Designing for Racial Equity

Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow Naaima Khan writes about how grantmakers can use the tools of design thinking to creatively address racial inequity.


In a time when our nation’s social climate seems to be imploding before our eyes, we need to redouble our efforts to attain skills that will help us rebuild trust among communities. Examples of leadership challenges and institutions that continue to perpetuate unjust practices abound. It is hard not to get caught up in the negativity that results from decision-makers’ failure to engage communities in decisions that impact them. Now more than ever, organizations need new approaches to how they hold themselves accountable to racial equity.

Many people do not see themselves playing a part in creating more racially equitable outcomes. We tend to think of ourselves as having limited agency on this very tough issue. Yet, whether we realize it or not, we do have a voice in decisions that impact equitable outcomes. Whether creating products, planning events, crafting strategic decisions or writing stories, there are elements of choice or design that go into many of our decisions that impact others.

Making decisions that impact others is a big responsibility, particularly when choices are made in regard to communities of color. It is not enough for foundations to make statements and craft strategies about diversity, inclusion and access. Funders must take their racial equity commitments to the next level by figuring out how to get people of color to the table and deeply engage them in shaping the solutions their communities crave.

If we think of practicing racial equity as the goal and our individual careers as journeys toward that goal, it becomes clear that there are many steps required to reach our destinations. Individually, we must first become aware of biases we carry. There are tools, such as the Intercultural Developmental Index (IDI) and diversity trainings, that can help people of color and white people alike assess and improve their level of intercultural competency. But then what?


Design Thinking is one framework that funders can use to apply lessons learned from increased self-awareness about privilege and bias on organizational and individual levels.


At its core, Design Thinking is a formal method for creative resolution of problems with the intent of an improved future result. It can help decision-makers better understand subtle elements of bias that perpetuate racial inequities and can help them design around those biases. The framework begins with creating an understanding of who funders are trying to solve problems for and who is at the table making decisions.

The first step in Design Thinking is empathy, or fully understanding the experience of the user for whom you are designing. Typically, this is done through observation, interaction and immersion in the experience of those impacted by your decisions. When decision-makers begin to empathize with the urgency of matters facing communities of color, there will be greater resolve to act with intentional pace and create necessary change to begin dismantling systems of privilege.

The second step in Design Thinking is defining and synthesizing findings from our empathy work to form a user’s point of view that our design will address. We all have unconscious biases that make us prefer people with whom we share similarities. Given that we tend to treat those who we perceive as different from us differently, defining solutions from the perspective of those who are impacted is critical to creating successful outcomes.

Ideation and prototyping are the third and fourth phases of Design Thinking. These phases incorporate the multiple perspectives of end users into the shaping of rapidly testable solutions, designed to address a problem or need. Much of the pushback that funders and other institutions receive from communities of color is around the need to engage in dialogue about ideas that people of color have now. This phase is about trusting the efficacy and talents of communities of color and ceding power by allowing them to shape decisions.

Testing, the fifth phase of Design Thinking, is a process of creating mechanisms for continuous feedback. Incorporating communities of color in providing suggestions for improvement is essential to the design of more equitable outcomes. Any solution will come with imperfections, so those who are most impacted by decisions should be able to provide feedback on how the solutions being tested are working. Perhaps this looks like organizations piloting programs or experiences that are designed to solve a problem and course correcting as they find glitches.


The power of Design Thinking as applied to racial equity ultimately lies in how we redesign policies that have historically been planned through the dominant, white lens.


A good design process considers the needs of people most impacted by a community problem. An equitable design process specifically accounts for the needs of those who have been historically underprivileged, or have lacked the belief, resources and support to get things done.

I am fortunate to work at the Bush Foundation, which is serious about being a learning organization and understanding its limitations and opportunities for growth. After taking the Intercultural Developmental Index (IDI) at an organizational level, we have begun Action Learning Projects, staff-led projects to redesign long-standing polices shaped through dominant cultural norms.

What I’ve learned by participating in an Action Learning Project is that Design Thinking is not the first or even the natural place to go for organizations working on equity. Design Thinking requires creating buy-in by identifying the needs and gaps that stakeholders face in as an objective a way as possible – with a reliance on data. As much as I’d like to apply Design Thinking in all aspects of our work, I am quickly realizing that it makes more sense to apply it to some types of decisions versus others. But you have to apply a design thinking framework in a number of ways to determine when it works best for your work.

Design thinking is not a panacea for ending racial inequity overnight, but it offers a good path to begin the journey. It lets institutions lean in the direction of more inclusive decision-making, which is a much-needed shift in philanthropy. Now more than ever, organizations need new approaches to how they hold themselves accountable to racial equity.


Naaima Khan is a 2015 Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow. She is a Community Innovation Associate at the Bush Foundation, holds a Masters in Public Policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and serves on the boards of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities (YNPN) and Islamic Resource Group (IRG).