Getting Started with Co-design: Build a Team with Diverse Expertise

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 final installment 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 building co-design teams with diverse expertise, the final of three key steps for beginning solidarity-driven co-design:

  • Take a different approach to partnering with youth, families and communities 
  • Begin with families and communities to identify a center of gravity for co-design 
  • Build a co-design team with diverse expertise

We invite you to peruse our previous installments: Part One, “A Nested Regional Network”; Part Two, “Take a Different Approach to Partnering with Youth, Families and Communities”; and Part Three, Begin with Families and Communities to Identify a ‘Center of Gravity.’”

Solidarity-driven co-design includes community members directly impacted by policies and practices in schools, especially Indigenous and racially minoritized community members. Youth, educators, families, and community members can all be active decision-makers and participants in co-design efforts.

Co-design doesn’t require that you engage with all families in a certain context. Start with the families most impacted by the policies or program you’re discussing or those who do not participate in the conventional engagement avenues in your school or district. Especially consider including Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander families or those who experience poverty, speak languages other than English, or have disabilities.

The number of people is not what’s most important. Rather, it’s the depth of relationships and sustained collaborative work that matter. As Grace Lee Boggs urged, we are seeking critical connection over critical mass (Boggs & Kurashige, 2011).

Inviting Diverse Expertise with an Eye Toward Power

Because many of the fellows are professionals in formal educational systems, their instinct in building a co-design team may be to include as many staff as possible. However, power is already disproportionately held by those with institutional knowledge and authority, vested by their paid positions and roles. Keeping the numbers weighted toward youth, families, and community leaders is one step toward building a team that contains both diverse expertise and sufficient institutional power to make change.

Youth, families, and community leaders of color are often tokenized or asked to represent whole communities. To move beyond tokenizing patterns, try to include at least two to three youths and two to three families or community members on your team.

In identifying these potential team members, look beyond the usual suspects. For instance, if you have a student, parent, or community advisory board, try to also include people outside that board. Or if you have a designated family or Tribal liaison, also try to include others beyond that role. Through intentional conversations and deep listening, you will be able to identify the connectors and influencers in the community. These individuals may not necessarily hold formal titles that designate them as leaders, but they are often the people that others go to for advice, convening, or connections.

Lead with Conversation, Start with the Big Picture

We’ve developed the following tool to help systems leaders begin to consider how they might begin building their co-design team and who they might include: Growing Your Team.

This tool outlines critical considerations for selecting co-design team members:

  • Allow space for your team to be fluid. Members may need to onboard or exit as the process evolves, but each team should have consistent members who carry the vision forward.
  • Reflect the project’s values and goals in your team’s composition. Teams should embody a diversity of expertise, positionalities, and roles.
  • Consider relational dynamics. Identify the connectors and influencers in your community.
  • Consider strategic and political dynamics. Identify key positions or offices that would be beneficial to include in the process.

We have also identified key approaches to building your team. For example, when approaching someone you do not already have a relationship with, opening with an ask to join your co-design team might inadvertently convey a transactional intention. Educational systems have long histories of extractive relations with Indigenous and racially minoritized families and communities, so systems leaders need to recognize inevitable legacies of mistrust, even when they hold the best of intentions (Lewis & Diamond, 2015).

Instead, we suggest you:

  • Lead with conversation. Engage in dialogue to build relationships first.
  • Start with the big picture. Talk about the ideas behind the project before asking for a commitment.
  • Clarify the commitment. Create a document that details values, roles, and expectations.
  • Onboard members. Create a plan for introducing new members to the team and project.
  • Create an exit plan. Plan for how members can leave the project if they need to.

Team Building that Moves from “Do We?” to “How Can We?”

While many educators agree with the general ideas behind co-design, leaders can get stuck in the early stages. Colleagues may question whether it’s the right time to implement co-design or suggest that co-design approaches aren’t practical. When leaders shift the conversation from “Do we co-design?” to “How can we co-design?” new possibilities emerge.

As more educators seek to lead co-design, we hope that sharing their lessons learned can support others who want to undertake a co-design process to transform relationships between schools and communities. Solidarity-driven co-design is intentionally disruptive to business-as-usual and the conventional, check-box approaches to youth, family, and community engagement.

“I don’t think we ever have time to not do co-design. We should always be including families and communities in our decision-making processes.” – Systems leader


Boggs, G.L., & Kurashige, S. (2011). The next American revolution: Sustainable activism for the twenty-first century. University of California Press.

Lewis, A. E., & Diamond, J. B. (2015). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. Oxford University Press.

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

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.

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.

​​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 30, 2023

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