A few years ago I worked on a project focused on co-creating more joyful and inclusive school cafeteria environments. As you might expect, we engaged a variety of cafeteria and school community members in the process, including cafeteria staff, custodians, teachers, school lunch monitors, and administration. And at the very heart of the work were students.
Throughout the research process, at districts across the country, it was common to hear adults say, “The kids really love fast food.” It was their observation of what they saw and heard from students. But did they know why?
“Because it’s fresh.” That’s the answer a 5th grade student shared with me one afternoon. He had previously said that Taco Bell was his favorite place to eat, and so I asked him what he liked about it.
“What does ‘fresh’ mean to you?” I asked in response.
“You know,” he said, “They make it right when you order it.”
He went on to share that he wished his school lunches were made that way. Instead, they came pre-wrapped in plastic, sitting on a shelf for who knows how long.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve thought about this conversation dozens of times over the years. Two things stuck with me. The first is how important it is not to make assumptions about shared definitions. In my mind, I considered “fresh food” to be foods that haven’t yet been preserved in some way. It never occurred to me that a processed made-to-order meal might be considered “fresh” to someone else.
The second is how often we, as adults, underestimate kids and youth (defined by the United Nations as people between the ages of 15 and 24). We do this at a societal level, and many of us do this at an individual level, too. Despite young people being just that—young people—we often expect them to have less nuanced perspectives than adults. And worse, less valuable perspectives.
But there’s no question: Kids and youth are dynamic people, with nuanced and important experiences and opinions. And they have a right to express themselves and their opinions, especially regarding decisions that will impact them and their lives.
As designers, it’s critical to be aware of ageism biases that can creep into our perspectives and work. Kids and youth are tremendous collaborators (not to mention some of the most creative!). But it’s important to know how to partner with kids and youth in a way that’s ethical and about real relationship-building.
That’s why I’m thrilled to welcome Grace Greene, Design Researcher with Hopelab, to The Magic Word! Grace uses her design research expertise to help build inclusive tech products to help young people feel their best. And as a Gen Zer, she has important perspective on what it means to co-design with youth. Join us for our interview below, where she shares more about her work, youth voice and leadership in design, and practices to meaningfully partner with youth on projects.
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I’m excited to chat with you for this month’s issue, Grace! Can you share with our readers a bit about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to your work?
In conversation with...
Hi! My name is Grace Greene (she/her) and I’m a design researcher building inclusive technology through equitable, community-centered design practices. Well, I’ll start off by saying that I absolutely love this work. As I see it, my work is really about hearing, understanding, and elevating the stories of people who are not typically included in the design of innovative technology. And that is such an honor and a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
As for what brought me to this work – I’ve always loved learning from others and have been passionate about building a better world. But it was my college study abroad year that made me realize that this work is my work. During that remarkable year, I studied in Italy, Tanzania, Botswana, and South Africa and I lived with host families. I learned their languages and was immersed in their culture. Sharing stories about our different worldviews and how they shaped our experiences was done every night at the dinner table. Alongside that, I also had the unique opportunity to conduct independent research studies as a student. In Italy and South Africa, I spoke to youth, teachers, and parents learning how the sociocultural context for learning shaped youth identity. I’d say that this incredible opportunity gave me a solid foundation for doing design research and later delving into the inclusive tech space.
Your work as a design researcher focuses on the intersection of youth, social impact, and technology. What types of projects do you work on? And what energizes you about this area?
The kinds of projects I work on are intended to bring in and center the voices of young people as well as those from historically marginalized communities. The work is as much about the outcome as it is about the process – ensuring that the team is leading with strategies that do not perpetuate dominant culture values or systems of oppression and center joy and community so that all participants feel valued and respected in the design research process. Last year, I worked on imi (Hopelab’s free, digital, science-backed mental health tool for LGBTQ+ teens). I led a usability testing sprint to make the product more inclusive of BIPOC, nonbinary, and transgender users. Currently, I’m working on a project with Hopelab and Equip to better understand the facilitators and barriers to diagnosis and referral to eating disorder treatment centers among Black youth. We’ve held conversations with Black, eating disorder providers to better understand their experiences in providing care and then will be moving into conversations with Black youth. These are just a couple of projects that I’m really proud to have worked on. Honestly, it’s just really exciting to see DEIJ as a framework that is not just helpful for the design and design research process but that it’s seen as essential. Because the more we can truly center the experiences of historically marginalized communities the more that we can actually create products and opportunities that are innovative.
From your experience as a designer researcher and as a member of Gen Z, what does it look like for designers and design researchers to meaningfully partner with youth on projects?
Thank you so much for your time and insights! Where can folks go if they want to learn more about you and your work?
Of course. I’m so glad that I could share. Please connect with me or follow me on LinkedIn here.
Historically, youth voice has not been deeply valued within dominant culture. It wasn’t common for youth to be invited to participate in conversations around work that impacts them, let alone for youth to collaborate on and lead that work. Gen Z is clearly looking to change that. (And for good reason!) How are you seeing this shift show up in design?
You’re right! And what I love about my generation is that we are so committed to improving this world. I saw this play out on a project I led at Hopelab on youth mental health and climate change. Coming in new to the topic, we were really looking to make connections with youth activists and activist organizations in order to explore the topic more, elevate the work they’re already leading, and see how technology might be able to support the work. In our one-on-one interviews with youth, their persistence in standing up for climate justice really stood out. It often looked like founding their own organizations, organizing rallies with thousands of people in attendance, and creating workshops for their peers to connect and heal together. In these stories, I heard that the youth activists sustained this work because they want and deserve better – for everyone and for the planet, even if they have to go against adults who are in power and typically determine their future. That’s a risk we are willing to take as a generation, I think.
I think the insight here that I’ve seen designers catch up to is that Gen Z will not stand for older adults in power dictating our future without our input. We will divest, we will boycott, we will cancel. And that’s because we care. Designers learning about and leaning into the value propositions that Gen Z authentically leads with are the ones that will be most successful with the experiences and products they’re building.
[Image description: Grace is is smiling at the camera with her head tilted to the side in this portrait photo. She's wearing a white long-sleeve shirt, a silver necklace, and silver hoop earrings. She is posing in front of white walls and a vase filled with yellow flowers.]
Every month we'll share a variety of books, articles, podcasts, and other resources on the month's concept and other topics at the intersection of food x equity x design.
How We Practice Trauma-Informed Design at Chayn (event)
June 20, 2023 at 7 pm PT / 8 pm MT / 9 pm CT / 10 pm ET
Learn how Chayn's design principles based on a decade of work on gender-based violence guides how we design services, content & run the organization. This event is free.
Unpacking Culture (course)
Do you dream of a more rested, joyful and connected society? We cannot manifest the futures we dream of without changing our actions. That's why we've created Unpacking Culture - a space for community to collectively experiment with new (or old) ways of being, doing, and thinking, to align with liberation. This cohort has a registration fee with payment options.
Avoiding Racial Equity Detours (resource)
This article describes four racial equity detours commonly embraced in schools, followed by equity principles that can help educators avoid these detours and build a more transformational racial equity approach.
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