On community

An ode to community, co-design, and Sharon Louise Pinkston.

Celebrated sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has said that all of her essays stem from the question, “Why me and not my grandmother?” Cottom writes lovingly of her grandmother, stating how much she loved to read and learn, how suited her mind would’ve been to today’s knowledge-worker economy. Essentially, Cottom argues that her grandmother should’ve had her life. If life was fair, if there was some sense of justice, her grandmother would’ve experienced the kind of success she now possesses.

I’ve been ruminating on Cottom’s question as I continue to grieve my own grandmother — it’s been nearly five years since her passing — and consider my own place in this world. Now that I think about it, all I’ve ever done — personally, socially, professionally —is try to emulate her, try to recreate the way she made people feel.


Intentional relationship building

Everywhere my grandmother went, people wanted to be near her. She was hilarious and thoughtful and kind and so incredibly fun. She loved taking me, my brother, and my cousin— her grandkids, her pride and joy—to the movies and aiding us in sneaking in candy from the dollar store. She taught me how to theater hop and how to laugh at myself and how to play cards and how to say I told you so whenever I was right. She also taught me that buying something just because it made me or someone I cared for smile was just reason enough. She had a way of making you feel like your words were the most precious in the whole world.

Now, in my role as Senior Community Engagement Manager, my work is all about people. I regularly find myself channeling my grandmother’s wisdom in every interaction I have with community co-designers, the folx with lived experience whom we ask to join us in design projects at IDEO.org.

In our recent work with families and youth who have been impacted by the child welfare system, one of our guiding principles was to “lead with community not craft.” As designers, we tend to lean on our craft expertise first. Community co-design —designing with people who will be directly impacted by what we collectively create— requires decentering ourselves as experts and calling forth the wisdom, imagination, and expertise in others. It also requires intentional community building and responsiveness: being mindful about scheduling; using local, relatable examples in co-design sessions; resorting to phone calls when Zoom isn’t cooperating; and tending to our collective joy through music, art, and healing.

The gravity of the problems we’re trying to solve calls for an explicit focus on delight. The idea that we need to be as solemn as the systems we seek to change is false; co-designing solutions with communities should be fun. Taking care to listen and learn about community co-designers’ interests and ideas only amplifies the co-design experience. Being responsive and deepening relationships sharpens craft. When we’re attuned to individuals’ backgrounds and wishes, we’re better equipped to create a meaningful experience for them and design a better future together.

Taking care to listen and learn about community co-designers’ interests and ideas only amplifies the co-design experience. Being responsive and deepening relationships sharpens craft.

Community safety and trust

My grandmother had this clear-eyed, caring way of telling the truth. It was integral to her being. She knew how to supplement honesty with just the right dash of humor, patience, or severity. You always knew where you stood with her, and even if you weren’t thrilled with what she had to say, you were grateful it came from her. After all, how can you expect anyone to respect you if they don’t trust your word?

Community safety is another pertinent ingredient of any co-design work we do with communities, and safety begins with trust. Often in the design world, we prioritize emergence over linearity. We like to leave room for as many courses of action as possible, making sure we don’t rule out a possibly brilliant idea too early, and thus often adjusting the process over time. But for folks to feel comfortable partnering with us, they need to have an uncomplicated understanding of what our plan is, who we’re involving, how much of their time and energy we require, what we’re asking of them mentally and emotionally, and how much they’ll be compensated for the program. Being direct and upfront about our asks and following through with the plan we’ve mapped out establishes trust; there’s tremendous power in being straightforward. This clarity also gives people the opportunity to make a choice about whether they want to work with us, shifting our goal from one of recruitment to invitation.

Invitation process

I loved spending weekends with my grandmother. Her home was a haven for other people, and you could tell she took pride in welcoming others into her space. There was never a time I walked into her house and there wasn't a vase of fresh flowers and a deck of cards sitting on the coffee table. Books and magazines adorned every side table and her TV room was always stocked with snacks. It's almost as if she listed each of her loved ones’ favorite things and designed a home that fit them all. Consistently and carefully crafting spaces built for others, she was fiercely invested in community.

I like to think of our initial, introductory calls with co-designers as a means of laying the foundation for cooperatively built spaces — like homes — that mirror their wishes and skills. These calls should not feel like interviews for participants. They should feel like the beginning of a collaborative, collegial relationship, eliminating contrived, hierarchical dynamics from the outset. If we are truly designing with communities, then the community members we invite into these spaces should be treated as equal stakeholders and partners in our work. Just as we are trying to discern whether the individuals we’re speaking to are the voices we need to hear from, they’re trying to discern if this partnership is worth their time.

True, successful community co-design looks like freer and healthier communities, strangers turned friends and neighbors, and a deep, collective capacity for empathy and understanding. In learning this, I realize now that my grandmother was a co-design expert before the craft had a name. She knew how to embody what so many of us can only intellectualize: the listening, the forging of new partnerships, the merging of lived and learned expertise. I think about how different her life would’ve looked if people regarded her the way they regard me. I think about how my only path here was through her. I think about what courage, faith, and imagination it must’ve taken for a Black single mom raising two Black girls in the Midwest in the 1960s to conceive of and actively contribute to a world where her grandchildren would live in abundance.

My grandmother passed away a month before my college graduation, just a few days after I told her I was going to Harvard for graduate school. Ever since, I’ve carried her spirit into every space I enter. Not only because I miss her — and I do, so very much — but because her wit, her vision, and her commitment to little acts of love deserves the same weight and merit we so casually give to institutions.

Anything I’ve ever written, any lesson I’ve ever taught, any deck I’ve ever presented is infused with a little bit of Sharon Louise Pinkston. I think all I really do is find ways to bring her into the future with me. And that’s what grieving is, isn’t it? Dreaming our loved ones into our lives long after they’re gone.

Recommended Reading

  • Thick, Tressie McMillan Cottom
  • The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker
  • Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown
  • How We Show Up, Mia Birdsong

Illustrations by Joan Encarnacion

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