Getting Started with Co-design: Take a Different Approach to Partnering with Youth, Families, and Communities

Region 16 Comprehensive Center and the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC) are proud to partner on our year-long, inaugural Co-design Fellowship. The fellowship supports diverse educational systems in Alaska, Washington, and Oregon in co-designing with youth, families, and communities. Region 16 would like to thank our advisory board for its guidance, which led us to the exemplary work of Drs. Ann Ishimaru, Megan Bang, and Melanie Quaempts.

This is the second of a four-part series about the Co-design Fellowship intended to support fellowship teams in their work. This series also serves as a resource for educators and systems in the region — and beyond — who seek to work with Indigenous and racially minoritized youth and communities, rather than for them. 

In this installment, we highlight how fellows are preparing for a different approach to family engagement, the first of three key steps for undertaking solidarity-driven co-design:

  1. Take a different approach to partnering with youth, families and communities  
  2. Start with families and communities to identify a center of gravity for co-design 
  3. Build a co-design team with diverse expertise

We invite you to read our first installment, “A Nested Regional Network.”

Like many schools and districts across the country, Co-design Fellowship teams recognize that families are crucial partners in supporting the academic and socioemotional well-being of young people in education — an understanding backed by decades of research (Mapp et al., 2022; Ross, 2023).

Fellowship teams have taken a hard look at their systems and recognized the need to move beyond conventional systems-centered approaches to family engagement, such as back-to-school nights, conferences, and climate surveys. These approaches work well for — and even advantage — some families, especially those who fit white, middle-class norms. But they can reinforce inequities for Indigenous and racially minoritized families and others who do not fit this narrow norm.

This dominant model of family engagement tends to:

  • Center system processes and expectations
  • Disregard historical inequities
  • Attempt to assimilate families to white, middle-class norms

Even the so-called “best practices” of family engagement, such as listening sessions and advisory councils to promote “community voice,” still center systems agendas and can inadvertently perpetuate the inequities of the status quo. Many times, these activities position Indigenous, racially minoritized, and other nondominant families and communities as “niche” stakeholders, not as partners and key systems decision makers (Ishimaru, 2020). But our systems will only realize the promise of equity with the expertise of Indigenous and racially minoritized families and communities.

Instead, co-design centers the expertise of youth, family, and communities in designing system interventions and solutions.

What is Solidarity-driven Co-Design?

Solidarity-driven co-design is an iterative, relational process between families and educators to imagine possibilities and design solutions together (Family Leadership Design Collaborative, 2019). Solidarity-driven co-design processes must acknowledge histories of oppression and build from ancestral knowledges and cultural practices to transform educational possibilities and futures.

Co-design is about working and designing with families, students, and communities who are most impacted by injustices — not designing for these communities.

This means that educators and policymakers must go beyond gathering input from the community and providing forums for their “voice.” Instead, co-design works to interrupt the status quo and redefines leadership to include students, parents, and the broader community — in addition to formal school, district and educational agency leaders.

Co-design recognizes that those most impacted by injustices have unique perspectives and knowledge about inequities, but they are also much more than the inequities they have endured. These families and communities have deep knowledges, values, and expertise that can shape what education is and can be.

Building the Relational Conditions for Transformation

Rooted in participatory design-based research and Indigenous and decolonizing methodologies, co-design strives to both build knowledge and foster transformative social change (Bang & Vossoughi, 2016). While school change efforts often focus solely on outcomes, solidarity-driven co-design seeks to build the relational conditions to cultivate more transformative outcomes. This approach has the potential to foster solidarities across differences through naming and deconstructing power dynamics (Ishimaru, 2020).

Co-design is made up of cycles in which people:

  • Build relationships
  • Identify priorities
  • Reflect on relational dynamics
  • Pilot and re-design system interventions

This approach has been used to co-design:

  • Teacher and principal hiring processes
  • School budget decision-making
  • Family engagement policies
  • Parent engagement curricula
  • Professional learning for early childhood professionals

Visit the Family Leadership Design Collaborative website to access case studies and resources.

Learning our Way towards Educational Transformation

Systems-based co-design is ultimately a learning process for all involved. It requires iterative planning and change-making. It builds the relational conditions for educators, youth, families, and community members to collaborate. It invites us to engage with humility and re-shape our roles.

All of the 2023-2024 Co-design fellows have begun the journey by preparing to take a different approach to engaging youth, families, and communities in transforming schools to realize more just education.

In the next installment of this four-part series, we will highlight how fellows are starting with families and communities to identify a “center of gravity” for their systems-based co-design.


Bang, M., & Vossoughi, S. (2016). Participatory design research and educational justice: Studying learning and relations within social change making. Cognition and Instruction, 34(3), 173-193, DOI: 10.1080/07370008.2016.1181879

Family Leadership Design Collaborative (2019). Transforming the field of family engagement: Co-designing research, practices, and measures for educational justice and community wellbeing. Family Leadership Design Collaborative.

Ishimaru, A. M., (2020). Just schools: Building equitable collaborations with families and communities. Teachers College Press.

Mapp, K. L., Henderson, A.T., Cuevas, S., Franco, M.C., & Ewert, S. (2022). Everyone wins!: The evidence for family-school partnerships and implications for practice. Scholastic Professional Books.

Padden, M. (2021). Getting started with solidary-driven co-design. Unpublished brief.

Ross, E. M. (2023). The case for strong family and community engagement in schools. Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Ann Ishimaru (yonsei/Japanese American) seeks to foster joyful learning in educationally just schools and communities. As a researcher and professor of educational foundations, leadership, and policy at the University of Washington College of Education, she cultivates the leadership and solidarities of educators and racially minoritized youth, families and communities to co-design humanizing educational systems and futures.

Megan Bang (Ojibwe & Italian Descent) has an interest and passion for interdisciplinary approaches and methods that bring her into people’s lived experiences and spaces. She has extensive knowledge in community based design research and Indigenous epistemologies.

​​Melanie Quaempts (Pacific Islander, Japanese, and Irish) brings a school district administrator lens into her practice of cognitive studies. She has a desire to understand and dismantle systemic racism with a deep understanding of the complexities of the work. She believes in the power of collective learning and has experience designing learning experiences that draw out participants’ strengths to lead district and school-based teams.

Special thanks to Mary Padden, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington’s College of Education and a community-engaged researcher, whose research brief “Getting Started with Solidarity-Driven Codesign” helped inform this blog.

Published October 16, 2023

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