It would seem that, by definition, social services and community health programs help the neighborhoods where they operate.
But talk to community leaders on the ground, like Adair Mosley, CEO of Pillsbury United Communities in Minneapolis, and it becomes clear that while intent isn’t lacking, designing services that really reflect community need is a challenge. “Typically, social service is prescriptive in nature, anchored in hubris,” says Mosley, whose group serves underestimated populations across the city. “If it’s funder- or legislatively driven, a service rarely gets to the heart of the problem. It’s about asking the right questions, and in social services, we often have the wrong answer, since we’re not listening.”
By putting human-centered design practices at the center of a new way of creating local programs and initiatives, a wide-ranging pilot project wants to change how communities design their own future.
This initiative differs from the nonprofit’s usual programming focus due to its process. Utilizing an engagement program designed by Chicago-based Greater Good Studio, a socially oriented design practice, community feedback doesn’t start with solutions, but with understanding problems. Consisting of a series of labs, prototyping sessions, and community discussions, the nine-month process is predicated on the idea that better understanding, involvement, and, ultimately, design—led by the community, not experts—creates lasting, effective solutions.
Reflecting a larger change in the health community that recognizes the how health and community development are intertwined—that your zip code can play as big or bigger a role than your genetic code—Raising Places takes the next logical step and asks the community to diagnose its own challenges.
In August, Raising Places chose six groups from a pool of 156 interested community organizations: Mosley’s group in North Minneapolis, Minnesota; Bighorn Valley Health Center on the Crow Reservation in southeast Montana; Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood in Hudson, New York; The Health Foundation in rural North Wilkesboro, North Carolina; South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN) in San Francisco; and SBCC, Thrive LA in Wilmington, a community near the ports of the Los Angeles harbor.
While the circumstances and areas of focus, ranging from healthy food access to police-community interaction and air quality, differ between groups, all said the curriculum laid out by Greater Good has led to deeper insights.
Greater Good’s idea grows out of its experience with nonprofits, local governments, and what it calls mission-driven organizations. Grants for these tend to be proscriptive, and while it’s great when a non-profit gets money to pursue a project or program that’s a perfect fit, often, community end up adjusting their programs to fit with funding guidelines, stifling innovation.
“Designers have a unique amount of power, but we’re often unaware,” says Sara Cantor Aye, co-founder of the studio with her husband, George. “We’re trying to share that power as much as we can.”
The Ayes proposed a different way of delivering solutions: start with a better understanding of the problem, to eventually end up with a better solution. The Raising Places program and grant offers communities the luxury of time and an ability to discuss and debate what they need best and enact a program based on community wisdom, not outsider observations.
Each community has a convener, a local service agency that facilitates the events, or labs, and a design team made up of other organizations and local leaders. Groups began with a kick-off lab that brought the team together to focus on areas of research, which then led to weeks of observation, emersion, and discussion of root causes and framing goals. Next, an ideas lab helped groups synthesize findings, brainstorm, and create prototypes.
Finally, after local teams finish the 12 weeks of prototyping and iteration they’re currently engaged in, they’ll hold the action lab in February, when they’ll examine and evaluate prototypes, and figure out a plan to move forward. Throughout the entire process, Greater Good Studio offers technical assistance and guidance.
“We are intentional about not prescribing what needs to come out of the process,” said Katie Wehr, Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “By funding a process, rather than a specific intervention, we enable the outcomes to be shaped, and ultimately owned, by the people living and working in each community.”
While many of the community leaders involved have already used some variation of human-centered design, or design thinking, in their work, they’ve found value in the Raising Places process.
Dr. Megkian Doyle, of the Bighorn Valley Health Center in southeastern Montana, an organization that serves a large Native American population, says that the community has been “over-surveyed and over questioned,” left with the feeling that they’ve given information with little action or change in return. Raising Places has helped them expand their community outreach, leading to more long-term relationships and hard, but necessary conversations.
“It allowed us to listen to people that usually don’t get listened to,” Doyle says. “Usually with Native American communities, people go ask the elders. We also went to regular parents, people who were using drugs, and asked them about subjects they hadn’t been asked about before.”
Recently, the Raising Places team in Montana created a yard sign with the silhouette of people raising a teepee that they use to promote events and activities. The idea, says, Doyle, is wanting people to see that everyone is doing this together.
Heather Murphy from Wilkesboro hopes Raising Places can show other communities a better way to design their own better future. “Product designers discovered a long time ago that you could give a product to someone, they’d tell you what they do and don’t like about it, and you could make it better,” she says. “Why should the systems in our communities, that ones take care of our kids and our families be any different?”
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