Skip to main content

Case study: HCD Training and Coaching for the California Community Colleges CalWORKs Association

Helping student parents redesign the community college and public benefits systems

In partnership with the California Community Colleges CalWORKs Association, with funding from the Blue Shield of California Foundation, we are working on a two-year project to coach parenting students at California community colleges in human-centered design. These incredible student parents navigate systems every day that were not designed for them. As human-centered designers in this program, they’ll have the opportunity to make policy recommendations, redesigning these systems by centering their own experiences. Aptly named Project SPARC, it stands for “Student Parents Are Reimagining CalWORKs.”


We worked with our SPARC-ers in the first summer cohort to uncover what their greatest challenges were in navigating various systems that are meant to support their families, but were not designed with their experiences in mind.
With that context, we a goal of sharing policy recommendations in 2023, and divided the two year program into a summer pilot and three ‘design sprints’: current state mapping, future state mapping, and building the bridge.

This first design sprint has been about understanding the ‘current state’ of challenges experienced by CalWORKs students. For this, our SPARC design teams have largely focused on the ‘empathize’ and ‘define’ phases of the process, which means a lot of listening (stakeholder interviews) with folks at various levels of the community college and public assistance systems.

In the latest Showcase presentation, SPARC students shared their research on challenges such as housing insecurity, mental health, and inequitable distribution of resources across California counties. One of the teams summed up their shared experiences with this quote:

“When life gives us lemons, we make orange juice and leave the world wondering how we did it.”


We learn so much from these students every time we have the opportunity to hear our student parents’ stories and hear their “aha moments” from research.

This has been our first opportunity to support people with lived experience as direct designers who are not already public administrators or non-profit service providers. We have learned that teaching this process outside of our usual context presents new constraints alongside new opportunities.

Similar to our work with Learning Labs, we’ve been able to bring students together across different disciplines and quickly see how they demonstrate a clear and personal understanding of the human-centered design process. We’ve also learned that we need to provide support around collaborating virtually and asynchronously as teams, such as sharing practical tools to be able to work together from across the state of California.

Finally, and most importantly, we’ve learned we need to grow in our trauma-informed practices, to make space for people with lived experience to safely process their own emotions and trauma while also seeing the opportunity to learn about others’ experiences and needs


We continue to co-design this two-year program along with our SPARC students; they are learning and applying the process in real time right along with us. In the last six months, SPARC students have:

  • Made presentations to key California Budget Committee staff about policy changes they’ve researched
  • Testified before the California Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, and given interviews to the Los Angeles Times on their experiences with child support from the State of California
  • Spoken on a Parenting Student panel organized by the Women’s Caucus of the Community College League of California
  • Served on an Advisory Committee organizing a parenting students convening this summer, funded by Blue Shield of California Foundation
  • Made friends, learned new skills, and found meaningful community

We’re incredibly excited about the momentum these SPARC Leaders have been able to build, and are eager to kick-off the next sprint focused on mapping the future state for CalWORKs students.

“In CivicMakers, we found not only human-centered design experts, but an incredible group of collaborators who share our values, our mission, and our spirit. The team at CivicMakers aren’t just experts who stand outside our organization and advise. Instead, they are true partners who make our mission theirs, and teach us how to use HCD to bring about the systems change for our students and their families.”

Aarin Edwards Director, CalWORKs Parents Program, Glendale Community College & President, California Community Colleges CalWORKs Association