“Designing a Meaningful Life” is a new course that guides WashU students in thinking about how to apply a creative approach to designing their own lives. One of the course’s guests and collaborators was Hilary Sedovic, LMSW, Learning & Education Manager at Creative Reaction Lab. In the article below, learn about the course; Hilary’s role as a co-educator; and Creative Reaction Lab’s work to educate, train, and challenge Black and Latinx youth to become leaders designing healthy and racially equitable communities.
Most of us don’t often think of our lives as something that we consciously design, molding and shaping them according to distinct principles. Instead, life just seems to happen to us, the winds of the world propelling us forward or back. The course “Designing a Meaningful Life: Tools and Practices to Build Your Way Forward” attempts to challenge this narrative and offer a different approach. The text for the course, Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, provides a deceptively simple definition of the well-designed life: “It’s a life in which who you are, what you believe, and what you do all line up together.” Of course, such continuity across identity, beliefs, and actions is difficult to achieve, and the goal of the course is to guide juniors and seniors in thinking about how to apply a creative approach to designing their own lives.
The course’s co-instructors Sara Ryu, PhD, Director of Academic Planning for the College of Arts and Sciences, and Cassie Power, PhD, Associate Director for Faculty and Academic Engagement at the Gephardt Institute, explain that design-thinking is a human-centered, hands-on, collaborative approach to problem solving and innovation through prototype iteration that lends itself especially well to tackling some of life’s big decisions.1 In other words, students are encouraged to design plans, test them out, and then go back and revise again, incorporating their learnings. “We created opportunities for students to apply design-thinking to their lives,” the co-instructors shared, “and we also asked students to consider their lives in relation to others as a necessary practice for designing a meaningful life.”
The experiential and reflective nature of the course invited active learning through in-class projects, small group discussions, and guest speakers. One of the course’s guests and collaborators was Hilary Sedovic, LMSW, Learning & Education Manager at Creative Reaction Lab. Founded in support of the Ferguson Uprising, Creative Reaction Lab is building a youth-led, community-centered movement with the mission of educating, training, and challenging Black and Latinx youth to become leaders designing healthy and racially equitable communities. They call these young civic leaders Redesigners for Justice. Creative Reaction Lab defines design as “the intent and unintentional impact behind an outcome.” In an article explaining their work, Creative Reaction Lab breaks down the role that design plays in racial equity work: “…systems of oppression, inequality, inequity are by design; therefore, they can and must be redesigned. We also believe that everybody is a designer—design is not restricted to people who have pursued design as a career path. We all have the power to influence outcomes. Every choice that we make every day contributes to a greater design.” While the “Designing a Meaningful Life” course demonstrates how design-thinking can be applied on an individual scale, Creative Reaction Lab applies the concept of design to society-level systems of power, through a creative problem-solving process called Equity-Centered Community Design, which is based upon equity, humility-building, integrating history and healing practices, addressing power dynamics, and co-creating with the community.
In her role at Creative Reaction Lab, Hilary designs and facilitates workshops supporting institutions and individuals seeking to better understand and center equity and inclusion in their practice, develops curricula and other tools for the Equity-Centered Community Design process, and manages evaluation strategy. She was a collaborator on two class sessions for the course, the first entitled “Accept: Wayfinding and Reflective Practices” and the second called “Empathize: Developing Our Perspectives.” For the “Accept” session, Hilary shared her own experience finding her professional and personal pathway after graduate school at Washington University. “While it was a rollercoaster 3 years,” she says, “I do believe that that time shaped me to be ready to dive into my role with Creative Reaction Lab. I learned to be more observant and reflective, to sit back longer and listen for what people are saying and feeling and needing, rather than imposing my needs and narratives on them. It continues to be a journey!” In relation to her work with Creative Reaction Lab, Hilary discussed the impossibility of truly separating the personal from the professional. She shared the ways that her own identity and experiences show up in her work and invited students to reflect on the ways that “identity, perspective, power, and humility,” essential elements in Equity-Centered Community Design, are also necessary within, though often excluded from, professional spaces.
Hilary rejoined the class a few weeks later to speak on humility and empathy. “I wanted to be clear from the previous session that my capacity for exploring and wayfinding was greatly assisted by numerous privileges in my life,” she shared, “and that sometimes that space for reflection, trying, and failing is a luxury only for those with privileged identities.” While the class session was entitled “Empathize,” Hilary stressed the importance of first building humility in order to effectively access empathy. During the session, Hilary led two activities, the first called “Developing our Perspectives,” which asked students to identify the various messages they had received from different sources around the idea of college, and the second, “Design for Exclusion,” tracing a narrative throughout history to the present, in this case focusing on exclusion in higher education. “History and healing are central to Equity-Centered Community Design,” Hilary said. “We cannot expect to develop equitable interventions if we do not first identify and acknowledge the harm that has contributed to the inequity, and then work to dismantle the power constructs that may perpetuate that harm through decision-making and narrative shaping.”
Hilary’s aim during her time with the “Designing a Meaningful Life” students was to help them see and access their power in shaping narratives. “I hope that they learned that their perspectives are powerful,” she said. But Hilary’s message doesn’t stop there. It is equally important “to admit when we don’t know, and it’s okay for our perspectives to shift when we encounter new information we didn’t have before.” While each student has a valuable perspective to contribute, “we especially need to cultivate space to amplify the narratives and voices of people from historically underinvested communities whose narratives have been ignored, diminished, and/or erased for generations.” “Lastly,” Hilary summed, “I hope that I helped reinforce that they should question everything. Where or who is this information coming from? What power do they hold or interact with and how might this narrative serve the interests of that power? What narratives are being silenced or withheld in the interest of upholding status quo?” These are questions that Creative Reaction Lab is continuously returning to in their work.
Since Hilary’s final session with the “Designing a Meaningful Life” students, much has changed in the world as a global pandemic and the continued institutionalized violence against Black people in the U.S. have brought the nation’s attention to inequitable systems in desperate need of a total redesign. Creative Reaction Lab founder and CEO Antionette Carroll recently shared a video discussing her own and Creative Reaction Lab’s work in the current context. She emphasized the long-term nature of the work of dismantling systems of inequity and racism. “We have to address the immediate and we have to challenge the system,” she stressed. Hilary sums up Creative Reaction Lab’s response, explaining that “none of these atrocities are new, and they are symptoms of an oppressive and violent system that was designed to produce oppression and violence. We will continue to do the work to dismantle and rebuild with a focus on capacity building for long-term, sustainable change, while also amplifying work that is addressing urgent needs on the ground in communities.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, many individuals and communities have expressed a hope that the world will quickly return to “normal.” But Equity-Centered Community Design offers a different path forward, an alternative to the resumption of old habits and the reinforcement of long-standing inequitable systems. Hillary says, “In times of urgency we may find ourselves more readily embracing the fallback plan/status quo because it feels easier as the standard. Equity-Centered Community Design urges us to take this opportunity to redesign.”
In response to the pandemic, Creative Reaction Lab has redesigned many of their own initiatives. Early on in the crisis, the Programs team launched the Youth Creative Leadership Fund with a plan to provide 20 Black and Latinx youth with $100 micro-grants for personal self-care needs, a creative response to COVID-19, or redistribution to others in need. They received 340 applications from across the U.S. and, with the support of contributions, have been able to increase the fund to support 155 youth.
Other core programs of Creative Reaction Lab are continuing as they make adaptations and respond to the pandemic. The 2020 cohort of the Community Design Apprenticeship Program, composed of Black youth from the St. Louis area addressing food insecurity in North County, was recently able to resume programming with the necessary safety precautions. Redesigning Education For Racial Equity & Social Healing (REFRESH) is an intergenerational civic engagement program for youth and educators. They have rescheduled their summer kick-off event, which includes educator training and curriculum planning, for the fall with virtual engagements scheduled before and after. Hilary reiterates the importance of the program, saying, “As we interviewed candidates, we had a glimpse into the realities of educators across the country who are striving to support their students in the midst of trauma in their communities. It is underlining for us the importance of building capacity for social-emotional learning skills in both educators and their youth and will help us double down on providing this support in REFRESH.”
The Seeds of Power Fellowship Program for youth alumni who have previously participated in Creative Reaction Lab’s programming has a smaller cohort this year due to budget cuts, but the team is hopeful that the small group will give more opportunity for Fellows to build their skills in a virtual environment. Finally, the Leaders for Community Equity and Action Workshops, which educate participants in Equity-Centered Community Design and have historically been led in-person, are now being offered in a virtual format. Starting in June, Hilary and the Learning and Education team have launched a public seasonal webinar series, “Redesigners in Action,” supporting the application of Equity-Centered Community Design concepts in real-life.
According to Creative Reaction Lab’s model, one of the core components of Equity-Centered Community Design is “acknowledging, sharing, and dismantling power constructs.” This can begin with an acknowledgement of the identities that we hold, as Hilary encouraged in the “Designing a Meaningful Life” course. In response to COVID-19, Hilary invited individuals to reflect on “how and when our experiences differ from those of someone who is disproportionately experiencing inequitable and oppressive systems” and called on those with more resources, privilege, and traditional power to leverage these on behalf of those most affected. “And when I say resources,” she clarified, “I don’t just mean care packages—I’m talking about money. If you received a stimulus check but are not reliant on it, how might you distribute your funds to directly support those who are struggling to get by in this time? How might you speak out against traditional power that continues to exploit low wage workers? How might we continue to call out and amplify injustices within systems that are producing what they were designed to produce (e.g. distribution of funding and availability of COVID-19 testing in historically underinvested communities)? How might we evolve and redesign our systems to pursue justice and equity in response to this crisis rather than passively await the return to the status quo?”
As we continue to reflect on these questions as individuals and as a community, we also invite readers to consider how they may be able to support the work of Creative Reaction Lab. Hilary suggests the following pathways into partnership: Contribute to the Youth Creative Leadership Fund and share it with others. Purchase an Artwork for Equity poster or other CRXLAB swag. Attend a Redesigners in Action webinar. Download/purchase the Equity-Centered Community Design Field Guide. Register for the Equity by Design Immersive in St. Louis next Spring. Watch this TED talk from Antionette Carroll -, as well as her recent talk with 99U on Behance. Reach out to Hilary to plan a workshop for your community. Connect with Creative Reaction Lab on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.