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Antionette D. Carroll: Understanding Identity, Power, & Equity in Design Leadership

About this talk

Antionette Carroll, Founder, President, and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, believes that if inequality is by design, then it can be re-designed by us. Over the years, she has helmed multiple initiatives dedicated to solving the fundamental problems of inequity and fair representation in the design industry and expanding our roles to examine inherent biases. In this talk, she offers a framework for prioritizing equal outcomes over equal access to change the mindset of the industry.

This talk was recorded remotely on May 22, 2020.

Antionette D. Carroll, Founder & CEO, Creative Reaction Lab

Antionette D. Carroll is the founder, president, and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, a nonprofit educating and deploying youth to challenge racial and health inequities impacting Black and Latinx populations. Antionette has been named an ADL and Aspen Institute Civil Society Fellow, Roddenberry Fellow, Echoing Green Global Fellow, TED Fellow, ADCOLOR Innovator, SXSW Community Service Honoree, Camelback Ventures Fellow, 4.0 Schools Tiny Fellow, St. Louis Visionary Award Honoree for Community Impact, and Essence Magazine Woke 100. Over her almost 10 years of volunteer leadership, Antionette was named the Founding Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force of AIGA. She’s a former AIGA National Board Director and Chair Emerita of the Task Force. She is also the co-founder and co-director of the Design + Diversity Conference and Fellowship.

Additional materials for this talk:
Access the Equity Pledge and other materials from Creative Reaction Lab

Full Transcript

Hello 99U community as well as Behance community. I’m really excited to speak with you today about the future of design leadership, as well as the roles of identity, power and equity in this work. My name is Antionette Carroll and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I am more known for being the president and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab. But I also run another organization called Design + Diversity LLC. I am a social entrepreneur, but the most important title for me is being a designer, and I’ll explain a little later why I really harp on this title.

Yes, I was technically trained as a graphic designer. I worked in the field for almost 10 years as a practicing designer, but the way that I use design now is not the traditional way in which we talk about it in the visual communication and design space. In my career and in the last experience of starting Creative Reaction Lab and running this organization, I’ve had many honors and opportunities, such as being named of a fellow of too many organizations honestly to name, which include being a TED fellow, being an Echoing Green fellow, which is an organization that supports big bold ideas and historically have supported the launch of Teach for America, City Year, and honestly, I’ve been honored to be a part of that community to really bring design and creative problem solving into that space.

But then, most recently, I was named the Anti-Defamation League and Aspen Institute Civil Society fellowship. Within my career, I have worked historically for a while with AIGA, the professional association of design. In particular, I was the Founding Chair of the diversity inclusion taskforce as well as a former National Board director of AIGA.

So a little bit about my story. When I was growing up, I had a loving family. I was raised in a household that gave me the opportunity to have my grandmother and my grandfather as my parents, honestly, my mom and my dad as my parents and my aunt and my uncles as my parents. So you can imagine that that was stressful, as well as a benefit at occasional times when you wanted to like pit them against each other to really get what you want. But also growing up in my life. I grew up in a historically underinvested community. I didn’t necessarily know I was growing up in poverty. It wasn’t until later that I realized that my family’s mindset of striving towards a goal of $19,000 a year actually was abnormal. For me, it was actually the norm.

And so I spent a lot of time in my life really trying to determine what was my worth beyond economics which is what we usually are taught in our life to strive for a certain career, to strive for a certain goal that usually has to do with mobility and survival, and surviving our communities. And in that journey, my first fellowship that I went through was through an organization called StartingBloc, and it’s an organization that supports social innovators. And I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to do. But within this program, I really started to understand the power of my purpose, to understand the power of honestly, my ability to be a designer beyond what’s on the computer screen and what I’m drawing on a sheet of paper, but really thinking about how do I design better systems for not only myself and my family, but also my community, and really expanding my idea, of even what community means. And so my career in design and advertising was one in which I had more of a traditional path from being named most promising minority student from American Advertising Federation, through having different positions and corporations and higher education, even an agency and ultimately still do some traditional work.

And it also has led to me being recognized by GDUSA as person to watch, as well as ADCOLOR innovator. But I realized that that world wasn’t enough for me. And so I didn’t want to just create something that goes out in the world, and then I leave and that’s it. And so I really started to reflect on what was the impact that I can make. In my own design community. That was the first really community I started to think about around what’s the actual impact I can have.

And on this screen, you see these amazing individuals I’ve had the pleasure to work with throughout the years, particularly through AIGA Diverse Inclusion taskforce, where together we started to think about how do we increase, particularly racial, but also representation around ability status, sexual orientation, gender identity, particularly in leadership roles within the traditional graphic design visual communication industry. And these are individuals from across the country that have really started to think about how can we be more than our degree? How can we be more than what people like to pigeonhole us ask and really think about how do we shift our own system within our own communities? And from there, I started to dive deeper and deeper into my diversity inclusion work.

The photos you see here are from design plus diversity conference, as well as a national fellowship that we started in partnership with Microsoft, with Google, with Adobe, and thinking about how do we increase not only more diverse representation, but also how do we collectively raise our own consciousness on how we can use our practice and our craft to address the social ills that are within our communities all across the world? Also, I have been a part of a team that really started to think about how do we actually understand what our industry looks like.

For many years in our industry, we referenced a 1991 study that was looking at the fact that why the graphic design industry was 93% white. And that was the number that we tended to use when really making justifications on what we could do to change our industry. And so myself, as well as a group of members throughout AIGA, as well as Google, partnered to create the design census program. This program now has been going for years, but really looking at what is the makeup of our actual industry? What makes us happy in our industry? And what’s the opportunity to actually make things better? And one of the things that we found even in a 2019 study, three years after its launch, was that, really according to the participants of the study, our design industry is still 71%, white. As an African American and Black traditional designers, well, we only have 3% of the industry.

That is hugely problematic. Because when you think about the power of design, and all the different industries in which we touch, we hear it through design strategy. We hear it through industrial design, urban design, even traditional graphic design. We’ve touched so many fields. And yet if we don’t represent how the community actually looks, and how the community lives are we actually designing for the larger community or for a specific community. Which historically has been done in our industry.

And so this led to a AIGA, Creative Reaction Lab, which is the institution that I run, as well as Microsoft partnering to create the first Design for Inclusivity summit. And we brought together designers from the corporate space, from the agency space, community designers, as well as community members, to really start to think through what are different strategies that we need to integrate in our industry to not just say, oh, an organization was looking at increasing Black designers by 2%. That’s not enough.

We need to have a cultural or systemic shift within our actual industry. And so I’m going to show you a video of what we went through for that day and some of the things that we were discussing, to really think about what’s the impact we can make in our community. So the design for inclusivity summit, we saw the importance of having community and industry at the table.

– When we say community, there are so many passionate, motivated, creative people creating change. And part of me just say, Wow, how can we help help make this even better for them?

– When we have a summit like this, let’s think about who that we is, if all of us are here as leaders in their current form, who are we opening doors for?

– We have to collectively come together to solve this problem. No single company can do it. No single person is capable of fixing this.

– The key to inclusive design is including people in the process, in the conversation, in the shared awareness of what it is.

– As a disabled person working in accessibility, I had a unique power that a lot of times people would listen to me and they appreciated the insight I could give so they didn’t make some basic accessibility mistakes before the research even started.

– I’ve always been the other in the room. So I think when you talk about inclusion, you start to create spaces where others feel comfortable.

– I think a lot of companies, a lot of industries are looking at diversity inclusion as initiative. That’s something we need to work on, versus how do we be more intentional in terms of the outcome?

– If I were to define what design is that will be delivered into the key to inclusive design is not only as a designer, understanding your role as a communicator, but also understanding who you’re speaking to on behalf of,

– I think where real learning happens is when you hear about other people’s experiences, and you can be in a conversation with them, because then you can make connections that you’ll remember for a long time.

– I think one of the biggest barriers is actually just empathy. If you don’t feel safe in the room to share your ideas or to share your identity, you will never get to the bigger solutions.

– When I look at community and designers to do work in human basis with a geographic community. I view individuals that are living experts in their spaces, and they are really able to think about the day to day impact of whatever is impeding them and impacting them.

– This idea of belonging and I wanna help create that for our culture for our place of work, but also for the whole industry, so you belong and we all belong.

Going through this experience, I started to realize that we don’t have a talent pipeline issue, we have a perception issue. And we need to understand that where we are actually sourcing designers and as people in the 99U community and as designers that have all these Behance portfolios. And when I say designers, again, I’m not just talking about traditional graphic designers. You all know that you come from many different walks of life. Some of you did not pursue a BFA, some of you pursued a completely different degree. Some of you didn’t pursue a degree at all, but yet that doesn’t take away from your creative talent and the impact that you can have in the industry, but we have to also have a conversation of what does access look like in our community.

How do we make sure that we are creating a culture and a dynamic that allows us to show up as our authentic selves, and a way for us to really start to design with a larger community in mind? That then led to me working with Adobe, even deeply, particularly through their design circle program, where they launched a scholarship, really looking at how do we reach youth earlier, to support them in their career, and becoming practicing designers? And sending out content and thought leadership articles for the practicing designers in the field to think about what’s the impact that we can make?

And I’ve joined with over two dozen individuals across the world, there’s really looking at what can we actually do beyond just talking about what representation looks like to actually putting our money and our time where our mouth is. But we need to understand that beyond design’s makeup, we need to understand our design power. Because so many times we focus on quote unquote, diversity, even though I would challenge you to really think about diversity of what identities when you’re saying we need more diversity. We talk about representation so much that we don’t actually hold ourselves accountable and responsible for the power that we have in our own industry.

I started to really realize this in 2014. August 9th was the day that Michael Brown Jr. was killed in St. Louis, Missouri. I am a St. Louis, Missouri resident. And at this time, I was still working as a traditional designer, but I was also working at a diversity inclusion organization. And so I started to ask the question, why are we only looking to policy creators? Why are we only looking to, you know, diverse inclusion specialists to actually look at how do we improve the systems in our community, when we look to designers all the time, to create something out of nothing. We navigate complexity every single day when we are creating around us but yet many times we’re not invited to the table when it comes to social justice. When it comes to human rights. When it comes to, honestly, us being able to survive as a human race.

And so I was thinking through the lens of the fact that we needed to bring creative professionals, activists, as well as community members together to come up with their own interventions to address St. Louis’ racial divide. This took the form of a 24 hour design challenge, per se. And from that, we had over 60 ideas pitched, and five ideas were actually worked on throughout the night. All five were launched in St. Louis within a year, and up until two years ago, three were still active. So an example of one that came out was cars against brutality.

How many people have actually heard of Cards Against Humanity? This game is nothing like that. I’m not gonna judge you, because I’ve played the game myself. I don’t really talk about what happened there because I have a brand that I have to uphold. But I will say I had a great time. But one of the things about this particular project was looking at the fact that there is a media narration of framing, around victims of police brutality. And whether you want to acknowledge police brutality exists or not, in my community, it does. And this particular project was looking at how do we educate police officers? How do we educate honestly, people in the education space to really start to, and the media space, to really start to think about what are the actual narratives and stories that we are hearing about people, particularly unarmed victims, that many times put blame on them opposed to recognizing them as human beings? How, how we’ve lost the fact that we are losing humans every single day and we have justifiable reasons. In some people’s mind around that.

But first is looking at the fact that these are individuals that could have lived on our street. That could be our brother, could be our neighbor, that matters. And as a, as a human race, we’ve lost something. And so this project was saying, how is this someone’s mother? How’s this someone’s brother? Someone’s father? Someone’s teammate? And understanding who they were at the human level.

We also had a project called the Vibe Switch project, which really had this very simple mindset that as they would put it, “stereotypes suck”. And so they really have people think about how have I been stereotyped? And then how do I take back my identity? And it was a very simple prompt, which said others have stereotyped me as blank. But in reality, I am blank. And we have seen so many responses to that, because many people have been stereotyped, across various identities and we have to think about when other people try to take ownership of our identity, and we don’t push back to really say, but I am this, are we giving them our power? And so this project was a way for people to really reflect on their own individual power.

And then another project that came from this was called Connected for Justice, formerly Beyond Today, it was created by a designer named De Nichols. And her idea was that we need to bring people together through civic matchmaking. It was very similar to you know,, Cupid, Tinder, but instead of swiping for maybe your partner or side piece, I’m not judging. It instead was having people come together around social justice projects. And this project was only attended for the original protest in 2014. When it ended in November 2014, over 700 acts had occurred because of the site.

And so this experience really had me think about what is my impact? What can I do? But my story changed on May 2, 2018. I was doing the work. I was really thinking about how can I as a designer address issues, particularly around racial inequity and racial injustice. And then I received a phone call on May 2, 2018.

So this is a picture of my brother. His name was Oscar Johnson III. And he loved basketball. He played video games like every person. I would say everyone plays video games, but I have a bias because I have kids that play Fortnite all day. But he was honestly just, really funny, genuinely, just great boy. And I received a phone call on May 2, informing me that my brother, my only little brother, had been shot. And I was told that he was shot unarmed. We rushed to the hospital, but I had to go and pick up my sibling to get to the hospital, because I was the only person in the family to have flexible transportation. So I drove from my job, which was mind you, only 10 minutes away from the hospital, which he was located . 30 minutes to get my sister to then drive back to the hospital. And when we were in the lobby to get back, to get up to see him, we received a phone call from his twin telling us that he had died.

And it was in this moment that I really started to reflect on why am I doing this work? I started to question my impact. I started to question what it meant to actually truly be a creator, be a designer, and I even started to ask the question, if I couldn’t save my brother, how can I save anyone? And so this experience really made me sit down and think what really is important to me. There’s a poem called “The Bale Stand”, and it talks about clearing everything out so that you can build this bale stand of greatness. And it really made me start reflecting on what was my bale stand? And was everything I was doing in the community, actually part of my purpose?

And so I’ve cleared a lot of things out in my life, to really focus on why I do what I do. I’ve convened in partnership with the staff at Creative Reaction Lab, because no matter what they tell you with the social entrepreneur dream, no one does this work alone, it takes a team. With my team, we convened Black and brown youth in St. Louis, to come up with their own interventions around addressing gun violence in the region. With my family, we actually started a foundation in his name called Oscar Johnson III Youth Hope Foundation around supporting Black and Latinx youth to honestly pursue their hopes and dreams. I call it pretty much a Make a Wish for Black and brown kids. Very simple.

And it also made me acknowledge that all of the issues that we see in our community, all are connected to public health, and the fact that violence is a major public health issue. And violence is, many times connected to racism, which is another major public health issue. Because I found my family having to say immediate interviews, because it was even all the way into the New York Post. That he was a good kid, that he wasn’t out in the street. That you know, he didn’t fit this certain stereotype and imagery that we have about Black kids.

And so it made me realize that we gotta change our socialization, we have to change, honestly, how we think about our identities and how we view the perception of others, we have to change how we even understand our own power. And all that led to my purpose. The reality is that every system in our lives, produces what it was designed to produce. And I personally believe oppression, inequality and inequity are by design. So if they are by design, that means that they can be redesigned. And at Creative Reaction Lab, we are working with Black and Latinx youth to become leaders in designing healthy and racially equitable communities. To really think about how they can be re-designers for justice, and for change in their communities.

But we also recognized that working with just traditional media, individuals and traditional designers was not enough. And so we do focus on four different sectors that we call narrative and livelihood shapers. Because these sectors whether we’re talking about government and public service, we’re talking about health and health care, education, media and technology. These sectors impact our life expectancy, quality of life, as well as the perceptions we have about ourselves and others. And so we’re trying to change the way people address systemic oppression and inequities. And for us, we do that with design. Because we have to move from awareness to action.

Ruzanna Rozmann, a part of AIGA, she said that, “Design is not about making things look good, but making things work.” But we have to understand that we need to change how we define design, because many times when we talk about design, we talk about it as if it’s what we physically can see and touch. But even IBM in the 1960s said that, “Design is the intention behind an outcome.” We’ve expanded that definition at Creative Reaction Lab to say that design is the intention, and unintentional impact behind an outcome. Because good intentions are not enough. We have to hold ourselves accountable to the impact that we’re having in our lives and other lives in our communities. But understand that human centered approaches are not enough because unfortunately, a lot of human centered efforts look at community members as “users”. A lot of human centered approaches, look at community members as “beneficiaries”. Look at community members as research subjects, opposed to being co-designers and co-creators.

And when we do this work, we need to understand that even when we are striving for change in our community, we can’t just strive for equality, because equality is sameness. We need to strive for equity, which is really around fairness for each person. This image here is from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. If you’ve ever seen an image around equality and equity most of time as the one with the children in front of the fence. We’ve since switched over to this imagery, because it brings in different ability status, it brings in different gender identity. And it really shows the reality that when equality is giving people equal access, but equity is giving people equal outcomes. And that’s something we really need to reflect on. Because we shouldn’t be again striving towards human centered work, we should be striving towards equity centered work.

And in my organization, Creative Reaction Lab, we created a new form of creative problem solving called Equity-Centered Community Design that builds upon human-centered design and design thinking methodologies, but honestly challenges it in many ways, as well. Understanding that this work shouldn’t be done by consultants or people just coming in helping a community and then leave. How do you invite diverse co-creators where they have the same power as you even, I would argue with community members or living experts should potentially have more since they are the ones that have to live with the outcomes. How empathy is not enough and we need to understand that to really become empathetic, we first have to build our own humility.

That means having conversations with ourselves. Yes, that’s okay. And thinking about what are my privileges? What are my biases? Thinking about, how am I honestly upholding colonization mindsets, upholding white supremacy mindsets, upholding able-bodiedness. There’s so much that we uphold when we don’t actually challenge what the status quo was when we were taught it. Understanding that when we are testing, a community is testing and learning and that through all this equity mindset should be embedded within it. And that it shouldn’t just be “hey, fill out the survey. Thank you so much for your time.” But really thinking about if we are actually going to do a project in the community? Is it a perpetual project? If not, what’s the exit strategy.

So something that was created to help doesn’t ultimately lead to more harm and more trauma. And embedded in all steps of this process, really acknowledging that history and healing and power dynamics is a part of all of it. Because there’s a reason why Creative Reaction Lab is Creative Reaction Lab instead of Creative Action Lab, even though we get called that that’s not our name. Reaction was intentionally selected, because we are always reacting to our history. That is not something that we could take away because we wanna pretend it doesn’t exist when we’re planning a project. History is always showing up. How has the community been impacted by similar efforts in the past? What are the different experiences people have had in their life through their generations that will impact how they show up as diverse co-creators. Understanding that power dynamics comes in every space.

I’m a mom, I’m a wife. I know power dynamics always there because I am always in power. Even though my husband likes to argue differently, but it is something that if you are in front of the room, if you’re holding the mic, if you ultimately get to make a decision on what color something is, there’s some power coming into play. But we need to understand that we’re not just working for process adoption, but a mindset shift. We’re not asking you to look at this as a checklist. We’re not asking you to pull out those Sharpies and those Post-it notes and say, “hey, I’ve done equity-centered community design”. No, thank you. What we’re asking you to do is really think about “how is my mindset being shifted over time?”

What am I unlearning and how am I continually progressing in my journey and in recognizing whenever the end of the day come for you because everyone will have an end the day, I will leave one day, that I will still have so much more that I could be learning. But in that, we want you to understand that you play an active role and being a re-designer for justice. And for us a re-designer for justice is someone that really is kind of balancing this dynamic and duality of being an equity designer and a design ally. An equity designer is someone that puts people in equity first. That’s embedded in the community, they’re working to change, that means they’re affected by the outcomes, they constantly iterating, making an improvement or intervention. They’re building upon existing resources, as opposed to actually erasing what the community may already be doing. And they have lived experience with the inequity. Now, sometimes we get pushback on this because many people, rightly so, say “Why do the people that are historically oppressed have to do the work that the oppression created?”

For us, we flip it to more asset language and thinking about the fact that people that are in the community that have lived experience with the issue, are many times closest to their approaches to address them. Opposed to just looking at it as like a recipient type framework. Here’s an example of some of the equity designers we’ve been working with in our community. And these are young people because we believe youth are the ones that actually will be able to get the job done. But we also understand that allyship is important as well. And so we need to understand spaces in which we can be a design ally. Design allies have similar charges, equity designers, but you’re embedded in a community, possibly indirectly. But the most important thing is that you leverage your power and access on behalf of the equity designers.

Here’s an example of equity designers and design allies working together to think about how do we address the impact that limited public transportation access have on life expectancy of a Black community in the St. Louis region? An important thing to remember is that you can be an equity designer in one context and a design ally in another. So for example, I could be an equity designer for Black women. But I cannot be an equity designer for LGBTQIA+ community. I can be a design ally, though, and really understanding when I should be in the center doing the work. And when I should be leveraging my power to help others to do the work in their own communities. And understanding that we need both for equitable outcomes, not one or the other. And that the teams and communities in which you work with should consist of both.

Understand that the work that you’re doing is not around trying to get a one size fits all solution because that does not exist, but understanding that we need ongoing change and drops in a bucket that ultimately ore approaches or interventions. And knowing that it starts with you. So a few tips to help you on your re-designers for justice journey. Understand your power to design perspectives and outcome. Appreciate and amplify living expertise equally, if not more so than professional expertise. Just because you have letters behind your name doesn’t mean that you know more than me when it comes to certain things. I have lived this reality so I can tell you what it looks like, actually, in the community versus what it looks like in a paper. Don’t design in ivory towers, but live and immerse yourself on the ground.

And one thing I wanna note with that is that your computer is an ivory tower. Sometimes step away from that. Questioning your proximity to power and understand or ask yourself the question should you step in, which is ablest language? I’m not a huge fan of that, or should I center others. Value the act of building trust and remove agendas. Many people always ask where do I start? Well, first, you need to actually build trust within your own community. And that takes time. And when you have an agenda most the time, the time is something that you remove away from it. And then that’s when you’re having more transactional relationships as opposed to actual organic, organic and authentic relationships that would create better outcomes. Really understand that when people from historically underinvested community speak, listen before questioning, and honestly, sometimes I would actually not even question.

Acknowledge that you’re on a journey and learning while doing and also so is everyone else. Start and follow through. 2014, I gave myself one New Year’s resolution: follow through. That’s been the exact same resolution I’ve had every single year. And it has really helped me understand that awareness or coming up with an idea that makes you look great, that makes you feel good. That’s your ego talking. But actually doing and failing, and honestly getting those bumps and scrapes along the process, that is the actual impact. That is the actual development, that is the actual work. Isabelle, one of my team members, she was not a team member when she said this quote though, but we’ve since hired her because that’s what you do. said this great quote a few years ago that said that, “The notion that works only calls upon our professional selves and not our personal selves is a problematic one.”

When you’re doing your work, whether it’s when an institution or whether it’s at home or in your community, think about how am I really thinking about my identity, my relationship to power? How am I building my humility and how is that showing up in my space and the spaces in which I’m working?

And so a few things going forward, visit, subscribe to our newsletter to get tips. Attend one of our immersives to really build your own consciousness. Download our field guide, we actually open sourced our field guide for everyone to have around the world because we recognize that this work can’t be done by one institution, it can’t be done by one person. It has to be done collectively to really design a world that works for all of us. So the last question I will ask you to reflect on yourself is “what’s your personal purpose?”

And if you go to, you can download this image, if you want, again, is available for free on our approach page. Or you could just write it on a sheet of paper. Give yourself an equity pledge, and think about what you would do to make your community better. And then create action plan around that. What’s my short term goal for the next week around this, for the next month, for the next three months, the next six months and understand that it’s a process. My purpose is to make the United States better by providing training, community, support and access for historically underinvested populations to design better health outcomes and improve quality of life for their cultures. I’m doing that through my brother’s foundation, through Creative Reaction Lab, through personal projects, and honestly through lack of sleep, if you want me to be honest, but this is what I’m driving towards. This is not something that will happen tomorrow. But it’s my, it’s my North Star. It’s why I do what I do.

And so I encourage you to think about why do you do what you do? So feel free to reach out to me if you wanna talk if you have any questions, and I am looking forward to really working with you in the community and being re-designers for justice to really design an equitable community for us all.

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