The journey to solve community problems starts with empathy

Parrish Middle School student Dylan Young presents his group’s idea for a life skills program.

Parrish Middle School student Dylan Young presents his group’s idea for a life skills program.

Dylon Young was excited to engage adults from his community during the Gallery Walk at the State Capitol in early June. He presented his solution to a problem in community with confidence. The participants were mesmerized as he shared his thoughts on how school environments could be improved for students in life skills programs. His presentation was the culmination of the work he did to complete In4All’s 8th grade design thinking project in math this year.

Over 60 students participated in our pilot to implement In4All’s design thinking program in Salem-Keizer school district this year. Like their Portland Public School peers, students led empathy interviews of peers and people in their community, identifying problem statements addressing issues of houselessness, poverty, public safety and barriers between teachers and students. With the support of industry volunteers, educators and In4All staff, students moved through the design thinking process to develop and communicate their solutions to community – their pride and excitement about their work was contagious.

Looking through each other’s eyes requires empathy, or the “ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions” (Source: Google Dictionary) . Empathy is the foundation of our middle school design thinking program. The program works to elevate youth voice and engage them in their community by increasing their ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of their peers and other people of influence in their lives. This elevated understanding guided their actions and informed their solutions to the problems their users defined.

The impact this program had on all of us; students, teachers, industry volunteers, In4All staff and board and community participants exceeded our expectations. With students leading the conversations about their topics as experts the rest of us were invited to take pause and look through the eyes of the user the solution was designed for. We watched as our community provided feedback in real time. We celebrated as students completed their projects with an increased sense of belonging and belief in themselves. We marveled at the commitment of our teachers to share valuable class time with us, industry volunteers seeing for the first time through their eyes.

We have only scratched the surface of the impacts and outcomes of our 8th grade program. Today, I am a little overcome as I reflect on the miracle of this year and the community we have the privilege to mobilize to change the narrative of Oregon students. A community interested in making meaning of how they see what they see. A community committed to seeing through each other’s eyes – if only for an instant.

Elaine Philippi