Carrie Griffin Basas is the Director of the Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds, a small state agency that brings families, students, and schools together for creative and collaborative problem-solving that tackles opportunity gaps. Before this position, she was a civil rights lawyer and law professor, focusing on disability, labor, and health justice. She taught across the country—from Penn State to the University of North Carolina, the University of Tulsa to Case Western Reserve. Carrie also has a MEd in Education Policy, Organizations and Leadership from the University of Washington. She earned a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School and an Honors B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology/ Anthropology from Swarthmore College.
Q: TRUST in design is…
A: impossible without design reflecting our specific needs and honoring our whole experiences. As a disabled woman, I need to see that the design in front of me respects my way of being in the world—that it shows me that there are multiple ways of moving and creating and all are welcome.
Q: Where have you found TRUST in design?
A: In collaboration with others who feel that traditional design has left them out. Trust, for me, means having people that are playful and critical about how design could be improved. They aren’t afraid to sit together and talk about the limitations of a design that is supposed to support people most marginalized in systems. Basically, I find trust when I can be in an open conversation with others about what I need and what they need.
Q: Where do you see a need for TRUST by design?
A: I work in government so I see the need for trust all around me. Those of us in public service want to be trustworthy or viewed that way, but it takes some work. It’s not always clear how to build that trust, but it begins with relationships.
When we think of government, we also need to think of the present and past—how we have excluded or included people and entire communities. Even the way that we structure our 7-hour policy meetings in state government can preclude families and students from participating. Where we hold them also matters. How we invite people—or not—to the spaces where we make decisions about them is critical. Our goal should be moving to a process where, borrowing from a call in the disability rights movement, there is “nothing about us without us.”
Q: Who or what inspires you?
A: I am always inspired by others committed to their vision of justice in the world. I admire people who take their personal experiences and don’t get stuck in their bubble but rather channel negative experiences and disenfranchisement toward a greater good. That requires getting outside yourself a bit to notice how different forms of oppression and injustice can be interconnected. It means being more vulnerable to find others for community and collaboration. But doing serious, hard work doesn’t mean that you can’t bring humor and kindness to it. My favorite people manage to be passionate and empathetic, real and hopeful. They make me laugh when designing better experiences—a better system—feels impossible some days.
Q: Tell us about a project that you completed that you are most proud of.
A: Ten years ago, youth led legislative efforts to make October Disability History Month in Washington State. All K-12 public schools are now required to teach about disability, but few know about it and even fewer have resources to do it; the legislature didn’t provide funding. Last year, a few colleagues and I were chatting with friends at Disability Rights Washington’s Rooted in Rights’ storytellers project. We were all interested in creating a resource for schools that would be driven by student voice. We wanted to film students with disabilities at school and in their communities. We didn’t want to have set interview questions. We wanted them to lead us through their lives and then we’d take what we had and build out the next pieces.
We all realized where we were expert and where we were not. We have assembled this great team of students, teachers, filmmakers, and Ombuds to create a learning resource called One Out of Five: Disability History and Pride Project that brings together student voice videos and a disability-positive learning resource for middle schoolers.
A lot of my work in conflict resolution is reactionary. One out of five people in the US have disabilities, and with this project, we are attempting to shift attitudes before they become the source of disconnect.
Q: What design object or story most strongly influenced your interest in design?
A: I didn’t know about design as a field until I took a college class about the design of everyday things. I remember Professor Kaori Kitao pulled up a chair to the front of the room and sat on it in various positions. Her goal was to have us question our approach to the objects in our daily lives.
Later that semester, I went for a fellowship interview and stayed with an architect and alumnus that had revitalized Pittsburgh. He lived in this amazing midcentury house with furniture from the period. I am not sure that I ever looked at a chair in the same way again. Now, I have fiberglass rockers and live-edge benches in my house as an adult and realize that my obsession with beautiful places to sit started then.
Q: What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your work? What do you want to contribute?
A: I joke sometimes that I was born with a disability and therefore into this work of advocacy around disability rights and accessibility. I want to dismantle stigma around disability. Doing that requires increasing visibility in public spaces. We know from research about stigma that interaction combats bias. If you see me in the grocery store with my nine-year old fighting over whether or not sugary cereal goes in the cart, you can empathize with me as a parent—and be confronted by the commonality of our experiences even if I look different from you. If you see me at work as your colleague, you begin to question why you don’t see other disabled professionals around you.
Almost thirty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we still don’t see disabled people in our communities and workplaces. We certainly don’t see them in many design processes. While I appreciate the universal design movement and guidelines around accessibility, I don’t think they always meet the specific needs of stakeholders—and we need to embrace deeper thinking about how we can make communities inclusive in attitudes, too.