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Our Story

The following is a discussion between Civil Labs co-founders Isaac Buwembo and Graham Gardner recorded in January 2017. Civil Labs was founded in 2015. 

Graham: I think that people are surprised that we are partners. I don't know why. We can open a lot of doors based on the fact that people don't really know where we're coming from. They are curious: 'Why are you guys working together and how did this partnership come about?' The way that we present ourselves and the way that we talk about our work is unique.

Isaac: It is funny to describe the different rooms that we enter into as part of our work. Yesterday we were in a kitchen with a team of eight 12 to 13 year-olds. Earlier the same day we were talking with a real estate developer and I was on calls with branding agencies. In every one of those interactions I'm trying to be myself. I'm never trying to project myself in a way that I think the other person wants, because it never lands. I think that's reflective of the work that we've chosen to do.

Graham: We challenge ourselves to do things the right way, which is often the harder way. Doing things the right way for us is about creating real partnerships and looking for the win-wins. We’re always looking to enhance the work that other people are already doing and bring our unique resources to the table.

Do you remember the first time that we worked together?

Isaac: Yes, we were working on a project in grad school (MBA in Design Strategy program at California College of the Arts). We were sitting in the Impact Hub in San Francisco with our other teammates. There was some frustration within the team at the time. We were trying to work through a business problem together and were having trouble communicating our ideas. I was trying to guide everyone. And then you (Graham) pointed out that I was seeing something that others could not, but that I was not sharing it with the team. And you said, “Why not share your thinking with the group so that the entire group could see earlier what you are seeing?” You asked me something along those lines and it challenged me.

Graham: I saw that you have this ability to track where each team member is in a conversation or a project and to make sure that we are on the same page. In my experience there have been successful teams that have succeeded not because the team itself is successful but because one or two people on that team have just pushed the work in their own way. That leaves a lot of potential on the table. You have a really good instinct for how to bring everyone into the process.

People often want to know about the origin of Civil Labs.

Isaac: We developed Civil Labs during the final semester of our graduate program. We were on a team together with two other team members, Sarah White and Maria Paula Navia Pelaez. For me the most important part of the process was finding a question that is worth addressing. We began to ask the question, “How might underserved populations benefit from upside of economic development?” That is a huge question in many regards. Civil Labs emerged from that question.

Graham: As a team we rejected the idea of boiling down complexity into dichromatic problems that have the solution baked into them. We sought deeper insights. We began in the South Berkeley Lorin neighborhood simply knocking on the doors of local businesses. We witnessed first hand the rapid change taking place there, as in many communities of color in the East Bay. Long-time residents and businesses of South Berkeley, primarily black people, are being driven out. The situation is especially unjust in a community affected by redlining and the BART development, which cleaved that beautiful commercial district on Adeline in similar ways to what happened in mid-Market (in San Francisco) and in West Oakland along 7th Street. Long-time residents worked to develop the neighborhood and now that new growth is occurring they’re being forced to leave.

Isaac: One of our advisors always says, 'Whatever you do, however you do it, don’t walk into a community and do a Superman.' She’s challenging us to engage people with the humility to learn from their history and experience. In design we think about the idea of the sacrificial prototype. It’s a metaphorical bridge to help someone engage with an idea differently. If you extrapolate the idea of the ‘bridge’ to Civil Labs and all the work that we do, you can think of Civil Labs as a bridge for a conversation about how things could be different. And then we seek to build that but not on our own. Civil Labs is not about Isaac and Graham. Civil Labs is about all the people that we’re connected with, all of the stakeholders that we bring together. We are trying to piece things together in such a way that everyone wins.

Graham: The bridge makes me think of the summer of 2016 when we launched Civil Pops (formerly True Pops). We were selling our organic ice pops at an event at an upscale commercial area in Oakland, attracting a mostly white upper middle class clientele. It was the two of us and the three young people we were working with that summer, Jabari, Choyannah, and Cesar. And I remember Jabari coming up to us and feeling a little dejected because people were ignoring him as he tried to engage potential customers and create sales. He felt like people were looking through him and making assumptions about a young black man selling in a public space. At the time, as a white kid from the Oakland Hills and outer suburbs, I did not feel like I was the right person to initiate a conversation about bias and racism and how that creates inequities in our Oakland community. But through a silly thing like an ice pop the five of us had this important conversation where Jabari reflected on his pride because he knew that the people ignoring him or showing him disrespect were wrong, because he made that ice pop and he knew it was the best ice pop that anyone had ever tasted. And it made him feel like he had power. To me that’s how we avoid “Superman-ing it”. We have set up the context, this ‘bridge’ that you’ve described, to have these conversations together rather than leading with our point of view.

It's funny: we started an ice pops business and I don't think that everyone takes it that seriously. It sounds like a kid's business. But it’s subversive because people don't take it too seriously. And yet this experience on that day with Jabari and his peers led to some important insights about how business and entrepreneurship might change the dynamic in communities like East Oakland or South Berkeley. I think that is serious business. I take that seriously.