You will have to excuse my recent absence from this platform. As you can imagine, the pandemic has put the breaks on my international travels. After unexpectedly having my time at sea extended by a month in the Spring thanks to closed international boarders and the scarcity of trans-oceanic flights, I found myself at home for the first summer of not working since I was 14 years old. The summer I was fifteen, my first ‘real’ job involved scooping ice cream, mastering the soft serve ‘twist’ cone, and serving chili dogs and canned sodas to locals at a seasonal ice cream stand.
The summer of 2020 was surreal for me in many ways — as I am sure it was for you. Spending time separated and outdoors as much as possible, while watching the consequences of the pandemic and racial unrest unfold across the country in near real-time on my screens. I felt myself absorbing the mental and physical heat as the politics and climate of this country boiled.
Staring into the murky distance of this unraveling situation, I decided to be preemptive and “work the wait” as many have phrased it. I decided to act and embarked on what is known as in academia as a “terminal degree,” although I hope mine will be anything but that. I am now working towards an Ed.S. in Instructional Technology with a concentration in Instructional Design through the University of Maine.
So far, in one course I have been studying the fundamental frameworks and theories of learning and teaching in a digital era. In the other, I am exploring the world of Design Theory and Design Thinking. While the fundamentals course is structured to systematically fill in the gaps in my understanding of how technology intersects pedagogy and content knowledge (TPACK Model anyone?), the design course is another animal.
I connected instantly with the design process, especially the human-centered and empathy based approach to creating and problem-solving that we are investigating. The artist in me thrives in the relationships we outline through emotive video, graphic design, drawing, writing, color and sound. The pragmatic in me is discovering, at a fundamental level, the reliance of business success upon authentic values, empathetic human relationships and cleverly designed infrastructure and systems.
The design course has also focused on equity in design. Whether it be reading about the redesign of public restrooms for gender neutrality and family functionality, or the movement to take up on-going cultural struggles for representation in design, and especially in the design of fair systems at a societal level.
It is with an eye to this topic that I was inspired to write this post and to share with you my academic ‘travels’ of late, as well as some writing that I did recently for this design theory course. I was asked by my professor to reflect upon one of three NPR podcasts that take a humanistic approach to journalism. NPR is known for putting people and story at the core of its reporting. Hope you enjoy my reflections on an empathy fueled pod below.
Lately, I have heard ads for the new ‘Louder than a Riot’ podcast narrated by Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madde on NPR music shows. I found it serendipitous with this assignment to have an excuse to dive into the first part of the story of why hip-hop and mass incarceration are so ensnared in the U.S. This episode is, “The Conspiracy Against Hip-Hop.” It is also available as a transcript online if you prefer to read.
The narrators deliver empathy insights throughout the podcast. They tell their own stories in parallel with the history of the criminal justice system’s impact on African-Americans, Reagan’s war on drugs, and the power dynamics of the music industry.
This is done artfully and alongside the telling of other African-American stories at different periods in time. In fact, this empathetic ‘history-telling’ precedent is established even in the podcast’s opening with the telling of George Floyd’s connection to rap music (he was a rapper) and how his untimely death at the hands of the white police officer Derek Chauvin lit the fire of U.S. racial tensions this past summer.
At its core, the podcast is a historical narrative, and it is one that builds compassion and understanding through first-hand stories as it unfolds. I gained an appreciation of how amicable local police forces transformed into tactical militarized units thanks to funding and an ideological shift generated from the war on drugs. Not only did I hear how the events unfolded in the big picture, but I also gained understanding of how this impact was felt in terms of real consequences bearing down on individual young black Americans at the time. It was also fascinating to learn how the war on drugs started before the crack cocaine epidemic, and how that crisis then legitimized in many ways the derogatory messaging of the campaign well after its launch.
The connection is also painted between the rise of gangster rap and how the lyrics were responding to societal and regulatory changes, as well as the increasing numbers of incarcerated young black Americans – mostly men. Empathetic insights are gained through the voice of rapper Killer Mike who was imprisoned. Once again, his first-hand and personal narrative sheds light on societal struggles. Killer Mike learned the ins and outs of drug crime from his mother who was making her way as a hustler, “legal and illegal” in the words of Carmichael. Killer Mike speaks in raw terms of Regan’s war on drugs and the impact of feeling, “literally physically hunted,” by police drug units.
In this entirely empathetic and first-hand manner, the leading episode of ‘Louder than a Riot’ lays the groundwork – through the broad strokes of shared perspective – for a more in depth continuation of this story. In fact, it puts down the foundation for a shared and vicarious telling of American History with a capital ‘H.’
Dale Edwin Murray for NPR