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I think a lot about language — who gets to create it, how people choose (or don’t) the words they use, what it means and what effect the chosen words have on our relationships to nature and to each other. It seems to me that language is the source of everything we are and do, since language is the source and substance of relationships.

To create language; to decide what ideas, things and people are called, is a manifestation of power and privilege. We can learn a great deal by paying close attention to how those in power use words to label, divide, invite or connect.

Equally revealing are those voices that are invisible and unheard.

I’ve been working for almost five years now with foster communities, supported by the Larson Family Foundation and in partnership with Community Solutions and their Built for Zero program to end homelessness. The goal of the work I do with these foster communities is to introduce design methodologies — essentially a collaborative creative process aimed at bringing adults and youth together to fix the broken foster system. (Fifty percent of homeless adults in the U.S. have experience in the foster care system.)

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Just about everyone agrees that young people with lived experience of foster care should have a voice in efforts to identify and change those things in the system that prevent them from growing into secure and independent adults. Yet while people believe that youth should have a seat at the table, yet when everyone is together, they don’t know how to talk to each other. Design is a process for doing that. It’s a collaborative process that facilitates equal co-creation among diverse participants.

The experience of using collaborative design has been, in every community where I’ve worked, a revelation for adults and youth. People hear things from perspectives other than their own. They come to understand that there are different interpretations of the same word depending on your position in the hierarchy. They see points in the journey where the system offers too much advice but no trusted human connection; or places where, had someone been there to care and to talk, difficulties could have been avoided. There is always learning, and revelations. There is always joy and hope in the voices that emerge; the voices of people who have never before been asked to contribute their thoughts, in their own words.

Dylan said we all “gotta serve somebody.” We can decide whom and what we serve through our choice of the words we listen to and the voices we hear.

If you’d like to know more about what these design sessions are and how they work, here’s a post by Katie Stasa from the Community Solutions blog with more detail.