From Stories to Solutions: Action Collabs in Action

It’s not often that we see evidence for the claim that a small group of people can make enormous leaps in understanding and problem solving in a short amount of time, but that is exactly what ISKME’s Action Collab design process proved, on the first day of this past year’s Big Ideas Fest, when it opened with the design challenge: “How might we create educational opportunities to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline?”  

In light of the well-documented correlations between race, poverty, and graduation rates in America, and the unprecedented growth of mass incarceration in the United States, with disproportionate representation of black and brown-skinned people in prison, there is no denying the links between schools and prison, and no denying that there is a critical need for the education system to respond and become part of the solution.

In the space of just a few hours, Big Ideas Fest participants listened to four speakers, then got to work creating and prototyping their designs for improving a deeply flawed system. We all learned a lot quickly about the dire urgency of the situation, the very real complexity in addressing it, and—to our great collective relief—we practiced a productive method for dealing with that urgency and complexity.

Our research into the subject of the School-to-Prison pipeline began with a talk by Dave Cortese, the Superintendent of Santa Clara County, who shared statistics showing the extreme disparity of wealth and the high cost of living in Santa Clara County, the home of Silicon Valley and 15 cities, including San Jose.

He noted that while this hotbed of high tech is among the world leaders in job growth, has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, the highest number of billionaires per capita in the US, and one of the highest median household incomes in America, Santa Clara County also has the highest number of homeless people per capita of any metropolitan area in the US, and high poverty rates among school-aged children.

In this area of California, where an average household income of $63,000 puts you at the federally adjusted poverty level, the added complications of scarce housing and astronomical rent prices produce an untenable situation for the many students and their families, who cannot thrive in this setting. Cortese tied this demographic data to the negative impact of traditional disciplinary policies at public schools, which reinforce and sustain the school-to-prison pipeline.

Following Cortese, a three-person storytelling panel shared another sort of data from their own experience about being teachers who work to provide educational opportunities to at-risk or in-risk students, in order to prevent or interrupt that cycle.

Tyson Amir has taught high school curriculum inside California jails for the last 12 years. He described the common patterns that emerge from the individual stories of how his students end up in the South San Francisco jail. Amir told part of this story in the form of a spoken word poem that was both movingly poetic and persuasively analytical. Vivid with the singular image of the boy-child born innocent into a world of economic instability, racial discrimination, neglect, and hunger, Amir shed light on the statistical inevitability that many children growing up in this context will exacerbate the negative outcomes with their own ‘poor choices’:

He can’t seem to think outside of the box, outside of his block

He’s preparing to spend his life in life in jail or outlined in chalk

Is he ever going to figure it out?

Ashanti Branch, a former Math teacher, founded The Ever Forward Club in order to support his middle school students, African-American and Latino adolescents at risk of dropping out and entering the School to Prison Pipeline. Branch’s own story of being raised by a single mother on welfare echoed the pattern that Amir saw in his students:

If I’d had a checklist in the womb I would have chosen things very differently than the way they came out. I would have chosen to live in a house, nice neighborhood, two parents, regular meals….

From his own experience and that of his students, Branch could see that school education needed to broaden the scope of what it teaches its students:

When I started Ever Forward, it was because I saw young men who were smart, on their way, who could be going anywhere they wanted to go in life, but because of these emotional barriers and things that were getting in the way, tripping them up, they were on their way to prison.

Shanley Rhodes, a former Los Angeles high school teacher now teaching for Five Keys Charter School in California prisons, gave another account of the ways in which schools fail to support and retain their students who live in the chaos and violence of economically and racially-divided communities. She told the story of trying to teach at a high school in Los Angeles that was in lockdown for a year because of daily fights on campus.

How ironic and silly it is to talk about learning Algebra, or the causes of World War I, without looking at the whole child. We talk about the ‘whole child’  in preschool and elementary school, but in high school we talk about ‘students’ and test scores and college prep and Common Core. It’s not just that Algebra is sometimes at the bottom of the list, it’s that for many of our students Algebra is not on the list, you’re not going to get to Algebra that day. And we don’t account for that in our public schools, as a system.

The stories told by statistical data and particular individual experiences all added up to a clear message: in order to meet the design challenge of creating educational opportunities that can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, it is necessary to have an understanding of the contexts in which one’s students live—a context that consists of their living with enormous stress, fear, and anger every day.

After listening to the storytelling panel, the Action Collabs then set to work in small groups on brainstorming in a design thinking mode, which means first and foremost that problem solvers design for the end-user—i.e., the at-risk or in-risk students, and also the larger community of which they are a part. Doing research in a way that prioritizes data about user experience means that empathy is a kind of knowledge that is essential for effective problem solving. Because the fact-based stories put flesh on the bones of the abstracted statistical data, it became easier to understand whom we were designing for, and to what end. The combined effect of the demographic statistics with their bald proof of the system’s massive failures, and the visceral particulars of many first-hand experiences with the school-to-prison pipeline had a way of clarifying the complexity and illuminating the path to designing for the end-users.

ISKME’s Action Collab process is distinctive for the way in which it is informed by end-user experience, in this case storytelling, and although the participants in my group were neither experts in prison reform nor necessarily well-versed in all of the salient data, we nonetheless managed to parlay the knowledge gleaned from the panel’s storytelling into a design prototype that reflected our informed conviction that contemporary approaches to educational and judicial discipline in America are deeply inadequate to the end-users’ needs and rights.

I found it especially impressive and amazing that the brainstorming deliberations of my Action Collab colleagues unwittingly touched upon many of the classical models and ethical issues that characterize the long history of ideas about the methods and goals of incarceration. Designing our own particular prototype advanced each person’s understanding of the topic, and while our grasp of the issue became more nuanced, the powerful impact of the speakers’ stories and the fast pace of the design process allowed us neither to bog down in despair at being able to effect real and meaningful change, nor to insist on more time for further research (an easy way to doom change and progress).

This timely design challenge, along with research data, the innovative strategy for collaborative brainstorming, and the diverse mix of professionals and students at the Big Ideas Fest made for a remarkably productive, intense and lively setting in which to do such important work. If our results-oriented collaboration could go so far in such a compressed amount of time, just think what we could do with more sustained effort!

The Superintendent of Santa Clara County’s closing words were an exhortation to educators to take the lead in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, and he sweetened the deal with the mention of available resources:

So, if I had any encouragement, or attempted inspiration for all of you today, it would be that we need your design work, but we also need your advocacy; we need your ideas, we need to know what we can do better, how we can support the world of education, more directly, less indirectly. With a County government where we have a 5.6 billion dollar budget, or in our local city of San Jose here, where the budget is over 2.2 billion dollars, we can do more—but we need to know where that support is best utilized.

That sounds like a design opportunity to me! Got a Big Idea? Let’s get to work!