Social justice and equity, by design.
How Antionette Carroll started a movement for equity design, inspiring a new generation of designers and artists.
St. Louis, Missouri
leaders to design
a world centered
Harness the power of design to address racial inequities and social injustice
Give young Black and Latinx artists and designers opportunities to make a difference
Create a more inclusive process for problem solving and community engagement
Channeled creative community talents into a non-profit for social change
Launched scholarships for young people of color and distributed $24,500 during COVID-19
Defined a new design framework, downloaded 5,250+ times; shared 50,000+ times
Hosted design challenges for social causes, such as Artwork for Equity
“Design is the original disruptor and has the power to change the world. Those of us in the creative community need to understand the power we have and hold ourselves accountable.”
Founder, President, and CEO, Creative Reaction Lab
Tragedy sparks a movement for equity and justice
Antionette Carroll is a social entrepreneur, an activist, a role model, and a mentor, with a long list of awards and recognitions honoring her work. But when asked, she focuses on one title in particular — designer. She believes design can be a powerful tool for social change and racial equity and has spent the last several years proving it.
“Creative professionals navigate complexity in loosely defined environments and literally have to build something out of nothing every day,” Carroll says. “Yet for some reason when we are talking about addressing social issues, designers are never invited. I wanted to change that.”
In 2014, Carroll was head of communications at Diversity Awareness Partnership, a non-profit organization devoted to diversity and inclusion, and she had just been named the founding chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force at the AIGA, the professional association for design. But she was grappling with the connection between design and racial equity and looking for ways forward.
The design profession has long been dominated by white people — only 3% of designers are African American or Black. That lack of representation has real consequences in the world. It means that, for people of color, the images they see, the communities they live in, the public spaces they use, and the stories they hear are not designed for them.
“I saw a disconnect, and there weren’t enough creative professionals designing interventions to address the racial divide,” Carroll says. “I started thinking about how to design diversity and inclusion, both through visual languages and through the lens of human connection.”
Then something happened that made her mission that much more urgent. A police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking an uprising against a pattern of police brutality and injustice inflicted on people of color. It could hardly have hit closer to home for Carroll. She and her family had just moved from Ferguson months earlier.
“I started Creative Reaction Lab in response to the Ferguson uprising. That was the catalyst for reimagining how design can be used in the social space.”
Founder, President, and CEO, Creative Reaction Lab
Like her friends and neighbors protesting in the streets, Carroll was moved to respond. This was her chance to put design to work for positive social change, and it all started with a 24-hour design challenge that became Creative Reaction Lab. “I started Creative Reaction Lab in response to the Ferguson uprising,” she says. “That was the catalyst for reimagining how design can be used in the social space.”
Carroll called on her network of activists, technologists, and creative professionals, bringing them together for an intense day of brainstorming. Jayvn Solomon was there. He had just met Carroll a few months earlier, looking for advice on his senior capstone project, called VibeSwitch — an inventive way to challenge stereotypes through friendly engagement. Now he was reaching out to her, asking how he could help.
“We all came together in a room and started to brainstorm about how we could use design to solve the racial injustice we saw all around us,” Solomon says. “Twenty-four hours later, we had five or six ideas for community projects in St. Louis.”
Creative Reaction Lab invests in tomorrow’s leaders – Redesigners for Justice
As President and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, Carroll had found the connection she was searching for — the connection between design and racial equity. “Systems of oppression, inequality, and inequity are by design,” she says. “Therefore, they can and must be redesigned.”
The design challenge was an explosive start, and Creative Reaction Lab has evolved and expanded since then. Early on, Carroll realized the organization could make a bigger impact by focusing on training and mentoring young people in establishing and applying an equity design mindset in their problem solving.
Today, Creative Reaction Lab offers a growing number of programs to educate, train, and challenge young Black and Latinx people to become leaders in designing healthier, more equitable communities. The vision is to create a new kind of civic leader — what Creative Reaction Lab calls Redesigners for Justice. Redesigners for Justice learn the power and responsibility that come with designing solutions with the community’s needs at the forefront, whether they’re creating a poster, designing a public space, or bringing a new service to an underinvested community.
All too often, communities are stuck with systems and policies that were designed without their input, by people who don’t live there. To make the process more equitable, Carroll and her team at Creative Reaction Lab created the Equity-Centered Community Design (ECCD) framework.
The framework is a way to make sure designers account for history, context, power dynamics, and the needs of the people who will have to live with the outcomes. And it’s not just about race — the framework works the same for issues around gender, health, age, neurodiversity, sexual orientation, and more. Since open-sourcing the Equity-Centered Community Design Field Guide in 2018, it has been downloaded over 5,250 times and shared almost 50,000 times.
“As we dug into the design aspects of the Metro transit and the history of St. Louis, we could see why things were designed the way they were and how they could be redesigned. That really opened the door for me. I saw that I could use my creativity and design skills in so many different ways.”
2020 Seeds of Power Fellow & 2018 Community Design Apprentice, Creative Reaction Lab
Executive Director, St. Louis Metro Market
Knowing when to speak up – and when to listen – leads to equitable solutions
Quinton Ward remembers the impact Creative Reaction Lab and its ECCD approach made on him while he was an apprentice in the Community Design Apprenticeship Program. Carroll pulled him aside one day, saying, “When you speak, you carry a lot of weight. Sometimes just step back and listen.”
“Creative Reaction Lab brought empathy and mindfulness into not only my design and professional practices, but my everyday life,” says Ward. “Now I ask myself, am I taking up too much space in the conversation? Do I need to step back and just be an ally on this project?”
Ward joined the organization’s Community Design Apprenticeship Program in 2018. That year, he and his cohorts were given the task of studying public transportation in a historically underinvested Black community in St. Louis. The city was considering a multi-billion-dollar light rail investment in the area, and it was their job to understand the complexities of how it might impact people. The project was called “Mobility for All by All,” and it was an eye-opening experience for Ward.
“We had the opportunity not only to talk with people in the community and work with urban planning professionals, we were able to present our findings to leading practitioners in the field,” Ward says. “We all really grew from that conversation.”
“As we dug into the design aspects of the Metro transit and the history of St. Louis, we could see why things were designed the way they were and how they could be redesigned,” he says. “That really opened the door for me. I saw that I could use my creativity and design skills in so many different ways.”
The next generation, on a mission to tackle hyperlocal issues
In 2020, the Community Design Apprenticeship Program focused on addressing limited healthy food access in underinvested communities. It is a pressing problem for many St. Louis residents, who don’t have access to fresh, healthy food in their neighborhoods. Kristin Brown, better known as KB, was one of the apprentices who tackled the challenge.
“We decided to create healthy food boxes for the communities, but we didn’t want to force our ideas on them,” says Brown. “It was really important to get their input on the design of the boxes, the food we put in them, how often they were needed, and where to distribute them.”
Based on what they heard from community members, the apprentices came up with five options to choose from. And they were careful to test and re-test their assumptions about what food to include. Now they’re working on prototypes and scouting out locations for pop-up shops. By emphasizing community input rather than imposing a solution, the project is much more likely to succeed and bring much-needed nutritional food to residents.
Design challenges address urgent social justice issues
Another program that plays an important role in the lives of young people is the Artwork for Equity Advocacy Campaign. Every year, Creative Reaction Lab invites young Black and Latinx designers and artists to submit poster designs – an opportunity to amplify their voices and a platform to recognize and celebrate their work. In the past, the posters have always promoted inclusion, equity, liberation, and justice for all races.
The 2020 theme is Ancestor's Vote. It aims to raise awareness of voter suppression in the past and today — and ongoing efforts to fight against it. The artwork will be reproduced on posters and postcards, which can be used in advocacy campaigns speaking to elected officials, business leaders, local voters, and more. It’s a chance for young people to make their mark. Artwork for Equity 2020 finalist submissions can be seen on Adobe Discover.
“Young adults who have been ignored in the past are now able to vote,” says Carroll. “Throughout history and around the world, young people have been architects of change, and they have the power and creative leadership to make a difference.”
Left image: Artwork for Equity 2020 campaign: Ancestor's Vote. Center image: Jennifer Amador-Gonzalez, Artwork for Equity Finalist 2020. Right image: Doseofrich, Artwork for Equity Finalist 2020
Creative Reaction Lab also launched its Youth Creative Leadership Fund in response to COVID-19. The initial goal was modest — distribute $2,000 total to help 20 young people of color weather the pandemic.
“Thanks to the generosity of our community members and the McNulty Foundation, we were able to support 241 Black and Latinx young people across the nation with $24,500,” says Carroll. “That’s more than 10 times what we set out to provide.” Additionally, due to further support, they will soon launch a second round of the fund to assist 75 more Black and Latinx youth affected by COVID-19.
Inspiring the next generation of changemakers
Meanwhile, the young people who have benefited from Carroll’s mentorship are following in her footsteps, forging their own paths into art, design, and social change.
As a freelance designer and creative consultant, Jayvn Solomon is making a big impact in his community. He was the driving force behind PaintedBlack STL, raising money to hire Black artists to paint murals and messages of solidarity for Black Lives Matter. Artists are using boarded up storefronts as their canvas, amplifying their messages of support while bringing beauty and hope to their neighborhoods. Now he’s on to another high-profile project of his own making — Loutopia — a breathtaking way to reimagine urban spaces in St. Louis.
“We’re perfectly capable of making spaces more human, natural, and sustainable, whether that means adding murals, sculptures, trees, or even a wind turbine,” says Solomon. “By digitally rendering what these spaces could potentially look like, I’m inspiring people to change how they think.”
Quinton Ward is now Executive Director of the St. Louis Metro Market – a non-profit organization that sells groceries at a discount to communities with limited access to food. He describes it as “a farmer’s market on wheels.” Ward also participates in Creative Reaction Lab’s Seeds of Power Fellowship, spending a year diving deeper into ECCD and becoming a program facilitator. That has empowered him to join the larger conversation around design and social justice.
“My goal is to be an international artist, but I also understand that my work goes far beyond the gallery,” Ward says. “Through my creativity and the way I engage with others, I’m here to make a difference.”
As for Kristin Brown, as she finishes the Community Design Apprenticeship Program, she knows she just wants to continue doing similar work. She’s found that it has a strong connection with her background in investigative journalism — and she’s inspired to do more.
“Even as a journalist, it’s my responsibility to understand the communities I cover, and this program just reinforced that,” Brown says. “For me, Antionette planted the seeds to want to do more. I look at all she’s accomplished, and it’s so inspiring.”
“Adobe's support for the Design Circle Scholarship and projects like Artwork for Equity has been instrumental in our efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the design industry and address racial inequities and social problems. It’s inspiring to see an organization that goes beyond business as usual and is committed to creating systemic change.”
Founder, President, and CEO, Creative Reaction Lab
The march of progress continues
There’s a lot of work left to do. That became painfully clear in 2018, when Carroll lost her 14-year-old brother to gun violence. Once again, she turned tragedy into action by launching the Oscar Johnson III Youth Hope Foundation, which helps Black and Latinx young people achieve their hopes and dreams. Carroll passionately refers to the local organization as a "Make-A-Wish for Black and Latinx youth".
Despite the heartbreak, Carroll continues to push forward, focusing especially on giving young designers the opportunities and mentorship they need to enter creative professions. That includes continuing her work on the Access_&Design Fellowship, which has gotten support from Adobe, Google, and Microsoft. Most recently, she’s been working with Adobe and others on the Design Circle Scholarship — with the goal of increasing diversity in the design industry.
“Adobe’s support for the Design Circle Scholarship and projects like Artwork for Equity has been instrumental in our efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the design industry and address racial inequities and social problems,” says Carroll. “It’s inspiring to see an organization that goes beyond business as usual and is committed to creating systemic change. I’m proud to be a partner in that movement.”
As they design interventions addressing community challenges, Carroll and her teams use Adobe tools, including Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, and Spark to bring their creativity to life.
“We do a lot of work around prototyping, testing, and learning,” explains Carroll. “We need to be able to visualize ideas, whether it’s an experience or a low-fidelity model. Providing access to Adobe apps also helps democratize the creative process and opens up leadership opportunities to more people in the community.”
Eventually, Carroll hopes to pass the torch at Creative Reaction Lab to the next generation. But she knows she’ll always continue her work with young Black and Latinx leaders. And she’s counting on others to join the fight.
“Design is the original disruptor and has the power to change the world,” Carroll says. “Those of us in the creative community need to understand the power we have and hold ourselves accountable.”
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