By the time I was 10, both my parents had passed away, and I was moving from one family to another—enduring domestic conflicts. With this instability in my life, it was hard for me to find motivation to work toward a more optimistic future. Thankfully, with the help of mentors and loved ones, I was able to push past these obstacles over time.

Unfortunately, many don’t have the support system and the level of optimism needed to achieve their dreams. My dream of giving back to underserved communities was born out of this realization. My past struggles with persistence and hope are my sources of motivation. With that, I wish to instill the sense of hope that I once struggled to have.

I first learned design by starting a nonprofit fashion brand for foster-care children. I taught myself how to create logos and took a beginner UX class to learn how to design a website. I fell in love with the power of design; it can influence positive action. I decided to pursue a design career so that I could learn what it takes to create social change. After working as a design professional for a few years, I fused my passion for giving back with my belief that the design field is a unique gateway to economic opportunity. Design is a lucrative field that can change a designer’s life. They can better provide for their family and change their standard of living. This is possible because design is not as heavily linked to a pedigree as other fields—a strong portfolio can outweigh a designer’s educational background. This is an advantage for students who cannot afford expensive education. Also, design is about empathy, skill, and drive. Underserved communities embody these traits, and they deserve the opportunity to showcase them. These thoughts developed into my goal of teaching design to underserved individuals, but I tucked it away—thinking that someday in the distant future I’d achieve it.

Creating Bayview YMCA’s first-ever design program

One day when I was coaching basketball at Bayview YMCA, I met Demetrius. He introduced himself as the director of workforce development. He explained that his department focuses on job readiness programs for the Bayview community, which consists mostly of Black and Latinx people. Suddenly it all clicked. This was the moment when I recalled the dream I had tucked away. I told him I wanted to teach design for his department, and the opportunity came at the end of January 2020.

With the intention of teaching in person, I spent six months creating the design curriculum along with Angela Scott, associate director of workforce development and my guiding light. The pandemic arrived the following month, and the course transitioned to online learning, which posed new challenges as well as new opportunities. My friend Kelley Nguyen, product designer at Sketchy Medical, was able to be the course teaching assistant and helped improve the curriculum. We were able to create a mentorship program composed of instructors from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere. Lastly, I helped forge a partnership between Bayview YMCA and Dropbox Design to create more educational opportunities like this and to sponsor resources and scholarships for participants.

Student group on Zoom

About the students we served

Our class was small and intimate: 14 students from various backgrounds and with different challenges. The age range was mostly 18–24, with a few older. Some had a full- or part-time job. Some were enrolled in school.

What our students learned

Our students were provided a $1,000 learning stipend and a laptop by Bayview YMCA in exchange for completing the assignments. In this 12-week course, students learned about foundational design principles, business concepts, user research, and the end-to-end design process. Each student picked an existing app to redesign and presented their process in an online portfolio. In addition to the design portion of this course, Angela taught life skills, which covered topics such as empathy and communication, to prepare students for the working world.

The comprehensive curriculum covered foundational topics in product psychology and design principles. Kelley and I used apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat to better connect with our young demographic. Understanding how design is applied in our daily lives, students could then learn to identify user problems with their chosen app and conduct their own research. They also learned to create affinity maps that synthesize research and visual design methods, bringing ideas to life. In the final week of the course, students wrapped up their end-to-end design process and put final work in an online portfolio.

Lemuel Inyang

Website Screenshot by Jennifer Wong

Website Screenshots Victoria Peng

Website Screenshots by Jennifer Wong

The final lesson consisted of two industry panels—the first about being a designer in the tech industry and the second about what it’s like to work in a product team. We brought in a racially diverse group of professionals as a way to reflect our students. Mya Havard and Jon Avila, product managers at Dropbox, described their work as a potential path for some students. Overall the class was meant to be a nontechnical roadway to the tech industry for our students.

Outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, students entered their portfolio in a classwide competition, and the two winners received a Dropbox-sponsored scholarship to become design-certified through IDEO U. Chris Givens and Lemuel Inyang started working toward their certificates this month.

Apart from the portfolio submission, many students expressed strong interest in continuing to work in design. They learned to think critically about problems before jumping to solutions, and they took ownership of their app redesign projects. They learned to be open-minded and to explore their creative spark, imagining what could be.

The greatest outcome of this course was the newfound confidence in every student. Many started off shy, but over time I saw each student speak up and express their opinion. I saw them smile more and be openly vulnerable with each other. One of the students said, “I’ve never felt like this about any class that I’ve taken,” and it was one of the most touching moments because we all felt that way—like family. Confidence grew because we supported each other and wanted each other to grow.

Having the opportunity to teach Bayview’s first-ever design program felt like falling in love. It was the perfect blend of design and social impact. Though it often felt magical, it was also a challenge that ultimately pushed me to be more compassionate and to truly understand what it takes to be an advocate for BIPOC communities. This program has been a remarkable experience, and I’d love to share my top takeaways that you can apply to any mentorship opportunity you have with low-income, BIPOC, or underserved people.

Takeaway 1: Underserved and BIPOC communities often have external circumstances that affect their learning

Many of our students could not focus solely on the program because they had family to care for or needed to work full-time. I’ve realized that having time to focus on education is a luxury. We learned to adapt to the circumstances of our students and be empathetic. Hearing stories of sacrifice that were different from my own both humbled and pushed me to be more compassionate and understanding. It’s important to give students enough time to work effectively.

Takeaway 2: Building confidence creates a sense of ownership

It is difficult to feel confident when those who look like you aren’t in positions of authority. It’s especially debilitating when society holds certain biases that make you feel as if you’re not smart or good enough. All of these together can lower the confidence of minorities. One of our students, for instance, struggled to stay motivated because he was scared of failing and kept questioning himself, even though he knew the right answers. By continuously encouraging and challenging him, I saw him develop confidence in his ability to learn more. It’s common for disadvantaged individuals to doubt their abilities, compared with their wealthier counterparts. Talent and skill are generally not the issues—it’s the way society suppresses confidence, so it’s up to us to lift each other.

Takeaway 3: Establishing and maintaining trust is paramount

For the communities that we serve, everything is centered around trust, and it’s important for instructors and mentors to be dependable. When a person grows up without a support system or with others failing them, it becomes more difficult to trust someone new. For example, a mentor in our program missed several 1:1 meetings with a mentee, who ended up feeling that her time had been disrespected and her trust had been broken.

It’s important to consider how a mentee might feel about a missed meeting, rather than how you and a friend would react. Perhaps your friend would easily dismiss the absence, but be more sensitive and mindful when working with someone who doesn’t share time with you in the same way.

Takeaway 4: Fun and playfulness lead to more-engaged learning

Learning is not easy, especially when you don’t feel confident that you’re capable of learning. Hands-on and playful activities can make learning feel more personal than having an instructor talk at you for several hours. To make lectures more entertaining, we used interactive slides through Kahoot! We conducted gamified pop quizzes at the beginning and midpoint of the lecture to help students review what they had just learned. This helped create friendly competition within the group, and it helped them focus and avoid distraction from cell phones, because the presentations required students to be engaged.

Interactive, Gamified Lectures
Interactive, Gamified Lectures: To make lectures more entertaining, we used interactive slides through Kahoot!

Dropbox sponsored Figma accounts for the students, and we did collaborative activities such as designing an alarm clock for 10-year-olds. One clever idea was a clock that emits an invigorating jungle scent while playing the roar of a tiger. Other activities were coordinated in Dropbox Paper, such as creating a pet adoption app. We walked through what pet owners are like, what they want, and why they might not want to adopt from a shelter. Everyone loved this activity because who doesn’t love animals? All of these activities facilitated engaging discussions among the students as they learned to collaborate with each other.

What it means to make design truly accessible to underserved communities

Ever since UX and product design became a big thing 10 years ago, there’s been a huge proliferation of YouTube videos and articles about UX, interaction design, and more. This has led to chaos and a feeling of being lost. We can’t expect people to just jump into design, especially when we don’t understand their circumstances. Many don’t have computers or strong internet connection, so online resources aren’t even available to them. Therefore, creating more of these free resources won’t solve the tech industry’s problem with diversity.

I believe that it’s up to us industry professionals to become educators in some way, whether as an instructor or mentor, and provide tailored advice to people who have disadvantaged backgrounds. Resources are plentiful, but there aren’t enough mentors to show mentees that they truly care and believe in them. We need to empathize with people who are different from us, and show them that they don’t have to be alone in their career journey. This outreach, plus more access to affordable laptops, could set up underserved communities for a better chance to learn and grow.

Read more about Jennifer Wong’s work with YMCA here.

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