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Design thinking for equity in a national park: an interview with Sarah Minegar of the Morristown National Historical Park

Sarah Minegar

Sarah Minegar and colleagues examining primary documents. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

This month I interviewed Sarah Minegar, the Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park Museum & Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Sarah talked about the challenges of bringing design thinking into the National Park Service, adopting an audience-centered dialogue, and how design thinking can help create more equitable spaces.

Tell me about your role in the National Park Service?

We are the first national historical park in the National Park Service. I’m part of a curatorial team of three, and about 23 of us work in the museum. We’re small and we have fluid roles. I do the archives work, process special collections, and I’m also the museum educator.

How are you using design thinking?

I’ve been practicing design thinking for about four years now with my teacher partners to create innovative educational programming. I’m very interested in how we can decolonize some of our spaces and I have been actively focused on sharing the stage with teachers and adopting an audience-centered dialogue.

 

Prototyping with teachers

Teachers prototyping lesson plans and activities at Morristown National Historical Park Museum. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

We’ve transitioned from programming consisting of entirely staff-led offerings to teacher-staff co-led endeavors and teacher-led field trips and workshops. Instead of running informational workshops, I’ve been collaboratively prototyping lesson ideas with teachers so they become familiar with our resources and leave with something tangible.

And you know what? When I include stakeholders (teachers) in the process, 99% of them return with their students and participate! In the past, when I ran a massive informational-style workshop for 75 teachers, only two teachers would come back, even after I got feedback that they loved the professional development.

I’ve also used design thinking to discover gaps in our program here at Morristown. This is why I sometimes call design thinking “problem finding.” It illuminates issues and ideas we hadn’t even recognized as gaps in our program.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this.

Sarah Minegar, Morristown National Historical Park


What’s an example of how you’ve used design thinking to find gaps in your program?

A couple of years ago, we were noticing a continual decline in student engagement and habitual distraction, so I set out to explore this with my student interns. And we uncovered so much beyond “student distraction.”

We invite classes here to this learning space, but we would start in the auditorium and reproduce a traditional classroom dynamic. Then we would bring out a worksheet and ask the students to work on document analysis of a primary document — often one that was in cursive, something that many of these students are not learning in school. We were giving them so many things to do out of their normal classroom, and then we’d say, “Oh, they aren’t focused!”

We started to realize that there were issues of learning intimidation, relevance, and trust, and we had insights into some low-hanging changes we could make to could have a big impact. For example, to break the traditional “classroom layout,” we arranged the chairs in a circle to keep energy and attention. This was a change I could make with no budget. And now we have a more equitable space, not one that says “I’m the expert up front.”

Students seated in a circle

Changing the traditional classroom layout. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

Another thing we wanted to do was lower the anxiety around looking at documents in cursive. So we began to institute a “gripe session” in which students can actively complain about how difficult the document may be to analyze. This provides a safe way to direct nerves and feelings of intimidation, and it’s an outlet for kids who want to be funny. It gives us a shared place to put our frustrations before we look at the primary documents.

We also got rid of the multitask with the worksheet, and incorporated other equity exercises. I’m really interested in how equity shows up in how we tell history. And I want the students questioning whose voices are missing when we go into the galleries.

So, this was something that started out with an issue of “student distraction,” but then we learned a lot about ourselves and the role we played. It just shows you how when you start to empathize, you learn so much.


How did you get interested in design thinking?

Testing a prototype

Testing a prototype in the galleries. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

I’m a former classroom teacher, and as a teacher, I’d been practicing empathy and human-centered problem solving for years, but I just didn’t have the language for what I did.

My dissertation focused on literary utopias as explorations in human ecology and social planning. When I discovered design thinking, the overlapping human-centered approach was apparent. I had this whole new vocabulary to express the work I was doing, but through a collaborative lens. And that was the big Aha, for me — that I could do this work collaboratively. As teachers, we work as independent units. But design thinking gave me a way to do this collaboratively.

So I started to take different courses online, such as an IDEO U course. And then I would try out the activities and exercises here at Morristown. Instead of it all being theory, like my grad school courses, it was very tangible.


What’s been the reaction to bringing design thinking to Morristown National Historic Park?

Brainstorming

Intern Jariah Rainey brainstorming a learning tool for families. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

My teacher colleagues love this way of working. They love getting to share authority around stories. Many of us have practiced what we call “audience-centered dialogue” and we also incorporate an equity focus, and design thinking has been a great way to teach change through your own actions. It’s very empowering.But others have had a more mixed reaction. The National Park Service has traditionally taken a “Ranger-led” approach to dialogue with the public. That’s part of our culture. For a long time, we’ve done things a certain way, and there has been some push back.

But now that audience-centered dialogue is the new approach, it can feel scary and threatening. Even if it’s in our interpretive plan, it can be a hard sell sometimes.


So how do you push forward despite resistance to this way of working?

Well, I’m very persistent and enthusiastic! When I see resistance to a specific tool, I try another one.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this. You don’t call it quits when your colleagues are not on board or something does not work. And that’s freeing.


What advice do you have to others who encounter push back with this kind of work?

Don’t call it “design thinking” or “facilitation” or “audience-centered learning.” Some people hear that and they think it’s all “let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya!” Even the word “design” is a huge barrier.

Just take action and call it whatever you want. It’s that action part that makes my heart swell when I think about design thinking.


Follow the Morristown National Historical Park blog to read about the team’s latest projects and programs.

 

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