Think Inside the Box

With a safe space for self-reflection

When Sameer Singh cofounded the Edmonton Shift Lab, its purpose was to use new design thinking to tackle old social problems. And there are few social problems older than racism.

Design thinking seeks to understand humans as the imperfect creatures we are, and create solutions to our problems. A classic example is how to design the Perfect Wallet. Slots for money and cards seem obvious, but design thinking says: Now make it for someone with no hands. Imposing constraints actually expands your thinking, and brings you to the margins. And, Singh says, “It’s people on the margins who tend to be the experts, who are at the centre of these struggles as well as the solutions that are purportedly designed for them.”

The Shift Lab was created through a partnership between Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) and Skills Society Action Lab in 2016. Its formation was response to the work being done by EndPovertyEdmonton to reduce racism in the city.

ECF played an instrumental role in the development of Shift Lab, including creating the vision of Shift Lab with Skills Society, being the primary source of financing, supporting the broader development of Edmonton’s social innovation landscape, and being “embedded” in the Shift Lab by way of Ashley Dryburgh, ECF’s Focus Grants Associate at the time.

Jump to 2017, after “Shift Lab 1.0” had spent a couple of years design thinking and talking with marginalized people about ways to fight racism. By October 2019, it produced a prototype partially prompted by a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, stating that the great stumbling block toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klan, “but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” foreshadowing the concept currently known as “white fragility.”

“We call them the ‘sleepy middle,’” Singh says. “The folks in the centre, the ones who don’t necessarily understand systemic racism, or who call themselves colour-blind. They are the ones we need to engage with and shift.”

If they were sleepy, George Floyd’s death was a wake-up call. Much like the #MeToo movement forced men to look at their own behaviour through a new lens, so too did Floyd’s death. Black Lives Matter rallies forced white people to reflect on their own actions and ideas. The timing for Shift Lab’s prototype, sadly, could not have been better. The prototype? A box — a subscription series of boxes, actually. The contents of which are carefully curated learning experiences that contain products, tools and activities designed to inspire critical thought and reflection for recipients.

The concept for the subscription service originated as an Edmonton Shift Lab prototype and now the original Shift Lab team is taking it to the next level by overseeing the creation and distribution of the boxes. The demand has been incredible.

“We intended to have about 30 boxes go out to folks,” Singh says, “but the demand was insane. Within 48 hours, we had 1,000 people signing up, which Edmonton Community Foundation helped fund. And by now, we’ve sent out about 2,300 across the country and even in the U.S.”

So, approaching a year since the first boxes went out, are they making an impact? Singh says he’s still figuring that out, but the point isn’t to “fix” racism in the sense of changing actual racists’ minds — a full-throated racist would never sign up to receive a box to begin with. It’s to get people in that “sleepy middle” to recognize when they’ve been complicit, or slipped up, or, more commonly, not said something when they should have.

“The box is not meant to make you feel guilty for being white; it’s meant for you to sit alone with your thoughts and have that inner conversation you may not have had before,” Singh says. “If this gets 1,000 people to talk to another 1,000 people about what they’ve learned, that’s success.”