The environments where children grow up have immense impact on their health and wellness. And places where children can thrive are places where all of us want to be. What do child-centered communities look like? And how might we work together to create more of them in America?
Over the past 9 months, Raising Places explored these questions in six diverse U.S. communities. This report is a synthesis of the trends, insights and lessons we’ve learned.
A healthy environment has an outsize effect on children. And places where children can thrive are places where all of us want to be. What do child-centered communities look like? And how might we work together to create more of them in America?
Creating places where all children and families can thrive is about more than addressing issues; it’s about radically resetting expectations. This section explores how the Raising Places process reset expectations at every step: from framing to engagement to creation to sharing. We also provide ideas for how people working in different sectors might carry this work forward.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working with people across the country to build a Culture of Health so that all people can reach their full potential—no matter where they live or who they are. In the case of children, community conditions not only influence their current health and development, but also their future outcomes, which multiplies both the urgency and the impact of this focus.
In Raising Places, framing goals around the well-being of children helped a wide variety of stakeholders to see themselves in the work—everyone from city leaders and policymakers, to developers and funders, to architects and planners, to educators, health care professionals, parents, organizers and social service providers. It also invited a more inclusive and less siloed conversation around fraught issues. As Sara Kendall of Kite’s Nest, a Raising Places convener in Hudson, NY, said, “There is convening power in a child-centered framing. On the surface, it sounds really sweet, but it also allows us to step into the most challenging and complex issues that our communities face.”
Children’s direct environments play a critical role in both their daily lives and their futures, so Raising Places asked applicants to start at a neighborhood scale when defining their version of “community.” And a child-centered lens puts a magnifying glass on community issues. As Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia said, “Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”
To frame the Raising Places work locally, community teams applied by conducting an application workshop where they explored the question, “What are the barriers to children and families thriving in our community?” Teams discussed the experiences of local children and families, then identified their top three community-level issues driving those experiences. And at our first lab, a two-day workshop called the Kickoff Lab (read about one Raising Places community’s kickoff lab, North Wilkesboro), we conducted further focusing exercises to ensure that we were tackling root causes of inequities for children and families, rather than only addressing symptoms. This continual focusing enabled teams to keep children and families top of mind.
Creating child-centered places requires working at multiple intersections: child development and community development, youth and adults, services and infrastructure and policy. People from diverse perspectives must ultimately share a common vision. And this mix of individuals looks different depending on the community context.
Our process asked conveners—community-based organizations who would lead this work on the ground—to identify and bring together a Design Team, comprised of 10-12 local leaders from across sectors, who would ultimately carry out the work of Raising Places. And we knew that collaboration was about more than just getting people in a room. Our facilitation balanced structured leadership with community ownership. Believing that people embrace the change they make together, the labs were designed to foster a sense of connectedness between participants.
Reaching out to kids is not always easy or comfortable for adults. As Dirk Butler of the Annie E. Casey Foundation put it, “I think if you’re going to listen to the youth, you have to be ready to hear stuff that you don’t want to hear.” And yet, the voices of children and youth amplify community development in so many ways: they are experts in their own experience, honest beyond expectation, and able to offer elegant ideas that simplify complexity. The key is to support meaningful contributions that leverage their strengths and abilities, without tokenizing them. Once engaged, they serve as important leaders and advocates for the work going forward.
Raising Places design teams included people with both access to local decision-making power and direct connections to the community. The teams engaged a wide range of community residents and stakeholders, including children and families. During the sprints between labs, teams conducted in-home interviews, activity observations such as grocery shopping with families and ride-alongs with police, and hands-on exercises such as home tours, Lego prototyping and neighborhood scavenger hunts. In addition to one-on-one engagement, each Raising Places team hosted events that brought the community together, inviting input and open-ended participation from all.
As soon as a complex problem becomes clearly defined, the tendency is to want to solve it with the first idea that comes to mind. But the first idea is not the only idea, nor is it necessarily the best. Creating solutions to multifaceted community challenges requires brainstorming with a diverse group of people. Yet far too many brainstorms are cut short by unproductive power dynamics and non-inclusive processes.
The Raising Places labs created a safe and inspiring space for participants to share ideas, no matter who they were or what their idea was about. We posted a set of brainstorm rules at the Ideas Lab to encourage a judgment-free zone. The teams wrote prompts, called “How Might We’s,” that sparked ambitious yet achievable ideas. There were many ways to contribute ideas, including talking, writing and drawing. And design team members modeled good listening in order to build on the ideas of others. From this approach, every community generated over 100 ideas, which they then narrowed down based on both team passion and where they saw energy from the community.
In a world of committees and coalitions, Raising Places aimed to be as action-oriented as possible. This meant not only generating innovative ideas, but making, testing and gathering feedback on these ideas, in order to build community buy-in and speed the process towards implementation. Community leaders often hold back from pilot testing and data gathering until they’re sure that a new program or service will create the desired outcomes. In contrast, human-centered design advocates for making ideas tangible, as quickly and cheaply as possible, then gathering feedback in order to iterate and continue along the path of development. There is always risk associated with trying something new; prototyping is a method for mitigating this risk.
Raising Places ideas first became tangible at the Ideas Lab, where we asked participants to sketch what they were thinking. Design teams then grouped these point ideas into larger concepts, and translated the rough sketches into concept sheets. Next, team members created visual prototypes—paper-based mockups that preview the larger idea—and shared them with community members for feedback. Finally, at the Action Lab, design teams planned small-scale pilots of their most promising ideas, and worked with partners to launch them within a few months. Throughout this process, teams learned to be vulnerable enough to open themselves up to critique; to narrow and let go of ideas that had less traction; and to truly invite others in, making every remaining idea stronger.
Communities make progress when they focus on what’s most important, rather than trying to tackle every issue at once. A child-centered lens brings clarity on where to start.
How children are doing can tell you a lot about how a community is doing. In fact, the second UN Conference on Human Settlements declared that the well-being of children is the ultimate indicator of a healthy habitat, a democratic society and good governance.
In order to make this determination, existing indicators may need revision, and new indicators may need adoption. For example, if you’re interested in your community’s economic viability, take a look at migration of children and families. In the health realm, what are children’s levels of physical activity, or use of public transportation? In terms of civic participation, how engaged are children and families in decision-making? These types of indicators provide shortcut clues as to a community’s overall strengths and areas of opportunity.
Every community has unique needs and assets, so while a universal list of priorities would not be relevant, what is relevant is to ask the question, “What are the barriers to children and families thriving in our community?” This is how teams applied to participate in the Raising Places project - by exploring the experiences of local children and families, and then identifying the community-level issues driving those experiences.
And while change must happen on multiple scales, it often makes sense to begin at a neighborhood scale, as children’s direct environments play a critical role in both their daily lives and their futures. Neighborhood needs are more concentrated, which can make them easier to spot; they also provide clues as to what the larger city, county or region may need. Finally, in social innovation we often advocate for a piloting approach, which starts small, iterates upon learnings and eventually scales to full systems change.
To truly address childhood inequities, communities should plan a portfolio of short- and long-term solutions to the challenges they face. In other words, consider ways to both meet the acute needs of the most disadvantaged children today and set up systems for sustained change over time.
Immediate solutions do more than improve children’s quality of life; they also build the buy-in necessary for longer-term visions to take root. For example, one Raising Places team was met with initial resistance from the community when they shared ideas for reimagining the town, because residents were focused on their pressing issues with the safety of abandoned lots. Once the team demonstrated its commitment by clearing vacant land of building scraps, the town became much more receptive to ambitious plans.
Growing up is a process of gaining increasing autonomy over your life. This gradual evolution happens within families, classrooms and peer groups--communities should be no different. With the right development of skills and confidence, youth are in many ways best suited to weigh in on community issues, since their lived experience is often closest to the problems.
Giving children a legitimate voice requires formalizing structures that set conditions for their participation, such as Participatory Budgeting or a city Youth Commission. But just as important as setting up youth for success is preparing adults to share their authority. The ultimate goal should be for youth and adults to collaborate on equal footing, with each side respecting what the other brings.
Engagement looks different across age groups and communities, but the key is to support meaningful contributions that leverage each participant’s strengths and abilities, without tokenizing them. The Raising Places process demonstrated a variety of methods for meaningful engagement, from ethnographic research that met people where they are, to prototyping techniques that elicited genuine feedback.
In addition to one-on-one engagement tactics, community events can serve as a momentum multiplier, inviting input and open-ended participation from children and families. Design participation is one of the fastest and most effective routes to community buy-in, an essential ingredient in successful community change.