February 24, 2021

Design From Within: Transformative and Culturally Responsive Co-Design Pedagogy During a Pandemic

Category: Educational Practice

Growing up as a minority, it always felt like my voice is sheltered, or it felt like other people were speaking for me because I am young … But in this case it was like, no, we want you to speak up, we want to hear what you feel, what you think should be included in this project…there’s a lot of projects that I’ve seen or I’ve been involved in, where it’s just like, “oh, I think we should have [it done this way].” – Leslie.

In the spring and summer of 2020, we engaged in a co-design project with ListoAmerica, a nonprofit organization providing after school programs in underserved communities in Southern California. ListoAmerica is licensed by The Clubhouse Network. Our goal was to co-design digital tools to support wellbeing. A concern with any co-design project is that participants will tell you what you want to hear and reproduce conventional and mainstream designs. To avoid these pitfalls, we adopted the following guiding principles: Let the youth lead, give time and space for all to express themselves, value all expressions of participation, recognize and respect community norms, and open up to participants. As a result, ListoAmerica teens crafted insightful, caring, innovative designs that reflected their genuine thoughts and feelings about digital wellness from their positions as young people and members of their communities. They also reflected back that they enjoyed participating in the project and felt that it was unlike anything they had ever done before.

Design From Within became the term we used to describe our transformative educational model that combined overlapping and complimentary perspectives from culturally responsive education and critical race theory. We sought to center the project on the authority, voices, and genuine needs of the participants. We also wanted to avoid extractive research practices such as educating minoritized individuals to leave their communities rather than going back to their own communities in nurturative and/or transformative ways (Barajas López & Bang, 2018, Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). There is also a tendency in HCI to position design as pointing outward to an “other” (Harrington et al., 2019; Rankin et al., 2020), implying that researchers do not exist or interact within the communities for which they design. Calling our practice Design From Within served as a constant reminder of our commitment to transformative education goals of creating a community of practice committed to learning, doing and changing for and within communities (see: Vossoughi et al., 2016).  We adapted our design methods by consistently seeking their feedback throughout the process and creating an open environment where participants could express themselves frankly and critically. Ana, one of our participants, commented in her exit interview, “I really liked how it was very personal. With you guys, it seemed like we could be very open about our ideas and they wouldn’t be shut down. You were very accepting and welcoming, [of all] types of views. Whereas in other studies or even at school, with my teachers, sometimes it doesn’t feel like that, and it doesn’t feel like you can actually tell them your idea.

After providing some background on the project and our own positionality, we describe the concrete ways in which we enacted Design From Within through three approaches: culturally responsive curriculum, counterstorying, and enacting care.

Project and Researcher Background

Our co-design project is part of Youth Connections for Wellbeing, a multi-faceted effort exploring youth’s relationship with technology and wellbeing. Our focus was to design and implement a curriculum to teach technology design techniques based on concepts of cultural responsiveness and community-based design. The research goal was elevating community voices around the theme of digital wellness, and learning why wellness initiatives for minoritized communities are often less efficacious than those for dominant communities. We partnered with a local community-based organization, ListoAmerica, and worked with a mixed age group of 11 of their members — Latinx youth ranging from 11 to 22 years old. Planning and crafting the curriculum took 2 months, and hands-on work took place on 2-hour biweekly sessions for 4 months in the spring and summer of 2020. After we moved online due to COVID-19 stay at home orders, we added extra “game night” sessions in the weeks in between the design sessions.

We brought together knowledge from our own professional experiences, literature, and input and feedback of the community partners, principal investigators. Bringing together this knowledge comprised two main foundational pillars to our approach that are inextricably and reciprocally linked: engagement and content. Engagement was particularly important because of many problematic histories of researcher relationships with minoritized communities. We also felt that in order to ensure genuine responses, our participants needed to trust us and feel as if we were truly interested in their thoughts and feelings rather than searching for them to confirm or deny our presupposed notions. We also knew that the content needed to draw from approaches that value and elevate insider community knowledge and deliver outside content in a way that does not overshadow community concerns and insights. Our approach also grew out of our own positionality.

Rose O’Leary has a professional background in software publishing and design, primarily grounded in the video game industry. Academically, her Master’s degrees focused on media theory through the lens of Cultural Studies and Indigenous Studies, and community-based and participatory design principles within the framework of transformative education models. Her ongoing doctoral research seeks to expand upon this to help create culturally responsive online education for marginalized and minoritized communities. She is Indigenous (Washazhe, Tsalagi, Quapaw, Mi’kmaq) mother, aunt and traditional knowledge keeper for her community.

Maria J. Anderson-Coto is a PhD student from Costa Rica with a background in business. During her doctoral program in Informatics, she has worked in different participatory design projects with minoritized communities around the topics of wellness and care. Her current work expands community-based, culturally sustaining methods by working in AI-based co-design projects with Latinx communities in the United States.

Being Culturally Responsive

When you [researchers] listened to [us] and we listened to each other, it made like a safe space. So I think that, that definitely like, setting that kind of baseline definitely helped a lot. – Starr.

This project took a culturally responsive education (CRE) approach to participatory design. CRE demands that educators be flexible and adaptable to learners’ needs and wants, actively seek input and reflection from learners, and value knowledge brought by learners and learners’ communities as foundational (Bang et al., 2010; Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003; Wlodkowski & Ginsburg, 1995). Thus, we saw each participant, regardless of their age, as an expert in their own reality, community, life, and topic. Following their lead and valuing their feedback and reflection created an environment where participants felt that their thoughts and feelings were valued, and they could reflect naturally on genuine needs. By not “leading” our participants, we were able to get less biased responses and ideas.

Although we are familiar with Latinx culture both through prior engagements and our own cultural contexts, we didn’t assume we were part of the participants’ community or specific culture. As outsiders, we had to understand the community and our position inside it to ensure we integrated their unique cultural and ethnic lived experiences in the curriculum (Banks, 1988). We talked with Listo staff beforehand, shared our own experiences, were fully open in our positionalities, and actively listened to all input, especially through the activities we designed. We involved our participants in our planning process as well as constantly asking for feedback, ensuring that the program was tailored to their particular experiences and expertise. It also meant that we had to make our sessions flexible and be open as facilitators to change based on feedback.

When the COVID19 pandemic hit the U.S., we had to stop meeting face-to-face. We were then faced with the questions: How do we maintain a sense of community? How do we adapt an in-person curriculum while maintaining the engagement and focus? We were completely transparent in our lack of preparedness and knowledge, and we included our participants even more intentionally in our planning and problem-solving. Participants led in launching Discord as a communication platform and suggesting collaborative authoring tools like Google Drawing. Those with more experience helped others to gain comfort with new platforms.

In their exit interviews, participants described how they felt we genuinely cared about their thoughts and recommendations, unlike other school and research contexts they had been part of. They felt an investment was being made in them and their communities, which in turn resulted in more thoughtful design and a genuine desire to make things that might help someone in need.  One participant, George, reflects: “ We were given this opportunity, like to do something big in order to not help ourselves, not help ‘other’ people, but help everyone globally and in general.”  What was unspoken also had a lot of weight. We offered interviews in pairs or groups and were heartened when even our most reserved participants felt comfortable enough to opt for solo interviews with us, were very vocal, and gave us crucial feedback. One participant summarizes what made the experience unique for her:

The most outstanding thing to me about the program was the way that you guys handled it, in terms of leadership and interactions with us, because never before had I been in such a like relaxed environment where there’s such a huge gap in terms of knowledge and authority, roles and positions, and there’s still that kind of like you’re basically friends with the person. – Celeste


In addition to CRE, we integrated Critical Race Theory (CRT), which demands that we first recognize intersectionality. Non-dominant communities often have intersectional and layered experiences of marginalization and oppression that disproportionately impact wellness (Fagrell Trygg et al., 2019). We recognized and encouraged analyses through the lenses of multifaceted and intersectional positionalities, such as race, gender, immigration, class, and other layers that participants chose to highlight such as sexuality, police violence, and student status. We also surfaced these intersections through how we framed and talked about digital wellness considering all contexts, from close circles (personal, family, friends), to their own community, the environment, digital spaces, and international/global perspectives.

We also used Counterstorying, a foundational element of CRT, which counters the dominant narrative by elevating and making visible the narratives of non-dominant communities (García, 2017; Ladson-Billings, 1998). This method has been successfully used in educational and mental health settings as both a research methodology and a form of practice (García, 2017; McKenzie-Mohr, S. & Lafrance, M.N. 2017; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Schueller, 2020). Expanding on some of the work from O’Leary (2016), as well as principles of constructionism (Barajas-López, 2018; García, 2017; Herrenkohl, 2016; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Papert, 1991), we implemented counterstorying as a design technique. Counterstorying as a design principle means we do not have to be technology “experts” to be critical experts in what technologies work for or do not work for us and why, and we can use our expertise on ourselves and our communities to make designs that actually work for us. Design as story is a way to broaden design goals from solution oriented or deficit model thinking to nurturative strategies for imagining healthy futures (Barajas-López & Bang, 2018), interrogating technology, and working from the inside to identify specific community needs, strengths, and strategies for healthy futures.

The participant’s work progresses from counterstory to connecting identity and community, and then to a plan for design strategies. As the work moves from abstract to concrete, it maintains a core of compassion for, and focus on self and community. 

Throughout the program we connected traditional HCI, software design thinking, psychological research on wellness, real world examples of digital health initiatives, and introspection into community and individual needs. Every design involved iteration using art, modeling and prototyping as tools for critical reflection, self-expression and inclusive models of feedback. This strategy allowed participants to connect themselves and their knowledge to established research and design protocols in ways that allowed for adaptation that felt personal and useful to them. This in turn gave permission for desettling more traditional design protocols (Bang et al., 2013; O’Leary & Turner, 2020) but also sometimes led to confusion. For example, some of our instructions that were intentionally open to interpretation confused the participants, since many of our activities had no “correct answer” like the models of education to which the participants were more accustomed. However, we believe that the hits outweighed the misses, and the participants produced innovative, personal, and highly polished designs that they invested with hopefulness and compassion for their fellow youth.

School, Life, Balance is an app/website created by our participants to support academic success in high school students, as well as promoting a good balance with life. These are two examples of app features dedicated to wellness, where they developed a list of curated memes and TikToks as targeted coping strategies for taking healthy breaks.

Enacting Care

Showing care is a component closely related to cultural responsiveness. Creating a community of care was central to this project and it became even more essential during the pandemic. For example, during face-to-face sessions, we sat together around a table to eat lunch, and this facilitated a sense of sharing, of common ground, and a consistent sign of culturally responsive care. We also focused on the importance of community through the initial check-ins during the sessions, giving time for each participant to talk and express themselves. This enabled us to get both spoken and unspoken information about topics and issues we could help address such as internet access, devices, and technical issues.

Even after we moved our sessions online, we continued to do informal “check-ins” at the beginning of each session, which served as a way of partially making up for the type of in-person community enactment we had prior to isolation. During the few sessions when we did not do check-ins, the engagement lowered. For example, there was a decreased amount of talking, video cameras were turned off, and participants reported in exit interviews that these sessions felt almost “back at school” where they felt less cared for as people and more pressured to just deliver the “right answers.” Celeste reflected on the care and check-ins: “[care and check-ins] made me a lot more willing [to participate] and like actually invested in the process and in what we were doing, ’cause with that emotional connection and like those bonds – it made the work seem more personal.” In addition to  the pandemic, the periods of heightened visibility of social injustice and racial violence affected our group. As a group, we tried to amplify the community’s response of unity and care, by making space in our sessions for grief, confusion, and silence with patience and compassion. We  also made space for critical reflections of how these issues affected their own digital wellbeing, and shared coping tools curated by psychologists.

Another initiative that brought us together during COVID-19 was implementing new game night sessions. Game night consisted of two hours every “off” week where we would meet to play digital and analog multiplayer games of our participant’s choosing. This proved to be a very valuable space to socialize, share, and do activities that eliminated or inverted the authority structure. In the final interview, participants told us they looked forward to this activity as an opportunity to do something fun, catch up with their friends and help them cope with everything that was happening around them. For example, Jessica commented, “I felt comfortable. Like an area where you can stay safe, you know. So I thought of you guys as my siblings (…) I liked the program, the game night, how you let us work with our partners – like people who we are comfortable with, who we can talk to.”

Finally, being conscious of the often extractive nature of research (Harrington et al., 2019; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) we emphasized a relationship of reciprocal exchange. Even after the end of the co-design activities, we continued to be involved through different roles in the community – as mentors and advisors – giving tips on how to apply to college, helping with school subjects, and helping research topics in which they were interested. We were aware that in some more traditional research models, this might be viewed as an inefficient way of doing things, but we felt that the quality of the data was more important than the quantity and also that we should “walk our talk” in a program focused on wellness by enacting wellness practices. As a team and micro-community, we decided to respond based on our values and our guiding principles. We put our participants first and supported them through these hard times, and other life events.

Final Showcase

We closed the program with a design showcase, where the youth presented their group projects in front of family, friends, and invited researchers. We were overwhelmed with pride for the work our participants put into their projects and the commitments to meaningful impact on the world and communities like their own. Participants who had previously indicated fear of public speaking volunteered to present even when it was not required of them. Some even presented through illness, fatigue, and dressed ready to dash off to work afterwards. Even more than their appreciative words, these actions were evidence that we were able to create a community of trust. The care and concern we invested in the program participants was reflected back in the effort, care, and quality of work that they produced.

Maria J. Anderson-Coto* & S. Rose O’Leary*

*Both contributed equally as first authors



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