by Rhonda Broussard

What if solving for pain points isn’t good enough?  From product designers to UX/UL to social entrepreneurs, we’ve been trained to get close to the problem.  Bryan Stevenson urges us to get proximate to people so that we can really understand their pain.  Last year, we worked with Memphis Music Initiative (MMI) on their In School program development and added a new lens.  What would it look like if we solved for people’s aspirations?

One of the problems that MMI solves for is the lack of music education in schools.  Their first solution? Train and coach professional musicians to teach.  Their In School Fellows establish music programs in schools where they didn’t exist, and grow specialty music programs for more robust music offerings in other schools.  When we started to work with them, they were operating from an equality perspective — providing the same supports to all of the schools in their portfolio.

We convened their leadership team and an advisory council of school leaders to test out a continuum of music program aspirations.

Step 1:  Detail their experiences across operations, program, and culture.   What kind of support did their administration provide?  Who staffed their offerings?  Was the program primarily funded by families, grants, or general operating budget?  Did they have dedicated, acoustic facilities? What agency did students have for their music studies?

Step 2: Organize their experiences on a continuum. Does this really capture your experience?  Can you find a school like yours on the continuum?  What’s missing or mis-stated about your experience?

Step 3: Identify primary program aspirations.  If you could fight for and win one thing for your music program next year, what would it be?  If a school’s music program was anchored by an after-school drumline with community volunteer directors, their primary aspiration might be to establish and staff a school day music program for all students.  If a school’s music ensembles routinely performed and competed at national events, their primary aspiration might be to perform on an international stage and increase the number of music majors and music scholarships for their graduates.

Step 4: Brainstorm supports that reinforce their aspirations.  Based on where our schools are trying to go, which of our supports will help them get there?  How can we align all of our schools to our values and create different entry points for their practices?

While we were building this framework with the advisory council, we had a real-time opportunity to test it. In Schools had recently offered all of their schools a field trip (including transportation) to a local performance.  They wanted to fill the performance hall with youth who didn’t typically have access to the symphony (pain point).  When one of their most robust schools declined to participate, it raised existential questions.  Should we continue to work with highly resourced schools?  What’s our value add?  How are we meeting our portfolio goals?

Enter the aspiration perspective.  That same week we brought the advisory council back together to test step four.  As we discussed differentiated, values-aligned program supports for schools, we could see the school leaders nodding in agreement.  We shared the story of the school who declined the field trip because it didn’t reflect their aspirations.  School leaders felt comfortable saying that they did need and value this program, but not for the original reasons that we had assumed.  They all started to lean in closer and discuss how these new aspiration-driven options resonated with them.  They knew their assets and opportunities for growth, and now could see how In Schools would get each of them to the next level of music education.

So what? Why does any of this matter?  Let’s go back to our first expectation of getting proximate to people.  This In Schools process exemplifies how, with the best intentions and thoughtful leadership, we can continually misunderstand “the problem” and assign one-size fits all solutions to the communities that we serve.  We got proximate to the people, their pain, and engaged them in testing potential solutions.  Not only did this help us design for our school partners’ actual aspirations, but it also pushed us further along the continuum from an equality perspective to an equity perspective.

Rhonda Broussard is the founder of Beloved Community where she currently leads their Equity in Schools practice. When she’s not obsessing about all things inclusion and belonging, she studies and performs afro-brazilian dance forms with Casa Samba.