Bennett Peji
Diversity and inclusion empowers community centered design
TEDxSanDiego 2017

Hi. Happy Saturday everyone. It’s amazing to be here, isn’t it? As Gill alluded to, nearly every day I eat somewhere new, and rarely eat the same thing twice. That’s over 300 eating experiences a year.

As you can imagine, I quickly ventured into cuisines I’ve never tried, and neighborhoods I’ve never visited before, like Sister Pee Wee’s soul food in Logan Heights run by 82 year old sister Pee Wee herself – it’s the real deal. And Nate’s Garden Grill in City Heights, right, right next to it this nursery and all these farm animals, but right in the middle of the city. You got to visit these places.

You every take a different way to or from work? Sometimes? I do all the time. Because all those seemingly small experiences, lead me to see the city very differently in a short amount of time. And it also leads to making very different, new choices. I take my friends all the time to all these new places, not just for the experience, but to also embrace disruption of our daily routines.

Einstein said problems that are created by our current state can’t be solved by that same state. So how are we to change the big things if we were entrenched in our little things? At the Jacobs Center for Innovation we are working hard to improve the future of South Eastern San Diego, one of the most economically challenged and ethnically diverse communities in the county, and it’s just 10 minutes east of here.

My work involves deep research, community engagement, and collaboration. What I’ve learned is it’s necessary for residents to be at the table for the betterment of the community. But what I’ve really learned is to not always be the experts. At the very first community meeting, it was about the facility of the Jacobs Center, I put up a slide, this is my personal mantra, form follows culture.

But before I could even begin, a striking woman, four feet tall, amazing ponytail, raised her hand and asks, “Do you know anything about the Kumeyaay Nation? We’ve been here for over 10,000 years, so every story you understand of culture should begin with the indigenous people. Absolutely.

So I responded, “I don’t know nearly enough and that’s why, we need you. We need you here.” In fact everybody in the room. Leaders from many different cultural groups were probably all thinking the very same thing. When is my story going to be heard? When are you going to actually listen to our perspectives instead coming in here telling us what’s good for us?

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “People don’t care what you know until they first know that you care.” So I said, “We need your voice, all of your voices, not mine. And you need to make sure I don’t misinterpret your story. So stay with me through this entire planning process.” I learned that every single one of their stories needed to be heard first, before any real collaboration could begin.

Now innovation for me is no longer about solving., or looking at a problem from two or three different perspectives. It’s about seeing the problem from 20 or 30 new perspectives, because of the collaboration with others. I call it community centered design. I’ve learned to embrace all perspectives, and I firmly believe that expert innovative folks are in every neighborhood.

A dear friend of mine, Dr. Jones, observed that 90 percent of who I am, you cannot see. Yet we make 90 percent of our judgments based on the 10 percent that you do see. Only when we remove our biases can we allow compassion and empathy to see possibilities, instead of limitations.

Diversity is like inviting a group of people who don’t look like you, to your birthday party, and that’s cool. But inclusion, inclusion is having them feel welcomed, engaged, really listened to. Companies spend an enormous amount of money recruiting talent worldwide, but a lot of talent is in our own backyard. It’s just that, we may not be wealthy enough to attract it.

Some people are blessed to be able to travel the world and immerse themselves in different cultures abroad. Some of us don’t have that luxury, but a lot of the world cultures arrive here, in City Heights. Forty languages are spoken in Southeast San Diego, we work with 10 distinct cultures.

What makes the mission of the Jacob Center especially unique, is that we have a sunset clause built into our mission. That means we’re going to turn over all the assets that Jacob Center owns to the residents within 12 years.

You know that old adage about teaching someone how to fish instead of giving them fish? It’s not good enough. The idea is to teach the residents how, by the lake that the fish live in, so they don’t need us, or anyone like us, ever again. So now I get to co-direct a new diversity focused entrepreneurship initiative in Southeastern San Diego, to break the poverty cycle of working for low wages for others.

To help residents start their own businesses, and control their own financial future. Neighborhoods you all, people will change. So solutions must evolve at the speed of change, and our systems must be built for that. We could measure our impact by how well our participants succeed, but we must also measure how many of them give back to the community once they do succeed, because otherwise its brain drain, which is helping individuals succeed but only to relieve the neighborhood of their talent. Instead, it needs to be about resident ownership of neighborhood change.

We each play a critical role in the identity of our city, so we must all help create a more inclusive, purpose driven economy, where all segments of society can participate. It’s a complex task. And community centered design is needed now more than ever. And we have a lot of work to do because the gap keeps getting wider and wider, because those who have access to the new economy, leave those who don’t, further and further behind.

When I was growing up, there was a lot more information inside the classroom than outside the classroom. Now, because of technology and the internet, there’s a lot more information outside of the classroom than inside. So it’s possible, that just going to a classroom, is a disruption to learning. So how do we instead make the experience of learning much more engaging and powerful? We build collaborative environments where peer-to-peer networks are based not on our physical characteristics that we share, but the knowledge characteristics that we share.

Both here and here. We mix and match strengths to build the teams. But this can only work if we’ve actually built a welcoming environment where all the residents trust each other, regardless of their backgrounds. Innovative discoveries and learning comes from not being afraid to fail. Failing forward is learning from our mistakes quickly. We want our teams to embrace different ideas, and ultimately, to visualize concepts and systems that don’t yet exist, so they can play a role in how the future ought to be.

I firmly believe that everyone can thrive in this new economy, and be part of creating a more desirable future. The world is made of our hopes our dreams and aspirations. It’s also made of our fears, our worries, and our deprivations. The question is, which world are you going to choose to live in. Which world are you going to choose to make, because the right reaction to violence, destruction, and ugliness is peace, compassion, and beauty.

And I can’t think of a group of people more suited to that than all of you here today at TEDxSanDiego. Am I right?

So build empathy. Seek collaboration. Fail forward with your ideas, often and fast. And next time, try eating somewhere new, it might change your life.

Cheers.