Community-Centered Design for Racial Equity in New Orleans

In February 2020, at a momentous time globally, we launched the long-planned Family-Centered Coaching for Racial Equity Project in partnership with W.K. Kellogg Foundation and eight organizations committed to advancing racial equity. We are guided by community members and stakeholders in each step of our process.

Read more about how we first launched our working group, mapped local stakeholders, and created the New Orleans Community Insight Report. Our next step was to facilitate a design process with a team of community members and stakeholders.

Facilitating a Community-Centered Design Process

Design sessions were held online over four meetings in April and May 2021. We took several steps to intentionally create the conditions for both an equitable experience and outcomes.

Who Was at the Table

We intentionally brought together a design team where people experiencing poverty sat at the same table with business leaders, policy advocates, government officials, and nonprofit providers. There were eight people in the design sessions: three working group members who worked with us through the research phase of this project, two community stakeholders who participated in qualitative interviews, and three community members who completed the racial equity survey and shared their ideas in a follow-up interview.

Since design was a continuation of our process and relationships with the working group, we were able to recruit a diverse group of committed designers with relative ease. Many design participants knew each other before design and therefore trusted each other enough to have emotional and complex conversations about racial inequity. The existing relationships also created a welcoming environment for new participants to enter into.

Note: We use the term community stakeholders to refer to individuals who had full time jobs as managers and directors in the private or public sector. We use the term community members to refer to people with living experience of poverty and who did not have jobs related to the social sector at this time.

How We Got Comfortable

We started by sharing a simple definition of a designer adapted from Creative Reaction Lab:

A designer is someone who has design-making power. In design, there aren’t any right or wrong answers. The participants didn’t feel like they needed expertise beyond their own experience, because in this creative process everyone’s an expert. Each idea, story, or suggestion that someone shared held equal weight in our group.

We developed trust among the design team by telling stories and creating opportunities to connect. We allowed ample time for discussion and reflection by utilizing professional, local facilitators from Trepwise, alongside our own design facilitators.

We checked in with a two part question: first, a one word emotional check-in, then asked, “What are you bringing into this session?” This process signaled that we cared about everyone as human beings before they contributed any work to the session. There were days where people were having a harder time emotionally and because we asked, we could incorporate it into our facilitation style and be thoughtful as we moved through the agenda. We also used low-stakes brainstorming games to allow everyone to give their input. These activities broke the ice and gave people the opportunity to have a sense of what it sounds like to share in the group and build their comfort sharing more frequently.

“You all made it comfortable. You were able to clearly cite the objectives, goals, and outcomes that you wanted. As I got more comfortable in the conversations, I was able to express myself in ways that I probably would not have in the public setting. That was a great outcome for me personally.” – Business Leader

What Insight Drove Our Design

We explored and discussed the New Orleans Community Insight Report to make sure we grounded ourselves in what we had learned during the research phase, rather than assumptions based on our past experiences or roles in the community.

One business leader shared: “Sometimes we get involved in this work and we think we have all the answers and we kind of tune out when someone gives another side of the story. This really shined a light for me to [listen], not just for the sake of listening, but in a way that I learn something. I learned something today, not only about myself, but about the community as a whole.” 

How We Designed Together

We used small breakout groups of two, three, and four people so participants could share more freely, build personal relationships, and have more time to share their ideas. In these breakout groups we were able to hear from everyone and it increased participation and idea generation.

“It was very impactful mentally and physically, even spiritually. It gave me hope as a parent that my kids will have a village there to support them. My pride went through the roof knowing I could be a part of it. I love the relationships built within the team. We all displayed respect and dignity of one’s opinion. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”  – Community Member

The stakeholders who participated really respected and appreciated community involvement. Without being prompted, they stepped back, created equal space for participation and contributed to a welcoming atmosphere. As a result, the community members felt respected and heard and stakeholders had the opportunity to hear directly from community members.

“I was told lots of different people would be here. I was a little intimidated and did not feel like my opinion would count as much as the opinion of people with more experience. Since I’ve been here, I see that my opinions count and are totally respected.” – Community Member

“This was a revival for me. It sparked that fire inside of me to say I can bring more people along with me on this journey who are not from this political policy world who are not just elected or governmental officials. To authentically engage with people who have lived experience.” – Policy Advocate

An unexpected benefit of our virtual design sessions was that people could join from anywhere, reducing transportation logistics or childcare costs. All eight designers shared that they had additional obligations during our time together including, work, family, or travel. On Zoom, each of our videos were the same size, re-emphasizing the message that we each took up the same amount of space and had the same power in our work together.

“This process was simply amazing because so few times when you are developing or designing something you have the different stakeholders together. The people who are impacted community members telling their stories and their reality in proximity to the problems we want to solve with those who are in power and that time of collaboration that type of intentionally was so impactful.”  – Policy Advocate

How We Moved from Insight to Action

The team explored various concepts and identified a promising idea to bring quality, community-based education to children in New Orleans: Make schools a hub for community services and activities through Family-Centered Coaching.

The design team identified five elements of success for their proposed solution:

  • Focus where families experiencing poverty are already convening and receiving services, i.e. schools, so that we can create a more intentional place for families to gather and receive whole-family support.
  • Schools can be a hub that centers and leverages community assets to meet community needs. Government agencies and businesses can work alongside educational institutions to overcome challenges posed by inequitable systems.
  • Focus on relationships, community engagement, and shared decision-making so that schools can be accountable to families and leverage the relationships with people that are in our children’s lives: parents, caregivers, teachers, counselors, and coaches to name a few. Families and students must be able to participate in key decision-making processes to ensure schools are in service to the community.
  • Move to a mindset where the humanity, dignity, and capabilities of Black and other people of color are recognized and reaffirmed. Families deserve access to opportunities, jobs, health, and freedom. We must repair the harms of segregation, chronic under-investment, and violence and find new ways to learn together.
  • We must reimagine what data we collect and how we analyze that data to ensure that it reflects what matters to families and communities. Systems-wide barriers affect students’ opportunity and achievement, resulting in achievement gaps that are often blamed on students and families. Many observable school outcomes, like test scores and grades, result in part from a lack of access.

After session three, we took a break for three weeks to do a literature and program review. Researching examples that were similar to the design team’s focus, we found a well-documented, evidence-based model that has been successfully implemented across the country: Community Schools.

In our fourth session, we presented this idea back to the design team to ensure that this is what they wanted to do. The group was extremely enthusiastic about the idea of bringing Community Schools to New Orleans. They were relieved to have landed on a tangible idea.

“What I liked most was we actually have a plan. I get so sick of having these 30,000 feet conversations with no one willing or able to drill down and execute. Doing this community school, we have something actionable.” – Local Government Employee

75% of the design team described our solution, community schools, as meaningful, impactful, creative, appealing, logical, and equitable.

“That was the beauty of this: to not just end with conversations, end with something we can all do together. We build better and stronger when we recognize the village coming together.” – Policy Advocate

After we validated our design solution with the team, we worked with our local partners to identify a pilot school site: the Algiers Charter School Association. Over the next few months we will convene a Leadership Committee who will be responsible for piloting the community schools strategy and working towards long-term implementation and sustainability of community schools as a racial equity strategy in New Orleans.

What We Heard Back from Design Participants

We checked in with participants throughout the research and design process and also asked them to rate their overall experience. Using a scale of 1 to 5, they shared an overall score of 4.8. Over the course of our work together, they reported an increase in their comfort participating in design from a 2.9 to 4.6. More specifically, they rated these aspects of the experience as follows.

I trusted my fellow designers 4.4
I felt comfortable voicing my thoughts 4.3
I felt heard by my fellow designers 4.3
My ideas mattered 4.1
The design sessions flowed well 3.8
The goals of the design sessions were clear 3.6

Based on this feedback and our evaluation of the design process, we recommend:

  • Consider carefully whether to facilitate virtually or in-person. Pros of virtual facilitation include that you can meet people where they are at, especially when it comes to juggling other responsibilities like work, taking care of kids, and going to other appointments. Cons of virtual facilitation  include the lack of being in a physical environment, sitting around a table together, having informal time to connect, and a whiteboard space where ideas can be shared and moved around.  While design participants felt heard, trusted, and comfortable, we wonder what might have happened if we were able to be in the same room, even for part of the time together. Nevertheless, we were able to foster connections by using breakout rooms, as one participant shared “I truly enjoyed the personal intimacy of the breakout rooms. It allowed everyone to have a spot to be open, honest, and contribute.”
  • Be explicit about how people share space and speaking time. We were grateful that everyone on the design team shared space and speaking time so equally, without explicit direction. Seeing the importance of this, we recommend making this an explicit ask to participants as well as keeping it on facilitators’ radar.  Because some participants were joining by phone or did not have experience using the virtual whiteboard space, Mural, we decided to leave that technology behind after session two in favor of small and large group discussions. This seemed to increase participation as one design member shared “Being in a space with the entire group was by far the most valuable experience. There is no substitute for the organic rhythm of conversation with opinionated people who respect each other and value opportunities to learn from one another.”
  • Get specific and actionable. We originally offered a design question that focused broadly on racial equity. We noticed that the design team was having a hard time brainstorming specific and concrete ideas. Instead, they focused on theory and abstract philosophical questions.  In session three, we honed in on the 10 Ideas to Make Progress on Racial Equity as identified by community members with low-incomes. For example, when we started talking about how schools or workforce development programs could contribute to racial equity, our conversations became electric and we were overflowing with actionable ideas. This helped us turn the corner from insight to action and led us to our design solution: Community Schools.

What’s Next?

As we launch the Leadership Committee and start our pilot program at the Algiers Charter School Association, we’ll continue to report on our progress. For more information on our community-centered design process, please email us at

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