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Master's Thesis

We increased community engagement through design allowing residents to begin a conversation and co-create solutions around the topic of safety within their neighborhood.

Thesis mind mapping session

Community Connection is a project that explored how fostering communication and collaboration between fragmented community members can help to develop a sense of responsibility and co-ownership of their neighborhood. We wanted to explore the designer’s role in the context of community building and challenge the traditional role of design. By utilizing a human-centered and transformative design approach we will demonstrate how design can engage residents in meaningful conversation where individual assets are leveraged. The project aim was to enable citizens to discover the strengths of the community in order to take steps toward change.

The area of focus was the Kensington community located in North Philadelphia. This particular community is faced with issues that challenge the residents’ quality of life and safety. Kensington has the number one drug corner in all of Philadelphia and is an area of high crime. Citizens of this area live in isolation where they are disconnected from the greater whole and do not feel empowered to take action in order to become catalysts for change.

Thesis workshop example
What are our Roles as Designers?

By understanding the needs of the residents within this community we feel, as designers, we can work with New Kensington Community Development Corporation, Somerset Neighbors for Better Living and the greater community to co-create a platform where residents, in a safe space, are inspired to discuss issues in order to take ownership and action for the betterment of their neighbors.

Currently NKCDC is coordinating efforts and building a relationship with the local police district, government organizations and SNBL. However, there is no feedback from the greater community and little interest is generated for the existing initiatives. We feel there is opportunity at monthly meetings to begin to engage and inspire these residents to feel connected and invested by allowing them to discover the gifts that they have as a community.

We believe that by creating visual tools and methods that aid communication and foster collaboration, designers can engage people in activities that generate meaningful conversation by creating a common platform for discussion and a shared understanding.

NKCDC (New Kensington Community Development Corporation), is a local community organization whose mission is to strengthen the physical, social, and economic fabric of the community by being a catalyst for sustainable development and community building. To gain a better understanding of New Kensington Community Development Corp and the neighborhoods they work with we conducted interviews with several members of the organization. These interviews allowed us to not only gain an understanding of the neighborhoods but also the organizational structure within NKCDC, the various programs they offer and the staff members themselves. This knowledge was important as we progressed through the project and helped us to manage the relationship with NKCDC.

Thesis Lehigh-Somerset location details
Thesis stakeholder map
Monthly Community Meetings

Along with the monthly steering committee meetings at NKCDC, we also began to attend the monthly community meetings for Somerset Neighbors. These meetings are a way to update residents on upcoming initiatives and the current progress of the neighborhood. We observed that the meetings were structured in a lecture type setup where residents sat in rows facing the front. The meetings are only discussion based with no goals, plans, or visions being created for the community. Additionally, themes from these discussions are not being captured or pursued further. There was no opportunity to engage the residents in conversation. A few would raise their hands to comment or ask questions but neither the seating nor the speakers invited free exchanges between residents. The opportunity was clear. We, as designers, needed to shift how these meetings could run and engage the community more directly.

Thesis community meeting example
Contextual Inquiry

NKCDC organizes a monthly meeting for all Steering Committee members. We have been attending these meetings for the past 6 months as observers and facilitators. This was an opportunity to learn how these meetings were structured but also a chance to build trust with both NKCDC and SNBL. Angela Taurino, Resident Services Coordinator at NKCDC, runs the Steering Committee meetings. She creates the agendas and facilitates all conversation. The goal is to have each member attend leadership training so that they can operate independently from NKCDC.

By attending these meetings we observed how passive the steering committee members were within this structure. In the early meetings people did not open up unless prompted by either Angela or Carla. They allowed NKCDC to make the important decisions and take care of the details for both the community meetings and the other initiatives. As the members gained more confidence they would begin to voice their opinions. We also noticed that as facilitators, NKCDC began to include the members in more of the decision-making, seeking approval before moving forward with an idea.

Thesis contextual inquiry
NKCDC is coordinating efforts and building relationships with the local police, L&I and SNBL. However, there is no feedback from the greater community and little interest is generated for the existing initiatives. We feel that the monthly meetings would be a good venue to co-create solutions with this community around the issue of safety.
The Workshop

We chose a workshop format because we wanted to create a sense of connectedness, coownership and responsibility with the residents of the community. A workshop is a good platform to begin this conversation because it brings residents together into the same space and allows them to accomplish a common goal together.

Goal presented to the community
To start a conversation around how, you as residents, can create a safer environment

In planning the workshop we took a close look at our experience with Peter Block, our knowledge of participatory design and idea of adding an element of play. We compared different elements from each and highlighted the ones that we felt would be the most important for this workshop. Key points we took from our experience from the Peter Block workshop were the power of asking tough questions, the use of small groups, the idea of creating a sense of responsibility and accountability within the community, connectedness, and finally the focus on gifts. The Peter Block model heightens anxiety which we felt would be important to be aware of. We wanted to explore ways to lower anxiety without losing the power of the conversation generated by thought provoking questions. Incorporating participatory design methods helps to lower a participants’ anxiety. These methods include creating a common platform for discussion, generating tangible artifacts, developing tools to aid in communication, incorporating all stakeholders in the collaboration and co-creation. Keeping participants fully engaged and having fun is important for the success of a positive outcome.

Thesis planning
Thesis planning

It was also important to think about what supporting materials we should produce for the safety workshop to act as scaffolding for participants. We wanted to alleviate their cognitive load while also reducing their level of anxiety by creating a workshop packet to guide the participants through each phase of the process. This packet was produced in both English and Spanish and included the agenda along with a detailed description of each step. We also felt it was important to have a facilitator to work with each group. The facilitators, all designers, received a separate packet that included all of the material that was in the participant packet but had additional information regarding time and possible obstacles to be aware of.

Thesis workshop materials
Discussion Phase

We decided that the initial step would involve questions similar to the ones that Mr. Block asked in his workshop. The facilitator supplied each group with two questions that would get the participants thinking about their personal goals and contributions. The idea behind this was to start a conversation around why it is important to take a personal interest in the community. We felt it was important to look introspectively and not just rely on outside systems to solve problems. This phase was pure discussion and a way to get residents talking and thinking of the things they value. It was important for the facilitators to moderate this conversation in order to keep the answers positive and call on those less likely to speak up.

Thesis workshop discussion
Asking the Hard Questions
1) Why is it important for you to be here today?
2) What does it mean to you to be part of this community?
Appreciation and Clustering

The next phase would focus on appreciation. The facilitator asked each person to say at least 5 things (one per group member) that they appreciated about what was just said. We asked the facilitators to record key phrases from these responses on post-it notes. This was an opportunity for the residents to speak directly to their neighbors while also acknowledging their appreciation for attending the meeting.

After each participant had an opportunity to answer, the facilitator guided them through a clustering exercise looking to identify themes and similarities. This was heavily dependent on the facilitator to initiate but encouraged group participation. The goal of this activity was threefold, first to engage the participants in an activity, second, hopefully show them that they value similar things and third, offer an opportunity to continue the conversation.

Thesis clustering ideas
Thesis workshop
Brainstorm Phase

Each of the previous stages were designed to lead participants into the brainstorming section. After themes were identified and agreed upon, the facilitator labeled the large poster board provided with 3 of the identified themes. This helped to guide the next step where participants were asked to brainstorm ideas based on three guiding questions.

We designed large boards to act as a boundary object during this phase. Each board was separated into three sections: one per question and had an accompanying image to help clarify the scope of that section. The facilitator read aloud one question at a time starting with number one. After each question was read, the facilitator asked the participants to generate at least 5 ideas in 3 minutes using the idea cards provided. If any group member was hesitant to write their answers the facilitator could record the ideas as the participants said them aloud. Points to emphasize: Quantity over quality, avoid critique, no bad ideas, and one idea per card.

Thesis workshop board outcome
Asking the Hard Questions
1. What can you do, as an individual, to make your home safer?
2. What can you and your neighbors do together to make your block safer?
3. How can you work with SNBL to make our neighborhood safer?
Reflection and Feedback

The final phase of the workshop allowed for reflection, feedback, and action. We asked for volunteers to share something they learned during the evening. We felt it was important to allow for an opportunity to share group learnings. Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of time to devote to this piece. Before residents left, we handed out “What can I do now?” cards where residents could write down the actions they planned to do before the next community meeting. This was an opportunity for residents to take action based on the ideas generated from the workshop.

Thesis reflection and feedback
Thesis workshop ideas list

After synthesizing the information generated from the workshop, we presented the findings back to the steering committee in categories or themes. We felt it would be easier for them to digest this data if we grouped the individual responses into themes. We asked that they review the document and decide as a group on three themes that they felt could be put into action now and asked them what they felt their neighbors were willing to take action on.

Presenting the Data Back

Working with the steering committee and NKCDC we narrowed down the ideas from the workshop into three initiatives that would be presented back to the greater community at the next monthly meeting. We created large posters that displayed each initiative and included images with a description of what the idea was, how it would work and why it was important. After explaining each project in detail, the residents would be allowed to vote on their first and second choices. Once the votes were tallied the steering committee would then determine the details for the winning initiative.

Presenting the workshop findings and the initiatives generated from it back to the community is important in closing the feedback loop. It allows participants of the workshop to know that their suggestions were heard and that action steps had been developed.

Thesis workshop idea voting session
For more details about our process and journey to the outcome, check out Community Connection