Jasmine Burton is putting her creative potential to great use.
When Jasmine learned that pubescent girls often drop out of school because they lack toilets, she made it her 18-year-old mission to design toilets. Since then, Jasmine hasn’t slowed down.
Jasmine’s transforming water, sanitation and hygiene in communities that lack the resources to build safe systems for themselves. Jasmine does this by harnessing her design skills to build systems that support people, specifically women and minorities. In our interview, Jasmine describes her life as 1 of 9 Americans in a Global Health fellowship in Zambia and her 3 tips for designers seeking to make the world a better place.
Tell us about yourself.
In 2014, my senior design team won the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize Competition, the largest undergraduate invention competition in the United States, for our design of an inexpensive mobile toilet, SafiChoo. Before graduating, from Georgia Tech’s Industrial Design Program, I participated in the Georgia Tech Women’s Leadership conference, the CDC’s Summer Public Health Scholars Program, Humanity in Action Fellowship in Poland and Industrial Design studio classes that emphasized ethnography and social impact work. I am passionate about improving community health via redesigning water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, which is why I founded Wish for WASH, a social impact startup that seeks to bring innovation to sanitation. This year I am serving as Global Health Corps Fellow in Lusaka, Zambia and am working as a design specialist at the Society for Family Health. I identify as a humanitarian design activist and, ultimately, I seek to use my creativity to make the world smile.
How did you get started with Wish For Wash? What made you decide to reinvent the toilet?
In 2011, as a freshman at Georgia Tech, I was inspired to do something about the global sanitation crisis at a women’s leadership conference. I learned from a Georgia Tech alumna and one of my current mentors, Susan Davis of Improve International, that nearly half of the world doesn’t have access to a toilet; of those people, women and girls are disproportionately burdened. Specifically, I learned that pubescent girls in the developing world frequently drop out of school as a result of their schools lacking toilets. As a product designer and woman in higher education, this reality angered me so much so that I left the conference and called my mom to say “ I know what I am supposed to do. I am supposed to design toilets.”
This declaration about my destiny was made at the wise age of 18 and was fueled by my design education. I was learning that many product designers design trend products that are fashionable for 5-10 years, but that are then thrown away. I knew that I did not want to design something that would be thrown away when a new style becomes trendy. Three years later, I had the incredible opportunity to design a toilet for the Kakuma refugee camp as a part of an interdisciplinary senior design capstone at Georgia Tech, and that led to the birth of the SafiChoo toilet.
Describe a typical day in your life. You’re in Zambia, right?
As far as day to day life goes, I am living with 9 other Americans who are in this Global Health Corps fellowship with me and who are all passionate about development work. We all come from a host of academic/skill sets so we love learning and sharing our perspectives of the work being done. ? For more about my excursions to Devil’s Pool, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and hanging out with Cheetahs at a game drive, check out my personal blog here.
I am currently living in Lusaka, Zambia as a Global Health Corps Fellow where I am working as a Design Specialist at the Society for Family Health which is an organization that specializes in Reproductive Health and Family Planning social marketing. Now that I have officially began working at SFH, I have realized that much of the work that is being done here is complementary to the WASH space and is very relevant to my overarching passions for women’s empowerment and social justice work. I am excited to bring my creative expertise in the forms of graphic design, video editing, web design and more to SFH to help creatively brand and rebrand reproductive health and family planning initiatives through human-centered design principles.
Similarly to WASH work, reproductive health is often times seen as a “taboo” topic, resulting in people being afraid or uncomfortable talking about it. I believe that if you cannot talk about something, then you cannot improve it; therefore, my mission for WASH and during my time at SFH is to help normalize this conversation in an effort to invite all people into the dialogue and empower them to make the most educated decisions for themselves. I come from a product design/engineering background and have been a freelance graphic designer for almost my whole life; through my experiences and education, I have come to realize power and importance of well-designed products and services in advocacy and humanitarian work. I believe that WASH work is related to reproductive health work and that we are all ultimately connected.
Do you have any advice for aspiring social impact/humanitarian designers?
1) Gain a hard skill: Whether thats coding, designing, engineering, or even knowing a language,hard skills are imperative in effectively conducting social impact/humanitarian work. In a world suffering from extreme poverty, malnutrition, violence, and inequity, we need more doers, creators, and makers working in this space in tandem with the policy makers, international development officers, and business professionals to create holistic and interdisciplinary solutions to more effectively make sustainable change.
2) Develop a global awareness: Make an intentional effort to increase your global awareness by watching the news, reading news papers, and knowing about current humanitarian events/crises. From this awareness a passion can be born from which meaningful social impact work can emerge.
3) Invest in people: Aligning yourself with insightful mentors and partners who are seeking to make similar changes and with whom your work parallels. Social impact work requires developing meaningful relationships in order to gain traction and to do work that actually is making a difference.
What goals do you have for yourself? How do you stay motivated and inspired?
I am motivated by the contagion of social progress. With all of the work that Wish for WASH does, it is so empowering to see people—whether in elementary schools in the US or as an adult in a refugee camp-be motivated to take action in their communities and in the world. Through education and support, we are able to catalyze people’s creative potential that, when married with a passion for social good, will lead to a better tomorrow. Our team has the capacity to only do so much, so what we strive to do is to spread the spirit of change.
In the future, I hope that Wish for WASH will act as a social impact design and consultancy firm that specializes in human centered social impact innovation. I would also love to work at an organization like UNHCR Innovation lab after pursuing a Masters in Public Health with a focus on Global Health.
Describe a discouraging situation and how you overcame it.
It is challenging to be operating in a space that I was not formally trained in (ie designers do not usually learn about working in the social sector in traditional education programs) as a young minority woman. Prejudices in many forms permeate conversations with people from difference sexes, cultures, races, generations, and countries which often times make work feel like an uphill battle. I am empowered by the people who have come before me, particularly young GT minority female entrepreneurs like Joy Buolamwini and Jasmine Lawrence. I work to overcome stereotypes and actively communicate. I ask a lot of questions and am a fast learner so between my mental capability and my incredible mentors and role models, I work tirelessly toward my goal which is my #wishforwash.
What’s your experience been like using about.me?
About.me is a well designed and intuitive site that allows me to simply portray the elements of my story that I am hoping to highlight. At this particular time, during the season of giving, Wish for WASH has launched our first Indiegogo campaign to support our toilet beta test in Zambia next year (more of which can be found here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/wish-for-wash-toilet-testing-in-zambia#/funders) I like the clean ux design of the site and how effectively it helps me promote my campaign and social organization during this fundraising period!
Anna Lizaur is a Marketing Manager with about.me. She graduated from the University of Virginia. Anna is fluent in Spanish and can count to 100 in Chinese.