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How Youth Are Using Design to Approach Police Brutality in Minneapolis

May 4, 2017

By: Genevieve Poist

Prompted by the social unrest caused by the 2015 and 2016 shootings of Jamal Clark and Philando Castile, many of North Minneapolis’ young people, specifically those of color and immigrant backgrounds, took to the streets to show protest the police brutality, economic disparities, and public health issues surrounding the loss of these members of their community. However, as the youth grew tired of marching, blocking highways, and protesting at the governor’s mansion, many found themselves desiring more tangible, actionable means of translating their protest to socially impactful policy that would improve public health in their communities and help transform the culture that creates these acts of violence.

One of these young people’s fathers, Remi Douah, is a human-centered designer and researcher at the Minnesota Design Center. Around this time, Douah was working with Design Center Director Tom Fisher to address issues of public health in the North Minneapolis community. The city had recently granted funding to the neighborhood’s NorthPoint Clinic to add more beds to its facilities, but the community was concerned that the initiative was taking too narrow of an approach to addressing issues of public health and wanted to open a broader discussion about the culture of health and wellness in North Minneapolis. After observing the youth’s response to the acts of violence in the community, Douah approached Fisher to suggest that the Center intervene in the public health discussion by engaging the youth in the conversation to create a broader vision of health that would address its relationship to police brutality and violence.

With the green light, Douah encouraged his son and his peers to adopt a human-centered design approach to engaging their community in the issues they were protesting. To do this, the young people began meeting with Douah, who helped facilitate the design process as they problem-solved and brainstormed how they could transform this political unrest into political action. The result, albeit still very much in progress, has been a youth-led effort to engage other young people in Minneapolis in the examination of police brutality and uncover its underlying root causes of economic, social, and health disparities in their communities. Thus far, the group of North Minneapolis teens and young adults have designed and administered a survey to glean the opinions of local youth and is currently in the process of engaging a local workforce center to explore the survey’s findings and develop practical solutions to address the identified issues and ultimately, eliminate the violence against young men of color in their communities.

At a time when police brutality and violence against people of color is an unfortunately quotidian aspect of our news intake, the efforts of these North Minneapolis youth and their work with the Minnesota Design Center provide a precedent for using human-centered design to translate political unrest into tangible action, equipping youth with the necessary skills and empowering them to enact practical, impactful change in their communities as they find a place in the policymaking conversation.

Human-Centered Data Gathering: A Youth-Led Investigation

According to Douah, human-centered design is eighty-percent listening and twenty-percent action. In line with this philosophy, he began meeting with his son’s group of friends shortly after his initial push for them to begin researching practical solutions to the conditions and events they were protesting. Most of these young people had at least some involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and were familiar with the issues of racism, economic opportunity, and public health surrounding police brutality and acts of violence. Douah acted as a facilitator of these meetings, but, practicing principles of human-centered design, allowed the young people to drive the contents and brainstorm their own practical means of affecting policy, existing simply as a resource to help actualize whatever solutions they proposed.

The group set up their meetings with Douah in coffee shops and spaces in the community outside of traditional university meetings rooms which most of the youth distrusted because of as association between the design center as “establishment” and the violence and oppression they had initially set out to protest. Practicing human-centered design that allowed the people in question to truly guide the process required building a level of trust uncommon to more traditional projects in which designers enter a neighborhood and works with adults and similarly-minded professionals in focus-group settings. Douah had to reconfigure his approach to the design process and venture to places uncommon to scholars and researchers for meetings without formal invitation or structured agendas, showing up to coffee shops and community theaters and waiting for the youth-led discussion to move in the direction of the project.

The group already had notions that police brutality was not merely a matter of violence against people of color and immigrants, especially young men of these identities, but part of a much bigger public health issue involving economic, work, and educational disparities, as well as issues of mental health and self-esteem within their communities. However, to confirm their presumptions, the initial meeting group decided the first step in its human-centered design process would be to survey youth across the city and state to confirm or deny whether these issues were important to young people overall, especially in regards to their racial, ethnic, and gender identities. After asking Douah to educate them in data-driven decision-making processes and how to use data to impact policy, the young people created a survey based around eleven priority issues they had identified: affordable college education, funding for youth-led educational workshops, reentry services for youth and citizens who have completed their incarceration, jobs and economic development, mental health and economic disparities, minimum wage, police brutality, restoring voting rights for youth and citizens who have completed their incarceration, safe space(s), school violence, and youth homelessness. The survey was structured so as to help the group discern which of these issues were most pressing to each zip code surveyed to better understand young peoples’ conceptions of social injustice.

police brutality in Minneapolis

With funding from the McKnight Foundation, the group designed and administered the survey to young people across the city and state. Mental health and economic disparities emerged as the most compelling issues, overall, for the Minnesotan young people polled. Affordable college education and jobs and economic development closely followed. These results confirmed the initial group’s suspicions that these economic and health-related issues were likely underlying the police brutality they originally protested and deserved attention moving forward. Having gathered the necessary data to determine their approach, the youth then began to brainstorm potential solutions that addressed the issues identified. What sort of programming could be enacted? Where could they go to design and prototype solutions? How could they gain agency and power as young people in the political system?

Seeking a laboratory to answer these questions and begin further investigation and prototyping of the broad, public health solutions they had set out to discover, the young group of designers and researchers looked to the newly updated Minneapolis North WorkForce Center.

Prototyping Human-Centered Design: Reimagining the Traditional Workforce Center

The Minneapolis North WorkForce Center, as it exists currently, has been a place that most of the young people involved in the project did not trust or see as a successful purveyor of the services most needed in their community. For instance, the WorkForce Center does not actually provide any paid work for people of the community, and the community itself lacks jobs in the immediate vicinity, making employment dependent on one’s ability to travel and the proximity of potential opportunities to public transit. The young people, then, sought to reimagine the WorkForce Center as a laboratory that would allow them not only to explore their findings and prototype design solutions to the economic and health-related issues they had identified in phase one of the project, but also better prepare and equip people in their community for jobs by teaching them relevant skills in the design process, and, in theory, paying them to do this sort of community engagement work.

Engaging the WorkForce Center, however, was not initially a desirable endeavor for the young team. Again, because most of the youth lacked confidence in the establishment, the idea of trusting and investing in something so directly tied to it, like a government agency, was not initially welcomed. However, in order to translate their protest to action, like they initially intended, the youth needed to develop a relationship with the establishment in order to make the center into something they could utilize as a tool to begin building a more positive culture of public health. Douah, in his role as a facilitator and resource, helped to encourage and build this trust in the system, guiding the youth in their transition from critique to engagement and connecting their desires with more powerful stakeholders at the Design Center to procure funding and attention from policymakers.

Design Center is now working with Hennepin County’s workforce development office at the Opportunity Center in Cedar Riverside, a predominantly East-African community, to engage the workforce development staff, clients, and community members in a human-centered design process that would enable them to think in new and creative ways about the system and its delivery methods at the North Minneapolis WorkForce Center and in other workforce center development across the city. What the young people identified as failures of the traditional workforce development model are now being noted as characteristics necessary for change, and the model’s programming is being reimagined to include space for the design solutions the youth will prototype as a means of addressing the underlying public health issues of police brutality and racial violence. Per Design Center’s proposal for the project, “Workforce development in Minnesota remains one of the most important investments in our future health and prosperity, with programs delivered in nearly 50 workforce centers across the state. While these centers provide valuable aid and instruction to the diverse populations eligible for workforce services, knowledge delivery and skill development have changed dramatically in the digital age, with information delivered through multiple channels and in distributed ways, and the state’s workforce development process will likely need to change as well.” Design Center has thus used the efforts of the youth-led human-centered design process to begin envisioning this new future of workforce centers and the workforce development process at both the local and national level.

police brutality in Minneapolis

Now, the team is currently awaiting the results of a proposal to secure funding that would allow some of the young designers to receive compensation and begin working at the WorkForce Center to develop relevant prototypes, hold workshops, and transform the place into the hub of community engagement and problem-solving that they hope it to be. If funding comes through, Douah and his team hope to hold a youth-led summit this coming fall to further prototype and discuss their survey findings with the community and prepare to present their findings to more powerful political stakeholders.

Beyond the Twin Cities: Can Human-Centered Design Solve Social Injustice Elsewhere?

Although the Design Center’s project is far from finished, and the work of the initial team of young designers and researchers is only just beginning, what both aspects of the project have done already is provide a replicable model for engaging youth in the human-centered design process, creating a prototype for data-collection and an evidence-based approach to finding solutions to community problems and social injustices. Instead of holding externally-planned workshops and seminars with the youth and walking away with not much to show for it, the Design Center’s paradigm surveys and engages young people to identify issues that are truly representative of their population, not just a group of twenty or so that happen to show up for a workshop or seminar. By allowing the youth to design the survey itself and work with the data and design their own response to it, the resulting solutions and prototypes are also youth-led and thus reflective of the community for which they are designed.

The project, in all of its phases, is also an attempt to answer a question of, “What do we do with youth who have not finished high school but have emotional intelligence and skills, especially if those skill sets are the result of illegal, unquantifiable activities?” This Design Center endeavor attempts to channel these skills into marketable qualities, providing a platform for utilizing young people even if they lack the formal requirements for procuring a job or further education.

What this project does that is different from a more traditional design approach, one not led and designed by the young people at the root of the design issue in question (in this case, police brutality against young people of color), is allow the youth to begin seeing themselves as resources and assets to their own communities rather than the causes of a problem. The approach works because Minneapolis has politically active young people, as well as governmental leaders dedicated to empowering the city’s youth. Engaging youth, then, is not a foreign concept in the Twin Cities, but, as we learned in our exploration of the work of Juxtaposition Arts, a commonly recognized and utilized resource in transforming Minneapolis and St. Paul in socially impactful ways. Although not all cities or communities possess a youthful contingent to empower, or policies and leaders willing to support such an effort, the human-centered design approach of engaging those most affected by an issue can be replicated elsewhere if designers allow themselves to disband traditional practice and meet people in their communities and under their own terms of design. Further, the notion of reimagining human services—like workforce centers—to better reflect the needs of community can be replicated in any city willing to critically examine the effectiveness of the services they provide, especially in light of pressing issues of social injustice.


Genevieve Poist is a writer, artist, and researcher whose work has been featured in places like the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City. Genevieve is interested in the social constructions of our spatial and cultural identities, from urban cores to rural americana, and the hidden narratives emerging amidst these shifting landscapes. Genevieve holds a Masters in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a BS in Architecture and BA in Philosophy from the University of Maryland. She is currently based out of Austin, Texas, but can often be found ruminating and creating in other parts of the country. You can learn more at www.genevievepoist.com.

All photos courtesy of the Minnesota Design Center.

One Comment

  1. Patrick Doss-Smith May 10, 2017 at 1:34 PM

    This issue of real engagement is a major theme at the 3rd Annual Adaptation Forum taking place in St Paul. The world is not only watching, we are also listening and taking action. A big thank you to Mr. Douah, and The Design Center.

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