Designmatters students present their project

Featured Course

Birthing Barriers: Designing for Black Birth Equity

Black babies born in L.A. County are three times more likely than white babies to die before their first birthday. And Black birthing people are four times more likely than those who are white to die of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

In Birthing Barriers, a Designmatters course in which students partnered with Kindred Space LA, the only Black-owned birthing centers in the country, to address the country’s Black birthing people health crisis.

During this transdisciplinary studio led by experts in diverse fields, students design comprehensive awareness campaigns with the goal of facilitating access to equitable child-birthing experiences, increasing awareness around Black midwifery and improving health outcomes of Black birthing people and Black babies.

Interview with Instructors Kimberly Velazco, Melissa Liu, Ranee Henderson and Dr. Carlene Fider, Ph.D.

ArtCenter: How would you describe this course to a prospective student?

Ranee Henderson: For students, it's an impactful, inspirational opportunity to create deliverables with real people who are doing real work in the community. It allows students interested in these issues to take their design work into spaces that would, more immediately, create social change. We're focusing on Black birthing people and black birth workers, but that foundation will ripple out — it goes beyond this niche group for the good of everybody.

Melissa Liu: We're focusing on Black birth equity, birthing people’s health, and the health of birthing people. There are so many intersections. We have to understand these overlaps, so we can specifically design for groups that have been marginalized for a long time in ways that are sustainable now, and as we move forward.

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Birthing Barriers final student presentations

It allows students interested in these issues to take their design work into spaces that would create social change.

Ranee HendersonInstructor

AC: How did the idea for this course come about?

Kimberly Velazco: This was something that had been lingering in my head for quite a long time, based on my birthing experience with my son 15 years ago. We tied together our instructors and experts in anthropology, psychology, and race and racism. Then, scrolling through social media, I came across the documentary Deliver Us featuring Kindred Space LA, and we felt they'd be the perfect partner to bring on board.

AC: What inspired the direction you took with the curriculum for this class?

KV: In the design space, no one's really seen the angle we're taking with this course — bringing to light topics like Black midwifery care and doula care; birthing people, including those who are transgender; and the inequities within hospital systems. If we can be among the first to scratch the surface in these areas, I think we can have a powerful impact. By supporting Kindred Space LA at the local level, I think it will translate to a more systemic solution.

AC: What are some of the assignments and materials that challenge students to break new ground creatively?

Carlene Fider: Everything's been organic; planned, but with flexibility and fluidity. We certainly wanted to ground this in evidence, because you have to have an idea of what the history looks like in order to develop something that will be useful now and in the future. Kimberly has found the most amazing experts for us to have conversations with; we then reflect on that knowledge as we move the class forward.

RH: We relied on Kindred Space LA and tried to create what they needed — for instance, getting the word about your rights as a birthing person, what you could have as a beautiful birthing plan or birthing experience, and the history of midwifery. They also need to reach out to find more people, specifically Black people, to work as birthing workers, lactation consultants, doulas and midwives. Even getting to know about the experience of a birth worker, how extensive their days are — there were so many different layers and categories that students were able to latch onto as potential solutions.

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AC: In what ways did partnering with Kindred Space LA provide unique learning opportunities?

RH: Visiting Kindred Space LA was invaluable: having access to the people who are working, day in and day out, to bring babies into the world in a beautiful, healthy way. Additionally, we looked at testimonials from birthing people who had negative experiences within the medical system — things that shouldn't happen to anybody. Those are the real deal; that's real life.

CF: We also had a chance to watch a really beautiful birthing video. How many people get the opportunity to see a home birth in a class? It was so impactful and vulnerable. Students could experience a conversation happening with individuals who literally have their hands in the business. That really helped set the tone for the course.

ML: Through this partnership, we could really understand the individuals, issues and environment we're designing for. We could also better experience the sacred aspect of birth, and how it could flow throughout all of the designs. I also really wanted students to have their designs rooted in research and reality. Carlene would be able to lead students through how to moderate a focus group. Whereas, I would lead more about semi-structured interviews, and then Ranee would be able to give an idea of how to create a portraiture from that interview that might not be technically or literally representative, but it becomes more artistic.

AC: What were some of the most surprising ways students responded to assignments?

RH: We have on group of students trying to hone in on what's needed for individuals who don't identify as a gender. It's just amazing — and necessary. We're at the ground level of these issues, even the language is being developed. Many people in the medical profession don't have experience with, or want to talk about, these topics. So our students are doing the work that some people deem too difficult to tackle right now.

CF: Deciding to design specifically for that demographic, I think is very brave and extremely necessary because it's fairly untouched. It's uncharted waters. However, we can't continue to pretend that these individuals aren't going to give birth. At some point, there has to be a conversation. And the fact that these students are going there is a bold move. Super inclusive. And incredibly caring and loving.

AC: What are some of the most important concepts and ideas you hope students take away from the experience/classwork?

ML: The Social Determinants of Health. It's not just the individual's responsibility to eat well or take care of their body, and they'll have a healthy baby. Each of us and our bodies are entrenched within all these various systems that are informed by history. And so understanding how one issue, like birth equity, is really part of a whole slew of issues. It's important to understand as a designer and as a human.

KV: I want our students to learn about folks who don't look like them, to create a more open-minded space, to think about our brothers and sisters. It really does come down to taking care of each other, period. And that change starts with simply asking, 'What's going on? How can I help?' All of our students feel like agents of change — you can feel the enthusiasm behind their work and what they want to achieve. There's a lot more emotion attached and this sense of humanity. This has become something personal for our students and that’s fueling their passion.

hand painting portrait of a woman

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