Delaney Rebernik | Education

Marshall “Mr. P” Pollard and The Creative School

Empowering DC’s young “queens and kings” to reclaim health and wealth for their community by designing alternatives to an education system that’s failing Black and brown kids

The U.S. education system is failing Black students — and it’s by design. 

Public charter schools “are not doing what we want them to do. They are doing what they are designed to do,” says Marshall “Mr. P” Pollard. He’s founder and executive director of The Creative School, in Washington, DC’s Ward 8, where just 20% of those aged 25 and up have a four-year college degree. One in five families lives below the poverty line.

“If you do everything right and you graduate from high school, you have a really shitty chance to make that into the middle class,” Pollard says. “So these systems — even if you play the game — are not working.” 

He’s laying the foundation for something different: A generation of “queens and kings” empowered “to use story as a way to connect their people in order to design solutions.”

Mr. P (sitting with camera) at an event hosted by The Creative School. Photo credit: Philippe “SPN” Celestin, @spndrft.stories

Seeded with 44 third, fourth, and fifth graders at Stanton Elementary in 2016, The Creative School has blossomed into a nonprofit network of more than 150 young people aged 11–24, who, with the help of nearly as many BIPOC creatives and mentors, have designed close to a dozen goods, services, and experiences for thousands of their community members: things like fresh juice made from original recipes, a bubblegum product line that bonds stories and the senses, and meet and greets with grassroots organizers. The team includes five part-time staff members, six board members, and a variety of contractors who facilitate programming.

The goal is to reclaim “health and wealth” for people who’ve been systematically shut out of money, safety, education, food, and more.

Ward 8 is home to 11% of DC’s residents, and 24% of the capital’s Black population, but has a single major grocery store. Loss hangs heavy: 98 people were lost to homicide in 2023 — a staggering 36% of the city’s total. The Creative School has lost six of its own to gun violence or suicide since inception: Stormiyah Denson-Jackson, Gerald Watson, Karon Brown, Jakhi Snider, DeMarcos Pinckney, and Kevin Mason.

That’s why the relationships there run deep. The kids demand it. 

“Were you there when we buried Jakhi and Kevo and Marcos and Stormiyah and Karon and Gerald?” Pollard says. “Are you grieving with me? Are you celebrating with me?” 

Pollard is doing both: He helped organize an annual Karon Brown Day to honor the 11-year-old who was fatally shot in 2019, and the others who’ve been lost.

We want kids who have been left out, who have been isolated residentially and economically, to identify as designers.
Marshall “Mr. P” Pollard

It’s that investment — the deep heart and whole body kind — that’s paved the way for so much learning, connection, and invention. 

“Our young people have designed goods and services in response to the stories of their people,” Pollard says. Things like a repeatable process for facilitating healing circles that allow community members to process their grief together. 

Much like his students Roniesha Bennett, Vincent Balthorpe, and Davin Reed, who dreamed up the design, Pollard is a circle maker. 

“In a lot of ways, my work is to figure out how to use story, the oldest art form that humans know of, to connect people in circles — literal circles in rooms — so that they together are inspired to authentically act,” he says. “And I do that across generations.”

He also runs a boutique storytelling agency called STAYDRMN, where he creates immersive, mixed-media experiences and gatherings for people of all ages from historically marginalized communities. 

Students at The Creative School learn and use many such skills, including videography, photography, creative writing, podcasting, and even convening: The school hosts Community Health Days every other month, including two annual staples to honor the young people they’ve lost (Easy 123 on January 23 and Karon Brown Day on July 18). 

DRIP juice and stories flow at a Community Health Day. Photo credit: Keenan Parker, @eyeshotthis

It’s all part of The Creative School’s story-centered design curriculum. Devised in those early days at Stanton Elementary, the theory of change puts forth a human-centered, community-led approach to design-based problem solving. Pollard wants it to catch fire throughout Ward 8 and places like it. “We want kids who have been left out, who have been isolated residentially and economically, to identify as designers.”

Enter the school’s Designing Relationships, Inspiring Peace (DRIP) Lab, which sees cohorts of 15-20 middle and high schoolers whipping up original recipes for fresh-pressed juice and passing out bottles of it to peers and elders in the community. The catch? Recipients must answer a design challenge prompt like “We keep us safe by…”

Students capture the responses through writing, audio, photography, and/or film, and use them as a springboard for solutioning. Based on story themes, participants in the school’s semester-long Griot Fellowship design tailored goods and services like the healing circle.

The program’s name is poignant: It honors the traditional role of the story holder in West African communities. “They say in Senegal that when a Griot dies, it's like a library burns down,” Pollard says. “We believe that our next generation in Southeast DC should be the Griots.”

The big, hairy dream is to fundraise enough money to build a brick and mortar C School a la the Stanford d.school so young people can enjoy year-round makerspaces where DRIP flows, stories spark, and solutions sail back to communities at scale.

Photo credit: Philippe “SPN” Celestin, @spndrft.stories

But first, the lab is hitting the road. Pollard’s team has purchased a 30-foot RV, replete with a commercial kitchen, so students and mentors can “activate story-centered design on location” throughout and beyond DC for the next seven months to several years and document the journey on the student-run Kids Can Be Big podcast.

Putting young people in the driver’s seat, if not at the mobile lab’s wheel, is fitting.

“Study any movement that has shifted culture. It is not led by adults,” Pollard says. “If we are committed to design and believing in the power of design, I think we have to admit that we need a new-age designer. We need it to be normal for young people to be educated in design at a very young age, and that that experience of being a designer leads them to be healthy and wealthy in ways that our current institutions, systems that we're relying on to lead them, have never done.”

Essay by Delaney Rebernik.

Design Observer Twenty Grant

Marshall “Mr. P” Pollard, together with the queens and kings of The Creative School, are recipients of the inaugural Design Observer Twenty Grant, an unrestricted gift of $5,000, generously provided by our partners and sponsors. (Learn more about our sponsors here and support the mobile DRIP Lab here.)

For more than two decades, Design Observer has been dedicated to documenting where design makes a difference. For our twentieth anniversary, we published The Design Observer Twenty List, which uplifts remarkable people, projects, and big ideas solving an urgent social need.

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