What Is Community Design And How Can It Build Brave Spaces With Heart

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Sloan Leo is a Community Building Strategist & Systems Designer. They are the Director of Social Impact at The Vaid Group, as well as proud poodle parent to Riley Leo. We had a conversation about community design, and how asking simple questions can bring heart back into our work to bring justice.

Nell Derick Debevoise: Tell me about community design.

Sloan Leo: Community design is a funny little term and it’s so right, it got me really excited about design. Let me share some background on why.

Six years ago, I was working in a big nonprofit. It was exciting to be part of a highly-functioning, 300+ million dollar organization. But I realized I still didn’t feel very good. I couldn’t figure out why – I asked myself, is it racism? Is it homophobia and transphobia? Am I bad at my job? Like, what is going on?

Eventually, I realized it was actually about the way decisions were made. And more than that, who was even deciding what is to be decided. And who’s setting the context of what it means to resolve said decision. So that whole process of who sets the course, identifies pain points, and works to resolve them, is what brought me to design

First, I found human centered design. I found IDEO. And then I realized that my political practice wouldn’t fit in traditional design. So I came to community design, which is formed by tossing justice and values back into design. It emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s. There was a group in Harlem doing this kind of work, saying we want to build resources for our community in the form of a physical center. And those folks said, “We don’t need the traditional design world to do this design.”

It was about a community of people, be it your neighborhood, your building, your family, your tribe, saying, “We can design for ourselves, we just need you to articulate design concepts in a way that we can use them. So it’s design thinking, but it’s collective design thinking. It’s rooted in social justice and a commitment to equity and liberation as quintessential to what any good design needs to accomplish. As someone who has realized my identity as a designer, but thinks design can be very pretentious and elitist, this community-based approach is appealing.

Derick Debevoise: OK, so where does design happen? Is this about architecture and graphic design?

Leo: Yes, and. Whether you’re thinking about graphics, architecture, or building the stand my phone is in right now, that’s all in the landscape of products and service design. Design is the thinking behind that. So when you’re designing a cup, your team would be like, “OK, it needs to weigh this much because we got to mail it out. We got to sell a hundred of them to make this viable.” There are some constraints on costs, materials, but you’re still a group of people designing a cup for a person over there. And you’re the expert coming in.

Or in the case of a conversation about neighborhood planning, a designer traditionally would say, “Cool, this neighborhood has to have all these streets and they need to have this much space for the firetruck to pass.” And they would follow the regulations, conventions, ‘best practices,’ but they would never sit and say, who am I? Where’s my power in this situation? How do I make sure that those who have the least power in this ecosystem are part of the design process. Actually, not just part of it, but that they are at the very center of the process.

So traditional design puts the designer as expert, whereas community design situates the designer as facilitator, and sees that facilitation as an act of service, not an act of leadership.

Derick Debevoise: Spectacular. OK, but what if I’m not designing cups or cities. What about if I’m a full-time mom right now? And I’m thinking about summer without camp, is that a design challenge?

Leo: Absolutely! Anything that causes frustration can be a (re)design opportunity. I’ll use an example of my solo quarantine. I live in a two-bedroom apartment, with what I call the left room and the right room. And this room I’m in now, the “left room,” was supposed to be a bedroom. The right room was supposed to be a living room, but it’s very small. And the left one was very big. I was going to be in here all the time. Cause Corona happened. So the design choice was, “Oh man, my bedroom is too big. And my living room is too small.” So I switched them.

Now if we had a little person here, if I were a single parent with a kid, before I even thought about the uses of our two rooms as a problem, I would sit down with this kid and start with the question, “How is the space working for you?”

Traditional design thinks about these challenges as, “How might we…?” and frame the question privately as a consulting team. Then they come and pose the question. Community design makes the problem-finding a collective act also. So for a single mom with a kid home for the summer, it starts with sitting down with your kid and asking, “How do you think about the next few months? What would make them meaningful?” She is asking the kid for insights about what problems they see, and then together they will pick what to do next.

Derick Debevoise: Very cool. So that process then can be extrapolated to me as a manager, a teammate on my business school project. It’s just about starting with everybody helping to define the very problem rather than dictating what the problem is to be solved.

Leo: Right. If we look at a traditional design sprint, you have five modules. You can Google “five day sprint” and find that linear process, step one, step two, step three. That assumes we’ve already figured out the problem, and we’re gonna talk to you about how to figure out the solution.

In community design, the problem-finding happens in a more collective way, as well as setting the context of what success means. Community design requires meaningful success metrics. Not vanity metrics, like the number of people who saw your Instagram post, but meaningful metrics like how many people’s behavior changed, and how many folks are thinking about their Spheres of Impact™ because they read your Forbes article.

It’s really different to have a process in which you agree on why you are trying to solve something. What is the thing that’s going to be solved going to look like afterwards? And how are you going to share progress along the way and hold each other accountable? A lot of community design is pulled from Sociocracy For All, a wonderful organization and book about collective governance. They point out that equity doesn’t mean everyone makes the decision, but it does mean that everyone’s input equitably informs the whole process.

Derick-Debevoise: Let’s dig into those Spheres of Impact in your life. How does community design inform how you think about the impact you have, throughout your work and life?

Leo: One of my first questions of how to have impact is, “How do I show my community love?” That’s where it starts for me. So for example, one of my best friends, Eli is a cook. He comes over every Saturday to make me brunch and everyone on Instagram knows this is what I post. But last week I was like, man, I really want to eat. I am so glad Eli is in my community. I love him. I could just tell him I love him. Or I could sit with him and ask, “What makes you feel loved?” So I did that, and what he said was, “It’s really great when the kitchen is already clean because I want to cook for you. And sit and eat with you.” Now I’m able to design a response at the individual level that’s informed by the person I’m actually trying to show my love for.

My neighborhood version of that process is that my neighbor is awesome. And so we wanted to spend time together. But there’s Corona. We shared our concerns and comfort levels and now, she opens her window and I sit on my balcony, and we can have cocktails through the window. It was this co-creation process of identifying both the opportunity and the solutions.

At work, I am the Director of Social Innovation at The Vaid Group. We had a marketing and strategy meeting last week. I didn’t say, “Here are the five things we must decide today.” I said, “The goal of the next 90 minutes is to identify what we are excited about, and what feels like a problem.” Collectively, we built a list of pain points, and then together, we identified the three that we could solve to have the most meaningful impact on us as a collective. And now, solving those top three problems has set the course for our marketing and communication strategy.

Derick-Debevoise: Love it. Starting with those simple, human questions feels basic, and yet a bit daunting. Particularly in a work context.

Leo: Well, that feels like a much larger question about how far we’ve gone from heart. We’re clearly trying to remedy the disconnect between capital and heart, with benefit corporations and impact investing. But those are still structures within a financialized corporate system. What we need is to figure out emotional alignment in our work, which is one of the reasons I have loved our relationship over the years. I feel like your work really comes from a personal place. The Spheres of Impact, or your Antiracism Practice Tracker didn’t come from, “I just had a great business idea!” Your business ideas are things you struggle with from a heart place because you want to serve your people.

I think it’s just about all of us re-amplifying that connection to heart, and then building brave, not safe, but brave spaces that engage our hearts. Removing heart and soul from our work is an effect of capitalism, and specifically an effect of white, racialized capitalism. Hetero, patriarchal values make it hard for the heart, as something less quantifiable, to be seen as meaningful or valuable. So we have put a lot less energy into engaging our hearts in our work lives. One of the beautiful things of the pandemic is how much more time there is for heartfelt conversations. I’m really grateful they are happening.

Derick Debevoise: Amen, me too! What is your invitation to everyone out there, in terms of using community design to build more of those brave spaces that can engage our hearts to build a more just future?

Leo: The recommendation is simply to ask. If you want to have a conversation, the first thing you say to your friend or a new person is, “Hi, how are you?” We should start every conversation that way. Even a work meeting: for The Vaid Group, the first bullet is always, “Hello, how are you?” And then we discuss how we’re each actually doing until it makes sense to move forward. So I would say, ask, and then take the time it takes to listen and actually have a heartful conversation.

There’s a poem that I reread again and again from Pat Parker to Audrey Lorde called “Legacy,” which includes these lines:

“I give you

a legacy

of doers

of people who take risks

to chisel the crack wider.”

I really think that a little bit of opening has been happening. I’m grateful that we get to create some space together in the world. More to come.

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