Community Leadership From Every Angle

Designing for the Future

Designing in status quo ways produces status quo outcomes. That’s why Tania Anaissie founded Beytna Design, an equity design organization that supports socially-minded leaders to design in new ways to create a more equitable world. Tania, a design thinking expert, was brought onto the Community Leadership Corps team to work with participants to create the change they want to see. Learn more about how she got into this work and why she’s so optimistic for the future.

Q: A lot of the work the Obama Foundation does is oriented around the idea that our stories define who we are, and when we harness our narratives, we can help shape the world we want to see. Can you tell us a little more about your story and where you come from?

A: I was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, by Lebanese immigrant parents who came to the U.S. to escape war. I lived in a majority white neighborhood and went to a majority white private school with my brothers. Our school was rumored to have been founded as a white flight school for families fleeing racial integration at Little Rock Central High School nearby–and many students, teachers, and administrators were openly racist towards me and my brothers. We found ourselves socially excluded and victim to physical abuse and racial slurs. I remember students calling one of my brothers “towelhead” and “camel jockey.” They even attacked him in the school bathroom.

I found ways to heal through a supportive friend circle and strong relationships with a few teachers, but my little brother was not as lucky. He was the darkest-skinned in the family, and he was targeted more aggressively, hatefully, and illogically than we could possibly understand. Teachers and parents organized against him, and I watched the hate crush him. He struggled to stay afloat, but sadly three years ago, he died.

In my heartbreak, I began searching for meaning: how could this have happened? In addition to deep emotional work, I also found solace in reading about systems of oppression. Reading about the histories of racism, ableism, heterosexism and more in this country became a deeply empowering experience. I finally had the words to name my experience and begin understanding how this kind of hatred could perpetuate unchecked.

When I was younger, I often felt like it was my fault that these horrible things were happening to me and my brothers, thinking it was because we were flawed in some way. But the more I read, I realized that the systems were designed to make us feel that way. They aim to dehumanize the oppressed and blame us for the injustice and suffering we face. Having the words to name my experience and to see the systems for what they are gave me the agency I needed to start picking them apart.

I simply refused to accept that my brother’s life, and the lives of people of color every day in this country, are the price we accept to pay to uphold these systems. In my pain, I discovered my life’s purpose: to create the world my brother deserved to live in.

Q: Your work is centered around the idea of “designing for equity?” Can you tell us how you got into it and a little bit more about what it means?

A: Yes! Designing for equity means baking equity-consciousness into every decision we make so the impact of our work aligns with our intentions. Too often, people approach social change work with the right intentions but later find their work is not producing the outcomes they seek—or worse—might even be reproducing the inequity they wish to disrupt. I believe that designing within the status quo produces status quo outcomes, so to design for equity, we have to drastically re-imagine how we design.

By design, I mean create with intention. For example, you can design an experience, program, policy, system, product, or relationship. But if you are designing for equity, that means your end goal is to create greater equity.

My passion for working at the intersection of equity and design is a combination of my lived experience—as a woman of color and child of immigrants—and my learned experience through my study and practice of design.

With a group of collaborators, I co-created Liberatory Design, which is a way of being and working that facilitates change towards equity. It’s an innovation practice rooted in sharing power, recognizing oppression, and centering those most impacted by inequity. The goal is to create greater liberation from oppression for those most impacted by it.

Using this practice, I founded Beytna Design (Beytna means “our home” in Arabic) three years ago to support mission-driven leaders to design and redesign systems for equity. We do this by building leaders’ capacity to amplify their innate creativity and deepen their equity consciousness. Ultimately, we’re working to support leaders to align their impact with their intention. Alongside other innovative practitioners, we are building the Equity Design movement to radically change both the social impact and design fields to be equity-centric.

We live in a nation where racism and inequity were designed—and we need brave new leadership to redesign systems for equity.”

—Tania Anaissie, Obama Foundation Community Leadership Corps Facilitator

Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the approach you take when you work with Community Leadership Corps participants?

A: Certainly! Our strategy is based on the belief that people can solve their own problems under the right conditions, so our role is to help create those conditions. The approach is centered in storytelling and focuses on giving leaders just enough instruction to catalyze action while also helping them step into their own power.

After the first few weeks of the Community Leadership Corps, leaders start seeing themselves as designers who understand that inequity was created by design and, thus, can be redesigned. We encourage them to use their lived experience as a source of power and to approach the community in which they work with humility, respect, and curiosity.

In between trainings, participants are co-designing with their community to determine the direction of their project. For example, in Hartford this year, a group interviewed community members about mental health. They learned that youth of historically oppressed backgrounds might not believe that mental health impacts their families or may not know how to approach seeking mental health support. So the team began narrowing down who was impacted and what specific barriers they faced, and used those insights to guide their project work.

Seeing the team take such a massive challenge like mental health and break it down into local and focused issues highlighted how effectively they were translating learnings from the training into action. It was a powerful moment, and it gave me goosebumps!

Q: What has been your favorite part about working these young people?

A: It’s incredible to see the speed at which they apply the concepts from trainings and how fiercely they stand as advocates for justice in their communities. It’s honestly soul-filling and inspiring work to be part of! In so many ways, these leaders are the peers that I needed when I was their age.

My favorite moments have been during coaching. For example, during Training 2 in Chicago I remember approaching a team closely huddled together around their workspace. They asked for feedback on how to articulate their problem, which in this case was supporting high schoolers with personal finance skills. But, the group was unclear on what the core of the problem was. I asked a few questions and suddenly the group was brainstorming. Where they landed was very nuanced—they explored why financial institutions are designed to be difficult to navigate and even profit off predatory practices targeting those with limited financial fluency. To see them build the bridge between something they learned in interviews and the larger systemic issues impacting the topic was so rewarding! Coaching is a critical part of the learning process, and I’m grateful to my collaborators Aida Mariam and Malliron Hodge for their support in designing, facilitating, and coaching during this program.

Q: Do you have any parting words for this year’s cohort of the Community Leadership Corps?

A: We live in a nation where racism and inequity were designed—and we need brave new leadership to redesign systems for equity. I’m so eager to see your journeys progress because I know this is the beginning of a new movement. You are the leaders we so desperately need, and I invite you to build on the legacy of generations of justice leaders who came before you to continue this work into the next generation in new and innovative ways. And you are building the equitable world we need, one that all our families deserve to live in.

Thank you for sharing your passion and creativity with me and remember to take care of your own well-being as you do this work! When we take good care of ourselves, our ability to advocate and organize for others grows exponentially. I miss you already! Stay in touch.

You can learn more about the Obama Foundation Community Leadership Corps here.


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