Using hackathons and human-centred design to help us involve young people in Esmée’s work

Advocacy Academy

Betty Mayo, a young consultant with our Involving Young People Collective writes about how we’re using hackathons and human-centred design to help us to embed young people’s insights into our work and why they’re a great method for innovation and problem-solving within communities.

Groups have been campaigning all throughout history and the world to be involved in decisions that affect them - it should be a right and not a privilege.

Hackathons are usually known in the tech world as a design marathon for software development. Being a 21 year old Politics student and young activist from South London, it had not been an activity I had come across until I started working for Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. So, whilst I was going to write about how to successfully facilitate a hackathon using human-centred design, I realise I am not the best suited for this. Instead, I have dropped a link that does that better than I could at the bottom of the page for you to read. First, however, I want to convince you that hackathons and human-centred design are one of the best methodologies when it comes to innovation and problem solving within communities.

As one of the young consultants on Esmée’s Involving Young People Collective (IYPC), we advise Esmée on how to involve young people in the strategy and grant-making decision processes. This is an area they wanted to do better in and we were recruited to help them through the IYPC programme, which is currently running from May 2020 to March 2021 and is expertly designed and facilitated by HUDL Youth Development Agency for Esmée. We are a group of ten young people aged between 17-25 from all over the country connected only by our involvement in youth organisations funded by Esmée Fairbairn and our shared drive for social change. It turns out I was not the only one who had not heard of hackathons, and since participating in one, it feels like a strong contender for those oh-so-important PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) lessons at school.

Using a human-centred design approach has lived experience at its heart

Our first hackathon used a human-centred design approach to brainstorm ways that Esmée can involve young people in their grant making decision processes. Human-centred design is a type of design-thinking that guides you through a process of understanding and defining the problem, exploring creative solutions, and developing prototypes to test. This can take months to complete and is not a linear process - you can expect to continue defining the problem as you are in the testing stage and you must be comfortable with failing and challenging your own assumptions on the issues you are exploring. Human-centred design thinking strongly encourages users of the model to co-design with people who have lived experience of the issue at hand.

Understanding what the people you are designing with need and want is at the heart of the process. This is particularly important for the ‘empathy’ stage of the hackathon, where participants are encouraged to employ active listening and really dive into the worlds of those with lived-experience. In our case, each participant spoke for 5 uninterrupted minutes, about their initial thoughts on the issue, and experiences of it. In this instance, myself and my fellow IYPC members were the co-designers with lived experience, giving input to what it means to authentically involve young people in decision-making processes. We then did individual and group brainstorming activities, in mixed IYPC young people and Esmée staff teams, where we were encouraged to be as creative as possible with our ideas to involve young people into Esmée’s processes. We then pitched our favourite idea as a team to the whole group and voted on which team’s idea we felt most excited by. Two ideas were selected and we are now in the testing phase, figuring out the best ways to put our plans to action.

The Involving Young People Collective with Esmée staff
IYPC image.jfif

Being involved in decisions that affect us should be a right and not a privilege

As a young person, it is common to feel undervalued and overlooked, but it was refreshing and somewhat relieving to feel heard throughout the hackathon. Whilst it was a relief finally being involved in decisions that are usually made for us by well-meaning adults and it is hopefully a sign that grant-making is moving away from the omnipotent philanthropic saviourism that it has been historically characterised by, I had to remind myself this is not revolutionary. Groups have been campaigning all throughout history and the world to be involved in decisions that affect them - it should be a right and not a privilege. And this is the feeling I had throughout the entirety of the day.

It is bizarre to me that in innovative, problem-solving processes, having those that are most affected by the issue and thus will be the most affected by the solutions in the decision-making room is so overlooked. It does not matter how many years of expertise someone has in grant-making or how many books they have read, nobody knows what is best for a community better than those in the community themselves. It may sound harsh, and I hope I have not got anyone’s back up, but... this is important, right? Trusting people and communities affected by the issues to design the solutions feels like a fundamental principle of grant-making. Otherwise funders like Esmée wouldn’t trust any organisation with their money and would start their own community initiatives.

Championing voices of those with lived experience

Being an alumni of The Advocacy Academy, I have seen first-hand what it means in a community for organisations to champion the voices of those with the lived experience. The Advocacy Academy is a youth social justice organising movement in Brixton, South London, devoted to supporting young people passionate about changing the world around them. It’s an organisation that has completely shaped the way that I think and act in the world in ways that it will continue to do for the rest of my life. Without grant-makers like Esmée, youth organisations such as The Advocacy Academy could not exist and that is why Esmée deciding to centre diverse, young voices in the process of changing their strategy around involving young people in what they fund, through hackathons and human-centred design just feels right.

We’re looking forward to sharing more on our progress. And I am loving working with the Collective and Esmée to design infrastructure that will hopefully mean the continued input of young people in decisions on where money is spent in their communities and more broadly across the country.

Learn more about human-centred design

As promised, you can find out more about human-centred design in this article by DC Design.


Betty Pearl

Betty Mayo, IYPC member at Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

Betty is a student of Politics and International relations - her interests lie in theories of social change, the persistence of Western imperialism and alternatives to policing and she was the President of the University of Nottingham’s Feminists’ Society. As an alumni of The Advocacy Academy, Betty has always been passionate about social change and has been trained in how to engage in collective action. She is channelling these interests through co-producing a documentary on school exclusions, co-writing a television series on young people from Brixton becoming politically empowered and organising with young people from her community on social issues that directly affect them.

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