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An Interview with Aida Mariam

Human-Centered Design +

Aida Mariam is the Early Learning Lab’s newest director, heading up the inaugural Parent Innovation Institute. Launched in April 2017, the initiative brings together local community organizations, parents, and caregivers over a period of twelve months, with the collective goal of catalyzing changes that support young children and their families.

Aida sat down with Sarah Flores, the Early Learning Lab’s Director of Communications & Knowledge Transfer, to learn more about her background, what brought her to the Lab, and why the Parent Innovation Institute is hoping to break ground in the parent space.

I’m always fascinated to hear about people’s background to get a deeper understanding of their path. What are some aspects from your past that has had the greatest impact on your present? My parents were political refugees from Ethiopia’s communist revolution. Back home, they were elites. But when we moved to the United States, we had no money and no status. We lived in Baltimore for four years, and then moved to Apple Valley, California. It’s a very rural, working-class town, and we were the odd people out.

My family always placed a great deal of emphasis on education as a way to self-actualize, and we were always expected to get A’s in school. Eventually, my dad became a political science professor and a criminal defense attorney, my sister went to Harvard, and I went to UC Berkeley, where I studied political science and African American studies.

My parents taught us that it’s our responsibility to share what we have, and to help when we see people suffering. They always stressed the principle that our wellbeing was tied to others. From a young age, I had an orientation toward politics and education, and I was drawn to helping the underdog — people who are ignored and unseen.

That’s amazing, and so inspirational. How did your history, and the strong influence of your parents, lead to your professional interests and experiences as an adult? I have a background in labor and community organizing, with an emphasis in community leadership. I believe that people can be self-determined, and I want to help eliminate the barriers that get in the way.

I was introduced to community organizing through waitressing during my college years. I took a long bus ride to work, where I talked to many immigrant women, many undocumented, who had come to this country. I listened to them, and learned how they were being exploited, such as holding a job as a home health aide without a contract. I became inspired and found my way to Service Employer International Union (SEIU) as an organizer. I stayed there for nine years; during that time I also went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, where I studied public policy and public administration.

At SEIU I worked on a variety of campaigns, including the first living wage campaign in the United States in Seattle’s airport city, Sea Tac, and a successful strike vote for home health care workers in Millbrae. I have also led community-organizing efforts for Youth Uprising in East Oakland.

That sounds like such varied and interesting work. I don’t know how you fit in graduate school! So how did you come to The Lab? I went to graduate school with Author [Early Edge’s Strategic Initiatives Officer] and he told me about the opportunity. After a few meetings with people here, the Lab’s culture of learning really stood out. It also became clear that people here are very smart and engaged, and love the work that they do. It was very intriguing and I wanted to be a part of it. I believe that early learning is a huge area, inherently connected to social justice, human rights, civil rights, and the systems of oppression. If we can improve early learning, we are equipping our children to be happy, thrive, and solve problems. We can’t solve all of the problems, of course, but we can prepare individuals to have the strength and resilience to deal with them.

What most excited you about the potential of this work? It’s beyond exciting to be involved in a process that has a human-centered design approach. Now I get a chance to do what organizing misses: creatively identify a problem and creatively solve it without a predetermined agenda or structured end goal. Instead, we intend to build the confidence of individuals to “fail forward” meaning they fail fast and learn quickly. The hope is that they go back and translate this on an organizational level.

Tell us about the Parent Innovation Institute. What is it and who is involved? The Institute connects local community organizations with the parents and caregivers they serve. Working closely together, we explore and design innovative ways to improve how families are supported to help ensure their children thrive in school and life.

It’s a yearlong program, and this year we have brought together teams from four organizations — East Bay Agency for Children, La Clínica de La Raza Inc., The Oakland Public Library, and The Spanish-Speaking Unity Council of Alameda County.

We are so proud to have each of these organizations involved – they are all doing tremendous work and are leaders in the community. Each of these is a trusted organization, and includes parent touch points.

How is the Parent Innovation Institute unique in its approach to developing new and enhanced tools and services? It starts with who is involved in the program. Each organization brings a decision-maker, program staff, and two parents. We are co-creating a process that brings together people and experiences that traditionally aren’t brought together, in particular the parent and the decision-maker. It’s also unique in that we are taking away hierarchy: everyone is the same in this experience. We are definitely trying to create a space of complete partnership that I think a lot of organizations try to do, but with great difficulty. Another thing we do differently is designing the program in real time, which is exciting and challenging.

Can you tell me how human-centered design is involved, and how can it help children and families? Human-centered design, or design thinking, is a creative way to solve problems. We’re using it to help children and families solve difficult challenges and build confidence to sustain the practices they have determined have a positive impact. It is based on the idea that innovation is something natural and instinctive, so we use practices such as deep listening, thinking in different ways, and trying “prototypes” to draw out people’s innate capacity to be creative and innovate.  

What would make you feel like we achieved real impact at the end of the program? The workshops themselves are very practical, and include interactive, hands-on learning. We plan to improve programs and services so people working with these organizations will be better off.

On a larger scale, we want to change mindsets. We want people to think differently about themselves and their work, to feel confident in their abilities and their capacity to think creatively, and to feel a sense of pride and prestige. We want them to feel that what they did mattered. A new mindset can translate to many things, and I envision that people can use the new approach and leadership they’ve learned at a staff meeting, a city council meeting, in their neighborhood, or even during an ICE raid.

Ultimately, I envision a process that ultimately incubates and spreads good ideas, builds capacity and leadership in caregivers, and encourages people to go back and adopt design thinking in their organization for better outcomes for families and children.