Several months ago, I was contacted by Kate Krontiris, the principle investigator for the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon hosted at MIT’s Media Lab. Kate had been working tirelessly to engage women of color across the United States and to capture their experiences with breastfeeding and the pump – all in a coordinated effort to hack the Hackathon. A hackathon is usually a computer programming sprint that lasts days in efforts to collaborate intensively on a project. But this was about fixing the breast pump. I was intrigued. It turns out the first Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon in 2014 was a roaring success on many fronts: new pumps and contraptions of all sorts were borne at the event, and many had made it to market. In retrospect, however, that Hackathon had failed to capture the voices, experiences, and well, budgets of a large swath of breastfeeding families in the US. The hacks that came out of it were cool and innovative, but not necessarily accessible (with price tags of $300-$900). The team behind the Hackathon knew they needed to take a different and intentional approach this year. This is where Kate, and ultimately, I, came in.
At the time when Kate called me, she had already been in contact with moms of color all around the country, soliciting their stories. Although MIT was compensating mothers for their time and insight, they had run into a snag in some key areas of the country where they knew they needed to hear from more families - New Orleans and New Mexico for starters. Kate and her team learned of the National Database of Lactation Support Groups for Families of Color that I have curated. She reached out to inquire if I’d be willing to support the Hackathon by connecting them with some key lactation support groups in an effort to field more stories. After just one conversation, I was all in. I joined the mission to not only make the breast pump better, but to do so with women of color front and center. I reached out to groups in New Orleans, New Mexico, and Detroit, urging them to ask their group members to be interviewed by the Hackathon team so that together we could create a better experience for pumping mothers everywhere. The response was immediate. Black mothers in New Orleans and Detroit and Native American mothers in New Mexico came forward to share their experiences.
As a nod to my work with breastfeeding families of color, I was invited to attend the Hackathon as Breastfeeding Innovation Fellow. I had one request: I wanted to also invite the Leaders of the group that had shown the most enthusiasm and ingenuity in recruiting their members to share their stories. Kate and her team contacted Nikki Greenaway and Latona Giwa – two powerhouses in maternal and child health in New Orleans and owners of the newly minted New Orleans Breastfeeding Center. After hearing more about their work, Nikki and Latona were also chosen as Fellows and invited to attend the event.
In Massachusetts, the excitement was palpable. Engineers and designers and academics and artists and lactation professionals and working mothers all converged at the MIT Media Lab for the purpose of hacking the breast pump – changing the pumping experience for the better. At the opening reception, my table consisted of an attorney, an artist, a couple of lactation professionals, and a designer. All here for a united purpose. Kimberly Seals Allers set the tone by describing the barriers stunting breastfeeding experiences and compromise infant health. She listed policy gaps, cultural barriers, unsupportive environments, first food deserts, racism and socioeconomics. Then, Black mothers from Mississippi and Native mothers from New Mexico shared their personal and tragic stories of breastfeeding. The night closed on a bit of a somber note as we all considered the weight of the work ahead. The next morning, after the Leadership team shared their own breastfeeding challenges, Jenn Roberts of Versed Education Group led us in a discussion of the Equity by Design framework, ensuring we all maintained a focus on creating hacks through an equity lens. Then, one by one, attendees approached the microphone to pitch their ideas and to solicit team members. Some speakers had fully fleshed out solutions and just needed IT or structural design support. Others had only an idea and needed a full team to bring their concept to fruition. Others, yet, came with full teams and solid ideas, and wanted only objective input or time and space together to work. Because each hack is the Intellectual Property of the creators of the concept, I can’t share specific ideas. I can say that hacks ranged from new coalitions to clothing to apps to contraptions to tool kits – all intended to enhance the experience of nursing parents before, during and after pumping. After the pitches were completed, teams formed and the hacking began. For the next 30 hours or so, teams developed concepts, ideas evolved and morphed from their original form, splinter teams appeared and disappeared, and compatible ideas merged to become greater hacks than they might have been on their own.
My own role evolved over the weekend. As a Fellow, I had originally chosen to participate as a roving adviser to hack teams, visiting groups and offering insight based on my expertise in a few areas. In the end, I was completely enthralled by the work that Nikki Greenaway and Latona Giwa were doing to create a solution for mothers and infants in the case of a natural disaster or crisis situation. I removed my adviser hat and joined their team.
The clock ran out on the afternoon of Day 3. Teams were asked to present their ideas in a science fair format, cardboard tri-folds and all. The attendees, press, and judges roamed about listening to teams explain their ideas for over an hour. At the end, 12 teams out of 50 were awarded. Various companies and organizations such as WK Kellogg Foundation, Medela, MomsRising, Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE), Spectra Baby USA, and Continuum provided awards to teams for innovation, inclusion, technology, and empowerment of working mothers. Winners ranged from lactation celebrities to lone moms who had dreamed up ideas that others could get behind. The team I joined won the Information Is Power Award from Spectra Baby USA.
As the event concluded, I took a moment to exhale and look around the room at all who had taken this journey with me. Fellow attendees were exhausted and spent, but also energized by the hope and optimism that filled the space. Tears were shed, lifelong friendships were ignited, and strategic partnerships were formed. It had been time well spent. I’m confident that the hacks that came out of this event will effect lasting change in the lives of breastfeeding mothers and their families for years to come. While I’m not sure the next great pump was developed here, there are other ways to build a better mousetrap. Sometimes it’s not about the mousetrap as much as the environment, the cheese, and shifting the intent of the trap to something new.
** The Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon ran concurrently with the Make Family Leave Not Suck Policy Summit, which I did not attend.