In 2014, the world watched an uprising flare in Ferguson, Missouri in response to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. It was in the wake of this tragedy that Creative Reaction Lab was born.
The organization’s mission: to redesign systems of oppression and inequality. To do this, they’ve developed a field guide for Equity-Centered Community Design, and a groundbreaking process for creative problem solving firmly rooted in equity, healing practices, and addressing power dynamics.
They also train “Redesigners for Justice,” a younger generation of Black and Latinx designers and leaders using their lived experiences to tackle the issues in their communities.
Behind Creative Reaction Lab and their equity-centered projects is founder, president, and CEO Antionette Carroll. Her work in developing Equity-Centered Community Design was named a Fast Company World Changing Idea Finalist. And now, in a time when racial injustice and inequity seems to be on the forefront of the nation’s mind once again, she wants to continue to do the work she’s been doing her entire life.
“I always felt like people just looked at [design] as making things pretty and not really acknowledging that the creative profession and creative problem solving is everything and everywhere,” Antionette says. “And we navigate complexity and ambiguous situations every day.”
We recently caught up with her to discuss her work, the Creative Reaction Lab’s mission, how far she thinks design has come, and where it ultimately needs to go next.
[Redesigners for Justice] have the lived experience connected to the issue. If they don’t have the lived experience with inequity, they leverage their power and access on behalf of the individuals that do.
dscout: Tell us about the Redesigners for Justice project. Where did that concept come from and what have you done with it?
Antionette: It’s a movement of folks that we're trying to create at Creative Reaction Lab. We developed the Equity-Centered Community Design process. But we also are building a movement of a new type of leader called Redesigners for Justice.
Everything that we do usually stems from those two things; we're using our curriculum to help people build their capacity to design equitable interventions in their community, or we’re thinking about what type of leader we now need within our community.
Redesigners are individuals that really are thinking about the reality of being embedded. That’s actually the best place to be because you have that living knowledge, and are, many times, affected by the outcomes of whatever you're creating. It eliminates this tendency of savior complexity. They are always asking, "How do I improve, innovate, and create interventions to better my best community and address the issue that's relevant to my lived experience?" They are constantly building upon existing resources.
They have the lived experience connected to the issue. If they don't have the lived experience with inequity, they leverage their power and access on behalf of the individuals that do.
I have to be very conscious of spaces in which I have power and privilege. How do I leverage that on behalf of others that need that access to be able to shift outcomes? When it comes to me, for instance, that might be people who are differently abled, or identify as LGBTQIA+.
I also need to be conscious of the moments in which I don't have the traditional access and power based on a historical underinvested identity. Therefore, someone else in that space is providing me with this access and I'm leveraging that living knowledge that I have.
All the work that we do is around that, such as our youth programs, which is our primary mission is mobilizing and training and educating Black and Latinx youth to become leaders about racial equity and health equity. We also are changing the way people address systemic oppression. We do institutional and adult learning work to really understand that there's two sides of the coin. And we need to work with both to really get to that space of equity.
You mentioned that there's a curriculum to help the people involved in this program learn about what redesigning for justice necessarily means. Can you give me an overview of what that curriculum looks like?
Our curriculum is built on our equity-centered community design framework. It essentially takes the form of several different modules.
One is looking at history, and feeling and thinking about what we're bringing in the space—the different experiences and biases, the socialization we've had around certain topics or certain experiences or realities, and also the traumas that we're also bringing in and how we integrate practices of healing as part of the creative problem solving process.
Some of it is physical healing: having counselors, mediators, and art-based opportunities to really expand what healing means for that individual. And some of it is more systemic and long-term healing. We want it to be people-centered in a group of practice and collective mobilization around culture and consciousness.
We also discuss dismantling power constructs, and being conscious that in every part of any problem solving process, there's always going to be power dynamics. So how do we understand that power is central to liberation? We have people go through elements of analyzing their power, really measuring it along a spectrum, and thinking about how power shows up when they are collaborating with others.
When you look at the big shifts in our country’s history, usually there were young people behind it. We just tend to erase their contribution or try to remember them as older than they were.
Healing is a surprising inclusion in the curriculum. I wouldn’t have expected that, but it makes so much sense.
You would think, but the reality is, as human beings, we are so socialized to just do and move and keep creating that we don't really provide time for assessment of why we think what we think, or why we do what we do.
Even when you hear people talk about, "safety," what does that actually mean? And why does it mean that for you? What happened in your life to have you have that socialization? There's a lot of things underneath that.
When you think about healing, there are a lot of things that we are bringing with us in our DNA. As a black woman, I am bringing within me the DNA of my ancestors who have gone through slavery, dealt with Jim Crow, and dealt with displacement and erasure. And part of that trauma for myself, is the fact that I don't even know who my ancestors are. My history has been erased.
That is something that I'm grappling with at a generational and systemic level. Many times black women are the center of trying to hold a family together. As Malcolm X said, the most mistreated person in America is a black woman because we put the stress and the weight of a family, of a community, of a home on us. And so there's a lot of generational trauma and elements of need for healing.
At the same time there is the day-to-day of what I've personally gone through.
From what you've noticed, how is the next generation thinking about these big picture questions around design and inclusion?
It depends on who you talk to. I think it's that way across every generation honestly.
You have some young leaders who have been in a privileged situation where their family has been working in this space, or they might be organizers and activists. Or many times there’s a catalyst or something happened in their life that really pushes them to want to move into the social space.
We look at young as architects of change. When you look at the big shifts in our country’s history, usually there were young people behind it. We just tend to erase their contribution or try to remember them as older than they were. But they started extremely young in creating these movements and creating these shifts in our society.
Elaine Welteroth, the former editor in chief of Teen Vogue said that besides the 1960s, this generation is the most politically involved and socially conscious of many generations. And yet many times we tend to get in their way.
The founding fathers were actually in their teens and twenties when they started the American Revolution.
And everyone in the Civil Rights Movement too. There were a lot of young folks doing that.
What happens when you don’t have someone who champions the ideals of an equity designer or a design ally in these communities?
It's important because, otherwise, we'll continue on with what we have. We will continue on with the status quo of oppression, which is mistreatment at scale. We'll continue on with the status quo of erasure. We'll continue on with the narratives of the people close to traditional forms of power, so the history of other folks tends to be erased and ignored.
And we forget the contributions that folks have. The status quo continues on which people are not even conscious of their own cultural, racial, and ethnic worth. It continues on with a, "It's always been this way so why fix it or why change it" mentality. For me, that’s why.
[Equity design] is important because, otherwise, we’ll continue on with what we have. We will continue on with the status quo of oppression, which is mistreatment at scale. We’ll continue on with the status quo of erasure. We’ll continue on with the narratives of the people close to traditional forms of power, so the history of other folks tends to be erased and ignored.
Since you've started your career within this space, have you seen real changes or progress occur in research and design?
I want to be conscious that there were already conversations happening, particularly in the traditional design space before I got there. I don't want to erase what was already happening. It was actually happening for almost two decades.
But those efforts were led by volunteers. They probably had more walls to hit than myself. I'm not saying my process was easy, because it wasn't. But a lot of them had even higher ceilings to deal with.
I am a product of the work that many of these volunteer people of color have been putting in for decades. So that naturally means that shifts have been happening. And for me, I'm seeing the same thing on the other end with some of the young leaders we've worked with and how their mentality has shifted around being equity designers, and Redesigners for Justice.
How we have folks that reach out and say, "Hey, I only read your field guide and you completely changed how I approach how I show up in a classroom or how I create, how I problem solve or my involvement in the community." And we're receiving more and more of those impact stories every day.
That's just with Creative Reaction Lab too. That doesn't count the fellowship program that I created, and the foundation I created with my family and honor of my late brother. That's just one institution. And so I do believe that there are shifts happening.
It's still moving slower than I would like to be honest. And I don't want to just discredit the internal agitators that are doing work and making the shifts happen as much as they can internally.
I think the biggest problem that we have with all of the movements that we've created is that they don't seem to be sustainable. And so I think we need to start thinking about what the sustainability of this movement looks like versus these one-off efforts.
Why do you think they’re not sustainable?
Lack of investment.
People are giving time, but what's happened is people are giving time on their time. So it's literally lack of investment in the folks that are actually trying to do the work as well as lack financial investment to sustain the programs, projects, and policies that are trying to push through.
The reality is that the design industry—and all industries—are rippled with white supremacy. We have really been unpacking what that looks like within our space. Part of it is power hoarding and not wanting to give up what you have had. I don't remember who said the quote, but when equality, equity, and liberation really starts to happen, then the people that have been privileged and gained for so long will start to feel like they're oppressed.
That's what's happening right now. Some people believe that they are the owners of certain things. They may not explicitly say it, but they're so used to their reality being the norm, that when it's been challenged, they feel like their way of life is being challenged.
There's a lot of fundamental issues and problems with design leadership. What should a research or design leader be doing if they really want to prioritize equal access to change?
It starts with yourself. It drives me up a wall how now there's this big movement of designers who say they’re experts of empathy. And I'm like, "Really? Are we? When did that happen?”
One, there's plenty of industries that have been doing more human-centered work for many years before designers decided to. And also we are humans at the end of the day. To actually be empathetic you first have to build your own humility.
Building your own humility means that you have to put a mirror up to yourself and ask, "When have I created harm? How am I continuing to create harm? What are the biases that I'm bringing into this space? How is that affecting me, the outcomes of this project, the people that are affected by this project, my team members, etc.?" There's a lot of things that we need to personally reflect on before we can even get to how we engage with others.
But embedded in our mind is a condescension mindset. We are so focused on trying to "save others" that we many times forget that we have to first save ourselves. We need to actually start to think about, "When have I done projects and expected gratification for what I've created for them because they should feel that they are privileged to have this great thing in front of them?"
Part of it is through the lens of fear. Part of it is through the lens of, "I own this," or "I worked hard for this academic or professional pedigree." I hear that, but at the end of the day it's all lived knowledge. I'm sorry, I don't care if you have a BFA or MFA. You are not going to sit here and tell me that because you have those letters, you have more knowledge on how to survive this world as a black woman than I do. Or just because you decided to do some empathy interviews for a week. It's not going to happen.
So they need to focus on themselves first and then start to think about, "What are the small ways in which I could address these problems in the community that are easily tested and honestly mitigate harm as much as possible?"
Creative Reaction Lab did not start where we are today. Creative Reaction Lab started as a 24 hour lab that was just an event. And now we are an organization. And when we started to be an organization, the first year our budget was $14,000. I just went through the budget with my board and we are looking at our first year of crossing the $1 million mark.
It starts with yourself. It drives me up a wall how now there’s this big movement of designers who say they’re experts of empathy. And I’m like, “Really? Are we? When did that happen?”…We are humans at the end of the day. To actually be empathetic you first have to build your own humility.
Yes, but we didn't start here. So it's understanding that everything—this is a journey and everyone's on this journey, including yourself—does take time.
What’s a project you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
Creative Reaction Lab.
Creative Reaction Lab was created around the uprising of Ferguson but really it was deeper than that. It was looking at this continual racial divide, particularly in my city.
But then also looking at this in one way, devaluing of creative problem solving itself as someone that went through a traditional design field and graphic design and advertising for several years, I always felt like people just looked at what I did as making things pretty and not really acknowledging that the creative profession and creative problem solving is everything and everywhere. And we navigate complexity and ambiguous situations every day.
And so I wanted to create a space where creatives really could be center. And what I mean by creatives and designers has since changed and expanded. I wanted a center of community members to actually be the decision makers of change.
To me, part of the problem with the design industry is that we focus too much on short-term efforts because maybe we get bored or whatever else. There's a consulting mindset of, "Let me come in and do this quickly and then move on." Creative Reaction Lab has been a six year project, and there will be many more beyond us. And I understand that that depth of work is just as important as any scaling of anything or that breadth of work that I can do in a community.
Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.