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Designing for Peace: Using Empathy to Combat Gun Violence

“I was outside my house riding my bike yesterday and I had to run inside because there was a bunch of gunshots,” explains fifth-grader Janelle. “My mom worries about my safety.”

Every day, thousands of young people in Washington, D.C., are affected by gun violence. In the District this year alone there has already been 59 homicides. The impact of these crimes affects the wellness of the Southeast community.

“It‘s not just affecting us. It‘s affecting everyone else in our communities. They don‘t realize that when they kill someone, the whole community suffers,” says fifth/grader Thomas who is designing to combat gun violence through The Creative School, an organization committed to “story-centered design” — ensuring young people are the creators of their narrative, not consumers of the one designed for them.

Marshall Pollard, founder of The Creative School, speaks with students. (Courtesy of The Creative School)
Marshall Pollard, founder of The Creative School, speaks with students. (Courtesy of The Creative School)

One of The Creative School‘s signature programs, The Bridge, is a joyful, courageous and creative community where young people come together to design against the legacies of systemic oppression. Bridge participants are young people between the ages of 10-17 who are on a design journey to address the most proximate issues affecting their community.

Founded by Marshall Pollard, The Creative School launched in 2018. Pollard, who young people affectionately refer to as Mr. P, is a community organizer and educator turned designer. As a leader in this freedom struggle he partners with a dynamic team of millenial educators and community members to set the stage for a marketplace of young people to transform from students to designers.

An additional leader on this team is Gabby Fish, known as “Miss Gabby” by designers and this community. As she puts it, “We‘ve been on a journey that started in October, where we met as designers where we started interviewing each other and the community about gun violence. We want to do something about gun violence as a team, school community, and beyond.”

Designers navigate through the Stanford Design School process to create products the community needs. They do this by learning about their community and collecting empathy. They collect empathy by going out into the community and listening to what the people need. The designers then sift through hundreds of interview conversations and find trending stories that capture what they heard as community needs. After they synthesize their learnings, they ideate and brainstorm creative platforms for the community.

Before launching their ideas, they build a prototype, and finally they test their product.

After collecting empathy from the community they recognized, that gun violence was an unfortunate, but very real part of the communities personal story.

“Many people we spoke to said they had lost someone to gun violence. Over and over again we heard that gun violence was common in the Southside, so we want to prevent it,” expressed 16-year-old Naveah.

The community spoke and The Bridge listened. Based on what they heard from their community designers defined a set of community needs.

“We need healing spaces that promote awareness of what is happening in our community so we can rewrite our stories and provide fuel for the flames of justice.”

“People who lost someone to gun violence need a way to connect to each others‘ stories so we can all heal together.”

“We all as human beings need a way to peacefully solve conflicts and work together because we all deserve to grow old.”

“Our community needs a way to feel joy and hope together to overcome heavy feelings of grief, pain, and anger.”

In response to these needs, the designers created a Community Reunion to unite, heal, and end gun violence. The experience will take place on June 22 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the parking lot of DC Scholars Stanton Elementary. At the reunion, the designers will pilot their ideas.

“On the journey from empathy to prototype, we want our designers to see their community as a marketplace. They will know, these are requests I need to make and these are offers I‘m willing to take. Everything that designers pilot on June 22 will be replicable,” shares Mr. P.

The Community Reunion is a series of popups that designers will pilot to test. There will be a healing circle to remember lives that have been lost but not forgotten where grieving community members will support one another. Artists will be invited to take the stage and share their story through spoken word or poetry. An interactive mural will be exhibited for the community to honor loved ones. The headlining activity is the “OG Meet and Greet,” where original community leaders and activists can share their own stories with young people. Before the Community Reunion concludes balloons with notes to loved ones will be released into the sky.

Healing is central to the purpose of this design. Fifth-grader Thomas expresses, “I‘m healing for my father who I hope can see the incredible work that I‘m doing from heaven.”

What is at the end of this creation? Well-being. “Too many young people and marginalized individuals wake up and they are not able to create well-being. They don‘t get to spend their day, by and large depending on privilege, being able to literally create well-being for themselves,” exclaims Mr. P.

“We‘re not designing just to design. We are designing because we are a part of a design that is oppressive. Therefore, we will design well-being to combat oppression,” he continues.

When asked how it feels to be a Bridge designer combating gun violence, fifth-grader Janelle responded, “I feel full.”

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