Monthly Archives: June 2013

Telling The Story: The Final Ingredient

Post by Michael Lindenberger

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Thirty-four years ago Joan Didion opened a famous essay about life in a California she no longer recognized, or even fully trusted, by writing, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I am finishing up my first year as a resident here in California and it’s important to note that much has changed here since the 1979 publication of The White Album, but the importance of storytelling hasn’t.

We can debate whether storytelling is necessary, as Didion wrote, to our lives, but it certainly is one powerful tool for making sense of the lives we do lead, and for communicating that sense to others.

What flushed these thoughts on a sunny Tuesday morning was reflections on the five weeks my team – Chelsea, Tate and Ryan — and I have just spent working in East Palo Alto. We were on task for the city manager and her executive team to design a way to boost the sense of community among residents of the west side of East Palo Alto.

We began our task, as is recorded earlier on the blog, by a different kind of storytelling: We asked residents there to tell us their stories, and we listened. If we have been successful, and we all four feel good about our project, that was the moment our success began: When we asked about the stories of the residents there, and listened to their answers.

I won’t recount the whole process of nearly five weeks here, since much of it has been detailed on the blog by teammates, but I will that we went down several paths that we later abandoned before deciding on our final design.

We thought perhaps what was needed was a way for young people to better understand older residents, many of whom came to EPA when it was a very different place, or for black residents to understand Latino residents and for Pacific Islanders to tell their stories. We devised a way that young people would, instead of telling their own stories through writing and artistic programs designed to teach them self-expression, interview each other and end up telling the stories of their parents, or their friends and of people they don’t know and normally wouldn’t talk to.

We thought that by doing that we might put a face on the East Palo Alto residents, so many of whom we heard anecdotally work in service positions in companies that have made Silicon Valley famous. Indeed, we thought even that we could use those stories to help brand the EPA as a backbone of Silicon Valley and approach companies with an appeal to get more directly involved in housing and other touch-and-go issues that make for many in EPA their hold on their lives so tenuous.

But as we kept asking questions, we lost faith in the ability of those stories to apply real leverage against companies, who we feared would not be persuaded that a healthy EPA was a business necessity for them, not when this particular job market is so tilted in their favor.

So the glory of the design thinking process was just this: We easily abandoned storytelling as central part of our solution, and turned instead to other levers. We ended up proposing the Park Knights of the Westside, as a solution to a very pressing and immediate need for safer and simpler parking choices for residents of the Woodland Park Apartments.

In short, the solution is to recruit a host of volunteers who would be willing to be on call once a month or so to respond to texted requests for parking escorts for residents who arrive home late at night and sometimes must park a mile away or more.

But we weren’t done with storytelling. Even after developing the solution, and testing it through prototypes and improving it right up until the last minute, we had to present the idea to city manager Magda Gonzolez and her executive team. We would be one of four teams presenting and the task was simple, but not easy: Communicate to her team our idea in a way that would both arouse their curiosity and satisfy their experience-born skepticism powerfully enough that they would take the idea and put it in play.

That’s no small task, given the wealth of ideas and paucity of resources available to people in their position.

In our run-through on Tuesday, two days before the presentations, we demonstrated just how much work we had to do. One problem, the opening was too long and failed to adequately set the stage for what we were about to present. Our solution, taken from a member of the teaching team, was to use a piece of visualization that had ended the talk previously as part of the ramp.

I simply asked the managers to close their eyes and imaging coming home late at night in a dark and distant parking space and then walking 20 minutes back home. With eyes closed, it was easy to see how vulnerable that daily routine would make anyone feel.

That was but one example of how each of the three of us who were presenting focused our remarks first on the storytelling, and second on the importance of the ideas and methods we were discussing. And I think it is one reason why, when we ended, Magda responded so enthusiastically to our proposal.

A few simple rules we followed:

  • Whenever possible we substituted natural language for d.School jargon. This was harder than it seems since so much of the process is defined by its own terms, from empathy work to ideation to prototyping … we tried to get rid of them all, or if we kept them to explain the words in context.
  • We included signposts – little verbal clues as to where we were in the story, such as (now that we’ve told you who we met, we’ll talk about what we learned from them), and finally:
  • We weren’t afraid of repetition. Relying on the old preacher’s formula, we told them what we were going to say, said it, then told them what we had just told them.

I will just close by saying that seeing the reaction on the faces of the city manager and her team made this class project seem very worthwhile. We don’t know whether they will encourage the formation of the Park Knights or not, but I am certain that elements of our proposal will live on in the policy discussions among her team and the city council.

That’s five weeks well spent, and a story we can all be proud to tell.

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The final stretch: iteration, solution, reflection

Post by Ramya Parthasarathy

After our first round of prototyping, our team discovered that many services were already in place to aid students in their transition from middle school to high school.  CollegeTrack, the YMCA, and many of the Sequoia Union high schools acknowledge the challenges of going from 8th to 9th grade and offer services to aid students from East Palo Alto.  That we discovered this quite early gave us an opportunity to revisit our initial point of view and focus on a new user group.

We realized that the key insight we had uncovered—namely, that the transition from middle school to high school to high school is particularly challenging for EPA residents—applied to parents as much as children.  EPA parents clearly had strong parental communities when their children were young.  These communities were built around their children’s schools and sports leagues; but just as the move to ninth grade fragmented students social groups, so too did it break apart parental networks.  Many parents we spoke to confessed that they did not know the parents of their children’s high school friends. Others lamented the loss of their old parent associations, or grew frustrated at the difficulty of commuting to and from such distant schools.

Adopting the asset orientation of the design project, we tried to view this period of transition as an opportunity rather than a stumbling block—an opportunity to build new networks and norms for parents.  Once we had defined a point of view statement for parents, we asked ourselves the following question: “How might we generate lasting connections among parents of the same high school cohort?”  This question motivated a productive brainstorming session, in which we tried to identify a set of shared interests or activities that might bring parents together.

The session generated a number of potential solutions, but in order to hone in on the most viable and impactful ones, we tried to reframe the question as follows: “Why aren’t parents organizing themselves right now?”  This led us to identify three potential constraints that, if true, would need to be addressed by our solution concept:

  1. Information constraints: Parents don’t know the other parents whose children attend the same high school
  2. Resource constraints: Parents don’t have the resources (materials, time, etc.) to make such a parental association effective.
  3. Motivational constraints: Parents don’t see value in a network of other parents, or parents don’t see themselves as able to lead or organize such efforts.

Given our conversation with parents in EPA, we were relatively confident that parents had an interest in getting to know one another.  We did still have a number of questions about what parents already knew about their peers, what resources they would need, and who would be willing to lead such associations.

These questions led us down two paths: (1) prototypes in the field, and (2) “expert” interviews with parent education liaisons at local high schools.   In speaking with school officials at both Menlo-Atherton and Carlmont High Schools, we learned that parental involvement among EPAers is certainly a challenge for administrators, and one that has the potential to improve student outcomes around attendance and extracurricular success.  We also learned that parents face certain barriers to becoming involved: distance to the schools, the need for translation services, or financial resources (dues for parent-teacher associations, e.g.).    These conversations gave us increasing confidence that the creation of a parental association for EPA parents would benefit parents and students alike.

We then embarked on two prototyping missions:  The first was a flyer campaign in which we sought to gauge parental interest in high school parents associations, and the second involved in-depth interviews with parents about their interest in one of four possible parent association groups.  From these interviews, we came away with two key insights: (1) parents are motivated to work with others if there is a concrete benefit or resource (after school space, transportation, etc.) for their children, and (2) it takes a special type to lead/organize such associations.

Though these interviews and prototypes could only give us a baseline level of confidence, they did provide the groundwork for our final proposal: the Shared Collectives Campaign—a service that brings parents together to collectively manage a resource.  Such a program would not only give parents and students access to much needed goods, but the collective ownership would generate trust and community among parents.

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This seed idea formed the core of last week’s presentation to City Manager Magda Gonzalez and her executive team.  After hearing about the design process and the proposed solution, our partners seemed enthusiastic about the proposal—not just about the pressing need in this area, but also regarding the feasibility of such a program.  Concerns were of course raised about the costs of such a program, how best to partner with the school district, and the identification of key community leaders.  But all seemed on board with the notion that parental associations of this sort could not only benefit students and parents, but could serve as a new way for the city to interface with its residents.

As we reflect back on the design process, we are incredibly thankful for the opportunity to get to know our neighboring city, and to hopefully contribute to its betterment.  Through our empathy work and prototyping, we tried to push beyond our preconceptions and to understand the residents of the city, to uncover their needs, their desires, and their aspirations.  By incorporating their feedback and suggestions into the final solution proposal, we hope that we have uncovered something of genuine use to the city.