Mariel Alvarado’s Lessons on Design and Social Justice

Mariel Alvarado’s Lessons on Design and Social Justice

This article is a part of . MEr’s personal experiences and knowledge sharing. We find it crucial to share our community members’ voices and personal stories. So our readers can learn something new, get inspired, and create unforgettable digital experiences. This month, Mariel Alvarado, a graphic designer, shares her story on graphic design and social justice.

Graphic design in the worlds of social justice and health care has been my home since 2007. I didn’t officially enter the position until 2015 when an NYC-based social justice non-profit hired me. My experiences working in community health education abroad and in the U.S. informed my decision to work as a graphic designer. I’ve committed myself to support social justice non-profits by amplifying their mission through graphic and social design.

I get excited talking about the work they do. And I make it my mission to support them in effectively communicating their work visually. I’m still growing in my career and as a result, I surround myself with seasoned graphic designers. From which I regularly learn how to improve as a visual storyteller. However, with time and experience, I have come to learn a few things that have only made me a stronger designer – and I’ve listed them here to share with you.

  1. Despite believing yourself to be the expert, look to your audience and community for solutions. Work with them, not for them.
  2. If you are White and a designer – or in any role – working in the arena of social justice, social change, and with people that have been treated unjustly, unpack your white savior complex.
  3. Show people in their strength, not in their vulnerability.
  4. Listen to the community experts and let them be the Creative Director.
look to your audience and community for solutions
Images by Mariel Alvarado

Your Audience and Community Holds the Answers: Work With Them, Not For Them

In 2017, I attended a workshop in New York City about design thinking for social change. We were tasked with developing a solution that responded to a greater social problem. In my hometown Portland, Oregon, I was committed to supporting my Latino community. I decided to focus on supporting one of the flourishing aspects of the Portland Latino community – the food cart industry. 

After a series of conversations with a local non-profit that supported Latino entrepreneurs in the food industry, I proposed to develop a frequent-flyer-like food passport for a hub of Latino-owned food carts the non-profit supported. Extremely committed to the project, I devoted all of my free time to designing a pocket-sized booklet that featured the 16 Latino food cart owners. 

A friend and I interviewed each food cart owner, took professional photos, and built an incentive program into the booklet. I engaged in several workshops in the design thinking community in Portland to iterate and improve the booklet. The goal was to bring more attention to the group of business owners. Showing their skills, and their favorite dishes, and improving the sense of community in the neighborhood. What’s more, to promote authentic Latin American food against the backdrop of a culture of food and cultural appropriation found in any major city. 

look to your audience and community for solutions
Images by Mariel Alvarado

Encountering Challenges

One year into the project, the website and social media pages were up. I was nearly ready to print, distribute, and market, when many challenges arose. I grew to learn that turnover in the food cart industry was more common than uncommon. Several food cart owners left after 6 months or 1 year. I had to adjust the content in the food passport to reflect these changes. But I couldn’t continue to keep up with my changes. In theory, I would have to update and print the booklet every time a vendor left – impractical and expensive. Extremely discouraged and disappointed, I had to face the fact that I might have to ditch a project in which I had invested so much of my time and heart.

The Power of Community in Finding Answers

A couple of months later, I met with the food cart vendors to present my concern that it was impractical to print a booklet that in effect would have to be re-printed every time food carts rotated. To be clear, the problem was not the vendor’s turnover rate, but rather the problem lied in the project design. With a heavy heart, I shared my decision to not print and maintain the website in hopes it would attract attention to the group of food cart owners. 

Out of the blue, one of the vendors had a brilliant idea. Why don’t we use another method to drive people to the interviews and information that lived online a more compelling way? Specifically by the use of QR codes? The vendors agreed to post unique QR codes in each of their food carts. And to encourage their customers to explore the project website by scanning the codes with their phones. 

It’s so important to remember that despite your years of experience and depth of skills in design, you will never have all the answers. If you are working on a project to promote a social cause, naturally you will be working with the people that are regularly experiencing the situation you are working to improve. Keep in mind that you are not the expert. Seek opportunities to collaborate with the people or community involved. And give credit to those who have helped you along the way. You can learn about the food vendors that made this project possible at:

Show people in their strength, not in their vulnerability

The Unpacking of the White Savior Complex

I aspired to follow in the footsteps of my Venezuelan grandmother who graduated as the fifth female doctor in her county. Thus, I had a genuine desire in my heart to be of service to others in health care and to live in Latin America for a couple of years. I embarked upon that path for 7 years, in different roles such as a Peace Corps Volunteer, a medical assistant at a reproductive health clinic and a sexual assault supportive advocate. 

I wore several hats at the sexual assault supportive advocacy non-profit. My official role was the Volunteer Program Manager. I trained hundreds of volunteers to take calls over the phone, to respond in person (at hospitals and police stations), and to provide sexual assault survivors emotional support, information, and referral to case management. I dedicated endless hours of my week to responding to the calls as well, alongside my volunteers. 

One of the advocacy training modules focused on unpacking the definitions of oppression, power, prejudice, and privilege. We read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. We shared statistics on how women, communities of color, physically and mentally disabled individuals, transgender and non-binary queer folks, experience especially high levels of sexual assault.

Our volunteers in training also discussed how a Supportive Advocate role carries many privileges and power. For example, a Supportive Advocate has easy access to information and services, has somewhere safe to go home at the end of the night, and is not experiencing trauma at that moment. Assuming the role of a Supportive Advocate must be taken delicately. When someone experiences a sexual assault, they have been violated physically, emotionally, psychologically or in other ways, and stripped of their power.

unpack your white savior complex

The Bottom Line

If we assume any role that carries power and privilege in the arena of social justice – including the Supportive Advocate role example – we must be cognizant of our reasons for going into that position. If we identify as White, heterosexual, able-bodied, or carry any type of power or privilege, it is extremely important to unpack our white saviorism. White saviorism reinforces the flawed power structures we already have in places such as racism, sexism, ableism, and other types of oppression.

If you’re coming into a position to save somebody – you’ve already lost them. Because people experiencing trauma, people in poverty, and people that have been treated unjustly, don’t need saving. These people need to be reminded of their strength, their brilliance, and their resilience. 

Show people in their strength, not in their vulnerability

Show People In Their Strength, Not In Their Vulnerability

Above all, do no harm. This is the ethical principle I learned to abide by during the seven years I worked in social services and community health, prior to working as a graphic designer. The same sentiment applies to graphic design in the arena of social change and social justice. If you desire to work as a graphic designer to support a non-profit working in social justice, it is of utmost importance you keep those three words at the forefront of your creative mind at all times. 

In your creative role, you carry a lot of power with the choices you make. How you choose to depict a person or an issue will influence how your audience perceives that very issue, speaks about it to their friends and family, and potentially treat people that have a relationship with the culture or issue the person represents in a creative project. 

The Necessary Steps You Ought To Take

Say you are a graphic designer for a non-profit that supports microenterprises in rural communities in India. You are tasked with designing a publication about progress made in the current grant cycle. It is the graphic designer’s role to choose photos of the people benefiting from a social program that present them in the most respectful light possible. Present people in their authenticity but always with their dignity. In a more direct word, don’t exotify people from other cultures or settings.

Make sure that anyone in a photo has provided their consent to take their photo and to show their photo in any creative project. This is especially important to ensure when children appear in a photo. Ideally, there are already procedures and protocols in an organization that prevent this from falling in solely the hands of a graphic designer.

Let’s say you work for an international non-profit that supports refugees with shelter, food and water. How would you approach a design task that involved imagery of a group of people experiencing displacement? Ask yourself, what is the purpose, and what is the consequence of using an image of someone in distress? Is this to bring awareness about an injustice against people (or a natural disaster) or are self-benefiting reasons? Are the people in the photos presented with dignity? Or are they depicted as people in need and disempowered? How will the imagery influence others’ perspectives? These are important questions to ponder. 

‘Do No Harm’ Principle

When seeking an answer, let the three words ‘do no harm’ inform your decision. It is our role as communication professionals to present reality through design. But to do so without perpetuating stereotypes, simplifying a situation or perpetuating power gaps. 

The truth is a graphic designer has so many tools in their toolkit that there is always a way to find the most ethical solution. If you feel like you are hitting walls – reconceptualize the creative direction. Can you rely on typography as your vehicle to communicate the message? Can you present an abstract concept with an illustration? How can you leverage your skills to communicate the message in a different way? Step up to the challenge.

Listen to the community experts and let them be the Creative Director
Images by Mariel Alvarado

Listen To The Community Experts And Let Them Be The Creative Director

As I hinted to earlier, from 2007 to 2009, I traded my life in Portland, OR for two years serving as a Peace Corps Community Health Volunteer in a lush, green, rural town in northern Nicaragua. Entering the position, I was confident my Venezuelan-American upbringing, previous international travel, and earnest interest in understanding social determinants of health would be enough. Enough to connect with my community off the bat and to successfully do my work as a Community Health Educator. 

Living in my Peace Corps village, others didn’t know me as the international daughter of a Venezuelan that I saw myself as. Rather I was White, from the United States, blonde, blue eyes, and someone who spoke their language with a different accent. The Peace Corps trained us to prioritize relationships over work, and so I focused on building friendships with my Nicaraguan neighbors. I took on the learner role when around them. I accompanied other Nicaraguan Health Workers on their outreach activities and assisted them in their job duties when appropriate.  

With the passing of time, I built solid friendships and working relationships with many in town. Their confidence in me allowed me to take on more responsibilities. I taught sexual and reproductive health classes to multiple classrooms, developed youth groups, trained pregnant women in supportive nutritional practices, and led regular classes and workshops on HIV/AIDS prevention. I wasn’t a designer in the formal sense, but very much a designer in the sense I was communicating information about health so they could make decisions about their health. 

Listen to the community experts and let them be the Creative Director
Images by Mariel Alvarado

Using Graphic Design and Illustration As A Means Of Communication

In the last six months of my service, I transitioned into using graphic design and illustration. These served as a collaborative tool to communicate health information to my community. I began by designing manuals of training modules utilizing popular education. This helped me to approach topics related to the sexual and reproductive health curriculum. I also worked with a group of seniors from the local high school. These young people designed a poster about HIV/AIDS prevention, later presented at the local health fair. Another group of students from the local high school created a poster of their own illustrations about HIV/AIDS prevention. Later these were printed and gifted to the school. 

The high school students and I discovered that art was a safe medium. Through design, everyone could talk about their health to other youth and to the rest of the community. It suddenly became easier to talk about stigmatized topics such as HIV/AIDS and reproductive health with others when design and art were the vehicles. People could passively take in the information and engage with us to the extent they felt comfortable. I would have never discovered the weight art and design carry in health communication if it weren’t for my friendships with people in my Peace Corps community. Only they were able to see the greater picture and thus construct the greater vision for our projects, just as Creative Directors do.

Before You Go

The intersection of design and social justice Is meaningful. It is an opportunity for designers to learn more about the world around them. And also to learn about their own story. If you feel called to work in graphic design in the arena of social justice, follow your passion. But enter the field aware of the power and privilege you carry as a designer. Seek to learn about the people and issues your work touches, and when possible, invite them into the process; it’s more work than the job description includes, but it will make your experience and skills that much richer. 


Mariel Alvarado

Mariel Alvarado is a graphic designer, a former Community Health professional, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer, a Qualified Health Care Interpreter in Oregon, and a Venezuelan-American hybrid. She deeply values her bicultural upbringing and attributes much of her zest for life and worldview to her experience being bicultural and her work abroad. She loves Latin America, the people, their humility, their resilience, and their spirit for savoring life. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and works as a graphic designer for Partners In Health on their COVID-19 response unit. You can find her at:

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