“Look Within, Reach Across, Anchor Down:” Reflections on white privilege, changemaking, and moral courage in the “age of magic and loss”

“Look Within, Reach Across, Anchor Down:” Reflections on white privilege, changemaking, and moral courage in the “age of magic and loss”

Photo Caption: Monica Esparza (New Mexico Breastfeeding Task Force), Myself, and Kathy Pham (Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Advisory Board Member) find some amusement in the suckiness of breastfeeding and breast pumping.  Photo compliments of Crystal Brockton, Emerson College.

My dear friend and fellow toddler parent, Anand Giridharadas, reminded an audience of committed change-makers at the Obama Summit of the following recently:

“The burden of citizenship is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem. …. It isn’t enough to be right about the world you want to live in. You gotta sell it, even to those you fear.”

He spoke of the overwhelming power of three illusions that blind even the most well-meaning of us from effecting the kind of change we seek.  

Systems, not starfish. By focusing on the difference we make on those we choose to help, we risk avoiding the deeper, more systemic causes of societal ill.  We often do this because the deeper problems implicate powerful people or even ourselves.  But real change requires addressing the systems, structures, institutions, and privileges that protect the status quo – a much harder thing to do.

Changing people. By sitting in our own sense of what is right in the world, without actively trying to persuade those who do not believe in our visions, we also relinquish transformative change.  “The woke have a choice about how to deal with the ambivalent. Do you focus on building a fortress to protect yourselves from them? Or a road to help them cross the mountain?”  Anand argues that real change requires “expanding the circle,” and that implies a meaningful engagement across lines of difference.

Rooting to place. Finally, by being a citizen of the globe, we risk being a citizen of no place, ignoring the honest reckoning that illuminates how systems actually affect everyday people’s lives – and perhaps our own responsibility for those outcomes, due to indifference or neglect.  “When rooted, you observe how systems actually affect people,” says Anand.  About President Obama’s own formative experiences in Chicago, Anand shared perhaps his most beautiful observation with us: “Raised a citizen of the world, he became a citizen of particular earth. Rooting put him on the path to leading the free world.”

Anand’s piercing vision has illuminated my own work recently – in particular, working with a team of parents and innovators to catalyze an inclusive and intersectional movement in breastfeeding innovation.

For over a year, with colleagues at Emerson Engagement Lab and the MIT Media Lab, I have been working to “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck.”  We’ve successfully raised money from the WK Kellogg Foundation, Medela, and others to seek answers to the following questions:

Why do so many people have such extreme negative experiences with breast pumping and attempting to breastfeed while working?

Why does it still suck so badly for so many people to meet basic public health goals in the United States?

We have also made a commitment to do something with this information, hosting a hackathon to improve post-partum technologies (which we define as technologies that improve the lives of new parents) and a policy summit to address the other social, cultural, policy, and legislative reasons why many families are unable to give their kids the “first food” we know is best for them.  We have assembled a mind-blowingly amazing Advisory Board to guide our path.  We have also been working with the brilliant Jennifer Roberts of Versed Education Group to ensure that equity and inclusion is meaningfully at the core of everything we do.

A few weekends ago, we had the privilege of meeting four teams of innovators across the US who are doing deep and important work to support the parents in their communities:

  • Birth Sanctuary Boston is working to create the only freestanding birth center in Dorchester, MA;

  • Harambee Care is developing a self-advocacy breastfeeding tool to increase lactation support and education in Detroit, MI;

  • Indigenous Women Rising is developing breastfeeding-friendly traditional clothing for Apache and Pueblo breastfeeding parents in Albuquerque, NM; and

  • Northeast Mississippi Birthing Project is training community health workers to focus majorly on birth and breastfeeding equity in Tupelo, MI. (This last group told me that they helped to bring over 300 babies into the world last year, all on time they volunteer to the parents in their communities.)

These groups gathered with us at the MIT Media Lab to share work and skills, and to offer guidance on how our project should move forward.  It is important to note that this group is, with one exception, all women of color.  Our organizing team is, with two exceptions, all white women.  I will touch on what this means for our work in a bit.  We also had four babies present with us, contributing their own ideas and drinking down boob juice when needed.  The youngest among us was 13 days old.

Over the course of multiple conversations that weekend, it became apparent to me how Anand’s powerful illusions are at work in our own project – even in spite of our best intentions.

If you focus too much on the starfish, it’s easy to forget the systems.

In trying to answer the question “Why do so many people have such extreme negative experiences with breast pumping and attempting to breastfeed while working?” we had determined that we should gather the individual stories of parents, including their triumphs and challenges with breastfeeding.  In our research, we plan to interview women who identify as low-income, women of color, and LGBTQIA parents – and the care providers that support them – because their experiences are not nearly as well-known as the experiences of white, well-educated women.  What might we learn from their individual experiences that could be fixed through collaborative problem-solving?

In talking with the leaders present at our workshop, it became clear that their interests expanded beyond this focus.  They wanted to know:

Why is it that the health facilities they work in treat their patients of color one way and their white patients another?  

Why is it that when they share innovative improvements on breastfeeding care, their colleagues ignore them – but when their white peers take these ideas and offer them as their own, they are well-received?  

Why is the senior lactation counselor (who is a woman of color) passed over for the top job when it becomes available and the position is offered to her less senior, white peer?

When those experiences force her to find a new institution, what are the impacts for the population of parents who were depending on her skills?  

Why is it that care providers see their institutions making public commitments to “equity” and “diversity,” but not doing anything to change the practices, services, and attitudes at the level of care?  

Why is it that particularly white women leaders in breastfeeding seem to have such a disproportionate impact on the discussions, decisions, and experiences of everybody else working the space?  

Why is it that doctoral research on the indigenous and native breastfeeding experience is rejected for publication multiple times because there are not enough “peer-reviewed findings” to “substantiate” its claims?  

Why is it that pump companies keep making products that are painful, inefficient, and not tailored to the needs and realities of low-income people?  When we get a pump for free through our insurance, why is it inevitably that painful and inefficient pump?

These questions reinforce that our interviews with individual people need to be in service of identifying and dismantling points of failure in systems that do not serve parents and babies.  The emphasis on institutions, history, and the powerful reality of racism in our daily lives needs to be front of mind, not something that we backfill later.  We need to move beyond the deep-seated assumption that by focusing on the “user,” we will naturally come to understand the larger context that shapes that person’s experience.  (This piece in Wired offers some useful frames for how to pair human-centered design with systems thinking.)   If we fail to do this, then we reinforce the faulty notion that breastfeeding failings are the fault of individual parents, rather than the result of societal structures.  

In attempting to change the experience of others, we should start with ourselves.

One of our main goals in doing this work is to ensure inclusive innovation – in other words, to ensure that traditional hacking and entrepreneurship in breastfeeding does not simply lead to more $1000 breast pumps for wealthy white women who have jobs that accommodate pumping and some version of paid family leave.  In locating our hackathon and policy summit work at MIT, we want to go to the heart of that culture – working with and within an extremely powerful technology institution to define a new and more equitable way of innovating for social good.  We have benefited in this work through our partnership with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the MIT Media Lab and through plans to activate the Lab’s partnerships with HBCU’s so that student designers of color are present at the hackathon and policy summit.  Jenn has been helping us implement the equityXdesign framework that “merges the consciousness of racial equity work with the power of design methodologies.”

And yet.  Through our discussions this weekend, we saw that we had put the cart before the horse.  In our aims to enact a kind of radical equity in tech entrepreneurship, we needed to first reexamine our own identities.  What does it mean to be (mostly) white women organizing an effort to accomplish this goal?  If we take a pause to examine our own identities, biases, stereotypes and assumptions, what might we see?  Might we be better able to identify and deconstruct the elements of white supremacy and dominant culture that are silently baked into tech-everything if we start with how we ourselves are implicated?  How would this analysis drive our decisions about how to use our own privilege to accomplish our goals?   The white members of our organizing team have decided to engage in guided, regular discussion about our whiteness and its impacts moving forward.  

Engaging across difference remains an existential part of our goals, but before expanding the circle, as Anand says, we need to look within.

Our broader movement in breastfeeding innovation takes its very power from our local partners.

Over the course of the weekend, the gathered leaders shared stories – their own and others’ – of triumph in the face of great challenge and of poignant failure in spite of best attempts to breastfeed.  Many of us are parents ourselves and there was more than one moment when tears formed, hearing these experiences and reliving our own.  

As we were debriefing how to use our privileges to ask powerful questions and develop answers that move people to action, we came again to Anand’s observation of the power of place.  In our attempts to catalyze a national movement in breastfeeding innovation, it is really the local experience that will connect systems to people.  It is by understanding how things are working – and not working – for parents in Tupelo and Boston and Detroit and Albuquerque that we’ll be able to identify the systems and institutions that need reform and demolishment across the country.

“Look within, reach across, anchor down.”  This is Anand’s offering to each of us.  May we have the courage to practice it each day.

Nyaanina Sophia Krontiris-Sengeh at Two.

Nyaanina Sophia Krontiris-Sengeh at Two.

A Lesson in Persistence.  And the Breast Pump.

A Lesson in Persistence. And the Breast Pump.