How Can We Design Communities Where Kids and Families Thrive?

Mar 23, 2017, 2:00 PM, Posted by Katie Wehr, Sara Cantor Aye

A funding opportunity engages teams in six selected communities to create healthier environments for kids and families.

Man and child gardening.

How can we build healthier communities where children and families thrive?

Every community would likely answer this question differently.

And these unique approaches are exactly what RWJF and Greater Good Studio hope to leverage through a project called Raising Places: Building Child-Centered Communities.

Six selected communities engaged in cross-sector collaboration will be awarded $60,000 each, along with support to take part in a process that identifies priorities, gathers diverse insights from residents and stakeholders, and tests and refines practical solutions for sustainable change. Greater Good Studio, which specializes in addressing social needs through human-centered design, will guide participating communities through this process.

Key to this process will be a series of intensive work sessions in community collaborations to deepen relationships; conduct and synthesize research; brainstorm, prioritize and prototype ideas; and come together around a plan for future action. The project will share lessons with the field along the way.

Raising Places is not about jumping straight to “silver bullet” solutions. Instead, it’s about working closely, over time, with people you don’t typically work with to clarify the right questions for the challenge you’re addressing and plug away at the answers before arriving at a solution.

We’re not asking communities what they want to do. We’re asking what issues they want to explore—with a focus on learning about challenges that keep kids and families from reaching their full potential. Greater Good Studio will guide local teams in partnering with community residents, frontline workers, and others to define the problem and shape the solution.

Maybe it’s air and soil pollution. Maybe it’s safety. Maybe too many kids have nowhere to go after school. Or maybe parents have limited job opportunities because they can’t afford quality child care.

Raising Places builds upon this growing recognition that place matters to everyone—and especially to kids. For example, an analysis of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity program found that children who moved with their families to a lower-poverty neighborhood before they turned 13 were more likely to go to college and earn higher wages and less likely to become single parents, versus children whose families moved after they turned 13.

Now we need to move from diagnosing the environmental challenges that kids face to actively improving those environments.

And that’s where human-centered design comes in.

Human-centered design requires flexibility and comfort with ambiguity (rather than a rote plan) to identify and address the root causes of complex problems instead of the symptoms. It emphasizes the importance of listening to diverse voices and experimenting with diverse ideas—all within a structured series of immersive, collaborative activities over the life of the project. These activities aren’t just people talking around a table. They may involve, for example, shadowing residents who live in a food desert, or a group that’s addressing food insecurity, or observing how people use local recreational facilities if physical activity is the challenge.

In this way, community-based practitioners, local business and civic professionals, and residents dig into the real-life experiences of everyone affected by the challenges they are exploring and pinpoint the right problem to solve. It’s a new way to explore solutions, test ideas quickly, and figure out through practical observation and experience what works best. Ultimately, the goal is to catalyze long-term, sustainable change. We expect to learn a lot about the potential for this approach to inform how local communities collaborate and solve problems together.

We hope to hear from diverse communities in response to this CFP: large, small, urban, rural, and tribal. We are looking for community partnerships that already understand the importance of teamwork and are interested in building capacity to achieve change. How are you working to improve communities for kids and their families? What would it take to catalyze additional action in your community? Are you open to digging into old problems in new ways?

Achieving a Culture of Health takes unprecedented collaboration, and that’s a big part of what Raising Places is about.  By working together, we can bring about changes that support healthier communities where all children and families thrive.

About the authorS

Katie Wehr, senior program officer, focuses on discovering and investing in what works to promote and protect the nation’s health and to achieve the Foundation’s vision where we, as a nation, strive together to build a Culture of Health enabling all in our diverse society to lead healthy lives, now and for generations to come.

Sara Cantor Aye is co-founder and executive director of Greater Good Studio, a design firm that uses human-centered principles to improve the quality of life for all people. At Greater Good Studio, Sara applies her background in ethnographic research and design strategy to overlooked problems and underserved people.