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JETAA Pittsburgh: generative research and facilitation

What this is about

I facilitated an afternoon-long brainstorming session for how to jumpstart our small, semi-inactive, and floundering group of Pittsburgh-based JET Program alumni.

About the JET Program

Short for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, this is one of the largest cultural exchange program in the world. Run by the Japanese government, it places participants in primarily rural and suburban placements as employees of local government offices. There, they serve as grassroots cultural ambassadors and assistant language teachers for 1-5 years.

I lived in Tokushima Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku (Japan’s 4th-largest), for 2 years.

About JETAA Pittsburgh

JETAA, or the JET Alumni Association, is a network of alumni groups across the globe. Pittsburgh has a small one, actually a subchapter of JETAANY, and I’m the president.

We support JET Program alumni who have recently returned from their JET tenure and/or who have relocated to Pittsburgh. We primarily host social events because our numbers are so small that it’s tough to do more in-depth events, like professional networking or cultural exchange or share-outs.

A photo of me posing with a group of my elementary school students in Japan.
Me with my Kawasaki Elementary class, my favorite kids (not that I liked to play favorites, but…).
A photo of the town where I lived in Japan. A row of houses stretch into the background, with little patches of farmland on a hill to the right behind them. A large bridge is in the background.
My beautiful town and still my second home. Ikeda, part of Miyoshi City, in Tokushima Prefecture.

The facilitation session

Recently, a partner organization has started offering mentorship to smaller and/or struggling alumni chapters, utilizing resources and experiences from other chapters nationwide. JETAA Pittsburgh applied and was accepted.

Representatives from Washington DC came to Pittsburgh to strategize about how to jumpstart our group. After having an open-ended conversation about our chapter’s current situation, I started to facilitate several HCD activities to provide more structure as we began strategizing.

“Statement Starters”

A LUMA activity: based on pain points we identified, everyone wrote down actionable questions that started with, “How can we…”, “In what ways might we…”, etc. We had over 50 post-it-notes.

Affinity Diagramming

Synthesizing the Statement Starters results. Some overarching themes:

  • Who is JETAA Pittsburgh? New JET alumni, prospective and current JETs, hard-to-reach alumni
  • Outreach and partnership: partnering with local organizations (Japanese and otherwise), helping the community
  • Branding: Logo and mission statement
  • Other JETAA chapters: Connecting with major chapters, leveraging their resources and offering our own
A group of JET Program alumni, representing JETAA Pittsburgh and an umbrella organization, writing up sticky notes as part of a design exercise.
JETAA Pittsburgh and visitors at work on Statement Starters.
Completed post-it notes with statement starters about issues JETAA Pittsburgh can address.
Our pile of post-its.
A photo of affinitized post-it notes.


JETAA Pittsburgh established a board/planning committee that meets monthly to keep the group moving forward.

We started the Kokonokai, a monthly social gathering. The name is a portmanteau of 九日の会/kokonoka no kai, or “meeting on the 9th of the month” in Japanese. The idea is that changing the day of the week each month might allow for people to attend that weren’t able to before, and it establishes an ongoing event.

I began active development on our website and social media presence. (These efforts have unfortunately slowed down, but they have helped make us findable online in a way that we weren’t before.)

With the collaboration of the entire chapter, I crafted a new logo and brand for JETAA Pittsburgh.

We began to leverage our professional connections in our different industries (technology, education, healthcare, nonprofits, etc.) and promoted the JET Program and JETAA through non-Japan-affiliated networks, professional events, and more.

We started to connect with the local Japanese community to co-plan cultural outreach events.


Our uptick both in social and social media activity got us noticed by large JETAA chapters. We received praise as a graduate of this mentorship program and for building such a lively JETAA presence for a relatively small city. At least one chapter has held us up as an example of a thriving subchapter.

JETAA Pittsburgh has been asked to be the host city for an annual regional JETAA conference.

I was also an Autodesk employee at the time, and our XD division of 100+ people had a contest for the most innovative use of UX outside the office. I submitted this activity and won the grand prize, a $50 gift card.