Interview with a Partner: Haliday Douglas

Illustration by Alice Lee. Learn more about our illustrators.

Interview with a Partner: Haliday Douglas

Haliday Douglas is a proud son of St. Louis. He commits his professional life to working across St. Louis — currently as the interim President & CEO of the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation and as the Founder & CEO of Sons & Daughters of St. Louis. Liz has worked closely with Haliday through Sons & Daughters on The Initiative during 2022, a school-embedded project to design, pilot, and scale effective programming that increases youth belonging and success at school. 

Liz sat down to talk with him about his approaches, lessons, and how human-centered design connects to the change he is instigating and supporting across St. Louis. 

PDB: Tell us a little bit about your work and approach. 

HD: Our goal is to shift the thinking of the social sector, particularly of non-profits and people who want to do social good work, when it comes to problem solving. We’re hoping St. Louis can move from the current dynamic to one that is more inclusive of the perspectives of folks with  lived experiences: those who know the challenges our communities are facing, whether we’re talking about poverty, inequitable access to high-quality education, career readiness, access to economically mobile career opportunities, or criminal justice opportunities. 

We’re trying to establish a way for those who are most proximate to these challenges to be at the table and share power throughout the process of problem solving. They must be part of framing the problems, supporting the design of solutions, and to the extent possible, supporting the implementation of those solutions. 

PDB: What led you to identify that this was work that needed to happen in St. Louis? 

HD: Looking at the data, we see that indicators like literacy levels, juvenile detention rates, math and reading proficiency rates, kids living in poverty are either moving in the wrong direction, or staying pretty much stagnant. At the same time, our investments in addressing these challenges are increasing. The number of nonprofits on the ground attempting to address these gaps are increasing. While we know many of our nonprofits are adding value, the question is: why isn’t that value adding up? How do we get to making change that compounds? What we’re doing is not working, so maybe we need to be doing something differently. 

Fast forward a few years, and I was part of a conversation with representatives from a major foundation about an economic mobility index they were creating. They were trying to figure out if the current generation was better off than their parents, economically. They were building a tool to inform both policy and practice aiming to bring more upward mobility to cities across the country. To build this tool, they had surveyed different city contexts, and found that St. Louis is pretty much at the bottom of the list in terms of upward mobility. In other words, if you’re born at the bottom in STL, you tend to stay at the bottom through adulthood. 

I asked, “How are you defining generation? What range are you talking about?” They were relying on census data, with increments of about 25-30 years between generations. I said, “That’s interesting, because in the neighborhoods you’re trying to support, the data and my experience tells me that generations in the context of urban poverty are better defined as 15-20 years.” I believe if they had asked someone with lived experience they would have probably come to that understanding, and would have been able to point interventions towards the “right” population of people. 

PDB: How does your work and approach connect to human-centered design? 

HD: The process Sons & Daughters of St. Louis brings together proven or promising practices in change management and human-centered design, which is why Public Design Bureau is a central partner in our work. We also utilize elements of community organizing, community-based systems dynamics, and randomized control trials as part of our work. 

Our team includes people who have done these practices in discrete parts, but never before in connection with one another to create a coherent workflow that centers the perspectives of folks with lived experiences to solve for change in the social sector. 

Our change process involves four stages: 

Problem definition, which entails a literature review, the formation of a steering committee made up of diverse community members. We bring together this steering committee and engage them in a learning tour for 3 to 6 months. As they learn, they guide us in decision making as we confer with folks with lived experience through formal mechanisms. For example, in the work we’re doing right now, we have a youth advisory board that is composed of 80% youth who have lived experience with homelessness. In partnership with the steering committee (which also comprises some folk with lived experience of homelessness), youth co-created a problem statement.

Solutions design with design teams takes the problem statement developed in the first stage and puts it in the hands of the groups impacted by the identified problem to co-create a solution. 

Next, solutions pilots are embedded into existing programs and practices. These pilots are co-created with the design teams. Solutions are not an add-on. They’re part of how the organization thinks and behaves when addressing something, for example, how the school thinks and behaves when addressing youth belonging and achievement for students who move around a lot. 

Finally, we learn from our pilots to scale what works. This is where I get to my earlier point. We’re not just aiming to do stuff that adds value; rather, we aim to do stuff where the value adds up and compounds over time. In our current work, on the individual level we’ll have a solution that directly interfaces with youth and educators, attempting to address the challenges of belonging and achievement through relationship-building. On an institutional level, we’re trying an experiment to see if spending $300k (the projected cost of the entire project) can shift institutional behavior. Specifically, we’re trying to leverage our small-ish dollars to support how the District spends its millions of dollars to support achievers experiencing homelessness. And on a systems level, we’re going towards replication across schools and districts – replication of cost efficiencies, nonprofit collaboration, and solutions that are less dependent on nonprofits because they are embedded in institutions. 

PDB: What are the strengths of Human-Centered Design? Why do you use it?

HD: Human-centered design is a process and a set of tools that allow people to come together, commune with one another, share that same space, and produce a product that is about meeting a need and addressing a challenge that they’re actually experiencing every day in their life. It’s not about creating something hypothetical. When I think about human-centered design, I think about how we’re honoring people’s expressed needs by including them in the process. Throughout the process in our most recent effort, we were even iterating how we present and facilitate sessions, being responsive to how people are collectively working together. 

In the human-centered design process, the designers are proximate to the issue you’re trying to solve for. And the inputs and feedback that we iteratively gather to refine the products produced by the design teams add another layer of validation that ensures that whatever comes out at the end is something that people want, something that is viable and sustainable as far as long-term impact. 

PDB: How do you see some of the other approaches you use complimenting human-centered design? 

HD: No one of the elements we use can solve issues on its own. That’s why we’re stringing them together. Human-centered design will get you to a point where there’s a set of recommendations on what to do, but it doesn’t necessarily do the thing. It takes a set of processes related to change management and leadership facilitated by someone who’s in the organization. 

Another component that offsets human-centered design is finding the starting point. Community-based systems dynamics is a participatory process that really allows people to not just articulate what the challenges are, but for those same people to prioritize the challenges. We base our problem statement off of the prioritized challenges. This also draws on community organizing, creating an overall structure with the community steering committee and something that is owned by the community in a bunch of layered ways.

Finally, evaluation of our change management efforts allow us at the end to scale what works in a sustainable way. 

PDB: Has there been anything that has surprised you as part of the human-centered design process we’ve used this year with the design teams? 

HD: I was surprised how quickly people can adapt and co-create when they were not familiar with the process before. I’ve also been somewhat surprised that when we asked for feedback…we got feedback. The authentic feedback in the design sessions is equity work.

PDB: Say a bit more about how equity connects to our work in design sessions. 

HD: In our sessions, we’ve put protocols in place that have lowered the barriers to participation, like starting sessions by asking for first names and something about people individually, without professional or educational background. All the things we typically do in group meetings can create power dynamics in a way that are not conducive to power sharing. 

One thing I thought was really strong in our design process was that it was structured in such a way that real power sharing could occur. We had authentic sharing with everyone feeling that their expertise, even with different life experiences and exposures, could be shared and respected. There were no participation gaps and no collaboration gaps. 

PDB: What mindsets from design thinking are critical to success in making change?

HD: You can’t go anywhere without clarity in process. You have to be very crisp as far as what we’re here to do. You have to have a clarity of goal and how we’re going to get to it. I think Public Design Bureau’s tools have been really helpful and robust in making sure that people have clarity on how and what we’re going to accomplish. 

Follow along with Sons & Daughters of St. Louis at their website, and leave us a comment or send us a note to let us know what other approaches, tools, or methods you think might compliment human-centered design. 

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