Design Circles

Design circles are in-depth, reciprocal working groups that aim to engage stories, experiences, and expertise within communities to catalyze action within that context. Facilitated by our research partners in their own local communities, design circles are distinct from (and far more intensive than) conventional focus groups in that they move beyond only voicing and naming challenges (for instance, barriers of racism and poverty in communities of color) to building relationships, conceptualizing root causes and facilitating emergent family and community leadership and perspectives through co-designing theories of change and pragmatic solutions (for example, envisioning collective parenting strategies responsive to 21st century challenges that also are reflective of and sustain shared cultural practices). Design circles honor community leadership and perspectives by co-designing solutions rather than only on voicing and naming challenges (Bang et al., 2010).

The eleven sites hosting design circles are grouped in four key aperturas, or opportunities for transformative change towards community wellness and educational justice:

○ Educator Professional Learning and Practice
○ Multi-Organizational Racial Equity Initiatives
○ Family and Youth Leadership
○ Learning Across Contexts (education beyond schools)

Design Circle Summaries

Click the links below to learn more about each design circle.

Inclusion of Families into School-based Race and Equity Teams, Seattle, WA

Filiberto Barajas-Lopez
Apertura: Multi-Organizational Racial Equity Initiatives

Drawing from the experiences and expertise of families, this design circle focuses on the ways in which families can productively incorporate themselves in the important conversations related to race, racism, school discipline, and equity. During these sessions, families will co-analyze student focus groups around disproportionality of discipline policies and the structural and systemic racism that undergird said system. Additionally, families will map out ways to critically engage schools around topics such as race, racism, school discipline, and equity. This includes suggestions for teachers to improve their classroom practices and ways to change school policies to be responsive to the cultural and linguistic diversity in the school community and open new pathways to more equitable relationships between teachers and families.


West Side School-Community Design Circle: A Community Leadership Partnership – Salt Lake City, UT

Gerardo Lopez, Paul Kuttner, and Almaida Yanagui
Apertura: Educator Professional Learning and Practice

In 2002, The Utah State Legislature passed a law requiring every public school in the state to establish a School Community Council (SCC) at every school to create stronger relationships and collaboration between educators, parents, and the community at large. West Side schools in Utah have had a difficult time establishing strong and vibrant SCC’s at local sites. This set of design circles brings together parents, school representatives and researchers for collective thinking and building around this issue. Leveraging the diverse perspectives these DCs aim to confront and dislodge established/habitual ways of thinking, while providing new avenues for action and collaboration between parents and schools.


CADRE Re-Imagining Parent-Teacher Relationships, Los Angeles, CA

Maisie Chin and Lorena Guillen
Apertura: Educator Professional Learning and Practice

CADRE- Redefining Parenting in South L. A. Schools is a community organization committed to social justice in education. Organizing families and community members, CADRE has focused its efforts on ending the school-to-prison pipeline and push-out in South L. A. by tackling issues of disproportionate discipline policies, systemic racism, and disenfranchisement of parents, particularly parents of color. While the organization and parents have co-developed powerful frameworks for addressing these issues, educators and administrators remain resistant to implementing systemic change. These set of design circles will bring together parents to generate avenues for developing “politicized trust” between parents and educators/administrators. Once some principles have been established that address powered dynamics between schools and families, educators will be invited to continue the dialogue on how to create productive and sustainable relationships that work through racialized and powered tensions.


Cultivating Parent Power in Teacher Training, Hiring, and Retention- Salem, OR 

Edward Olivos
Apertura: Educator Professional Learning and Practice

While many communities across the United States are experiencing a shortage of teachers, the impact is most felt in communities where English is not the primary language. Recruiting, hiring, and maintaining bilingual/bicultural teachers is difficult in the current political and social climate in this country. Together with the Salem/Keizer Coalition for Equality, this set of design circles will address the need for bilingual teachers in the system, better supports for bilingual pre-teacher candidates and current teachers, and professional development for all teachers in cultural competency. Additionally, the design circles will forefront parent decision-making in the training, hiring, and retention of teachers in the district.


CREATE Design Circles, Detroit, MI

Camille Wilson
Apertura: Family & Youth Leadership

Bringing together a research committee comprised of community members and university researchers, this set of design circles will serve as part of a multi-phase and multi-method study to promote educational justice in Detroit, Michigan. The study, Community-based Research on Equity, Activism, and Transformative Education (CREATE) will launch a series of workshops on how to conduct participatory action research (PAR) and begin designs for how best PAR can be co-implemented in Detroit. The committee desires to not only learn how to better evaluate and marshal educational data to lobby for school improvement, but also conduct original research to explore specific topics related to their organizational and reform priorities (e.g. special education access & equity).


Grow Your Own Community Power: Citizens for a Better Greenville, MS

Joyce Parker and Mara Casey Tieken
Apertura: Multi-Organizational Racial Equity Initiatives

Citizens for a Better Greenville is a community-based organization dedicated to helping families and community members recognize and exercise their own power in response to educational inequity and injustice. Building on previous success at the organization level, these design circles address the question of scalability and replication beyond the organization at present as well as the process of shifting the paradigm from empowerment to community power. Additionally, these design circles expand the organization’s efforts to train additional family and community organizers to take up this problem, capitalize on their own power, and identify a solution.


Designing for Culturally Responsive Family Engagement, Central Falls, RI

Joanna Geller and Vianna Alcantara
Apertura: Family and Youth Leadership

Despite the many inclusive family engagement practices school districts employ, many teachers, and some school leaders, continue to view families through a cultural deficit lens. In contrast to the cultural deficit lens, the framework of community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) highlights the specific strengths that families of color gain as a result of surviving and thriving in a racist and xenophobic society. This particular set of design circles bring together parents and researchers to to learn how a strengths-based frameworks that builds from community cultural wealth can become normative throughout district schools and to develop a research question and framework for a participatory action research study that will be co-conducted with families during the academic school year.


Developing a Sense of Global Indigeneity, Chicago, IL

Ananda Marin and Cynthia Soto
Apertura: Learning Across Contexts

These design circles bring together diverse indigenous communities with the intent of developing and sustaining a collective solidarity around a global indigenous identity. These DCs are the initial forays into conversations with communities that have, individually, been working towards self-determination, intergenerational learning, and improvements in health and well-being; together, these groups will identify potential ways to leverage these individual practices and sets of knowledge towards more systemic and transformative changes for all indigenous peoples.


Social Justice in an Iranian School Context, Chicago, IL

Shirin Vossoughi
Apertura: Learning Across Contexts

Working collaboratively with an Iranian school in Chicago, these design circles will bring together school leaders, teachers, parents, relatives and youth to 1) identify the educational and cultural needs and assets of youth in the Iranian diaspora, particularly in the current context of racism and Islamaphobia; 2) articulate the values that compel families to participate in a community-based learning environment focused on language, literacy and culture (as well as the factors that lead to attrition for some families); 3) reflect on and design for capacity building and sustainability; and 4) envision how the curriculum can better engage with questions of identity and connect with broader struggles for educational justice among non-dominant communities.


National Urban Indian Family Coalition, Seattle, WA

Janeen Comenote
Apertura: Learning Across Contexts

Working collaboratively with the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, the American Indian OIC Takoda Institute and the NAYA Early College Academy,  these design circles will bring together community leaders, teachers, parents, relatives and youth in the collaborative redesign of the Native freedom school that has been piloted in Minneapolis to explore the ways in which family and youth leadership and engagement may become a transformative aspect of the Native freedom school in ways that sustain the collective transformative agency and empowerment that youth experience during the summer program throughout the school year when Native families are dispersed amongst urban Minneapolis and Portland and are often invisibilized. Further these design circles will help to create a model and next practices for the scaling to other Native freedom schools underway in other urban communities.


Community-Driven Data for Educational Policy Change, Seattle, WA

Erin Okuno and Peggy Kwok
Apertura: Youth and Family Leadership

The Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC) is a community-based coalition of community based organizations, educators, and allies committed to coalescing member-driven action, advocacy, and training toward educational equity for Southeast Seattle, the only quadrant of the city that is majority people of color. This design circle follows a six month design process that Erin Okuno facilitated and in which Peggy Kwok participated and which resulted in a community survey of families’ experiences with Seattle Public Schools’ family engagement practices. Following a SESEC presentation of survey results at CISC, Toisanese and Cantonese families requested use of the data and support in moving from data analysis to advocating for policy changes based on findings specifically around families’ ability to meet with teachers and families’ access to translators in schools. These design circles will conclude in a session where families meet with educational policymakers from the district and teachers’ union.