GATHER Advisor Dr. Ceasar McDowell Speaks on Ethics, Design and Democracy

Ceasar McDowell, a professor of civic design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a longtime senior adviser to the GATHER curriculum, gave an inspiring lecture in Chicago recently attended by several Chicago Peace Fellows as well as Goldin Institute board and staff.

Ceasar gave the 2019 Ikeda Lecture entitled “Dialogue in Demographic Complexity: Overcoming Our Discriminatory Consciousness” before a packed room of several hundred people at Depaul University’s Student Center on Tuesday, October 1.


As a teacher of urban planning and community development at MIT, Ceasar coordinates cross-department initiatives that leverage technology for community engagement, and he began his talk by talking about ethical principles for design, among them Design for the Margins, which he explained was a way to think about creating solutions that work for those who are in the most difficult situations.

[quote]“If you design for people at the margins, you automatically get the people in the middle. People at the margins are living with the failures of society.” -- Ceasar McDowell[/quote]

To illustrate this principle, he brought up the example of curb cuts, which were originally carved into American sidewalks after the Second World War to help veterans in wheelchairs get in and out of transportation. After being installed, however, curb cuts unexpectedly also helped strollers, bicycles, shopping carts and other persons with disabilities. Nevertheless, Ceasar added that properly following this principle also meant continuing to question solutions so that new solutions are constantly innovated.


Ceasar articulated other principles such as Design for Collaboration, Design for Equity, Design for Systemic Change, and Design of Ecological Solutions, for which he cited the example of the president of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who responded to a protest by the Rainforest Action Council by spending several weeks with the organization, and then taking back their ideas to the company, where he made changes to their procedures to reduce waste and refocus on human relationships, looking at families as resources.

Design for Analog as well as Digital, Design for Healing and Design for Empathy were other principles, though the latter, Ceasar cautioned, had a dark side. Empathy required reflection, or else it “enables aggression to those causing distress to the person we feel empathy for.”


[quote]“We have to support the things we want to change while we maintain the vision of the thing we want to be.”[/quote]

Truly practicing these principles, Ceasar said, requires living in transition. In that vein, he talked about a campaign he implemented at MIT in which they initially asked individuals “What do you want to know about the future of democracy?” But after getting many confused responses, they realized many people were ambivalent about democracy, so they modified the question to ask “What do you want to know about the future of America?”


After the talk, Ceasar took questions from the audience. In response to one young man who identified as African American and gay, Ceasar counseled him to be ready for extraordinary responsibilities.

[quote]“To act as a conscience of society – a moral compass – you have to act from that position even though it feels so unfair to carry that burden.”[/quote]

GATHER Alumnus Previews Chicago to Mthatha Robotics Collaboration

The Goldin Institute was thrilled to welcome GATHER alumnus Dieudonne Allo from South Africa to our hometown in Chicago September 29-October 1, a visit that fortuitously coincided with a visit from Ceasar McDowell, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been a senior advisor to the GATHER program since it was first conceived.

Dieudonne was in town as part of a whirlwind tour of the United States that took him to New York City and Philadelphia to meet with entrepreneurial incubators as part of his fellowship with Red Bull’s Amaphiko Academy.


In Chicago, he spent time with Peace Fellow Jacqueline Moore to talk about their international collaboration bringing together young people from their respective programs in robotics, STEM education, and entreprenuership. Goldin Institute staff put together a reception for both Jackie and Dieudonne as well as for Ceasar with a select guest list that included Peace Fellow Gloria Smith, John Zeigler, director of DePaul University’s Egan Office of Urban Education and Community Partnerships, DePaul Professor Lisa Dush, who is conducting a professional evaluation of GATHER, and Goldin Institute Founder and Board Chair Diane Goldin.

Dieudonne spoke about the history of his organization, the Global Leading Light Initiative (GLLI), which he founded in 2014 on the “concept that every person has a light.”


Based in Mthatha, a town in the Eastern Cape province, the GLLI hosts a variety of workshops and training courses, including Iziko, a community and school-based parenting program aimed at building healthy child-adult relationships. Dieudonne explained, however, that they were in a poor town in one of South Africa’s poorest provinces, such that economic reality undergirded many of the issues they are trying to address.

[quote]“As much as we want kids to have this light, the parents are under pressure of poverty. Through GATHER, we learned that their problems are not technical, they are adaptive. When you solve something, something else comes up.” -- Dieudonne Allo [/quote]

Dieudonne continued, "It was necessary, therefore, to intervene early as well as consistently, to provide opportunity as well as skills."

To that end, the GLLI recently launched a tech academy for young people this summer with special funding from the South African government. They received 333 applications, and were able to select only 6 young people, who are currently in the midst of their curriculum. The students are being trained in digital skills and entrepreneurship as well as learning to act as mentors.


When Dieudonne mentioned the tech academy to Goldin Institute Executive Director Travis Rejman, Travis thought to connect him with Peace Fellow Jackie Moore, who has a quarter-century of experience working for the finance industry supporting systems software and currently has dedicated herself to training young people in robotics.

Jackie and Dieudonne met on-line, discovered areas of common interest, and decided to work together to facilitate conversations between their respective groups of young people. They are jointly applying for funds to bring Jackie to South Africa to provide training to the students in the tech academy face-to-face, which Dieudonne thinks will be inspirational, particularly to the young women in the program.

[quote]“I’m very excited. Being a woman of color doing robotics – it’s not common.” -- Dieudonne Allo.[/quote]

Jackie said her collaboration with Dieudonne was based on a shared commitment to making sure young adults, in particular, have programs that provide them with a bridge from childhood to adulthood. She was excited to create a robotics team that was physically located around the globe.

[quote]“The Big Picture vision is for young people from Chicago and young people from Mthatha to recognize their similarities. If one person in one city can do it, a similar person in another city can do it. We’re not taking American values to South Africa or South African values to America, but to see that teens are teens.” -- Jacquelyn Moore[/quote]

Jackie continued, “No city is superior to any other city.”

Travis said the collaboration between Jackie and Diedonne realized one of the goals he set for the Goldin Institute’s fellowships:

[quote]“It’s great to have a global GATHER Fellow working with a Chicago Peace Fellow, a fulfillment of all our hopes that as the alumni network grows, there would be ways to meet, work and grow together. It’s a dream come true for Diane and me.” -- Travis Rejman[/quote]

That sentiment was echoed by Ceasar McDowell, who teaches urban planning and community development at MIT and coordinates cross-department initiatives that leverage technology for community engagement. Ceasar advised Travis at various stages of GATHER’s development, and understood that its success was the result of tenacity and continuing adaptation.

[quote]“It’s not often you see a set of digital tools of embedded with the principles of community.” Ceasar McDowell.[/quote]