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Community/camaraderie for a slash generation

Allie Mahler and Scott Weiss invite teens to the table.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

When Scott Weiss was a kid, he used to go to movie theaters and watch other people watching the movie. “I was just in awe of how communal it felt,” Weiss says. “Certainly at a good movie, there’s this shared joy or sadness and camaraderie that everyone’s experiencing together in this really elemental way because of this story that’s unfolding on the screen.”

For Allie Mahler, the desire for community was more overt—the summer she was nine, she recalls being frustrated that kids in her neighborhood weren’t playing together. So she launched a camp in her parent’s backyard. “I printed out a brochure and went door to door and convinced parents that they should let their kids come to my camp,” Mahler recalls. “It was $10 for the summer. It was a deal. We had a slip n’ slide.”

It makes sense then, that Weiss and Mahler’s recently launched consulting firm, Community by Design, is derived from the idea that community is the cornerstone to systemic problem solving. Both former designers at IDEO, Weiss and Mahler call themselves “inherently non-competitive people.” They say their aim isn’t to muscle in on the turf of others working in the social innovation space, but to help facilitate increased collaboration in service of sustainable impact. They call it the “constellation model.”

“I think one of the things we're seeing, across the board and across corporate and civic spaces, is that there's not nearly enough truly selfless collaboration,” says Weiss. “People are so siloed. We see it politically, culturally, but it’s true in consulting too. We’re trying to create a model that makes it easier for people to work together on important problems—whether they’re working in education, or prison reform, or climate change.”

Mahler says that that while the firm’s launch at the beginning of the year wasn’t a direct response to the current political climate, their “give generously and without expectation” approach has likely benefitted from the desire for more meaningful connectivity that has resulted.

“What we’re seeing right now is that people want to belong to something bigger than themselves,” she says. “It's been generations in the making, but there's a real convergence that's happening right now.”

One of the firm's initial projects, Big Apps, included leading a series of workshops with the City of New York. The workshops, which included over 800 participants, connected members from the immigrant, senior citizen, and youth communities with experts and product designers from the tech sector, inviting them to co-create products and services that would best serve their own, often overlooked communities.

And, given their mission to help connect people across proverbial aisles, it's fitting that one of their other major projects is centered around helping another community-based organization, a New York City synagogue, reconnect with a group of members they’d completely lost touch with: teenagers. dscout sat down with Mahler and Weiss to talk about that project and what teens really want, along with keeping bias at bay, and the unique challenges that arise when parents are the stakeholders.

dscout: For the last eight months you’ve been working with a synagogue in New York, trying to “reinvent” the experience of their teenage members—in large part, because there was an alarming amount of attrition among that group.

Allie: This is a trend that’s happening nationally, which is that teenagers aren’t engaging with religion. It’s not that they don’t value the things religion has to offer, but in some ways, they’re getting those things from other places. Think about social media. This is ... belonging, right? Think about the things that religion brings, especially to teenagers. A sense of belonging and connectedness. I’m not saying that social media is necessarily spiritual, but it’s a very communal experience for teens, almost mind-blowingly so. They can be in their homes, they can feel comfortable, and they can connect. There’s a lot of discussion of this happening now, the different activities that are offering people that sense of community, whether it’s a dinner party, or Soul Cycle, or something else—but there’s absolutely a sense of people seeking community and belonging in spaces that were traditionally religious and now they're secular.

Scott: So that was the impetus for the project, and for our client approaching us. They were acutely aware of the fact that attrition was very high, not just in their community, but nationally. And this is a conversation that’s been taking place for well over 100 years in the Jewish faith, though ultimately, this was not a Jewish-led project. This was an innovation-led project. Elements of the program and the process were very much entrenched in Judaism, but there was and is so much that applies to faith more broadly, and that’s transferable to other faiths, or to other secular organizations.

Our client really wanted to make this widely accessible. Often, religious centers are very focused on their own members, and there’s a sense of competition with other centers in the same geographic location. But part of what we heard from our client partner, the Director of Teen Initiatives, and from the Senior Rabbi specifically, was: “Let’s serve every kid in New York City.” Let’s reinvent the experience for how teens engage with us. They wanted to be collaborative. For the first time, I think you’re starting to see a real receptiveness to innovative thinking in the religious space. You don't hear the word innovation used in religion often, and that’s part of what was so exciting to us about looking at this.

For the first time, I think you’re starting to see a real receptiveness to innovative thinking in the religious space.

Scott Weiss, Partner and Managing Director at Community by Design

Was there a mandate from the client? Did they come to you with a specific goal in mind in terms of their own community, an idea of how many teens they wanted to keep as active members?

Allie: There wasn’t a specific goal, it was more about helping them engage. Our client said “I know we need to talk to these teens, but in a way that’s relevant to them.” So she brought us in to design the research phase to say, “How do we do this and who do we engage?” In Judaism, the drop off in engagement really happens after the Bar and Bat Mitzvah experience. 80% of kids disengage completely then, and they don’t re-engage until they’re in their 30's and they have kids of their own. It’s the years between 13 and 30, that’s when there’s a drop off. And our client looked at this and said, “This is a crisis. We can’t just focus on the older members of the synagogue. We have to think about the future generations.”

Scott: They weren’t the first synagogue to recognize that of course—we spoke with a lot of rabbis when we started the project, nationally progressive rabbi’s, and they laughed at us. They said, “Oh, this again. You're going to try to connect with teenagers. Trust me, we've done this. We tried a really exciting program where we talked about sexual education and it was really provocative and that didn't even work.”

Allie: One of the things we realized really quickly when we started the project was that a lot of people don’t want to go anywhere near the “teen problem.”

Let’s talk a little bit about that, because obviously you’re dealing with a whole host of issues here, including prejudices and preconceptions. Those are issues researchers have to deal with all the time, whether in mitigating your own preconceptions, or your client’s. But when you’re talking about being a teenager—quite literally, everyone has been a teenager. And people have a lot of strong opinions about what it means and how it feels. It’s a very emotionally charged time.

Scott: You are literally transforming from child to adult.

Right! So how did you go about divorcing yourself from those prejudices and helping your stakeholders divorce from those prejudices?

Allie: We’re pretty cognizant of not bringing our own experiences into it, even when the project centers around something that we have personal feelings about. Because everyone has personal feelings about being a teenager, how could you not? But we’ve been working with this client for eight months, and I haven’t thought about my own teenage experience since the very beginning.  And the teen experience, while there are elements of it that are constant, has hugely changed in some pretty major ways in the twenty years since we were teenagers. But you really have to try to be a “tabula rasa,” when researching. You have to be a blank slate to be able to take all of the information in, and have an awareness that someone else’s experience might be entirely different from your experience.

Scott: Stakeholders, however—that’s another matter. On this project, we could probably talk for a while just about stakeholders. Parents are very, very involved stakeholders.

Allie: When we had our first advisory session with the parents and educators, we were met with quite a bit of resistance.

Scott: And skepticism. It’s funny, because the first question we asked when we met with the parents was about community, and it sparked so much controversy. We thought it was a broad enough topic that it would be a good entry point into the discussion, and hopefully spark a compelling conversation. It wasn’t intended to be provocative.

Allie: But the parents had basically decided that kids aren’t looking for community, that it was an old theme and not relevant anymore. Which was also interesting, because you think about religion, and that’s what so much of organized religion is about—but we were open to the idea that maybe it wasn’t what they wanted. But then over the course of our research we learned that belonging and the need for connection are some of the most important things for teens today, especially this current generation who are growing up with so much technology.

Allie Mahler (far left, with clipboard) running a summer camp from her parent's backyard at age nine.

You interviewed a few hundred teens for the project, and then also did a quantitative survey to get data from several hundred more. So, what did you actually hear from teens when you sat down with them? What does interest them?

Allie: They're incredibly informed about the world. They’re very connected, they have opinions, they can form an argument. And they're excited about everything.

Scott: They’re the slash generation, right? They're soccer enthusiasts, they're social activists, they're not defined by one specific thing. They don't really have one interest, but multi-identities. And I think the context of the conversations was really important too—it’s always such a huge part of qualitative research, because it lays the foundation for understanding how a person thinks, feels, behaves. And in some ways I think that’s even more important when you’re talking about teens, who are sort of conditioned to behave a certain way in front of adults.

Allie: You know, we asked them how they would describe themselves, and overwhelmingly they chose the word creative. Which was funny because during our design sessions, they were able to converse with us so fluently when it came to some things, but they had a very hard time imagining different futures. We asked them: “If we were to give you a thousand dollars to create something new for teens, what would you do?” That was a mind-blowing question for them. They couldn't even get there, and that was a really interesting moment for us.  

Scott: And I think what became clear as we went through these workshop sessions and had these conversations, was that no one really invites teens to collaborate. There are certainly thoughtful conversations that take place in schools, but the whole notion of design and design thinking doesn't really permeate even the most progressive curriculum. Teens are so conditioned to behave a certain way in front of adults, and because design thinking and design encourages play and conversation, I think us giving them permission and license to brainstorm with us was really powerful. We saw this as an opportunity to create something to support that, to give teens a platform and a voice to co-create, and give them the tools and confidence to fail and learn from failure.

Allie: Ultimately we realized that giving them that agency was really important, in part because what we realized is that teens have no idea what to ask for, because often they don’t even know they can ask for something. The other thing they want is space. They want the freedom to be able to be themselves. They want light guidance, but they don't want an adult authority figure telling them what to do.

Was that concerning? It’s interesting, because typically, when you’re doing fieldwork and you hear from someone that they would really prefer if things happened differently than they are happening, we think, okay, we should shift this, shift our solution. But, as the saying goes, kids don’t always know what’s best for them.

Allie: 110%. That’s a struggle that we talk about daily, incorporating the teen voice and allowing them to be co-designers, but also making sure there’s a very strong framework behind that. It cannot just be let's have teens hang out with each other. But something that we looked at in our research was where teens are—and we found that they’re really closer to being adults than they are children. A lot of programs will design something by saying, “Okay let's take this programming that we have in place for a 10-year old and adjust it for an older audience.” Essentially, let’s take this children’s curriculum and make it a bit more mature. And instead we looked at taking what's happening in the adult world and just bringing it into a teenage landscape.

Scott: We're putting a lot of rigor to the curriculum and the program, and guardrails of course, but we want it to be malleable and flexible enough where they feel like they have agency, too.

Teens are closer to being adults than children. A lot of programs will design something by saying, “Let’s take this programming that we have in place for a 10-year old and adjust it for an older audience.” Instead, we looked at taking what’s happening in the adult world and bringing it into a teenage landscape.

Allie Mahler, Founder and CEO at Community by Design

You’re calling the program “The Greenhouse.” Where did that name come from?

Scott: It’s about creating a space, both physical and emotional, to grow innovative ideas for teens. So the greenhouse metaphor felt right to us to capture that.

What does the framework for the program actually look like?

Scott: It’s centered around three different program experiences, and the first is “The Greenhouse Series.” It’s programming that’s curated by a teen leadership committee, alongside mentors. Events and panels on a range of topics that we heard from teens they were interested in. It might be a series of experimental food-based programs with Saturday brunches at landmark NYC restaurants. Or a panel that teens curate with leaders in different fields to discuss the future of industries that they’re interested in, “The Future of Math-related Careers” or “The Future of Israel and Climate Change.”

The next element of the framework is what we’re calling the Immersive Design Lab, which takes a lot of its cues from project-based learning, something that’s huge in the education space right now. We kept hearing throughout our research that what teens wanted was to contribute and have impact, whether it's social impact or community impact or volunteering, so this really is a response to that. Each “Lab” program lasts four months, and teens are asked to problem-solve for a specific challenge, and then create a prototype of their proposed solution. And then once they’ve gone through the program, they can become mentors to the next class.

Talking to high schoolers about design thinking and building a new kind of teen program.

Allie: Again, mentoring—it’s not like that’s an entirely new model. We're not inventing these strategies, but borrowing from best practices in design firms or in the adult world.

Scott: Exactly. I think the real power of this program is that it gives them agency and the tools to take a concept and bring it to life. And put it out into the world. The third series is travel-focused, and that’s sort of an extension of the Design Lab, but will bring teens to different places and bring in local context. We’re talking about doing a “Borders trip” in Texas, which would be centered around citizen rights and border rights and what that means in terms of identity.

We don't want to design a program that's just centered around one issue, like solving homelessness. We want it to be broad enough so that they have the opportunity to interpret it. “Borders” can mean one of a hundred different things. There are physical borders, emotional borders. And, of course, there’s the citizenship discussion, which is something that has real stakes. That’s important. We want them to know that their ideas have value, that they can really contribute to helping solve these problems around human challenges.

Allie: And it goes back to the idea that sustainable social impact comes from collaboration that’s more selfless, more adaptive. We hope we can instill those ideas early, and show how they work through the cross-collaboration that’s happening in the series. Ultimately,  we’re trying to think about programming not as programming for teens, but for the change makers and influencers of tomorrow. Which is really about not seeing teens only for who they are today but who they're becoming. It’s about identity but, also about seeing them as their future selves too. And allowing them to create that with us. I think a lot of other teen spaces are just like, “You're a teenager.” Right? And we're saying, “you're becoming something.”

What’s been the reaction of teens to having that much influence in the design of the program?

Allie: It's almost hard for them to grasp. They’ve sort of said, “you’re going to let us do what?” And it takes a couple of times maybe, of us saying it, and getting them in a generative space, and saying, yes, brainstorm with us. At first, there's a bit of resistance, but then finally they sort of say, “Wait, really?" And then “Oh my god, I have a million ideas.”

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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