“How I’m Building” with Antionette Carroll: Equity-Centered Community Design through Powershifting and Accountability

by Sylvie Abookire

As healthcare is projected to account for a third of new employment in the next decade, we have the opportunity to build health into our society with new models of care and access; address the social determinants of health head-on; and revolutionize chronic disease and mental health.
As healthcare is projected to account for a third of new employment in the next decade, we have the opportunity to build health into our society with new models of care and access; address the social determinants of health head-on; and revolutionize chronic disease and mental health.

Accomplishing all of this, however, calls for the inclusion of varied viewpoints and lived experiences in problem-solving and decision-making. This is how
Onboard Health views sustainable health innovation — through the inclusion of change-makers from historically-underinvested backgrounds.

Onboard Health’s The Sustainable Future blog is dedicated to giving a voice to these talented individuals hard at work creating lasting change in our society. With this lens, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antionette Carroll of Creative Reaction Lab, as part of Onboard Health’s Q&A series — “How I’m Building.”
Antionette Carroll of Creative Reaction Lab
Antionette Carroll of Creative Reaction Lab

When I asked Antionette Carroll to describe her work and title, she laughed.

“I hear ‘where do you work?’ and my brain goes, ‘which day?’”

Though best known as Founder, President, and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, Antionette is a visionary leader powering three companies, including &Design and the Oscar Johnson III Youth Hope Foundation.

“&Design works with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous young designers that are interested in entering the traditional design space and utilizing their skills to design more inclusive and equitable communities. Simply described, it’s a mentorship, fellowship, and power building organization that I co-founded with my friend Timothy Bardlavens.

I also am the chair of a nonprofit foundation my family and I founded in response to the murder of my 14-year brother about two years ago in his honor called the Oscar Johnson III Youth Hope Foundation. Our hope is to be a Make A Wish Foundation for Black and Latinx St. Louis youth to help them pursue their hopes and dreams.

Last, but definitely not least, Creative Reaction Lab’s mission is to educate, train, and challenge Black and Latinx youth to become leaders in designing healthier, racially equitable communities.

We look at the reality that our communities are not only place-based but also human-based and human-centered, and in many cases are impacted by the systems, particularly systems of oppression, inequality, and inequity that impact us, whether it’s through policy, public health decisions, and all the different layers of the social determinants of health, etc.

We are working with youth to become these new civic leaders that we feel we need beyond being a changemaker but being what we call a
Redesigner for Justice, and having more accountability and intentionality of really thinking about how do I consider my lived experience as a superpower, and actually utilizing that proximity to come up with interventions that are addressing me and people in close proximity to me…”

Antionette describes an ongoing journey towards finding her life’s work — the work that brings her the greatest happiness. For her, this has not been limited by the confines of a “traditional career” mindset.

“At the end of the day, I’ve learned to live more of my life through the lens of my purpose versus through the lens of a career.”

Powershifting: Centering Youth at the Front of the Room

Although Creative Reaction Lab is well known for its adult training and education offerings, I wanted to better understand the youth programming Antionette spoke so passionately about. This powershifting highlights the critical importance of youth leadership in creating a more equitable future.

“When you look at a lot of movements and changes within our society, young people tend to be the architects behind these shifts in our history.

Most folx when they are thinking about our former ‘leaders,’ they always remember them in their older age…
A lot of them were young when they were doing the work and when you look at the uprisings that are happening in our community, a lot of young folx were actually leading that charge and leading that effort.
They already have that spark, that interest and we just honestly need to get out of the way and support them the best way that we can.

The second reason to center youth leadership is because we are talking about centuries of oppression, centuries of inequity, centuries of inequality. We are not going to dismantle that by focusing on mayoral candidates for two, maybe 12 years. That’s not going to be the impact.

What we need to really think about is the fact that it’s taken us centuries to get to where we are. We are going to need individuals to dedicate a longer time on trying to dismantle these systems, and so if we start earlier we actually have a movement that’s mobilizing sooner so that our institutions, our policies, our business ventures are changing earlier.

The third piece is the reality of, and actually data supports this, when you build the racial consciousness of youth earlier, you actually tend to have more inclusive-minded individuals, so what does it look like to build anti-racist mindsets into youth earlier on, versus trying to wait until we have been socialized in so many different ways and we have learned so many different negative and stereotypical biases…

So the earlier we start, I think it’s honestly going to get us more fast-tracked into that world of equity that we honestly have never had.”

Now, when Creative Reaction Lab does learning and education engagements with large companies, they’re ensuring that “young leaders are in the front of the room,” rather than just the staff. Ultimately, Antionette recognizes that she will eventually shift away from Creative Reaction Lab in order to pass the leadership role to a younger generation.

Equity-Centered Community Design: Intentionality Around Language and Impact

When asked what she wished she had known earlier in her journey, Antionette shared that she wished she had known she was a designer.

“The root of the word designer for us means the intentional and unintentional impact behind an outcome, so acknowledging that I have the power to affect outcomes every single day and that even when I was living my life passively, my decisions were negatively or positively impacting people. I need to hold myself accountable for that responsibility that I hold.”

Themes of accountability arose repeatedly throughout our conversation. I learned that Creative Reaction Lab is building a movement of impact and intentionality. Antionette offered keen perspective into the power embodied in each and every one of us and identified this agency as inherent to life itself.

Along with several of her former student interns (called associates as Antionette feels that the term “intern” doesn’t center how much agency and power youth workers should have within an institution), Antionette developed a new problem-solving framework used at Creative Reaction Lab called Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD).

“Being ‘equity-centered’ is really holding yourself accountable to outcomes and wondering when can we change these statistics where every seven minutes a black person dies prematurely due to the effects of racial discrimination? The ‘community’ part is understanding that whether it’s place-based or around human interests, everything that we do affects groups of people and the environment.

ECCD, at its root, is a Social Justice-oriented form of creative problem-solving that really is centering living experts and the systems that impact them and understanding that we actually have the possibility to design a culture that is amplifying and dignifying people of color, people that are differently-abled, people with different gender identities….ultimately, all people that have been historically underinvested.

When we talk about historically underinvested, we don’t use minority, we don’t use oppressed, we don’t use vulnerable, we don’t use any of that because a lot of those things are a laser on the people and blaming them opposed to looking at how the systems have created what we are seeing.

So we think about historically underinvested communities, whether we’re talking about race and ethnicity, non-binary, trans folx, gender-queer folx, people who are differently-abled as it relates to mental health, physical health, a list of different things that in some cases are intersected in our lives, and how we design a world of equity and of liberation where they are centered in a position of power opposed to only being acknowledged as research subjects.”

Antionette encouraged a shift away from passive and power-derivative language, to active, empowering language. This helps individuals and communities to design, by intention and thus hold themselves accountable for the impact of the outcomes they strive to produce.

Unpacking with Compassion, Grace, and Dialogue

Antionette’s ferocity as a social justice activist and advocate is amplified by the humble compassion she holds for herself, her loved ones, and those in her community. I asked her to speak to the work of “unpacking” racial bias, and what this looks like in her everyday life.

“Admitting what I don’t know. Being publicly vulnerable of what I don’t know. Being publicly vulnerable of ‘I’m still learning just like you.’

Showing people grace. I don’t block people — I will have a conversation. I will talk to you and unless you start to present harm for me or harm for folx that I love or I hold dearly or my community.

But that’s the thing I tell people, I ultimately want to have a dialogue, I don’t want to have a debate. There’s a difference.

Part of unpacking is also being very honest with myself. Showing myself grace. Being kind to myself that I’m on a journey.”

As we all continue the work of unpacking and creating a future of health that is more equitable, Antionette advises,

“Watching anything that is produced by people that are historically underinvested is powerful. It doesn’t have to only be a documentary either. Seeing narratives through their lens I think is really important.”

In particular, she recommends:

Follow Antionette on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and check out her TED Talk on Designing for a more equitable world!

Thanks for taking the time, Antionette!

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