Empowering the Next Generation of Black and Brown Designers

How Inneract Project is Building a Pathway to Design

Jihern Baek
Inneract Project
5 min readAug 16, 2019


Inneract Project (IP) primarily serves middle and high school youth who identify as Black and/or LatinX, and/or come from low income backgrounds. Rather than offering isolated engagements, IP creates a long-term investment strategy with free design initiatives to introduce youth to creative career paths. In doing so, we work towards a vision of bringing design to local communities and increasing representation in technology.

Students and their mentors from this year’s design-a-thon.

For the second year in a row, Inneract Project participated in San Francisco’s Design Week by facilitating a design-a-thon. Partnering with Google, eBay, and Adobe, we invited students from our past programs to work with industry professionals in their respective spaces. Collectively, they tackled the following challenge:

How might we help homeless youth find local services?

Over the course of four days, students worked with mentors to develop context and conduct research, carefully unpacking the nuances of the problem at hand. They also ideated, prototyped, and iterated to completion, delivering an assortment of advertising campaigns and mobile product solutions. Through this initiative, we aimed to empower and support our students to further develop the skills needed to approach any problem and to continue exploring the vastness of design.

To that extent, our goal is certainly not easy to accomplish at scale. From the sheer complexity of developing educational curriculum and instruction, to the amount of energy it requires to push out a single program, we are not unfamiliar with the effects of burnout and making difficult tradeoffs. But it is often in those moments that we are reminded of just how important this work is, that investing in our community and building diversity as allies requires us to put in bucket loads of time and effort. And so we do.

Here’s how.

Students explore spatial design during this year’s Youth Design Academy 1.

We develop programs intentionally

In 2017, Inneract Project formally piloted a new version of Youth Design Academy, our flagship program. In this iteration, we moved away from curriculum that traditionally centered around graphic design principles, and moved towards lessons around design thinking. We believed this shift would help students develop skills that would enable them to approach problems methodically. At the time, the decision felt like a bold one.

Shortly after the pilot, we realized there was an oversight in our own work. While students had no difficulty comprehending the high-level concepts related to design thinking, they hadn’t had enough exposure to what design looked like in their own world. This meant we hadn’t established strong connections for students to understand how they could apply their newly-learned methodologies to problems. As a result, we released a new program that focuses on introducing students to the breadth of the design industry before anything else.

Ultimately, these moments propelled us into a new way of thinking about our students’ pathways into design: we have to be intentional about each step of the journey. Our programs, like the design-a-thon and Youth Design Academy, are reflections of this lesson, as students are challenged to apply methodology toward real world problems with the help of industry leaders. Of course, we still have a lot of work to do, but we’re beginning to see the path unfold for students as they continue through our programs.

Students map their expenses to tackle their Youth Design Academy 2 challenge.

We empower students to drive their learning

At this year’s design-a-thon, students were tasked with a challenge regarding homeless youth and resource accessibility. This was catalyzed by a survey that captured the students’ passions and pain points within the community. Although we came to the table with our own ideas, we knew it would be important to gather the youth perspective. With that, the challenge that our students worked on wasn’t striking simply because they had chosen it; it’s that they had the courage and an acute awareness to approach a problem of such scale — something we often can’t extend to members of the Bay Area, where issues that actively hurt our homeless community are rampant.

As with this particular initiative, we continue to invest our time in understanding our students and where their interests lie. This tapestry of knowledge, culture, and intersection manifest into challenges that are used for programs like our design-a-thon, as well as for seminar topics that encompass stories of people who look like our students. And by enabling students to influence their own program experiences, they become more engaged in learning, doing, and are often validated in their own potential.

Students breaking their work out at Google during this year’s design-a-thon.

We teach design in context

In addition to contextualizing design in what they learn, we teach design by bringing students into real design spaces. For example, we partnered with three major corporations for our design-a-thon. These companies showed our students what it means to design in a space that embodies technological innovation, cross-functional collaboration, and industry leadership. Our other programs like Youth Design Academy, studio tours, visits to museums and various workspaces also enable students to gather practical insights and experiences, as opposed to only learning theoretical knowledge.

Students present their work during the design-a-thon reception in 2018.

We invest long-term and unconditionally

The majority of students who have participated in our programs start their journey in middle school. This is intentional, as we recognize the importance of time and reinforcement in building a sustainable pathway. Although this often runs counter to the immediate recruiting channels that companies seek when partnering with us, we maintain a strong belief in bringing more diversity through long-term investment.

With that, our goal is inextricably tied to the health of our local communities of color. As such, our investment in providing a pathway to design must also be unconditional in its support. That is, our goal is not to demand more of our younger Black and Brown generations. Rather, it is to empower our students to develop skills that enable them to solve any problem, to explore all possible career options, and to savor their youth in a community that can only thrive with them in it. In doing so, we know they will be well-equipped to enter any industry that desperately needs their unique perspectives and voices.

Inneract Project is celebrating its 15th year anniversary. As part of the festivities, we invite you into a glimpse of what our world looks like. We hope you’ll find inspiration and join us by investing in our organization and community. Stay tuned for more this year.

A huge thank you to our students and families, all of our partners and volunteers, Josephine Lee, Barbie Penn, Pou Dimitrijevich, Phung Do, Alexis Lucio, the entire Inneract Project organization, and everyone who’s helped us along the way.