This is the first of a series of posts I am writing for myself so that I can remember how I've been using design thinking in my work with our Black Student Union (BSU) program.
One of the things Steve Jobs always valued about me was my ability to mobilize a huge group of people to do impossibly large things. In college, I ran an opera company. In the 1990s, I started NeXTWORLD Expo (which signaled the inflection point that would eventually lead NeXT to save Apple). In the 2000s, I was a co-founder of a women's wilderness retreat. And in the 2010s, I helped to start Twitter Math Camp.
Now I am one of the faculty leaders of the equity steering committee at my very old, historically entrenched, very large, racially and ethnically complicated academic magnet school. Three years ago, we embarked on a five-year process of school culture transformation to make it a more welcoming place, both for our students of color and for our faculty and support staff of color. Our students' families and communities are engaged, our PTSA is an active participant, and our 40,000-member alumni association is also involved. We are up to our eyeballs in the process of waking up to the toxic soup of systemic racism that we all swim in. I have often used the Zen metaphor of fish not noticing the water that they are swimming in, but I've come to realize that systemic racism is a polluted condition of that water. Our goal is to learn how to notice the pollution and to stop polluting the water further. We need, as the Tao Te Ching says, to let the mud settle and the water run clear.
The goal is not only to disrupt the trance of inequities that we all walk around in; the goal is also to create a healthy and sustainable school culture in which learners from marginalized communities are entitled to thrive.
The progress is slow. The work is grueling. But there is also a lot of heart in our community, and sometimes that opens up an occasional moment of grace. So when our Black students told us what they needed, I took them seriously.
Raising money and helping them organize to achieve their deep dreams are things I know how to help with. So back in September, I got busy doing what I knew how to help with. The BSU officers and I met in our classroom to work together on envisioning and fundraising and mapping out our plans.
The envisioning is always harder than the fundraising, but when you are discouraged, it looks like the opposite is true. That is part of how the status quo and the power structure maintain their hold. The status quo wants you to believe that money is the problem, but I'll let you in on the secret: money is almost never the problem. The reason nine out of ten start-up efforts fail is not for lack of money; they fail for lack of imagination. This is one of the illusions that Design Thinking can help thinkers to break out of. The imagining is the hardest part because it requires us to go against the psychological and emotional defense mechanisms that keep us locked in our "safe" but disempowered crouch. They keep us thinking and dreaming small, when what we really need to do is to take the risk of thinking and dreaming big.
So the BSU officers and I engaged in a first draft envisioning and imagining conversation. This was some of the most exciting but complicated — and emotionally exhausting — work of my teaching career so far.
"What do you want to accomplish?"
"We want jackets."
I scribble on my list. "Done. What else?"
They were stumped.
"But we can't afford jackets. We need to have more bake sales."
"Don't worry about the money. That's my job. What do you want to do??"
They thought for a minute.
Um, maybe a camping trip."
I write this down. "Good. What else?"
For thirty minutes, I pushed them and insisted they just toss out crazy ideas. No self-defeating talk about implementation, just make a list. Brainstorming rules. No judgment. Don't think.
And they starting coming up with ideas. College visits. Service projects in their neighborhoods. A Senior Showcase. An assembly.
"Good, good, good. What else?"
Every time they used the word "But..." I cut them off. "We're not talking about that right now. We're talking about deep dreams and making a list. What else?"
It was bewildering to them. They've been conditioned not to dream and I was prodding them to reconnect with this basic human capacity. Honestly, I don't know if we could have gotten anywhere if there had not already been a years-long foundation of mutual trust woven between and among the five or six of us. They know I'm a little nuts, but they also know that they can trust me. They know that when I screw up, they can call me on it and I will own it and apologize for it. We've been blundering along together for years. I taught all of these girls as freshmen and sophomores, and I've been mentoring them, tutoring them, coaching them, writing letters of recommendation for them, and pushing them to reach high for all the time they've been at our school. And now they are on their way to becoming persons of power — the scientists and artists and politicians and engineers they are determined to become.
But the academic stuff turns out to be the easier piece. Dreaming is a different kind of path, and it's one that usually only the kids with privilege get mentored into. I was breaking this boundary, and it felt dangerous. That is almost always the way I know when I'm doing the right thing. As George Lucas once said, "When people tell you it's impossible, you're on the right track."
Once we had a huge list, we did some analysis on it. What are the must-haves? What are the nice-to-haves? What are the pieces we can live without if we have to? We prioritized. We negotiated. We gave things up; then we put them back onto the list. We organized them into categories. We identified the critical path. We flagged the dependencies. "This thing has to come before that thing. This thing can't happen unless that thing happens first."
It took a long time to get them into flow. There is a suspension of disbelief that has to happen during the envisioning phase. Otherwise nothing happens. They started getting involved in the process. Their body language loosened up. They leaned into the discussions. They started to lose their inhibitions about jumping up, grabbing a whiteboard marker, and drawing a matrix or a diagram on the board. Developing the comfort and safety and confidence to break the rules of compliant and oppressive forms of discussion is a giant step towards true empowerment. We began to make progress.
Finally, we got to a place where we could begin packaging up what we had thought of and started productizing it. Our first "product" would be a Black History Month program for the school. With each step, we asked ourselves, How will students benefit from this? How will the school benefit? What are the tangible and intangible outcomes? How will we be laying the groundwork so that future cohorts of the BSU will be able to replicate this program and grow it over time?
We started building a grant proposal draft and a spreadsheet on our BSU Google classroom. Parents requested permission to join the documents and spreadsheets and chats and I was thrilled. Request for access messages started popping up and I approved them as fast as they came in. Click. Click. Click. The parents mostly lurked and marveled at their children's boldness and imagination. They expressed their excitement and gratitude at Back To School Night, but I turned it right back on them. It was their children doing the amazing stuff. I was only the facilitator.
The kids occasionally panicked. "I don't have time to work on the grant proposal! I have a chem lab due and a mock trial event in LA and a basketball game on Wednesday. I don't know how this is going to get done."
And I did what I had been trained to do as a manager of large teams. I pitched in. I did whatever parts of the work I could help with. "Don't worry about it. I'll write a draft and people can edit it in the Google doc. We'll make it happen. This is the power of teams."
And we did it. In the end, I wrote the grants for their ideas. I interfaced with the power structure. And I got them the money.
Then the real work could begin.