“Sisters Can” is a curriculum that guides Yemeni immigrant mothers to plan their career paths. It uses the power of inter-community storytelling to inform and inspire. This curriculum was co-created with the Yemeni immigrant community in New York City.
Design Research Lead
Instructional design, process mapping, prototyping, workshop design, facilitation, storytelling.
In partnership with a local grassroots NGO - Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA) - me and my project partner Elana Wolpert did a one year project with Yemeni immigrant women in NYC. Using community-based participatory research and HCD, we created a co-created curriculum that leveraged the power of inspirational inter-community storytelling which would empower women to plan their own journeys.
At the end of the project, I learnt the power of community!
Led the design process
Built relationships with YAMA, by teaching English to women in a mosque
Used storytelling to breakdown the research and facilitated workshops to keep the community engaged in the process
Created ESL participatory research tools for women who couldn’t speak in English, to understand their unmet needs and derive insights
Designed the prototypes and created a M&E Plan to drive the iterations
Made teammates fall in love with spreadsheets!
The Yemeni civil war started in 2015, caused not only emotional strain to the Yemeni families living in NYC but serious financial strain. After the Muslim Ban in 2017, Yemenis were prevented from reuniting with their families in Yemen. The frustration was overwhelming. Curiously, then one thing began to change that no one could’ve predicted: the attitude around women working. Traditionally, Yemeni women are not expected to work and in more conservative parts of the culture they stop their education after high school. The war in Yemen brought serious financial strain and with that came a cultural shift. Women now need to work to support their families.
Now, Yemeni immigrant women are facing the difficult challenge that so many immigrants face;
learning adapt without assimilating. They want to get jobs while still maintaining their cultural
values. They want to work while still raising their kids, to make money while still having
time to cook their favorite Yemeni dishes each night for the family. Yemeni women are
creating new paths and leading their culture into uncharted territory. Despite serious
strife and struggle they are pushing onward, redefining what it means to be a Yemeni woman.
Their desire to work is connected to a complex interplay between economic stability, social standing and cultural norms. But with little contextual awareness, many women are intimidated by the options, systems, legalities and norms related to finding work in the city.
Our overall process at was to ensure that the community is kept at the center of the entire process, hence we used community based participatory and human centered design through thee tire project.
How might we create a tool for Yemeni immigrant women to plan their educational and career paths so that they have the agency to write their own journey in New York?
How might we help Arab immigrant women improve their social and economic mobility?
How might we use intra community storytelling for Yemeni immigrant women to plan their educational and career paths so that they have the agency to write their own journey in New York?
Hours of observations
In order to develop a deep understanding of the entire Yemeni community ecosystem, we created a range of personas based on our learnings. We identified our target audience within those various personas. The image below describes all the different personas in the community that we came up with. Among these personas, we decided to focus on Shifa and Maryam, because they represented our target group most closely.
EDUCATION HIGH SCHOOL OR ABOVE
Education middle high school
Has dreams and aspirations but no plans
Doesnt want to work
Married between 16-21
EDUCATION HIGH SCHOOL OR BELOW
SHIFA NEEDS INFORMATION, MARYAM NEEDS INSPIRATION
Entering the workforce is hard. Doing it for the first time as a mother and an immigrant is even harder. Our first insights scaffolded the steps these women need to consider before they begin working.
“You have some go-getters we're going to go and ask questions and figures out, and then you have people just completely going to be intimidated by the entire aspect. So, you know, just making sure that you're keeping them in mind, the different personalities”
- Yemeni Community Expert
Design Element: They need inspiration and information.
Design Element: They need a transparent process.
Design Element: She needs to see a representation of the possible.
SHIFA NEEDS DON'T UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEX BUREAUCRATIC PROCESS OF GETTING A JOB IN NYC
The women don’t understand the complexity, document requirements, visa status, and financial documentation that are required by a heavily bureaucratic employment system in New York. The lack of transparency around what’s required to get a job leaves them feeling intimidated and daunted.
“They need to see different types of career paths that not only suit different personalities, but also suit different lifestyles.”
- Yemeni Community Expert
SHIFA AND MARYAM RELY ON THEIR COMMUNITY FOR INFORMATION
There is an existing system of women encouraging other women. Their primary sources of information are their friends hence we need to leverage this community-trust system by using role models to deliver authentic, and diversified information.
“[Role models] would add a sense of knowing they can do it differently…”
- Community Expert
Drivers of your own process
Information & Inspiration
Drivers of your own process
We voted on ideas with a core focus on sustainability and came up with 3 concepts. Our advisors as well as the YAMA stakeholders wanted us to create something that would inspire the women to take concrete steps such as signing up for GED classes, with regards to their paths. So we began to explore what could possibly inspire the women to take actions. We needed the prototypes to provide inspiration and information and allows women to control their own learning journey. They needed role models with diverse experiences, and a transparent process that didn’t oversimplify a particular career journey.
We began doing participatory co-creation and envisioning possible intervention ideas. We held 8 mini design sprints with the Yemeni women in two locations in New York City - Bay Ridge and Bronx. We also conducted individual design sprints with community experts. Each design sprint comprised of four steps: Warm Up, Rapid Brainstorming, Crazy 6s, Storyboarding. At the end of these design sprints, we obtained a total of 60 ideas. We sorted and clustered these ideas further into fewer concepts.
When we began with testing the role model stories, we started with a story of a role model who did not belong to the women’s community. In this prototype, we didn’t concentrate on any particular stage; we just wanted to see how women responded to role model stories. We also had a feedback form which had different questions on their overall experiences - questions which would tell us what was going well and what could be better.
Role Model Story
The women read a story about a role model’s career and the challenges she faced. The women read a story about a role model’s career and the challenges she faced.
Brainstorming & Reflecting
We had another story as a challenge story for which the women would brainstorm solutions together to a particular challenge a character in that story faced.
The women were asked to do an optional task as homework, for we wanted to see how many women would actually complete the assigned task.
Based on the learnings from our first prototype, we used stories of women who belonged to the women’s community to see if they were able to better relate to the stories. We also added significantly more details about the role model’s journey - who helped them, how did they plan things, etc. We added more opportunities for the women to be able to discuss and share with each other. Lastly, we gave the women the option to reflect in their own language if they wanted to.
80% of the women were able to complete their assigned optional homework task.
75% of the women said that sharing with their sisters helped them reflect better.
75% of the women rated reading as their favorite part of the activity!
When we began with testing the role model stories, we started with a story of a role model who did not belong to the women’s community. In this prototype, we didn’t concentrate on any particular stage; we just wanted to see how women responded to role model stories.
0% of the women considered reflecting as their favorite part of the experience, and only 22% of women were able to reflect.
44% of the woman wanted to know who helped the role model.
50% of the advanced students selected brainstorming with their sisters as their favorite part of the activity!
We believe that inclusivity builds quality, so we wanted to create a curriculum that represented not only our research but the perspectives of community members as well. This would allow for the community to feel more ownership of it, which would ensure the chances that the Sisters Can curriculum is used for years to come.
The role models we used
The discussion questions for each chapter
The institutions listed
We developed a strategy to determine who would be most effectively inspiring to these women. From reading “The Motivational Theory of Role Modeling: How Role Models Influence Role Aspirant’s Goals” by Thekla Morgenroth, Michelle K. Ryan and Kim Peters, we identified three core traits. There are 8 stories that feature an Arab Muslim woman in NYC and her authentic journey to having a career. Using our staircase framework, these role models guide the students through relatable challenges.
We had done a lot of work, but then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Our intervention was designed to be implemented inside classrooms, but due to it, we had to shift the goals for in-person to a shorter online intervention. We were worried about the comfort of the women with technology, but to our surprise, 25 women showed up - excited, driven, and present in class. We had a three-week intervention, led by other ESL teachers of YAMA, where they did lessons on the journeys of 4 role models, and supported women in setting goals for themselves to start their career journeys.
The teachers were remarkably enthusiastic to teach the curriculum. They took accountability for the curriculum by personalizing it for their classroom needs so as to push the women’s thinking. They were able to create a safe space for the women to exchange ideas with each other about working within the community, as well as facilitate conversations around challenges that women face that are not often spoken about. We witnessed passionate agreements, disagreements and elaborate conversations about the topics. And most importantly, the women were able to set goals for themselves, to start
their career journey.
“I like these stories because they are so realistic. The students are not used to reading this stuff. These stories hit home. If you have more stories on Muslim women it can give the students courage.”
“This woman is a from a country that has war just like mine. From this story I learned that when you need something, you should work more to get it.”
English Student, age 33, Bronx
“I learned to keep working hard for my dream. She accomplished her dream even after kids and marriage. I have to conquer my fear and not depend on others all the time.”
English Student, age 32, Brooklyn
67% of the women successfully completed their homework task.
62% of the women were able to set and articulate clear goals for themselves, which demonstrates their sense of possibility and hope for their career journeys.
Over the 3 weeks of our online intervention, we had almost 25 women participate!
The teachers were remarkable enthusiastic to teach the curriculum.
They took accountability for the curriculum by personalizing it for their classroom needs so as to push the women’s thinking. The teachers were eager to extend the intervention.
They assured us that they were comfortable using the curriculum be themselves, and would implement it other up coming classes too.
Sisters Can is now a core part of YAMA’s ESL curriculum, and they are using our thesis video as a tool to recruit more women to the course!