitting next to each other and listen and watch and interview them and talk with them. And I think the biggest thing that I take away is this is not… it’s not done, over. It’s not like, “Hey, it’s, you know… X number of years passed, and we came up with a symbol that, you know, and we’re doing all these things. Like it’s an ongoing, like thing, like… you know, there are people who are coming out of prison and rejoining community and being integrated back into society and they have to you know, go through a process that’s mandated by the government based upon their crime, and work on reconciliation. And it’s a pretty serious deal, as it should be. Those are other elements, as I mentioned, like the Peace and Values education is a thing. But the unity and reconciliation stuff is yet another thing.

And so, I’ve had an opportunity to sit in on some of those conversations and I will say, it’s not… I think people think about these things and they think, “oh, that generation you know forgives the other person.” And I think the biggest thing to me is it’s… while there may be cases of that — people forgiving — so many times people have said, you know, “use that word loosely.” And what they really mean is that I’m forgiving you for the next generation and I’m putting others ahead of myself and knowing that the only way to improve our chances of unity as a country, as a people, is to focus on the next generation. And that I’ll… I may never forgive you. I don’t forgive you. You’re doing your time and we’re constantly working on it. Forgiveness is an act. It’s not a finality, right? You know, that people put others before themselves. They have used the word and they — I don’t want to stereotype — I have heard in the interviews that I’ve sat in on has been more about personal sacrifice for survivors, in many cases, and the desire to ensure that that never happens again to the next generation.

There are so many people who are involved working at so many different levels inside that country, inside that people, to help ensure that it doesn’t happen ever again. It’s unbelievable how progressive the country is in terms of its thinking and being. Are things perfect in it? No. Are things perfect in the United States? No. But to see that from an outsider’s perspective and be connected to people that are actively working in the throes of it all is really remarkable. I mean, the amount of female leadership in the Rwandan ministry and cabinet, is I think it’s 60% or more or something. I mean, that’s wow! Right? As it should be, right? A well-balanced progressive society to get it out of where it was once.

Closing

Jorge: It sounds to me like it would benefit us to learn from the Rwandan experience, to find a way to develop our own greatness of heart. And it sounds like it requires perspective, which comes over time and alignment in values, which come over time. And it sounds like there are small steps that we as designers can take to help move things in that direction. I want to thank you for coming on the show and telling us about these things. I am sure that folks are going to want to learn more about you and your work. Where can they go?

Jason: Sure. The best way is probably to just connect with me on LinkedIn. You can visit me on LinkedIn. Sometimes on… I’m on and off again on social media, like Twitter and Facebook, but LinkedIn is generally the best place. Otherwise, you can visit in inzovu.co, or uxforgood.org. And I look forward to connecting with you there.

Jorge: And I will include links to all of those in the show notes. Thank you so much, Jason, for being with us today

Jason: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.