As schools reopen amidst COVID-19 and the chronic pandemic of white supremacy, the need to do so with equity at the forefront is greater now than ever before. The student–teacher relationship has transformed over the past year as educators upskilled to teach virtually and parents – especially the most marginalized – stepped into the role of managing instruction, often in addition to many other responsibilities. At the same time, we witnessed a racial reckoning not seen in decades. This flashpoint is qualified by the needs of schools and educators. Teachers are designing new ways to hug and high-five while helping students make sense of protests, marches, and insurrections, being careful not to exacerbate spiritual distance while being physically distant. Simultaneously, state legislatures and school boards are starting to ban and restrict conversations about race in the classroom, silencing discussions about how the context of race shows up in the experiences of the present, when students are trying to make sense of witnessed racial trauma. This article explores how the equityXdesign framework can be used to recenter the experience of students and equitably redesign the relationships, policies, and practices in a school or school district.
The design-thinking process, created by David Kelley, emerged to solve problems and help creators, inventors, curriculum developers, and school designers better understand how customers interact with their product or service. In recent years, design thinking – a set of thought routines and processes to move ideas from concept to action – has left its roots as a tool used for product design and emerged as a powerful problem-solving methodology across fields and sectors. With the user experience at the center of design, the design-thinking process helps the designer understand pain points, motivations, expectations, and direct and peripheral experiences. It provides a framework for complex, iterative, and targeted solutions. It emphasizes the need to define the problem well and build sooner to get better feedback. This way of thinking has fundamentally changed the relationship between designers and those they design for. This focus on the end-user is so central that design thinking is often simply referred to as user-centered or human-centered design.
Design thinking is emerging as a way for schools and school districts to rethink how they approach issues such as equity. One school district in the southeastern United States realized they needed a plan that would help them address the threats posed by COVID-19 and white supremacy. The district’s executive team – chief executive officer, chief academic officer, and chief talent officer – assessed the situation and made a conscious decision to focus on the district’s four principles: Keep It Simple, Students First, Safety First, and Excellence. They were also committed to creating a plan that was equitable, inclusive, and sustainable.
To accomplish their goals, they used the equityXdesign framework (Hill, Molitor, and Ortiz, 2016), a set of beliefs and practices designed to mitigate supremacy and design solutions through an equity lens. It is a framework that can help heal and redesign relationships by establishing a process to design for equity by designing equitably. The practice of equitable design requires that we are mindful of how we achieve equity. Inclusive design practices raise the voices of the marginalized, strengthen relationships across differences, shift positions, and recharge our democracy. Because exclusion feeds inequity, we can no longer argue that there is not enough time to include the community. We must make time for the magic of human connection.
The equityXdesign framework hinges on three core tenants: Recognize, Inclusion, and Invention.
See: Historical Context Matters
The past is present in people, things, and systems of oppression. The past was designed, and the present is being designed. We are all designers.
Evolutionary science tells us that the most beneficial traits survive; we are the recipients of the genetic legacy of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Social inheritance mimics this genetic inheritance: We inherit the traits and characteristics of legacies of privilege and oppression. We must see who we were (our historical selves) and who we are (our current selves). To understand the present time and space we occupy, we must understand the inherited legacy surrounding the thing we are designing, the place we are designing in, and the community within which we are designing.
Be Seen: Radical Inclusion
The problems of equity work – racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc. – are rooted in our distance, our single stories, and our habits of exclusion. Radical inclusion is the intentional act of interrupting inequity where it lives – our separations. Recognizing the multiplicity of stories, truths, their proximities, their intersections, and the people who own the stories are requisites of equity design work. This is radical inclusion.
Inclusion is not merely the absence of exclusion. Radical inclusion goes further by identifying barriers that exclude and eliminating them; welcoming different people, stories, and experiences to the innovation conversation; and creating spaces where everyone can truly bring their full selves and be equally valued. Radical inclusion is not simply about reducing hate or respecting difference; it is about truly loving others.
Foresee: Process as Product
Equity is a verb. It is the process, not an end point. When designing, both the ends and the means matter. We cannot model the future on the past; we need to live the future we want today.
equityXdesign is intentional about bringing diverse stakeholders together across race, role, gender, and socioeconomic status to build new relationships, redesign existing relationships, and lay the groundwork for community. With this framework in mind, how might this change the way teachers and leaders see and define the challenges in the moment? More specifically, the change needed is a change in perspective – a widened aperture that sharply focuses and brings the experiences of the marginalized into the foreground. We need to see and define the challenges of the moment not only through our eyes, but through sharing our eyes with those who have been marginalized and cast aside for no other reason than the appearance of their bodies. The experiences of white supremacy and COVID-19 are not episodic or occasional. They are integrated, constant, continuous, and incessant.
Designing for Equity
Using the equityXdesign framework as the foundation to create the district’s plan, the executive team acknowledged that they had to let go of perfection and maintain shared expectations. There was no blueprint for what they were trying to accomplish. They had to lean into the knowledge of students, families, teachers, and leaders, enabling them to chart the path together. To achieve this, the executive team started the design process by focusing on the needs, experiences, and lives of the most vulnerable without causing additional harm to create an experience that was extraordinary, joyous, and transformative.
Instead of rushing to mandate virtual learning, they started to develop their plan by conducting empathy interviews, establishing a design phase, and then moving on to an implementation phase. During the empathy interviews, they assessed the connectivity of every child in the system with a goal of 100% connectivity using digital or analog technologies. The high school was already tech-enabled so they were able to transition quickly.
During the design process, the executive team noticed that when they were tired, they fell back on what was comfortable. To remind themselves that they were the designers, they consistently referred to the equityXdesign framework. Honoring the historical context meant they had to see and understand the stories of those who were most affected by the pandemic. From the empathy interviews, they synthesized the data to make visible the experiences of students and families. They ceded their own power, decentered the needs of the most powerful in the district, and recentered the needs of the most vulnerable. Because the team was trained to use the framework, they were able to model the way for principals and created opportunities for them to be trained themselves. This shared language and shared experience allowed the entire system to work together seamlessly and efficiently. When principals were able to talk to the executive team freely as collaborators within a flattened hierarchy, everyone was able to be seen. Radical Inclusion was modeled in practice.
Then they iterated, got more feedback, and tried again and again. Knowing they had to design for the most vulnerable students first, they designed at the margins. Within the school district, there are families experiencing housing insecurity, food insecurity, job loss, and the social terror of white supremacy. The combination of these pandemics challenged the executive team to see school opening not simply as a matter of convenience, but as a matter of life and death for their teachers, students, and families. They were not satisfied with the way American society looked or functioned for Black families in their community. Knowing this, the school district put the lives of Black children, teachers, and families first, which ultimately resulted in them being one of the first districts in the metro area to announce a virtual opening for the 2020 – 2021 school year.
Using the equityXdesign framework as a lens for their work, they discovered policies and practices that were quickly becoming relics in the new system they were designing and hindering their progress. Hidden in plain sight, they were only revealed when they started to move and change the way they worked together and center the experiences of students. Going forward, when making decisions, they would pause and create space for new ideas. This pause, called an “equity pause,” became a core practice. The equity pause was an antidote to the impact of urgency and business as usual approaches. The executive team realized they needed more time to think and assess their language and emerging ideas.
They knew they would have to pause to make their familiar thought routines visible. They began to incorporate these pauses and checks at the end of each planning meeting to ensure they continued to lean into their four principles and keep equity at the center of the planning process. The equity pause was a technique to animate Process as Product. Because equity is action, the team knew that if they had not changed how they were working together, or the questions they were asking themselves, the result would be business as usual. They had to create space in their process to produce new ideas. Hence, leading with Process as Product and creating the chance to foresee and invent something new.
They interrogated the dress code policy and its implications for equity. As students returned, they had to explore how the policy limited a Black child’s freedom and responsibility of clothing their bodies. This was the watershed moment. When the executive team empowered leaders to look at policies and practices that might threaten their commitment to equity, they started to look at how other policies and practices were gatekeepers that were designing the relationships between students and staff, salaried staff and hourly staff, teachers and leaders, and leaders as one team. When they saw the impact of the policy and practice together, they removed it. This is where they needed the eyes and experience of those closer to the daily work in the schools. Given the position of the executive team, they were not as proximate to the family experiences as the leaders and teachers. Ceding power in this way and elevating their experiences as expertise is fertile ground for a new relationship. They are now doing the work of questioning all their policies. This is ongoing work that will continue in the upcoming school year.
One of the reasons why the school district had a successful virtual opening was because the executive team realized the environment was changing quickly. So, they started implementing their ideas on a small scale before scaling them up throughout the district. While they got stuck at times, and it was not always easy, they had access to design sessions with the equityXdesign framework, which helped them find the language to speak the future into action. After one particular session, principals explored the ideas of teaching across grade levels to give teachers time to think, plan, and learn. Essentially, principals became co-designers with teachers. The executive team, through the equityXdesign framework, saw the value in empowering school teams. With principals in the classroom observing teachers, they saw the student experience differently – from a dualperspective as a teacher and administrator. The principals conveyed they enjoyed this experience, which led to new and strengthened relationships between teachers, the executive team, families, and principals.
By sticking to the principles of Keep It Simple, Students First, Safety First, and Excellence and creating a plan to guide their work, the executive team was propelled forward by their individual shifts, based on the identity work they did collaboratively and individually. As leaders, they were able to be more inclusive in their practice, which enabled them to pivot, expand, and welcome new ideas. How much they learned cannot be quantified; however, the team remains committed to maintaining 1:1 outreach with all families who are unable to participate in virtual learning, ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are always at the forefront. Through this process of using equityXdesign, the executive team has deftly and intentionally led their school district to build new relationships, redesign existing relationships, and lay the groundwork for community. This work was facilitated by the district chief executive officer’s commitment to encourage all staff to engage in a process of unlearning so they can embrace new ideas and design differently, placing equity at the center.
What was witnessed with the executive team was essential for a thoughtful and equitable response to the challenges the district faced with COVID-19 and white supremacy. It required them to redesign existing relationships with principals and principals with teachers. They ceded their own power and comfort to put the lives and well-being of families before their own. They are laying the foundation for a radically inclusive school community. This was catalyzed by their emerging self-awareness as designers and learning how to humbly carry this power and look for the impact of their decisions and designs on the most marginalized, vulnerable, and excluded.
Transforming Schools Equitably
It is here where design thinking can come into play and integrate into our leadership and teaching practice. The idea of design thinking continues to gain wider adoption as educators seek new ways to radically transform systems and redesign relationships. Redesigning schools after a pandemic is about reimagining a whole, integrated system instead of solving isolated problems. Redesigning our relationships and how they are designed by white supremacy requires a design approach that attends to the technical and moral ways that supremacy designs our lives. Thus, our current approach to design thinking needs to be retrofitted. If we believe design thinking is the right tool to use to redesign products, schools, systems, and institutions to be more equitable, then we must redesign the design-thinking process, mindsets, and tools themselves to ensure they mitigate for the causes of inequity – the prejudices of the human designers in the process, their explicit and implicit personal biases, and the power of mostly invisible status-quo systems of oppression. Unfortunately, oppression, bias, and supremacy norm our interactions, govern our relationships, and create the need not just for intentional design, but design that centers equity in the design process.
Equity work – the process of freeing ourselves from systems of oppression and their impact – is challenging to be sure. To choose not to engage in it is to be an active participant in further entrenching an exclusionary status-quo. We make this choice by how we choose to emerge from COVID-19. What version of schools are we charged to design at this moment? Will we reopen a school system that is equipped to respond to only COVID-19? Or, will we accept the baton, accept the American design challenge of the century, and reconcile our country’s intimate relationship with racism and white supremacy?
Imagine a world where everyone in America learns and works in places that acknowledge their racial identity, prepare them to lead and participate in our democracy with respect and dignity, and repair and restore the relationships that keep us divided. It will take all of us – those of us just starting the journey and those of us who have been on this path for many lifetimes. It is time to design for equity. It is time for equityXdesign.
Hill, C., Molitor, M., and Ortiz, C. (2016). equityXdesign: A Process for Transformation. Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/equity-design/racism-and-inequity-are-products-of-design-they-can-be-redesigned-12188363cc6a
Author: is a thought leader who lives, works, and designs at the intersection of education, innovation, and equity. Her work inspired the creation of equityXdesign, a powerful design framework that merges the values of equity work and innovation with the intentionality of design. Her latest venture, 228 Accelerator, catalyzes the redesign of relationships that normalize mistreatment and oppression, builds bridges between the powerful and the powerless, and accelerates our journey to a more inclusive society. She supports several national education organizations as they work to design and create more inclusive and responsive organizations and learning models.