What would you identify as essential to the secret sauce of CRXLAB’s framework?
Maya: What resonates with me is the emphasis on centering living experts as authorities in design spaces. When I say that, I want to emphasize the idea of centering experts with their consent. I’ve heard people say, “My boss is starting to shift power to me, but it’s starting to feel like I’m actually taking on the burdens of their work.” That’s not what power sharing or shifting looks like, so the question is how can we share power [with living experts] in a way that’s balanced?
The other ingredient is history and healing. Our approach to equity-centered, community-designed (ECCD) examines the role of history and how it shapes narratives. Historically, many of our systems — government, education, economy — were designed to oppress historically under-invested communities and people of color. And if we believe that oppression and inequities are by design, these systems can and must be redesigned. [To do this,] we talk about reclaiming history, reclaiming narratives as a tool for reclaiming power for ourselves. This is how we can heal, from trauma, from generational trauma. Reckoning with our history is going to take some time, but I think that’s where the beauty is — in taking the time.
Another part of the secret sauce is the emphasis on empathy and humility as a duality, not one without the other. We talk about empathy as something that’s active, an attempt to understand others’ perspectives by imagining how you would feel, think, or act in their situation. We think of humility as something that requires us to acknowledge the limits of our own knowledge and capacity to do that. We can grow from these moments.
Samantha: Maya did a really good job touching on the different parts of the framework. They’re so interconnected in that secret sauce. Empathy and humility. No matter where you come from and what your identity is, it’s important to assess what power you do hold, so that when you are with people, you can empathize but also have the humility to acknowledge what you don’t know.
Power sharing and inviting co-creators in. Maybe you’re someone who’s very good at one particular thing because you’ve had the opportunity to engage and practice that thing. But maybe there are others in the team who also possess that skill and the task can be shared. You can give power to those who are working with you, not as in, “let me just hand off this work to you,” but, rather, “how can I help implement what it is you have to share?”
History and healing. When we’re creating something and designing something with a community, we need to consider their history to make space for the healing. We can’t dismiss or ignore the fact that people in this country have been oppressed.
How do we now amplify the full richness of the knowledge of those living experts you’ve talked about, the lived experiences of the people within the community itself?
Samantha: When I think of living experts, I think of my neighbors. If they’re creating a community garden in the back of my building, my neighbors have been here for 20, 30 years, and they know what our ecosystem is, what animals are here because they interact with them. They also know what resources are accessible in the community, including their own skills and knowledge. So, they are the experts we need because they live here, and they’re affected by the things that change in the community.
We often get caught up in the … hierarchy of education … and we devalue lived experience. If someone has a PhD, we assume they’re more educated, they know more. But we need to keep in mind that our ancestors have been doing amazing things even before there was such a thing as master’s degrees. People have been paving the way without an academic degree or even formal education. Knowledge isn’t a degree. People in our communities know what they need, but we take a lot of power away from our communities. When we make assumptions about a community’s needs based on a survey, without actually talking to people and building those closer relationships, approaching people from a place of love, that leads to distrust. At the end of the day, everyone has something to contribute.
Maya: I love that you said that. In the U.S., we have a very isolating, individualistic, capitalistic society that doesn’t value or center collectivism or community. It’s challenging to have a collective frame of mind when you live in a society that’s constantly negating that. So, for me, it’s all about unity and altruism, thinking of the traits that I value in collectivist cultures. [Ironically,] I don’t think that independence or personal identity are promoted by individualist cultures, but those are the things that you should hold on to. We have to start thinking of ourselves as individuals within a shared culture, within a shared community, when it comes to equity work and building things together.
If … we would show more compassion and love for one another, the world wouldn’t have vulnerable communities because we’d all think of ourselves as this one big community. If one person is vulnerable that impacts all of us. I really truly believe that collectivist movements and actions help us to reach liberation. That is my goal and the goal of the people who I work with, what we’re all working towards.
Samantha: I agree with what you said about individualistic societies, Maya. [In our current structure], if you want to help your people or be successful, you have to make a ton of money in order to give back. This only recreates the same cycle, perpetuates the same idea that we need to make it as individuals, instead of doing it together as a community.
When I think about community versus individualistic states of being, it reminds me of gentrification. I live in New York, and there’s a lot of privatization of public housing. I might not live in public housing, but my neighbors do, three blocks away. So, if their buildings are privatized, and it leads to displacement and a loss of rights, then it affects me because this is my community.
It’s remembering that … when you live in a community, whatever affects your neighbor also affects you. In order to thrive, we need one another. But that individualistic mindset is very much supported by our government, capitalism, the structures and the powers that be. It’s a challenge … but it’s possible to build with our neighbors and remember that the actions we take as individuals have consequences in our communities.
Can you speak about some of the critical seeds for building a collectivist mindset?
Maya: It starts with uncomfort. I recently had a conversation about cultural responsiveness and what it means to live in a community that you don’t necessarily identify with. What does that feel like? This is where empathy and humility come in. How are you respectfully showing up in someone else’s community, being present and also showing your support and good intentions around healing and helping to design with them? To build trust means you’ve got to get uncomfortable first. When you’re uncomfortable, you’re usually on the brink of realization or growth.
Samantha: That makes me think about not engaging with people with a transactional mindset. If we talk to people to get to know who they are and what they’re passionate about, it changes the dynamic of an interaction. It’s about the intention. If you talk to someone with the intention of getting to know them so that they can do something for you, well, sometimes you have to do that. But if you go to talk to people just to find out what they care about, that helps people trust you and take you in.
As an example, I do organizing work with home attendants (in-home caregivers) in New York around their 24-hour work day. I’m from a younger generation, and many of them have been organizing for a while. When I first started coming around, I didn’t want them to think I was going to take their fight from them because I’m younger. So, what I did was listen to understand what it was that they were fighting for and why and how their fight affected me, seeing that commonality, as a member of the community, and then finding ways to support them. When you are a member of a community, it’s less about who you are — not that you have to lose yourself or your identity — and more about how we can all help each other get our needs met. Because when we support those who are most vulnerable or struggling in their fight, it benefits all of us.
What else do you need to remember, especially when you are working with young people, to redesign, reimagine systems in true partnership?
Maya: For me, it’s recognizing young people as leaders and peers. It’s been changing the language that I use. For example, I’ve been called out to stop calling young people “kids.” I had to lay down my adultism to truly partner with them in this work.
I recently did a co-design sprint with a high school senior and a current student at UT Austin. We are in a room full of 20+ adults, and I’m talking, just like Samantha was saying, adults with master’s degrees, PhDs, 10+ years of work or academic experience, and these two young leaders, they just shined. Everybody loved them. I’ve learned that young leaders naturally seem to have a growth mindset. They don’t limit themselves by their experience, and it’s why I think that they’re some of the most innovative thinkers and thought partners when it comes to addressing or dismantling systems of oppression.
It’s been centering these youth voices that has been the most meaningful for us, especially when it comes to decision-making at Creative Reaction Lab. Youth perspectives have shaped us as an organization. Many of the services and opportunities we offer, the branding, were designed by the young leaders who have partnered with us. I would say they are the most important part of who we are today as an organization and why we do what we do.
Samantha: I agree, Maya. Recently, I was part of a group of emerging leaders. We talked about working cross-generationally and across identities. Young people often feel they’re not taken as seriously or our input isn’t seen as valid because we may not have as much experience. We talked about [the potential of] co-designing — older generations and younger generations coming together to dismantle systems. We would be learning from one another. Valuing what each person brings is an important part of dismantling.
But that’s not the way our systems have operated. We have people in government for 40 years, who have power, and the experiences of other generations aren’t necessarily reflected in how that system operates. It can be schools, local politics, anywhere. We place a lot of value on people who have been doing the work for a long time, which is, of course, necessary. But it’s also important to consider how to keep progressing. How can we consider younger leaders and their input more? They can come with a fresh perspective, new ideas to contribute…. It will help people who are already there, as well as the generations to come.
Maya: I love that. I was at a recent conference where we talked about fear contributing to why we can’t move forward. People may fear losing that sense of power, but, honestly, the fear can just come from not knowing, having no knowledge of what may lie ahead. Fear is a very strong manipulator, it’s very powerful. I grapple with it too sometimes because we get comfortable with things as they are. If we would stop clinging to some of the lies we’ve been told and do the research for ourselves and really investigate why things are the way they are and how we can work together to progress forward, then I think we can actually have change in this country.
Finally, how do we honor the humanity of our students and their families and communities when we are designing learning cultures in schools?
Maya: One of the first prerequisites to equity-centered community design at Creative Reaction Lab is having the people who experience the challenges you want to address in the room. We honor their humanity by inviting them to the table. Then, we get to a point where we don’t have to invite them, where they just know that they belong here, and it goes even further. It’s actively listening to them as living experts.
I used to work in higher education for eight plus years, and what I’ve experienced is that young leaders know what they need and how to solve their own problems. It’s just that they don’t always have the resources, typically it’s financial, or the power and the authority, to solve their problems when it comes to decision-making. We need to change this, and I think it’s just like Samantha says, it can happen in these intergenerational movements.
Samantha: The more that you learn the truth, the more empowered you feel. I’m a mom, and often, [my son will tell me what] his school teachers taught him about Black history. For me, it’s really empowering to hear because I’m also young, and I’m like, “Yay, we’re learning together.” It really helps build confidence knowing that we have people who came before us who experienced a ton of trauma and who were already doing phenomenal things in the world. This is a reality, not something you have to find out on YouTube or wait until you’re in college. When you learn these things at an early age, it helps build your roots, to transform who you are and how you relate to other people. It impacts our society as a whole. It helps us learn to build community. We all make mistakes every single day, but let’s come together and see the humanity in one another and love each other and not make the same mistakes again and go from there.
Samantha Isales (she/her) holds many hats: a first-gen college graduate, organizer, writer, researcher, podcaster, educator, single mom, entrepreneur, yoga teacher, and wellness facilitator. She currently works as a housing advocate supporting low-income New Yorkers in eviction proceedings in housing court and among fellow New Yorkers in protecting public housing (NYCHA) from privatization. Samantha also organizes with working people to stop the 24-hr workday for home attendants in New York. Her long-term career goals include working with radical thinkers and workers on redesigning harmful policies with a focus on wellness, healing, and DEI.
Maya Aduba Williams is a Nigerian-American, Texas native who serves as the People Engagement and Impact Director at Creative Reaction Lab. She is a diversity, equity and inclusion practitioner, evaluations consultant, and educator. She is passionate about using data to support and improve the experience of BIPOC-identifying people and has developed her professional career to understand survey design and data analysis. Her research interests include intersectionality, health equity, anti-racist pedagogical strategies, education policy, and organizational strategic planning.