By Anne Dreyfuss/University Public Affairs
The infant mortality rate in Virginia dropped by almost 20 percent from 2007 to 2012 according to a report released in November by the Virginia Department of Health, but the positive news didn’t extend to Richmond’s low-income African-American population, which continues to face a rate of infant deaths three to four times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites.
“There is a very high instance of infant mortality and low birth-weight babies in African-American families in the City of Richmond,” said Laura Chessin, associate professor of graphic design, Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts.
With the help of a VCU Quest Innovation Fund grant that supports partnerships between the university’s School of the Arts and School of Medicine, Chessin set out to directly address that disparity. The graphic design professor partnered with Rashel Charles, director of research development at the VCU Institute for Women’s Health, and Kirsten Olsen, an administrator with CenteringPregnancy at VCU, to achieve her goal. Charles recruited help from nonprofits in the community, including nutrition consultation service Healthy Hearts Plus II and managed care organization Virginia Premier.
“The idea was to create a visual mark that would be the start of a more extensive program,” Chessin said. “The first step of this potentially larger project is having the graphic design students come up with a way of visualizing how the community can support healthy outcomes for babies.”
For three consecutive Monday mornings from October to November, 16 graphic design students met with nine low-income African-American mothers and two fathers to discuss what it takes to raise a healthy child in Richmond. At the first meeting, students asked questions about the parents’ experiences, expectations and obstacles during pregnancy and after giving birth. The students brought rough sketches visualizing what they’d heard to the second meeting and parents offered feedback on what they saw. In the third meeting, the students presented the posters and visual marks they had created based on their conversations over the past couple of weeks.
“It was an interesting process because normally when we’re doing our projects we’re working off our own prompt and we’re designing for the teacher,” said 20-year-old graphic design student Hunter Zachwieja. “With this project we were working with people in the community for something that was larger than the class.”
One of the points that came across strongly during the meetings was that the visual material aimed at pregnant mothers often doesn’t include images of father figures.
“A huge issue for this population is that the dad needs to be a part of this,” Chessin said. “One of our primary ideas was looking at how the community comes together to support the baby.”
At a final presentation at The Depot, students presented their posters, which ranged from complex hand-drawn illustrations to pixilated abstract images. Parents from the discussion groups attended the presentation along with faculty from the School of the Arts and School of Medicine. While the designs varied in style, the messages remained constant. Images that represented community support, love, healthy foods and safe environments appeared in various forms throughout the presentations.
“Everyone found pieces of our conversations to bring to life,” said 24-year-old Kristen Forbes. The South Side resident, who was one of the mothers in the project, brought her 1-year-old son, Tristen, to the presentation.
In the next year, Chessin plans to put the students’ designs to use, possibly in a media campaign that addresses infant mortality rates in Richmond. She hopes that the work from this class will contribute to a larger project down the road.
“Graphic design is about more than making pretty things,” Chessin said. “It’s about how we engage in visual culture. This project is about how design can effect change.”