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🎙Podcast: How to achieve racial equity through design frameworks

“Social entrepreneurs are designers; they are creators of experiences; they are creators of challenging—in many cases—the status quo, and challenging systems of oppression. And so we have to also recognize that the systems of oppression, inequality, and inequity are by design, but that also means that they can be redesigned.”

Antionette Carroll is a social entrepreneur, equity designer, facilitator, and international speaker. She launched Creative Reaction Labs, a nonprofit educating and deploying young people to challenge racial and health inequalities impacting their communities through Equity-Centered Community Design. Tune in to learn how this creative problem-solving process grounded in humility, history, and healing practices challenges existing power dynamics and reimagines community. Learn how Antionette’s journey led her to approaching design as a disruptor and how she’s flipping the supremacy of design by building a movement of justice designers across the U.S.

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This podcast series is supported through a grant from the Citi Foundation and is presented as part of The Inclusive Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. With the support of the Citi Foundation, Echoing Green will accelerate leaders of color and leaders who represent communities of color by providing financial and leadership development support, creating visibility opportunities to amplify their voices and stories, and connecting them to Citi employee volunteers for advising and mentorship.

For more episodes of On Course: The Podcast from Echoing Green, visit anchor.fm/echoinggreen.

Episode Transcript

Eric
Hi, and welcome to On Course, the podcast from Echoing Green that explores social entrepreneurship, and the pieces of people’s lives that they tend to leave out of their bios. Echoing Green is a premier global investor in new leaders who are boldly working to change the world, providing fellowships, community, seed stage funding, and strategic support at that critical stage where they’re just trying to get off the ground. My name is Eric Dawson. I’m a father, husband, social entrepreneur, storyteller; and I have the distinct honor of serving as a chaplain for Echoing Green. I, along with my colleagues support fellows in their spiritual and emotional well-being as they mediate between who they often feel they need to be publicly, with how they often feel privately; I’m a fraud, I’m not good enough, I don’t know what I’m doing. On course, is about the journey that these leaders take from the moment they decide to act, to create to change.

I’m happy today to share my conversation today is with Antoinette Carroll. Antoinette is the founder, president, and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, a nonprofit educating and deploying young people to challenge racial and health inequalities impacting their communities. Creative Reaction Lab’s equity-centered community design is a unique creative problem-solving process grounded in humility integrating both history and healing practices that challenges existing power dynamics and reimagines community. Antoinette and Creative Reaction Lab are building a youth-led, community-centered movement of a new type of civil leader.

Antoinette, it’s such a pleasure to have this conversation with you. What I admire most about you and your work is at your heart. You’re a designer, right? Yeah, you’re a designer, you create you build. So I’d love to start by having you take us back to your childhood. And what were those key elements that shaped you? Were products of our lived experience? How did growing up, impact you? and impact your approach to work?

Antionette
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m really excited to have a conversation with Eric, because you know, you’re one of my favorite people. So, growing up, I grew up in some people will call it poverty, I honestly didn’t think I was impoverished when I was younger. You know, I had a loving family. I was lucky enough, what I call having three different parents, if you want to say, that’s what it was, because I was raised by my grandparents. But I also had, my mother and father was still around. And then I also had my aunt and uncle. So I really wasn’t able to get in trouble too much because of having too many people around. But I always had that love.

And, you know, when I was growing up it in my family, there was always this push around, not only academics, but also creativity and creative thought, and to the point where we used to have even living room art sessions. And I look at myself, when I reflect back on childhood, I always said I was a DIY kid, I was the one that was always looking at how do we, you know, create jewelry? How do I create a sketch of that time I was a naked woman in a garden, I don’t know why my grandmother kept showing me that, but that’s what she had us doing. Um, or, you know, the Easy Bake Oven experience, even though it wasn’t so that I can cook because I don’t cook. But it was more so just making. And I think that has continued to show up in my life, this idea of creativity and the possibility of creating something that doesn’t exist.

But then also, again, going back growing up and technically poverty, I’ve had to have an experience of really thinking through what was it like growing up where everyone was either a housekeeper or they weren’t an affluent white individuals homes, or they worked in restaurants. We were pretty much the family that was always behind the counter at Burger King. My first job was at Burger King. I mean, my first legal job. I used to work at a beauty salon as well, like cleaning up the floors when I was younger, but you know, you got paid cash then. But you know, I worked at Burger King. And then I worked at White castles and then I went back to Burger King. And that became that that really was a staple in my family of that’s what we did you either clean the bank, so you clean someone home or you worked in restaurants. And I ended up being the one to break that cycle, and show the possibility again, the possibilities of what career could actually look like what purpose could look like. And that was an interesting journey for me. And it’s also been an interesting journey for my family seeing that there’s more than just hospitality industry, but also you can pursue your hopes and dreams and find success in that.

Eric
My first legal job was Burger King too. I didn’t last very long. So, you’ve chosen a path which was one that was not visible to you while you were growing up. How did that happen? How did you create this vision for yourself without role models around you pointing the way?

Antionette
Actually, I think it was the opposite of that actually, was the path of the role models is where I initially started. When I was in high school. I was, I will say lucky enough where the education system catered their teachings to my learning styles, because, you know, we can unpack that, although all the ways we can. And so I was one of those students that had great grades, which meant that a lot of teachers wanted to bring me under their wing.

I had a teacher that was all around about science and biology. And she was a black woman, and really was interested in how do we diversify the field. And ultimately, at the beginning of my college career, the science teacher won.

I started as a biology major with the intention of being a biotechnologist and studying the human genome, I had a 4.0, I had a prestigious internship. And by a biochemistry lab, my freshman year, I had everything, they pretty much tell you that you’re supposed to have to be successful. And I realized that I wasn’t happy, it wasn’t something that I enjoyed doing, it was just something I was good at. And so I realized at that point in my life, that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s something that you have to pursue, you have to really think about how to use center joy and happiness in the work that you’re doing, because, honestly, we spend more time at work than we spend at home. So if you’re not happy at work, you know, then I don’t know how you’re gonna be happy, really, in my opinion in life in a lot of times.

And so, my sophomore year is when I really started to explore on my own what my future could be, and not just what my mentors wanted me to do, because that was their dream. And so I had to go down this journey of really figuring out what, what do I enjoy, and I honestly kept going back to those living room art sessions with my grandmother and my grandparents. And that’s what I started to pursue design. And at that time, I was graphic design, and really exploring a world that I’d never heard of, I never heard of design, I honestly had never even thought about websites being by design or the chairs, you’re and I never, like put those things together, which now I’ve come to realize that part of it is because it is more of an exclusive field is expensive to be in just to be very frank. But then also, design, to me is like an invisible disrupter, like you design is everything and everywhere. And if you haven’t been privileged, quote, unquote, to be in those spaces to really see the power of design. In many cases, you become more of just a consumer versus a producer. And so I’ve started at that time, I started to want to really explore what does being a producer look like? And that’s kind of where my career has been going since then.

Eric
I want to pull something out of that you just said, you know, design is an invisible disrupter. Everything is designed, right. I mean, the mics that we’re using the what people listening to, their air pods, yet we often understand designing these very narrow and often very elitist terms, right. It’s graduate degrees, it’s furniture. How do you think of design and how has that impacted what you’ve built?

Antionette
Yeah. Going back to my sophomore year, I remember being in my first graphic design class, and my teacher saying that I cannot give you the definition of design. But I can tell you that the Mac is the Bible. And you know, naive at that time. I’m like running to the school bookstore, spending thousands of dollars on a freaking computer that I honestly didn’t even need. I had to have this exploratory moment in my life of really questioning why couldn’t my teacher tell me what design meant and how can I actually help not only myself, but also the young leaders that I work with, to really have a firm understanding of the impact that it can have. And so I’ve now come up with the definition, also in partnership with IBM, because IBM had a definition of design in 1960, saying that it is the intent behind an outcome. I’ve since expanded that definition to say that design is the intent and unintentional impact behind an outcome. Because intent is not enough, I need us to start being more accountable of the impact that we’re having in communities. But when you really think about outcomes, you start to realize that it’s not just the beds were sleeping in, it’s not just the ads that we see on TV. But it’s also the systems that we engage in every single day, the systems of policies, the systems of, of, honestly, the justice system, the systems of education, the systems of health care, these are all different designs, and that Echoing Green, you all are about supporting big, bold ideas and innovation. And the social entrepreneurs are designers, they are creators of experiences, they are creators of challenging in many cases, the status quo, and challenging systems of oppression. And so we have to also recognize that the systems of oppression, inequality, and inequity are by design, but that also means that they can be redesigned. And so I’ve been actively working to build a movement of what we’re calling redesigners for justice, and really challenging us to not just passively again, be consumers, but be producers, a.k.a designers have outcomes that will provide better life experiences, opportunities for joy, opportunity for liberation, for everyone, and not just folks that have been historically centralized.

Eric
So let’s talk about the supremacy of design. Right? Whether that’s that’s white supremacy or masculine supremacy, right? There’s always an invisible who, when we get into a car, that car was designed for a user, when we put our seatbelt on, it’s designed for a certain height when we sit in a chair, when we read a book, when we go through the criminal justice system. It’s designed for a whom and it’s designed towards an end. How do you think about dismantling that?

Antionette
Yeah, I’ve been definitely thinking a lot more around divestment lately than anything else. Because you know, there is this tension where, you know, some folks are like, Why try to change from within, because ultimately, the longer you’ve been steeped in the culture, you tend to uphold a lot of those standards, even unintentionally. And then some folks are like less be from outside of the system, and dismantle and create a new, and I will say, I’m probably of the “yes and” brand, even with the work that we do. You know, I think about not only how do we do bottom up, but how do we have the bottom up and top down meet in the middle to collaboratively work together.

And it’s the same when it comes to dismantling the system’s we need folks that are internal to our aka intrapreneurs. To do the work to be those internal agitators. We need the folks outside of the system to be entrepreneurs and create something new with that challenges the status quo. But then I also think we need those community organizers which I don’t think get a lot of enough recognition of the impact they have on our society to hold both accountable. And it sucks that they have to spend their time holding these groups accountable. And when you think about supremacy, tenants or white supremacy, tenants, a lot of these things have been seeped into our mindset so much that we don’t even know that we’re upholding it. Like perfectionism is another one perfect according to whom Who to who gets actually define that? or? Yeah, like avoidance of conflict or quantity over quality. Like we see this in the philanthropy space. You know, they define impact as quantity, but not really depth of quality, which is what a lot of social justice and organizing groups focus on. They focus on that deck, they focus on that impact at a hyperlocal scale. But yet most of the groups we see funded are the ones that are could say, I’ve reached 100,000 people, but you can’t really see what the quality of that reach has been. So I think there’s a lot of things to kind of unpack and grapple with there.

Eric
So Antoinette talk to me about the design of Creative Reaction Lab. What inspired you to launch this work and what design principles sit beneath it?

Antionette
When I was creating Creative Reaction Lab, I had no intention of it actually becoming its own organization. Originally, it was a 24 hour, in a sense, design challenge, looking at St. Louis, racial divide, in particular, in response to the uprising in Ferguson, my family and I had just moved out of Ferguson six months prior. And so it was something that was very personal for me. And also, I was working as head of Communications at a diversity inclusion organization and I saw this silo segmented approach to addressing the division in St. Louis, which, by nature literally is like, addressing division with division. It just didn’t make sense to me. And also, I saw this exploitation of power in the community that wasn’t really centering folks with the living knowledge and living expertise.

And so creative reaction lab was a space where I brought together some activists and creative practitioners, some technologists, and said, what would you want to do to address St. Louis’s racial divide, and they pitched over 60 ideas worked on five throughout the night, and all five were launched within St. Louis, within a year, and some of them went on for several years and ranged from civic engagement tech tools to public our engagement to curriculum, and workshops with students as well as police officers. And so it was, in a sense, this catalyst of community voice and community ownership, and also, again, creative problem solving and this idea of possibility. And we then started to receive a lot of interest from folks from across the country, say, how did you do what you did, which for me, I’m gonna be honest, I was building that plane as I was going, like, literally, hour 16th still typing out the agenda of what we’re gonna do in the next five hours, like it was, it was one of those moments where it wasn’t about the planning, it was about the experience. And I learned that year it was 2014, that the idea of follow-through was probably more key than anything else. And so that led to Creative Reaction Lab ultimately becoming its own institution in 2016, a 501, c three, and 2017. And we’ve just been deepening our work, not only in St. Louis, but then across the country when it comes to youth work as well as across the globe when it comes to the framework that we pioneered called equity seven community design.

Eric
Antionette, you and I share a hometown in St. Louis. It’s where I was born and spent my child my early childhood. What does it mean? design is connected to space and place? What does it mean that you are a designer, an entrepreneur in St. Louis, in the middle of the country?

Antionette
I will say there’s a lot of intentionality there. There’s been times in which folks have said, Hey, would you be willing to move to Oakland? Or will you be moving to cut willing to come to New York, and I’m intentionally keeping creative reaction lab headquartered in St. Louis one, because that’s how we started it started around the uprising in Ferguson and across St. Louis to leave Once we receive more recognition or more funding, I think that’s part of the problem that we have. Also, there’s a lot of strength and power in grassroots organizing here in St. Louis. There’s amazing artivists. There’s folks like Kayla Reed that’s doing amazing things with the St. Louis action. Our actual Action St. Louis, excuse me. There’s also a lot of philanthropy here in St. Louis, not at this level of, let’s be clear, not at the level of New York or San Francisco, but more individual donors. I think there’s a lot of individual giving here. And honestly, if you like our work many times is us pushing people to look in their own backyards as opposed to always trying to have savior complexity and going into other communities.

Eric
One of your innovations is understanding the unique role that young people play as designers. Talk to us about what you’ve learned about the unique role the young people play, and how that has impacted what you’ve designed in terms of curriculum experiences.

Antionette
I believe that youth have been and still are the architects of change in our society. A lot of innovation that we’ve seen has actually come from young folks. And I think a lot of us don’t like to give them recognition. It bothers me when I hear people say the children are a future as if they’re not able to do things now. And we usually say, helping or supporting tomorrow’s leaders of equity today, like literally giving them that space, to create these micro-interventions through their lens and recognizing that this spark, this moment, could lead to systemic change over time. So in a sense, our work is more of a long-haul work. It’s not just, hey, let’s work with some mayors to address racial equity. Because guess what, that’s term limit based, that’s not really looking at it at the systemic level that we’re dealing with centuries of oppression here. This is not, you know, something that will be dismantled by only working with folks in more quote-unquote, traditional forms of power. We need to shift mindsets early, earlier, but not just in this consciousness-raising approach, which I think is a key part. But then also, how do we provide a space for cultural healing provide a space for collective mobilization provide a space for access to traditional power and resources to allow them to build their own capacity addressing, in our case, racial and health inequities, through their lens and through their lived experience. And so it really is acknowledging that, honestly, they are the leaders that we need, and then adults just need to get out of the way. And we need to really think through how do we leverage our power and access to support them to work to ultimately the point where they then will have the power and access and then they will leverage it, and then the cycle goes on and on.

I think a lot of young folks are so used to being told that they’re not enough. A lot of young folks are so used to being told that wait until you get to a certain age that they need to also see themselves and understanding that they actually have a huge roadmap of young youth-led leadership that they could follow and also expand and grow with the uprising or Ferguson, that was actually led by a lot of young folks. But yet the people that benefited the most were folks that were in more traditional forms of power, people that received the press, were the ones that were quote-unquote, already in traditional forms of power and many times, not the young people. And we need to really start to reflect on how are we also erasing in the movement space? How are we racing, not just in a movement space, but in all spaces where young folks are challenging us to be better and do better? Because they literally are Global Shapers in my mind, like they have access to insights into experiences that we didn’t have growing up just because of the internet just because of their extended network. And so why not leverage that and allow them to honestly lead.

Eric
So bring me into your classroom and classroom may not even be the right word? What’s the experience like for a young person in your program?

Antionette
Oh, that is a great question. I will say the experience of young folks in our program is shocking for a lot of them because they’re not used to so much autonomy. They’re not used to being asked the questions and not given the answers in some cases. There was a TED talk that I saw a few years ago that was around creativity. And it was talking about how we need to stop asking the question of what is two plus two equal? But more so, ask the question, what equals four? And really seeing the different possibilities around that. And that’s the similar approach that we take with our young leaders is that we say what do you want to do? How do you want this to be developed? What research should you conduct? What does the intervention look like through your lens? And so in our programs, our youth come in and first build their consciousness around race, around ethnicity, around equity, around justice, liberation. They also reflect on their own identities, how they been socialized, what’s the impact of the environment, the education, the educational narratives, their family, friends and culture media, how has that impacted how they view themselves, and also how they view each other. And part of that is through the lens of leadership. And part of that is through the lens of just being individuals surviving in this world. But then we also get them to the point where they then are thinking about and conducting actual community, research on the ground, understanding that they are part of the community. And also that means they have access, and trust already built, where the community feel this connection with them and are willing to share beyond just the band-aid, what they truly need because proximity matters, right. And then the other part or the next stage of the program is where they actually launched her into they tested, they brainstorm, they test their interventions, and then ultimately Lockshin and then make a decision on will this be something that’s going to be sustained? Or is it an exit strategy, and making sure that we’re not creating more trauma and harm in the work that we’re doing? And then what’s our next step is being redesigned for justice? And so we’ve had some young leaders that went through our apprenticeship programs were one, in particular, Quintin Ward, was named executive director of a local nonprofit called St. Louis Metro market at 23 years old and really started to deepen his work around food justice. And what does that look like when addressing apartheids within the St. Louis Promise Zone? And so really having them not just consider their work in the program, but also what is my path? And what is my equity journey? Beyond this program and recognizing that Creative Reaction Lab will support them in all of that.

Eric
Share a success. Like what’s something you’re just mad proud of that you all have done?

Antionette
I’m proud of everything! I am proud of my team, I am proud of the recent cohort or the community design apprentices that was able to launch an intervention in the middle of an actual pandemic. I am proud of the current artwork for equity campaign that we have going looking at historical and contemporary forms of voter suppression that Black Latinx and Indigenous communities have had to overcome and continue to navigate. And also the art that they’re creating around that. So I, I’m proud, I’m a person that I measured my success off one person. And when we’ve had our apprentices or so many young leaders come and say, I get it now. Or I feel like I actually can do X, Y and Z. That to me, that’s success. In my mind it’s not about the numbers. It’s about that that deepened impact and that building up their confidence, capacity and power to actually create change.

Eric
We’re in the middle of a global pandemic right now. How’s COVID-19 the economic turmoil, the racial uprisings impacted the way in which you do your work in 2020?

Antionette
So essentially, all three pandemics at one time, right? Um, you know, if you were to ask me this back in March, I would have said that, you know, COVID has significantly impacted us as an organization. We lost a lot of our clients. And of course, because of our work on the ground in the community, particularly we were looking at limited healthy food access, it was exacerbated because of COVID. There was a lot of things that we internally had to navigate on, where can we help and recognizing that we can’t do everything. And that led to us creating the youth Creative Leadership fund, where we provided micro grants to Black and Latinx youth across the country. But then the continue anti-Blackness police violence had been happening are started receiving press again, across the country, which then led to everyone having a re-emerged interest and racial justice and racial equity, which then led to us having a lot of support a lot of can you work with us, and I’m really at this point of really pushing our clients and the groups that we work with to not just be performative to not just show up in this moment, and then feel that they can leave. And again, trying to hold them accountable to the fact that anti-Blackness has been happening for a very long time. When we talk about, like I heard someone say the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, they never stopped, you know, like, work was still continuing. It’s just that we have media showing it. And so at our in our company, we recognize that our work as long haul, we we recognize that it didn’t stop when the media went away. And even now, that’s the same approach that we’re taking that it’s not going to stop. And is because fighting for racial equity is a lifelong journey. It is not something that ends once the checks go away.

Eric
So this last section, I’m gonna ask you five fast questions. And I just want to answer with the first thing that comes into your mind. You’re ready?

Antionette
We’ll see how this goes.

Eric
Who’s your favorite designer?

Antionette
Favorite designer? Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on, hold on. Favorite designer, Silvia Harris. She did a lot of work around civic design, and also how we make the census and everything more inclusive.

Eric
If you could create one new product or experience in the world, what would that be?

Antionette
Honestly, I would create an experience where all of us were able to define individual liberation for ourselves as well as collective liberation, because I feel like we really don’t have spaces to do that.

Eric
Who inspires you?

Antionette
My grandmother.

Eric
What’s the lesson that you’ve had to learn the hard way?

Antionette
I had to learn that. While there’s no such thing as work life balance in my life, if it wasn’t for my family, none of this would be worth it. And so some of us, for folks that listening to the podcast, we may be focusing so much on work, but no, at the end of the day, that there should be a purpose connected to it. And also, don’t forget the folks that are the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Eric
When your time on this earth is done, how do you want to be remembered?

Antionette
You know I will say, I want to be remembered like Beyoncé song “I was here.” That is literally my personal anthem. Whatever the impact I make in life, I just hope that there is an element of legacy there because and the black and African American community in particular, a lot of us don’t know, our ancestry. A lot of us don’t know, our legacies, which is something I personally have been grappling with in my life. And so I’m hopeful that I’m helping, I hope find a way to kind of keep those histories and those legacies alive even my own.

Eric
For those listening, who are inspired and want to learn more about your work, what can they do?

Antionette
You can go to creativereactionlab.com. The process of equity center community design, we actually open source stuff, and 2017. And so if you go to our website, you can download our field guide for free and think about how you can apply it to your work in gender equity, or equity for folks that are lgbtqi plus equity for neuro diverse individuals. Because we recognize that this work is collective, we’re not going to be able to do everything. And so how do we support everyone in this journey, and dismantling systems of oppression.

Eric
Antoinette, it was such a pleasure to sit down with you today, I want to leave just with a couple thoughts that you’ve given me to think about. The first is that design is an invisible disrupter. Design is an invisible disrupter. The second is the importance and I would say the integration of joy and liberation. Paula free airy, who is a Brazilian education activist, talked about when in the struggle if we struggle, without hope, our struggles suicidal. Then in our work for justice, we need joy, we need art, we need music, we need community.

You are a real designer for justice Antionette. And when and I want to leave with this, this idea of of Eleanor Roosevelt’s where she once said that “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. And she went on to say, “think about what would make you happy in the near future. Everybody is allowed to dream, make your dreams come true. And live them.” That is the invitation that you’re offering to young people and an intern, young people are challenging that notion of who a designer is. And to me that is the most radical and therefore the most important thing that we need to do right now is change the narrative of who gets to create and who’s seen as a creator.

Thank you for the work that you do. Thank you for being the human that you are. And good luck with what comes next.

Antionette
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

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