A few months ago, Antionette Carroll, founder of the social justice nonprofit Creative Reaction Lab, conducted something of an experiment in her hometown of St. Louis. She went into an Aldi in a predominantly African-American, low-income community, another branch of the supermarket chain in a middle-class neighborhood, and one in a wealthy, predominantly white enclave. “It’s the same store, but the layout was completely different,” Carroll says. In the latter two Aldis, produce and healthy snacks greeted the people walking through the doors. In the store in the lower-income community, the first thing customers see are chips and cookies.
Even something as easily overlooked as grocery store layouts, Carroll says, can perpetuate inequality. “That’s a design decision,” she says.
Carroll is a designer by trade; she previously served as the president of the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. The idea of equity pervades all of the work that she does. She founded Creative Reaction Lab (CRXLAB) after the shooting of Michael Brown and the attendant unrest in Ferguson in 2014 to get local designers and advocates thinking about how to use their line of work to open up channels of communication between people on opposing sides of the conflict, and to create spaces in which everyone felt they could contribute their voice and their perspective.
As part of the class of 2018 TED Fellows, Carroll plans to bring her approach, which she termed equity-centered community design, to a more national platform. Through CRXLAB, Carroll and her team already tour around the country, meeting with institutions around the country to give instruction in how they could become more focused on engaging everyone in their communities, and more intentional with equity work.
But the real focus of CRXLAB the past couple years, Carroll says, has been on engaging youth with the idea that they could use the design process to bring about the changes and equity initiatives they want to see in their own communities. Which goes back to those Aldi stores. “It takes a real mindset shift to even notice these inequities as design problems,” Carroll says, “and another shift to see that hey, I can do something to change that.”
In 2018, CRXLAB will launch two new programs aimed at engaging youth in the equity-centered community design process. The first, Design to Better [Our Community] Summer Academy will begin this year, and invite Black and Latinx high school students to participate in a series of workshops lead by designers, businesses leaders, and policymakers on how use creative problem solving to create equitable communities. The students will identify issues in their local communities, and work with residents and program leaders to build approaches to solving them.
The Community Design Apprenticeship Program, launching this spring, will engage a group of local Black and Latinx college students in addressing a specific issue in a St. Louis neighborhood. For the first iteration of the program, the challenge posed to the students will be: “What would public transit do to improve your life?” The apprentices will study the historical issue, conduct a community audit among residents to get a sense of their needs, and propose a new transit system that will address them.
While CRXLAB’s work on these programs is currently centered in St. Louis, Carroll emphasizes that these two initiatives are designed to adapt to any context. When she takes the stage at TED2018 in Vancouver in April, she’s hoping to inspire other design and community leaders present to adapt the programs to their own contexts. “Every city has its own challenges when it comes to racial equity,” she says. “You look at Flint, and there’s an environmental justice pipeline; here in St. Louis, we’re focused on police and community relations.” Carroll’s idea is that when youth can begin actively engaging with these challenges as things that they can affect, they will bring about real change.