Speaking truth to power: How to build equity through writing and design standards


Featured speakers


Kristina Halvorson: I asked our next speaker, Mai-Ling Garcia, who’s a first-time Confab speaker and we’re so excited to have her here, I asked her what recent risk have you taken that’s turned out great? Her response was, “Well, I’m actually pretty risk-prone.” She said that she moves around a lot, that she takes planes a lot even though she hates planes, and of course, speaking on stage is always a risk that we take and I know that you all support her.

She serves as a digital engagement officer for the City of Oakland, where she works to transform government processes and improve the digital experience of the Oakland government. So please welcome to the stage, Mai-Ling Garcia.

Mai-Ling Garcia: Thank you. Well, good morning everybody. Thanks for having me. As Kristina said, I’m Mai-Ling Garcia. That’s Mai-Ling Garcia and you probably already know but I’m here to talk about style guides and inclusions as a tool for what you can use to build and foster inclusion in your organizations.

But first, I’d like you to understand why this is an important topic for me and should be a very important topic for you. I don’t normally talk about my personal history a lot in my day-to-day work, but I do think it’s very important grounding context for why I came to this work today.

I grew up as you can see, in Simi Valley, California, which is a little suburb about 45 minutes northwest of Los Angeles. Flanked by the 118 freeway, if anybody’s familiar with it, and peppered with little strip malls. I grew up there in the 1980s and 1990s, and during this time there were a few events that really shaped my values and perspective in the world.

The first was the construction and establishment of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. You can imagine, this is just post-Reagan when I was growing up and a lot of the conversation and dialogue revolved around the war on crime, the war on drugs, and from other perspectives, the war on poverty.

Conversely, Simi Valley is also known for a second thing, which is the Rodney King trial. The officers in this video were acquitted in my hometown by a jury of primarily white jurors. It was these events among many others that ultimately shook my trust in government.

Of course, when you’re a first-generation, half-Pinay or Filipina like I am, growing up in a houseful of immigrants, this is a particularly enlightening, awakening, and frightening experience. Frankly, a pretty awkward time in history. It illuminated that I was really different from most of the people that I grew up with. I ate differently, my food smelled a little funny to people, and I grew up in a house with a rotating cast of extended family. They kind of came through all the time. So you can see, this was pretty 100% awkward.

There’s my mom and me. I call her my first, sort of, strategic designer of my life, my mom. I possessed many of the criteria and the things that made me lovable by my family and maybe my cousins, but also a little revolted by my community, a little apprehensive. So, of course when I went to college at UC Berkeley, anybody here? Go Bears? Woo! I learned to value free speech, not exactly at this time, which of course inspired me to go into advocacy work and become a professional government critic. Fighting the man in the establishment. Of course, the later irony is that in the turn of events, I began to work at the metaphoric ivory tower that I worked so hard against. The insanity of that decision is a tale for another day.

But, of course like many of you, I had a reignited sense of urgency. Inspired by our neighbors and fellow Americans. It was clear that regardless if you proudly claimed yourself a deplorable, or a nasty woman, that our conversations in this country were changing, or at least being amplified more publicly and more loudly in recent years.

So thus, it became critically important for me as somebody who’s shaped the way that we spoke, wrote, and designed for communities, to marry my love of words with my love of community. So, many of you know that my talk today is titled “Speaking Truth to Power.” It’s a phrase commonly used in activist circles, it’s rumored by Urban Dictionary—did lots of research on where the origins of this—to be invented by Quakers. But its meaning actually is pretty simple and I really liked this one: the belief that love can overcome hatred.

This definition I found particularly interesting. More Googling revealed an alternative definition and I’ll read that to you. “A powerful non-violent challenge to injustice and unbridled totalitarian forces often perpetuated by government and sometimes not.” I’m here to talk about the “sometimes not” part since I actually work for government now.

How many of you believe that government should challenge injustice? Okay, great, we’ve got a good show of hands. Now, the second question is a little bit different. How many people believe that government can challenge injustice? Lots of hands, but slightly less, very interesting.

When I came to Confab two years ago, this is my second Confab. I was in awe. I was thrilled, I was so excited. I had and continue to work at the City of Oakland as their lead digital strategist. A combination of product management and content strategy and user experience. Like many of you, I left the conference saying “Wow, I had to have a content strategy. Wow, the city of Oakland should have a style guide.”

So, while I was here, I started asking people what was in their style guide and how to make it? What were the elements? People gave me wonderful suggestions. They talked about commonly misspelled phrases, they resuscitated or spoke about their passion and love for the Oxford comma. No shortage of that here. I watched Megan Casey talk. I read Kristina’s book on developing a content strategy. I Googled some templates and at the end of a long day, I revised my own version of the AP style guide. I was really proud.

Unfortunately, the guide was completely worthless, as you might imagine. I think we might still use it as a grammatical cheat sheet, but it really didn’t serve a really big, impactful purpose.

My devotion to grammatical righteousness or aspirations towards agile sprints didn’t seem to solve any of my organizational problems. So, I’m here to tell you about what I learned about developing a guide and most importantly, an inclusive one. The first thing that I learned is that if you’re going to do a style guide, to institutionalize a strong grammatical stance, please just send a link to your preferred guide. Really, the key here is you need to understand what are some of your organizational challenges and I’m not actually talking about the Oxford comma. I’m actually talking about some of the more systemic things that have guided some of your organizations since their inception and here’s why.

For me in particular, the challenge is that government and local government is no exception, was designed by old, white guys like these. These aren’t actually the guys that worked on the City of Oakland, just to be really clear, but there was no shortage of images of nice guys in suits. They looked a lot and talked a lot like the guys from Mad Men, I’m sure, pretty design talk. While I couldn’t find a photo of the original crew, there was no shortage of photography to reference.

So the question is how many of you work for organizations that were founded by old, white men? All right, that’s a lot of you. Keep your hands up, keep your hands up for a moment, I have a follow-up question. Now, keep your hands up if they’re named John? I’m sure I have a John in there. Has anybody read the New York Times article? There’s a great New York Times article about how many CEOs are named John. So, apparently there’s a lot of them and there are more Johns than there are women, for those of you that haven’t read the article.

The problem is while they built a structure and this ivory tower that I actually work in now, some things have changed. Oakland in particular is led by badass women and people of color who are trying to change an organization that wasn’t designed for them. This includes our top executives, everybody from our mayor, our police chief, our city attorney, our city clerk, our other officials, a lot of them are women. A lot of them are men and women of color. A lot of them don’t look like the people who actually constructed the organization as it exists today.

Now we need to figure out what’s changed. What is the baseline? What is some of this historical context? I know I’ve been asking the audience a lot questions, but how many of you know the history of your organization and who founded it? Anybody? Oh, quite a lot of you. Okay. As 100+ year old organization, it’s really difficult to track some of that history. We’re both an organization and a community.

It was really important for Oakland to identify the difference between what had previously been established as a new organizational style and actually aspire to where we wanted to go and really understand the problems with both of those parts of our intimate history.

Oakland is known for being the home of the Black Panther Party, temporarily to Bruce Lee, to stars like Zendaya, the Golden State Warriors, they all claim Oakland as home. However, Oakland is also an example nationally of redlining a government classification system that defined resident safety largely based on race. In particular, private banks quickly adopted the government’s identification system. Commonly denying home loans to residents in neighborhoods they considered risky, and these are government definitions. Now, private banks obviously adopted them and if you were to drive around in Oakland today, what you’ll find is that much of the impact of these early 20th century policies are still visible in the lens of segregation, home ownership rates, and lack of community investment. This caused a tremendous and profound lack of trust in the community then, and the way that the community is shaped now.

Now if we move forward to today, some of the other challenges that we face are low literacy rates in Oakland. So, coupled with this historical and decades-worth lack of trust among our own community members, we also have some really big challenges around literacy. As you can see, we have 19% of English-speaking adults in Oakland lack basic literacy skills. 22% report speaking English less than very well. The fact that our average reading level across all of our public information sites—when I first got to the city of Oakland, about four years ago—required a post-graduate education to read. So, as you might imagine, this made it very difficult for our general population to actually understand what we were trying to communicate and that trust that we were trying to foster was all but blocked.

The city as it stands now, also speaks over 100 languages, is one of the most diverse places in America, and it’s one of the greatest places to test a lot of the inclusion practices that I’m talking about today. While Strunk and White have its redeeming qualities, and the AP style guide has a penchant for details, much like the other parts of your style guide your problem is not the Oxford comma.

Instead, standardizing your content and user experience can actually solve an organizational problem. In my case, and I’m guessing, all of yours, the problem is the very way that your organization and community came into existence. Thus, the varied parts of your style guide should include the very things that you aim to correct. This includes information on age, race, sexual orientation, and reading level among other really critical categories.

Okay, so now I said that and that was nice. But, how do we actually make it inclusive? It’s not actually that easy. Now that you’ve named the problem, we have to come up with a solution. How to solve it, other than naming it in some document that sits on a shelf. So, while it might be easy to continue and deconstruct what’s going wrong, I advise that you also look at what’s going well. While we have humble funding in the City of Oakland—very humble that’s a really nice way of putting it—and big dreams, the strength of Oakland as an organization is actually its remarkable talent.

We know we have an amazing dedicated staff and the thing that most people actually don’t know about bureaucrats is that they do an incredible amount of work for very little recognition and a lot of flack, pretty continuously. So, the first thing to really making sure that your talk, walk, is in order, is building an inclusive team and it might not exactly be the way that you envision and that you think.

We started transitioning about the way that we spoke about things and by identifying leads in each of our work units, we have 27 of them, as editors and contributors to defining our style. As I mentioned, they represented 27 work units, which is departments and large bureaus and all of these kind of machinations of bureaucracy. This included our disabilities team, our race and equity team, our language access team—believe you me, all of these things exist actually in cities—which are probably structured maybe slightly differently than your companies.

They represented about 3,700 employees and over time we included all of these people to really crowdsource what we wanted our style guide to be. This included over 100 revisions. This is something that we opened up to the entire organization to comment on. And, we’ve kept it open for comment, it still remains in a Google doc for that purpose. You can actually go online right now and make comments on it if you see anything that we need to improve.

While we still have a group of leads, we had lots of fun establishing the Oakland Design League. A team of local designers and strategists who head and lead our work. Rather than aiming for a cultural fit we looked for cultural expansion. Including in our ranks a variety of folks who live in Oakland, ranging from three to 30 years. Age ranging from their mid 20s to late 70s and we’re constantly looking for people to add to the perspective of our online team.

The second is infusing inclusive language and design into everyday life. Together we collectively define our values as I mentioned, and some of those things included—and I won’t get into a rote list of rules— we would talk about ability and accessibility instead of handicaps. We would capitalize the word Black or Brown. We would strip pronouns from our examples. The word citizen was reframed strictly as a legal requirement, not an alternative term for resident. As a sanctuary city it became critical to ensuring that we were offering the greatest capacity of services to our community and they felt like they were included and could access them.

We also made it count. If you’re identifying a problem and trying to solve it, figuring out if you’re successful is key. At Confab, we know there is no shortage of tables and metrics for success so we came up with one, too. We came up with a metric from five to one, that measures the success of each of our departments in implementing the things that make our digital assets particularly more searchable, more understandable, and more translatable to non-English speaking communities and more readable to those folks that are struggling with low literacy.

If it can’t be measured it can’t be improved as the adage goes, so you actually need to measure the efficacy of your style guide. And here’s some things that we did: “Great job, you’re at a five.” These things are actually, as we see it, in order of importance with the particular attention to the first two. We measure, we sample and spot check the content that’s being produced by about a 100 contributors across the city at the moment and we are trying to shift it from a fifth through eighth grade level.

We’ve reduced the reading level quite a bit so we don’t have quite as much of a post-collegiate push but the second, as you can see, instead of a five, you need to make sure that your language is inclusive and uses words and grammar appropriately. Which means that the expectation is that in order for you to publish online that your language actually needs to meet the terms of our style guide, particularly in the area of inclusivity and those are the things that we are offering training on to our entire staff.

Now of course, one is the loneliest number, would be the lowest sort of content value, would be at the postgraduate reading level. Language is exclusive, content one level is obtuse, difficult to understand, talks in postgraduate language mostly to white guys as I showed in slide 17. So, if you’re talking to that audience then your content is generally at a one.

Here’s some examples of content that we changed. This is a description of a program, “The 14 week program, held twice a year, provides citizens with an overview of city functions and a forum for city citizen dialogue. We welcome people of all races, ages, and handicaps.” Very minor tweaks, maybe still not the best content, but “The 14 week program provides Oaklanders with an overview of city services twice per year.” We encourage dialogue between the City of Oakland. We swapped the word citizen for Oaklander. In our style guide we provide our teams with examples of alternate terms that they can actually use. We also changed the words from race to people of color, something that’s more affirmative. Seniors and people with disabilities instead of referring to handicaps. In addition to word choice, a lot of our style guide also includes templated language, word choice options, other things that people can implement quickly and readily throughout the organization.

Finally, the last thing that we do to make this work for us is making it public and this is part of what I’m actually doing right here. Like many of you I went around and I begged people to comply with our style guide. I pleaded. I talked about the merits of consistent style and voice and in addition, was sharing it with my colleagues and doing all of those things. The very thing I’m doing right now is part of adoption, it’s making it public. Very public, kind of like this, kind of like a wedding but not. We didn’t have a wedding but we made it public by sharing it with our team then, sharing it with our organization, but most importantly, sharing it with all of you so that the public could hold us accountable.

Now, warning, you will have critics if you try this at home in your organizations or companies. They’re going to tell you that your style guide and your attempts, it isn’t perfect. They’re going to probably recoil with fear. Embrace the criticism because they’re probably right. I’ve heard from activists and academics and bureaucrats alike that simply amplifying government and the complexities of inclusion just can’t be done, but I disagree.

What each of us does in this room is not just words to paper or type to screen, it is deciding what matters. It is ensuring that voices are heard, making things consistent, keeping your values alive for the places and people that you love. It is making our communities better, a more loving place to be.

Thank you so much.

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