A photo of two students sitting at a table doing crafting activities.
VCU’s Center for Corporate Education introduced the concept of Human-Centered Design to a team of 12 participants from the Virginia Housing Alliance’s AmeriCorps VISTA Program this past spring. (Photo by Joe Mahoney

LEGO building blocks reflect a great fit for VCU’s Center for Corporate Education and the Virginia Housing Alliance

The School of Business program brings commitment and creativity to a new partnership, which supports professional development for volunteers who target housing issues.

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What comes to mind when you think of a tower?

Perhaps the Empire State Building in New York or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Locally, you might think of the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Richmond.

There are so many ways to interpret the idea, and that’s why Katie Gilstrap, associate professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University, used it as the first prompt for participants in a custom course for the Virginia Housing Alliance this spring. Hosted by VCU’s Center for Corporate Education, the class reflected a new partnership between the CCE and the nonprofit VHA – and it creatively used the concept of human-centered design, both for professional development and as a means to address housing issues in Virginia.

The full-day, in-person session in April introduced the concept to 12 participants in the VHA’s AmeriCorps VISTA program. The volunteers serve full time for a year at a designated VHA host site in Virginia, working to expand affordable housing and end homelessness through capacity-building efforts, advocacy and education.

“Human-centered design is pivotal not only for creating solutions but for fostering leadership capabilities,” said Joe Arton, Ph.D., senior director of the CCE, which is part of VCU’s School of Business. “Participants engage in empathy-driven problem-solving and cross-disciplinary collaboration — essential skills for today’s leaders in any field, particularly in complex sectors like affordable housing and homelessness.”

A photo of a man standing and smiling with his arms crossed against his chest. He is standing in a room full of tables with children sitting at them.
The VCU Center for Corporate Education approaches learning as an experimental, evidence-based process, said Joe Arton, Ph.D., senior director. VISTA volunteers are encouraged to reflect critically, embrace every learning opportunity and support one another. (Photo by Joe Mahoney)

HCD places the primary audience at the center of the design process, seeking to understand a user’s needs and motivations in order to create effective solutions to challenges. Gilstrap brought the methodology to life through LEGO Serious Play, a learning technique developed by The Lego Group that helps teams become more effective through creativity, collaboration and reflection.

“We started in a way that is very welcoming for everyone,” said Gilstrap, citing the first “build a tower” prompt. “Towers are something that people can easily envision in their mind’s eye, but when you ask someone to build a tower, they all look different. People have their own experiences, contexts and definitions around what a tower might be. As we debrief, we learn about each person’s story and what they bring to any challenge that is put in front of them. It helps bring us together and make sure we’re listening and valuing the backgrounds of one another – building something together that activates the best in all of us.”

The VISTA participants come from varied backgrounds, and as they met for the first time in the CCE classroom in Snead Hall, they were given piles of LEGO bricks along with the “build a tower” prompt.

“The build-up to some of the more abstract concepts was very well done,” said Elizabeth Kondzella, a VISTA participant working at Lighthouse Beloved Community in Lynchburg. “We started out with the concrete ‘build a tower’ prompt and worked our way up to things like ‘what led you to the VISTA program?’ [Katie] did a great job tying the LEGO builds to whatever the next topic was.”

“The LEGO Serious Play was a very cool and physical way to visualize perspectives, metaphors and feelings about our experiences up to this point,” added Vaishnavi Visveswaran, a VISTA participant working at Housing Alexandria. “I was sitting with some very creative people and enjoyed the way we were encouraged to use the bricks to represent anything we so chose. … Our table used the bridge pieces a lot as a symbol of connection or transition, which I found super cool in a symbolic language sense.”

The CCE first engaged with the VHA in December. Hannah Moore, the nonprofit’s AmeriCorps VISTA program manager, was looking for a new professional development opportunity for the current cohort of 12 volunteers.

A photo of a table covered in stickers with positive affirmations written on them.
Using stickers with positive affirmations such as "I can" and "I will" in design thinking exercises boosts participants' confidence and creativity, fostering a positive and supportive environment. (Photo by Joe Mahoney)

“Because our participants are volunteers with very limited income, we try to provide high-level professional development opportunities as a benefit,” Moore said. “The CCE team was able to work with us within our budget and provide this training that I feel like only corporations are able to do. That was really amazing for us to provide to our cohort.”

The CCE team first designed a virtual session in December to focus on self-reflection and how to better understand individual and collaborative styles. After the training, the team knew there was more that could be explored together to support the VISTA participants and their mission. The CCE and the VHA have since begun an ongoing professional development partnership, designing additional courses on varied topics.

Moore praised Arton and Gilstrap for their commitment.

“Joe and Katie really took the time to understand what the VISTA program is and to recognize where our volunteers are in their career,” Moore said. “The targeted curriculum and training have been incredibly beneficial for our members. Honestly, this is the best training that I have ever been in with the VISTA members, hands down.”

A primary goal of the April session was to deepen participants’ leadership skills through critical reflection, embracing a culture where learning from every outcome — be it a success or a setback — is valued. The CCE wanted participants to understand why leadership is about listening, reflecting and adjusting based on experiences.

A photo of a woman holding a paper cup smiling while standing next to a table with three students sitting at it.
Katie Gilstrap, associate professor of marketing at VCU, brought the Human-Centered Design methodology to life for participants through LEGO Serious Play. (Photo by Joe Mahoney)

“An important part of the class I’m taking with me was about the importance of listening – and in the case of problem-solving, really learning what the problem is before jumping straight into solving it,” Kondzella said. “We worked through a couple discussion and drawing activities that really drove home the point of how easy it is to skip learning what the problem is in favor of brainstorming how to fix it.”

Moore noted that within the housing and homelessness space, there often are overarching – and faulty – perceptions about what is best for a community.

“With this training, our VISTA members had to learn to listen closely to one another, reminding them of the fact that this line of work is all about community development and listening to those being impacted,” she said. “Though they might be working on high-level systems on daily basis, the question that always needs to be at the forefront is, ‘how will this affect the people we’re serving?’”

Next on the calendar for the CCE and VHA partnership is a custom, in-person program scheduled for July. It will focus on salary negotiation and resilience training, to help participants prepare for career steps after VISTA.

“We are constantly looking to push the boundaries of what learning and development can achieve,” Arton said. “Our vision for the future is centered on not just advancing skills but also helping our community. It’s about more than just professional growth — it’s about uplifting each other in every way possible.”

To learn more about VCU’s Center for Corporate Education, including custom courses for organizations or offerings for individuals, visit the center’s website or email corp-ed@vcu.edu.