How Movement Work Inspired The Creation of Idea2Form
Idea2Form (I2F) is a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) led creative agency and strategy consultancy dedicated to social impact work. Our mission is to design solutions that connect, activate, and inspire people towards building a more equitable world. For the last four-plus years, we have supported mission-driven groups with an array of design and consulting services to help amplify their impact. I2F formally launched in 2018, but our story goes back decades.
I2F’s origins are rooted in a fellowship that spans 25 years with our founders, Alexandra “Lexx” Valdez and Tomas Alvarez III — a friendship and collaboration defined by a lifelong dedication to social justice, healing, and community.
Tomas (he/him/el) and Lexx (she/her/ella) met in 1996 on the Central Coast of California while co-organizing youth conferences and initiatives through Cal Poly San Luis Obispo M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), which sought to empower Latinx youth and foster cultural pride. Members of the group also planned weekend field trips that enabled local Latinx youth to reconnect with their Indigenous roots and learn about sacred ceremonies from elders.
By 2001, Lexx and Tomas had lost contact, but their paths crossed again in 2005 in San Francisco. At the time, Lexx was enrolled at the Academy of Art, School of Graphic Design, and working at several youth organizations such as Health Initiatives for Youth (HIFY). During this time, Lexx also attended the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL), where she took courses to develop her movement-building skills. Tomas was in his second year of graduate school at the Smith College School for Social Work, where he was developing an innovative approach to therapy that used Hip Hop expression to promote mental health among young men of color. Tomas asked Lexx to design a presentation for his master’s thesis on his Hip Hop Therapy program called Beats, Rhymes, and Life (BRL) that summer. After graduating from Smith, Tomas evolved the program into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Oakland, California, serving as its founding executive director until 2015.
In 2008, Lexx joined BRL as its creative director and co-led its marketing team alongside Tomas. The team would grow to include: content producer Halline Overby, digital artist Aries Nunez, communications strategist Tamara Orozco, and a crew of local creatives, photographers, and videographers who helped capture and share the organization’s impact. One day in 2011, this crew of creatives adopted a team name that spoke to their creative purpose: Idea2Form (I2F). The team produced creative products, like the video below, in order to share impact stories and amplify the voices of youth and community members.
BRL grew to become a recognized leader in adolescent mental health. Tomas was named a top 20 Latino Innovator in 2012 by NBC (along with other luminaries such as Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Actress/Activitst Rosario Dawson and Artists Pitbull). Tomas was selected as a CNN hero in 2015, resulting in BRL receiving international attention and recognition. Tomas was also selected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2014, a lifetime fellowship of 4,000 leading social entrepreneurs spread throughout 92 countries working to solve deep-rooted social problems. The Ashoka Fellowship introduced Tomas to the nuances of systems thinking and a global community of change leaders also working on systems change. Systems thinking makes sense of complex problems by looking at them in terms of wholes and relationships rather than focusing on individual parts.
By 2015 both Tomas and Lexx had transitioned out of BRL to pursue other endeavors that could help expand their learning and practice to have a broader impact.
Lexx joined a boutique creative agency in Los Angeles doing design work for groups like the California Endowment and The Women’s March. During this time, Lexx also began to notice disturbing trends in the design space:
- Many interactions between creative agencies and the organizations they served were transactional, not relational.
- Many creative agencies adopted colonial mindsets that were both extractive and exploitative towards creative contributors, especially for independent contractors and marginalized employees.
- Despite significant demand for their unique contributions, there was an implicit de-valuing of BIPOC talent and networks on high-profile projects.
These trends left Lexx feeling disheartened with the design sector and yearning for a change.
After transitioning from BRL, Tomas started a fellowship at Stanford University through the Haas Center for Public Service, co-teaching courses on the topics of Social Entrepreneurship and Ethics and Politics of Public Service. Tomas also embarked on independent research focused on how mission-driven organizations scale impact. The exploration led him to Stanford‘s renowned d.School. The d.School introduced Tomas to the concepts of design thinking and human-centered design. Tomas found these concepts helpful for aspiring changemakers conducting iterative design to solve social problems. Still, these concepts were primarily defined and popularized by non-BIPOC academics who often viewed change-making through a top-down and paternalistic lens (e.g., designing solutions for communities rather than advancing solutions designed for, by and with the community). Throughout Tomas’ research and frontline experience, he saw recurring themes around social impact work:
- Intention does not equal impact — Despite good intentions, many initiatives designed to create positive impact perpetuate harm in marginalized communities by upholding oppressive power dynamics and colonial constructs.
- Tokenism, gatekeeping, and gaslighting undermine BIPOC communities — Often, the communities most impacted by social and environmental problems are not permitted to lead change or drive their solutions, especially without adequate validation or sponsorship from outside “experts” or institutional actors. Frequently, these communities are invited to participate in stakeholder processes but are not granted decision-making power or control over resources.
- Social sector leadership is not reflective of communities being served — Leaders of color are vastly underrepresented, under-resourced, and untapped in the social sector despite an abundance of suitable candidates.
- Dominant narratives about beneficiaries reinforce negative stereotypes — By and large, storytelling in the social sector reinforces problematic, deficit-based narratives that deprive communities of color of their strength and dignity and depict them as only recipients of charity or care rather than change leaders or solution creators.
For Tomas, these themes fueled a hidden passion for transforming how individuals and groups approach social impact work.
In 2017, Tomas and Lexx rejoined forces to support the Children’s Wellbeing Initiative (CWI), a joint initiative between Ashoka and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that sought to explore ways to create a culture of wellbeing that enabled all children to grow up with a positive sense of self, belonging, and purpose. CWI engaged a network of leading organizations working to improve outcomes for children, youth, and families, to co-develop a unifying framework and platform. Over 200 groups from 22 states participated in the initiative which lasted three years.
In November 2017, Lexx and Tomas were a part of a group that helped convene over 100 change leaders for the first-ever POWER UP: Children’s Wellbeing Summit held at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
The wellbeing of children and families was a topic close to Tomas and Lexx’s hearts and one they had worked on, directly and indirectly, for decades. Through this event they were able to leverage their combined 40 years of social sector experience and creative networks to bring the vision of CWI and the summit to life.
In 2018, Tomas and Lexx relaunched Idea2Form as a collaborative design studio and assembled a team of multidisciplinary changemakers. Their first objective was to develop a new design philosophy coined Multi-Dimensional Design (MDD) that reflected their shared values, unique mindsets, and emergent practice. For Lexx and Tomas, creating a new approach to disrupt the status quo in both the design and social sectors was critical to building a conscious company and healing organization.