Getting Started with Co-design: Begin with Families and Communities to Identify a “Center of Gravity”

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 third 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 starting with families and communities to identify a center of gravity, the second of three key steps for undertaking solidarity-driven co-design:

  1. Take a different approach to partnering with youth, families and communities 
  2. Begin 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 peruse our first installment, “A Nested Regional Network,” and our second installment, “Take a Different Approach to Partnering with Youth, Families and Communities.”

A center of gravity, starting focus, or window of opportunity for co-design work should center the experiences, learning, and priorities of young people and families, not the work of systems. Although co-design teams work to shift systems and reshape the structures, processes, and relationships already unfolding within them, the starting point for co-design should not be the system itself.

The vast majority of conventional improvement efforts center systems. For instance, a systems-centered approach might focus on enlisting families and educators in implementing an existing, district-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system. However, such an approach pre-determines the agenda, priorities, and bounds of the work from the very outset.

Systems-centered starting points can also prevent scrutiny of the norms and assumptions embedded in such frameworks, as well as the broader system they reinforce. For example, what counts as positive behavior? What cultural lenses are privileged or erased in those determinations? Who gets to decide which behaviors to value? How does the framework address institutionalized racism? How do young people learn and change their behaviors?

In taking a co-design approach, teams instead might explore how families and communities support youth who are disproportionately impacted by behavioral or discipline systems. They might examine young people’s experiences of learning in and out of schools and draw on ancestral and cultural practices to craft novel solutions for supporting students socially, culturally, emotionally, and academically. This starting place will inevitably change as teams deepen their collaboration with youth, families, and communities, but naming such a center of gravity places the focus on the expertise and experiences of youth and families.

Finding a Generative Grain Size

While co-design is ultimately about transforming relationships and ways of being, a product, process or other outcome helps teams to focus their work. Crucially, we encourage teams to consider how they might take a co-design approach to work they are already doing or need to do.

Sometimes, challenges arise when the focus of co-design is too broad or too narrow. For example, if co-design is introduced without any boundaries, participants may find it difficult to come up with solutions that can be implemented. Teams may feel like they need to change everything about their school or organization.

But co-design doesn’t mean changing everything, all at once, everywhere. Start relatively small. What specific process or effort could you transform that might have ripple effects for the broader system?

On the other hand, if the scope of a co-design is narrowly pre-determined, or if the focus is the implementation of a pre-set program, the process can reinforce a “rubber stamp” dynamic in which families are expected to “co-sign” the system’s agenda and assimilate to the norms of the school. Ultimately, the decision about the co-design focus should come from each team and the issues that Indigenous and racially minoritized youth and families view as most pressing. What decision or arena of work is a priority but not yet fully formed?

Co-design processes can also take time. If there is an immediate, inflexible deadline —  for example, a policy that must be presented to the school board in three weeks — this can constrain the creativity and possibilities of the process. In addition, the co-design team needs sufficient autonomy to make decisions or changes as the co-design process unfolds.

Co-design Fellows’ Emerging Centers of Gravity

Co-design fellows have started with the youth, families, and communities in their contexts to identify an initial “center of gravity” for their efforts. For example:

  • Co-designers in Mount Adams School District are expanding community-led learning experiences at the high school to infuse culture and community participation in student learning.
  • Co-designers at Sealaska Heritage Institute are collaborating to conceptualize and implement grants for Indigenous language supports.
  • Co-designers with Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the LaConner School District are collaborating on a process for ongoing Tribal and district consultation.
  • A co-design team of Indigenous leaders across three states, in partnership with the Region 16 Comprehensive Center, is focused on literacy initiatives that support and are informed by Indigenous language revitalization and cultural practices.

Through our initial sessions and coaching, the 2023-2024 co-design fellows are beginning with smaller practices to strategically foster a broader ecosystem of change. We are excited about the transformative potential of these efforts and looking forward to supporting the teams as they unfold.

In the final installment of this four-part series, we will highlight how fellows are building co-design teams with diverse expertise.


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

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 system 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 24, 2023

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