Exploring the Four Voices of Design to Solve Complex Problems


Getting to the heart of complex problems can be tricky. How does one untangle the many threads that can be involved? How do you uncover what the real pain points are so that you can address them?

In this podcast discussion, we explore the approach of human-centered design and how it can be used to both discover and uplift perspectives to help find community-focused solutions.

To learn more about human-centered design, we talk with Michelle Carrillo and Leslie Tergas of ThinkPlace West. The discussion explores their work using the “four voices of design” approach, and uplifts examples of how to use this approach within collective work. We also discuss how tools like “empathy interviews” can help draw out community voices so that one can get a deeper understanding of community members’ experiences, including what’s working and what’s not.

Ways to listen: You can listen below or on your preferred podcast streaming service, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Please find a transcript of this talk further down this page.

Resources and Footnotes

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The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0.

The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.

Listen to Past Episodes: You can listen and subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.

The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

In this episode, we explore the concept and approach of human-centered design and how it can be used to both discover and uplift perspectives to find community-focused solutions.

To learn more about human-centered design, we talk with Michelle Carrillo and  Leslie Tergas of ThinkPlace West. They share about their work using the approach called “the four voices of design,” and highlight examples of how to use this approach within collective work. We also discuss how tools like “empathy interviews” can help draw out community voices so that one can get a deeper understanding of community members’ experiences, including what’s working and what’s not.

Moderating this discussion is my Forum colleague Cindy Santos, who is Senior Associate at the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. Let’s tune in.

Cindy Santos: Well, hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for this conversation today that we are going to have with Michelle Carrillo, who is the executive director of ThinkPlace West, and Leslie Tergas, who is a practice director at ThinkPlace.

We’re really excited for this conversation because it’s always amazing to have folks who’ve been practitioners who’ve been working in place to really implement collective impact, and who’ve also really used methodologies that have helped them in that implementation and to really be able to share some of their lessons learned. We hope that through this conversation we’ll be able to talk a bit about the methodology that you’ve employed in your place-based work and collective impact work, and just have some tidbits for folks to be able to consider and apply in their own work. So excited to have you and really admire the work that you’ve done in the field.

The place that I’d like to start that I think is really important is to ask a little bit about you. What was the journey? What journey led you to ThinkPlace?

Leslie Tergas: I might pick that up first. Hi, everybody. I’m Leslie Tergas. I am the practice director, as Cindy said, for ThinkPlace West. For me, ThinkPlace has been a journey of finding people that have a strong belief in the power of design to change the world and to make the world a better place by really changing systems and policies and experiences that people have to make those experiences more equitable or just and to create better outcomes for people, increasingly thinking about how we create outcomes for people at the intersection of what’s good for the planet and for what’s good for societies and what’s good for communities. I’ve always been driven by an interest in the intersection between culture and design. I’ve studied design formally, but the thing that always moved me was the people, so even when I was studying architecture thinking about not the building but how do people move through the building, what interactions do the building enable or not enable. So I’m really passionate about really grounding the work in what happens for people on a daily basis and whether that’s good experiences or bad experiences.

Michelle Carrillo: Thanks, Leslie. Hey, everyone, this is Michelle Carrillo, executive director with ThinkPlace West. My journey into working with human-centered design started as I was leading a collective impact health equity initiative in Del Norte Tribal Lands, which is a really rural isolated community with many different tribal nations in northern California right on the coast where the redwoods meet the sea.

My experience with human-centered design was we were in a place where we were really stuck and there was a lot of tension between system leaders and organizations, and it was a lot of fighting about who was going to get the money or what program will get the credit and it was really hard. What I experienced going through using a human-centered design approach to try to solve some of these wicked problems in our community was absolutely transformational and it really changed the hearts and mindset of how I looked at my community but also how we work together and it really catalyzed the collaboration that needed to happen to put our community who we were serving, our families, our children, their lived experience at the heart of everything we did, and it didn’t matter what system or program it was about, like were we serving the families, and were we working with families to co-create that future vision.

That was close to a decade ago and now through that journey, earlier this year decided to go into partnership with Leslie and we’re doing this work nationwide and it’s been an incredible journey. I’m really honored to be able to get to talk a little bit about what it’s looked like in different places and what the kind of impact and transformation can be. Thank you, Cindy.

Cindy Santos: You know, obviously, you have a wealth of experience in collective impact which is why it’s so wonderful to be having this conversation with you. So how have you taken some of those experiences and really transferred them into the way that ThinkPlace supports the field of collective impact, Michelle?

Michelle Carrillo: Yeah, reflecting back on this and I think one of the big transition points was around when we were trying to understand—I tend to talk in stories. I’ll tell you a short story about some work we were doing around trying to solve literacy issues in the community.

We had a lot of really well-intentioned leaders in the community who wanted to rally everybody together and the idea was let’s create a campaign and we’re going to get everybody books. The whole big solution was books and tutors. There was so much money poured into these solutions and there wasn’t ever a place where we actually could stop and engage with families to ask like, “Do you read books?” And, “Can you access the tutor? Do you know where the tutor exists?” How to actually engage and how that was designed. When we stopped and said, OK, we really need to go talk with families.

What we heard through a series of empathetic conversations with families, like going to their homes, what we heard was it wasn’t about books. Sure, books were something that we noticed and observed as we went to people’s homes and they maybe were accessible in different ways and different value of like where they are put, how accessible were they for the child, or maybe they were behind a locked cabinet. There was different ways that people engaged with books, but everybody had books.

So when we actually tried to get to the heart of what was really going on, what people told us was about their experience and their journey of getting their kids to school and getting them ready for school. Barriers that came up were more about did they have access to food? Did they have the basic supports that they needed? Did they feel connected in a community? Did they have access to like quality preschool? When we actually put that together and then talked with system leaders and said, “Look, this is what we’ve heard from families. These are the obstacles that they’re navigating.”

We co-designed different solutions. One of them was so heartbreaking to see the data around this. We were looking at our kindergarten through third grade suspension rates. We were talking about little, like kindergarten through third graders getting suspended. And it was happening in the mornings. It was like again, what’s driving that? We went and did empathy interviews and we talked with bus drivers. We talked to cafeteria workers. We talked to teachers and with those families. What surfaced was that the kids, because of the way the system was designed, and breakfast was served before the bell. Kids, because they lived 45 minutes away, structurally, they were never going to get to school to have breakfast. They were showing up in one of the most economically disadvantaged communities and was never going to get that free meal that was designed for them to actually have. And then other kids who were transitioning between homes and things were happening and they also weren’t—sometimes they showed up on time, sometimes they didn’t.

What we found was that by a simple shift of serving breakfast after the bell, we radically changed the experience for all of the kids in that school. It did go back. We went back to the data, and it did decrease suspension rates because kids weren’t hungry. They were able to access food and the free meals that were available it didn’t actually cost the school more. It actually meant that they had more kids eating the breakfast, which was better for the overall budget numbers to show that they actually had kids using that. And it was just incredible to see those shifts and really creating that sense of belonging in the school. That was taking human-centered design approach to solving some wicked systemic problems and our collective impact table really holding the voices of the lived experience at the center of it.

Leslie Tergas: And so you’ve heard Michelle talk about empathy interviews. It might be a good idea to maybe talk a little bit about that. Empathy interviews and empathy is a really core element of human-centered design and the way that we apply it, and very simply, there’s lots of definitions of empathy but empathy in this context means that you listen, and you have conversations without judgment. It is a skill. It’s not as easy as it sounds but when we listen with empathy, we listen to truly understand what the experience is and what the challenges are that might be present in the scenario that we’re looking at.

By contrast, had we been listening in this case with judgment, we would be saying, well, parents, you need to get your kids to school earlier so that they can actually have breakfast, right? So we would be—the temptation might be to play a blame game to say, well, it’s the parents that aren’t doing things right but when you take an empathetic approach, you sort of say, well, this is the reality and there’s a number of reasons why this is the reality. Physical distance, parents working multiple jobs, etc., etc., so empathy interviews, and we even struggle with the term interview really because it’s an empathy conversation. It’s about meeting people where they are. It’s about assuming that people are doing the very best they can, and really ground-truthing the solutions that we are putting in place to that real experience.

So to me one of the things that’s really powerful about bringing in human-centered design is that what you’re actually doing is you are kind of moving away all the noise of what should be, and you’re looking at what’s really happening, and I think that’s a really powerful way to center on what we need to do to create the outcomes that we are seeking.

In terms of collective impact, Cindy, you asked the question how do we support the field of collective impact. I just did a quick search to remind myself when the collective impact article in Stanford Social Innovation Review came out and that was 2011. That was quite impactful for us as ThinkPlace. ThinkPlace was founded originally in 2005 so we’ve been doing work in a collective impact space without calling that, and what we called it was essentially complex problems cross boundaries, they cross systems, and so you can never address those problems if you’re simply talking to one holder of the system.

So for us collective impact and the article just really was helpful to kind of underscore some of that terminology means that if you are going to make a difference and solve these issues that are about people and communities not thriving, by default you must bring multiple parties together. You must bring those that hold the intent and actually have resources and have the ability to create space. You have to bring in the experts absolutely, but our build is that the voice of lived experience which is where we’re starting to talk about the four voices of design and change, the voice of lived experience is not just the nice-to-have, it’s actually the thing that grounds us into what is the difference that will make the difference, and how are we going to—what’s the change that we need to create to make sure that the change is real.

Cindy Santos: Yeah, thank you so much for that, and as you were both talking you were really identifying some aspects of human-centered design including the empathy interview which is a way of doing the work, and I’m wondering if you could actually—if we can take a step back and really define what human-centered design is. We’ve heard why it’s an important part of your work but what actually is human-centered design?

Leslie Tergas: Look, I think at its broadest human-centered design is an approach that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process. That would be the simplest definition of human-centered design, right?

If we go a little bit deeper, it’s about flipping your point of view and almost like literally flying out into the ground, the community, and kind of being able to look back at systems and organizations from that perspective. So we call that outside-in design. That’s another element of human-centered design where what you’re holding isn’t what is the policy or what are the institutions or what are the goals of the institutions, all of those things are important but they’re really enablers, right?

So another aspect of human-centered design is that from that empathy work, what we’re trying to produce then is we’re trying to map the current experience. We’re actually literally trying to say what are people doing, what are they feeling as they’re doing that, what are the points of pain because once we actually can map that, then we can say, right, let’s now map the future experience that we’re trying to create, and that’s when we start to get into some of those technical tools. Experience can be quite a fuzzy term, what’s human experience? Well, it can be fuzzy but for us human experience is what people think, what people do, what people use, what people feel, and how they belong.

So that’s when we’re doing a little bit of a connection into there are tools that enable us to make all of this visible. Making those experiences visible the fuels a common focus around the collective impact table so it’s like, you know, if you don’t want a child to do something, you don’t say, no, don’t do that because that’s what’s going to make the child do that, right? So if we all say around a collective impact table, let’s not focus on us, let’s not focus on us, we say, well, so what do we focus. If you focus on the human experience, if you literally draw out the maps, and we did that, right?

So, Michelle, you can talk a little bit about the literacy story where what we did was we said, OK, from the ages of zero to the age of eight and beyond, what is the experience of having really good preschool? What is the experience of being ready for kindergarten? What is the experience of then transitioning into primary school? So that visualization, again, what’s powerful is that it’s a unifying picture for the collective impact table, and what we found in the literacy work is that all of a sudden everybody around the table could find their place, and it became less about my organization versus your organization and more about, right, where do I fit and how do we work together so that we can create a great future experience from eight to whatever the age was, you know, from zero to eight around diversity.

Michelle Carrillo: Yeah, thanks, Leslie. I mean it’s so—one of the powerful things within the literacy work was when we met a family and that family’s little baby that was born in 2017, his name was Marcus, and that family’s story and their challenges around their firstborn daughter, Lilly, not being able to get into HeadStart and being on a waiting list, 50 children in a rural community, really helped us.

Every time somebody started to say, well, what about this idea or this thing over here, and it was we were able to pull it up and say, look, literally we had a picture on the wall of Marcus, and just like, does this change Marcus’s life? Is this actually going to help him? Does it mean he will have access to preschool? Will he be connected? Will his family have the supports? What are the things that we have to do to make that happen? And that became the prioritization of what we focused on, and it was so powerful, and it really did—it focused on the systems and structures that needed to change to enable a positive experience for Marcus and his family.

Cindy Santos:You know you’ve both talked a lot about centering community voice and community experience and lived expertise, and one of the tools that you’ve created that’s really a complement to human-centered design is the four voices of design. It seems to be a model that really results in genuine co-creation by integrating those variety of voices when a group is coming together so I’m hoping that you can explain to us what are or what is the four voices of design and how did those come into being.

Leslie Tergas: So the four voices of design is a model that really has evolved with the company itself starting in 2005. The original founders of ThinkPlace, oddly enough maybe, come from the tax department in Australia and New Zealand, and the reason why we were working in the tax department is that the leadership in these tax departments wanted to make tax easier for people to pay so that voluntary compliance would increase which is kind of a very, very different paradigm than perhaps we have at the United States.

But at any rate, back then the model that emerged before ThinkPlace was that you have the voice of intent, and the voice of intent really drives what is it that we want to do. Why is it strategically something that’s important? What’s the problem? Why is this something that we want to focus our attention on? The voice of expertise so what do we know? What good knowledge base can we bring to solving the problem? And then the voice of design is the one that would then get the win-win of both and basically chart a way forward in terms of a solution.

When we started ThinkPlace we quickly realized that there was a voice that was missing, and that was the voice of lived experience. The reason we thought about that is because we started to think that it’s not really enough, particularly from an equity perspective, for the experts to go and research the voice of experience, right? Because that’s so filtered through the voice of expertise, and, look, a lot of that was conditioned by the thinking and the values that we were bringing to the table so for example, I had done quite a bit of work in my undergraduate and graduate studies around participatory design and the values related to that but ultimately we were really thinking about there is a dignity in holding up the knowledge of the voice of expertise as a knowledge base that’s unique, and really giving that voice its due. So we started to bring that into the picture, and over time by applying it in just countless numbers of projects, it’s only strengthened as a model that seems to be even particularly relevant at the moment as we’re now I think collectively understanding that there is wisdom in the voice of lived experience, right? And it’s not just enough to say there is wisdom and then not do anything about it.

Again, we need the tools to literally lift that up, and as I like to say, bring that voice into the decision-making tables in whatever form that needs to take. I think we’ve always had as a company a mission of equity and justice even before those words were used explicitly so the equity and justice piece is about making sure that the voices that you’re bringing to the table are not the usual voices, the voices with power.

So the other overlay of human-centered design in a collective impact context is that it is about finding those voices that are particularly silent, not just going out and doing empathy interviews where it’s easy. In fact, if you’re not doing empathy interviews and it’s hard, then you’re probably not reaching out and challenging yourself enough to give voice to those that typically wouldn’t have a voice because it’s not easy for them to come to the table.

Cindy Santos: Yeah, so it seems that there is that unique piece of the work that you’re doing through ThinkPlace and applying the four voices of design which are intent, experience, expertise, and design. Michelle, I was hoping that you could provide us an example like what does that look like? How have you applied the four voices of design in your work?

Michelle Carrillo: Absolutely, Cindy. One of the ones that comes to mind and just as Leslie was telling, emphasizing the point around often going for the voices that are silent and really understanding that lived experience, one of the communities we are working with was a small municipality in like a city, and the city had a swimming pool, and it had this beautiful beachfront park. The challenge that they had was that it was really expensive to maintain these assets in the community, and the narrative going on in the community was this wrestling with, well, you know, neither of these make money for us. We don’t earn a revenue off of this, and it’s a drain on taxpayer dollars. That was the narrative that a lot of the leaders including elected folks on the city council were starting to talk about, and the approach that the city took at that time was, well, let’s do a listening campaign. We need to go out and we need to engage with the community so we’re going to hold a bunch of townhalls, and we want to hear from you like why do you care about the pool, what do you care about the park.

What came out was a pretty—like if you imagine a townhall meeting and the typical folks that might show up, a lot of retired folks who could come at two o’clock in the afternoon and who had the ability to drive to get to those meetings. That’s who showed up at those meetings. At the pool it was the folks that already use the pool all the time, that they saw the bulletin board in the front lobby and said, oh, yeah, of course, I’m going to make sure that I go to that who showed up and their voices were being hard. So the point where we engaged and worked with some of the leaders was around a real hurtful conversation of fear that we weren’t going to get to something different and that there was going to be no future for the pool, and that decisions were going to be made that impacted people and they would never hear from how important this place really was. They had seen what we’d done with some of the literacy work, and there was kind of an interest around like, hey, this seemed to work around solving some really complex problems, can we do this?

So we went through and did a series of empathy interviews, and people that we talked to were the Latina mom that doesn’t bring her family there, and we talked to a daycare provider who also wasn’t using the pool. We went and talked to tribal elders that due to their mobility, they couldn’t get to the pool but had actually used the pool previously. We talked to young people on the LGBTQ spectrum that also shared stories of why they didn’t go to the pool or what were some of the experiences that they had, and through taking that line of deeply listening to say tell me about your experience going to the pool, why or why not have you used it, what do you think about the experience, and walking through that we learned things about the locker room. We learned things about the cleanliness and how people felt or different cultural connotations of what the pool was for and who felt like that that space was even for them.

We also lifted up stories around—one that was just heartbreaking was around the impact of when these facilities are shut down, what happens. So for one elder, his particular experience was when the pool was shut down for six months due to budget cuts and repairs that needed to be made, he lost the ability to walk, and the impact of his story of saying I don’t come anymore because I won’t be able to walk anymore and I used the water walking as a way to keep my mobility up, and I used the bus transit system to get there because I can’t drive, I can’t do any of these things so he had his daily routine that was completely interrupted, and for him he’ll never walk again.

Holding those stories and the elected leaders, the people responsible for these budget decisions now holding these stories in their heart and looking at it and going, oh, this budget choice has a completely different weight of how deeply people care about our public spaces. The stories of loss and disconnection from the physical place told by some of the tribal elders that talked about what that place has been since the beginning of time for them opened up a whole other reconciliation process with the city and the tribes.

So now fast forward again like this has been a journey for about seven years now, they’re partnering with the tribes to do an interpretive trail for the entire park and doing renaming and historical work with the tribal cultural council to try to make amends and be in right relations and walk of what is a very slow path, right, to rebalance things, and that started with just deeply listening, right? Not from a place of judgment but how do we bring those voices into the center of that decision making, and none of those stories were going to come out at a townhall or respond to my digital survey.

Leslie Tergas: Yeah, and if I can pick up on that story, it tells a good one, Michelle, because I think there’s a lot of pieces there that we can highlight to help maybe put a little bit more clarity on these four voices. The interesting thing about the voice of intent, right? So the people that were on the pool, their intention was we need to create a plan. There was real fear in going to listen to folks that they had never engaged with, right? And that’s OK.

So one of the things about human-centered design is that it’s empathy for everybody in the system as a human being so until proven otherwise, we assume that people get up every morning to try to do their very, very best, and the reason why that can be confronting is because usually people in that position, managers, policymakers, etc., etc., they’re used to going to people with answers, and so a big mind shift is that, yep, sometimes there are—there are still times when you want me to go to people with answers but actually the power of going to people with questions is quite a big shift, and that’s where having folks like us that can help walk that through and almost like demonstrate that, you know what? No, people aren’t going to pelt you with tomatoes because they think the pool sucks. Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen. The power of the empathy approach is that because it’s about the people you’re listening to, not about the person that’s asking the questions, that in and of itself is a dignified moment of respect.

So done well, it’s kind of recursive, right? So you are going to listen and so many times when we work with folks that want to put this process in place, they’ll say, oh, you know, we can’t possibly ask people for a half an hour or an hour of their time, and we say, yeah, sure, no problem, but we always schedule two hours. We always schedule double the time, and it never fails, right? Because once the folks that we’re talking to understand that there is truly a humble—this is truly a humble act of listening and learning and power leveling, right? Putting their stories, holding their stories as valuable knowledge, then people want to talk. Then people want to tell us things, and people want to share what’s going on for them. So it can be—it’s definitely a shift for the intent holders but in this case, you can hear from what Michelle was saying that through listening to these stories and really understanding the breadth of the impact of the pool on the community, that then gives the intent holders more confidence around so how do we move forward? This is just a cost-cutting exercise. Well, no, it’s actually a community development, a community alignment possibility, and this is when the voice of design comes in because the voice of design looks at everything that’s going on and identifies the possibility, the opportunity for something new, the opportunity for solutions that we never envisioned because we hadn’t approached this from a broad enough landscape of possibility.

Cindy Santos: I really appreciate you elevating that, and I think it’s so important, this point that you made about the power of going to people with questions because it really seems that a key learning that you had was around how to stay curious, right? How to stay curious, how to stay intentional about what voices are being representative, all of the multiple perspectives that might not be at the table.

Michelle, I really loved how you talked about the very unique needs of everyone in our community and how when we are able to center the very unique needs of all of the folks in our community, that that can kind of lead us into a place of healing, right? How beautiful is that really to take us to a place of reparations and healing by including everyone in our community that should be included, and those voices that are often silent which is something that you mentioned.

I’m curious, obviously when we apply some of these approaches, they really work, and they can be really challenging so I’m wondering just what lessons you’ve learned? What have your key learnings been and really what challenges and opportunities came up as a result of this work?

Michelle Carrillo: Yeah, you know I think one that I’m reminded in and it’s every time I go through this process with a community is that there’s always a resistance to doing something different, and the pushback of, well, we’ve been doing it a certain way and it hasn’t worked. We haven’t had the change we want to see so what do we have to lose by trying to do something different, and because this is such a experiential process, I find that those moments where we have where we’re—you know, somebody on the project just is really suspicious of the approach or like I don’t think this is going to work or I don’t know, who’s going to talk to us, who’s going to take two hours of our time, right, to that time question. That one comes up a lot, and then once I get them in an interview or two—I’m just like, come with me, you know. Just come listen. I’ll do the interview, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to do anything, just come with me and just listen. That’s all you have to do. It has radically changed leaders in our community through various different projects that those stories, they stay with you but it’s also that value of having that empathy for everybody in the system.

I think that’s the other piece of this that I’d say is like a lesson around, and Leslie is such a good reminder of this always, to have empathy for everybody in the system including those leaders and people that hold intents that are trying to do something. In the literacy work we had to have—we needed to have empathy for the bus driver and for the cafeteria worker and for the teachers as well as the families, and through that we were able to surface the power that the bus driver has as being the first person outside of that child’s family that that student engages with, and how transformational is that experience of a 45-minute bus ride to school, and that bus driver is the person that sets the environment on that bus, and just motivating that person to see, oh, I have a totally different—it’s not just getting the kids to school safely, I have a different role I can play, and just how empowering that can be where we all can see what our roles are in the system and how we all can play a part in making that change. I have a different role I can play and just how empowering that can be where we all can see what our roles are in the system and how we all can play a part in making that change.

Leslie Tergas: I think on that one, one of the lessons is, yeah, you know when we go into a particular space, because we have been doing this for a while and we can see, OK, actually what we really need here is a scale of empathy interviewing at this scale or we need to interview all these people. We can see all of that, but the main thing is to start and to start small because it doesn’t take very much. Once you experience that shift, it doesn’t take much to sort of say, right, OK, now I get it.

I think another lesson is—is that it is deceptively—it sounds simple but actually you need to hold as the person that’s doing this work, you need to hold that nonjudgment and that optimism and that possibility, and that’s emotional work. We are working in spaces where—and situations where it is very easy to sort of go, oh, you know, this is so complicated, it’s so messed up, it’s so—so I think one of the lessons is for those who are doing the work, take time to tend to your own emotional wellbeing. You have to show up to this work with a full heart, with optimism that change is possible, and with a self-awareness around what are some of the things that might hold you back from listening without judgment.

So being prepared and looking after yourself so that you can show up in the right way is really critical, and I think that as we work with our partners, this is probably the journey that we take them on in terms of the quote-unquote training. There’s training and there’s like, yeah, what’s the methodology and how do you make sure you get consent because this all has to be done with all of the ethical controls across it which we do so there’s a lot of nuts and bolts, right, but I think the lasting capability for folks who then go on to do this work is that self-awareness around how they show up in truly an open space of possibility and hope.

Cindy Santos: That’s a really good thing to elevate because, you know, most of our listeners serve in a backbone role, and when you’re serving in that backbone role you have, yes, the caring for self, and then the really holding the work of the collaborative in a really particular way.

I’m wondering as you consider how folks can bring some of this into their own collaboratives, what should they be considering? Self-care seems to be one of them but what else should they be considering? What recommendations might you have?

Michelle Carrillo: So for backbone leaders one of the weights that we hold is often in we’re holding so many different interest groups and decision makers and folks, and we’re all trying to get everybody to focus on the goal and what are we working towards collectively, and for me the big shift in the weight that was lifted off my shoulders in this work was often in once we had the voice of lived experience and the data and the story put together, the strong-knit narrative that really drove the rest of our decision making.

It really was then I could point to that and go, hey, even if I don’t have the mom with the preschool kid in the room, I did because I had the data, I had the—here’s her direct experience. It’s like the suggestion that you’re bringing to the table right now, how does that relate to Marcus? How does that benefit this family? So it really became a way to center the work, and so I think that’s a question or challenge I’d have to any backbone leader, is how are you centering lived experience of the people that you’re working with and for, and if they’re not in the room with you all the time through the data and through their lived experience if they’re not in the room, then that’s a question of how might you actually go do that.

Leslie Tergas: Yeah, and picking up on that, what we’ve also seen from time to time is attempts at bringing in the voice of the lived experience by just having everybody there all the time so, oh, we need to center the voice of the lived experience so we’re going to ask everybody what they want. There’s a couple of challenges with that.

One is that people are living their lives and skating through the day and experiencing the challenges that are they’re experiencing. They can’t always say, well, here’s what I want. Sometimes we feel that there’s a perception that asking people what they want will be the source of the answer of the solution, right?

But this is where thinking about the four voices of design, the voice of experience is unique, and it is grounded in what’s happening to people. The voice of expertise can bring what we call a systems or bird’s eye view to look across, and then the voice of design also brings that ability to say, right, OK, so, yes, there are 10,000 experiences but what are the differences that matter? What are the variables that we need to be looking at so that we can actually manage to design solutions because at the end of the day, systems have to work for everybody. It can’t be a matter of for every single story that we heard, here’s the bespoke solution. So bringing those stories into the decision-making table and then utilizing design to think about what might we do is really critical.

Sometimes what I see is, again, the desire to bring that lived experience so one of, I suppose, my recommendations would be be intentional about how you build this capability, and take time to build the capability. So when I think at my time at ThinkPlace since 2008 what I know is that where we have seen lasting results is where there has been investment in the capability up front. We’re funny type of consultants.

We actually get really excited when we get fired because when we get fired because a community says to us, we’ve got this, you’ve helped us, you’ve built the capability, we actually have a cohort of people that know how to do this, we’re working in this way, and we can now look to each other and say, well, what else is there for us to do, we are happy to move on, right? So we very much are passionate about doing with, definitely not doing for, and doing with the point where there is a genuine capability that’s been built, and we can step away. We can always come back and say, hey, you know, so next level, what can we do, etc., etc. So I would say think about this not as a one-off. Think about it as a capability, and there are many examples and Del Norte and Tribal Lands be an example of where the investment really pays off, not just in terms of better outcomes for the community but also in terms of backbone organizations being able to work more efficiently, and less noise, right? More joy in the collective impact table. More joy, less noise.

Cindy Santos: That’s really great. That actually makes me smile, more joy, less noise, because to what Michelle is saying, this work can be so hard.

Leslie Tergas: Yes.

Cindy Santos: And from everything that you’ve elevated, it can also be incredibly meaningful and incredibly rewarding. I’m glad that you’re elevating both sides of that and what that might mean as you’re doing the work, right? So at this point you’ve really given us multiple examples on how to center diverse human experiences, how to elicit stories, how to engage and engage deeply. I really appreciated allowing ourselves to ask the questions that might ultimately give us solutions that we never even thought of, right, and using the four voices of design. So there’s so much that we could cover today, and I wish we had more time but for our listeners, how can folks follow your work? How can folks get involved in your work?

Leslie Tergas: Well, apparently a good place to start would be to visit our website. So we’re at thinkplaceglobal.com, and ThinkPlace West is part of a network of ThinkPlace offices that are actually independently owned across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Senegal, Ghana, Washington, and Sacramento, and one of the reasons why we’ve made a deliberate decision to be a network of studios rather than a franchise or a headquarters anywhere is because we share a way of working and we share a set of values but ultimately we want to be really in tune with the places that we are in because, again, that place-based approach means that we are responding to the unique aspects of a particular, of a place, and that’s really, really important.

Cindy Santos: Well, thank you both so much for bringing your perspectives, your experiences, and your stories to this conversation, and more than anything really your humanity. I think that that really shown through in how much you really care about the communities you work with so we’re so grateful. Thank you.

(Outro) And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes for this episode. And if you’re enjoying all that we share at the Collective Impact Forum podcast, we encourage you to rate us on your preferred podcast platform, and share your favorite episodes with colleagues.

We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.

The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.

In Forum news, we’re excited to share that registration is now open for the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit, that will be held online this April 30-May 2, 2024. It’s our biggest learning event of the year, featuring over 25 virtual sessions, and sharing out best practices from collaboratives from across the U.S. and globally. And we’re excited to announce that our closing keynote will be with political leader and changemaker Stacey Abrams that will discuss the power of movement building.  Please visit our events section at collectiveimpactforum.org if you would like to join the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit.

This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast producer. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, let’s keep working towards collective impact.


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