Episode 036: Building Equity Through Sanitation Innovation with Jasmine Burton
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Jasmine Burton is a social inclusion and design specialist who is passionate about building a more inclusive world through sanitation innovation. She is the founder and CEO of Wish for WASH, a social impact organization that addresses equity gaps in the WASH sector through human-centered design thinking and research.
In this episode, Jasmine shares her journey as a toilet design specialist striving to improve outcomes for the 4.2 billion people who lack access to safely managed sanitation. Join us as we dive into the challenges of global toilet inequity; exciting innovations in the WASH sector today; and the relationship between sanitation innovation, menstrual health and the empowerment of women and girls.
- What it means to be a social inclusion and design specialist
- How Jasmine utilizes the concept of empathy in an iterative framework to drive innovation, sustainability and impact
- What inspired her to go into toilet innovation at a young age
- The founding story of Wish for Wash, which she started as an undergrad at Georgia Tech to improve global sanitation infrastructure through human-centered design
- “Flying toilets,” and other hazards prompted by widespread lack of access to safely managed sanitation
- Notable innovations in the sanitation space today, including:
- Development of toilet systems that can easily be tailored to different sets of needs
- The “circular sanitation economy” turning human waste into a renewable resource
- The “smart sanitation economy” using wastewater technology as a preventative public health tool
- How the COVID-19 has impacted Wish for Wash, and what the future holds
- Jasmine’s future endeavors in impact investing and sustainable financing
Website: jasminekburton.com | wishforwash.org | periodfutures.org | toiletboard.org
IG/FB/Twitter: @jasminekburton | @wishforwash | @periodfutures
Jasmine (Jaz) is a social inclusion and design specialist with a focus on gender equity, meaningful youth engagement, and innovation in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and global health sectors. She is trained in product design and public health, and is passionate about social justice and human rights. She has led iterative toilet innovation pilots and research across Sub-Saharan Africa with a design thinking lens and in resettled refugee communities as the founder of Wish for WASH, a social impact organization that seeks to bring innovation to sanitation.
Jasmine has served as the Toilet Accelerator Manager and Innovation Lab Lead at the Toilet Board Coalition, Technical Advisor for the gender equity startup Equilo, on the Board of Directors for Planet Indonesia in order to help lead their WASH and gender strategies, a Design/Communications Associate for Women in Global Health, and a former consultant for gender and women's health research organizations Atethemis and International Planned Parenthood Federation.
As a 2018-2019 Women Deliver Young Leader, she spoke at the 2019 WD conference about her work and vision for gender equity in the WASH sector. Jasmine identifies as a social impact designer who seeks to utilize design thinking, evidence-based research, and business acumen to build a more inclusive world.
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Jessica Williams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I'm your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.
Today's guest is Jasmine Burton. Jasmine is a Social Inclusion and Design Specialist with a focus on gender equity, youth engagement and innovation in the water, sanitation and hygiene and global health sectors. She is trained in product design and public health and is passionate about social justice and human rights. She has led iterative toilet innovation pilots and research across Sub Saharan Africa with a design thinking lens as the founder of Wish for Wash: a social impact organization that seeks to bring innovation to sanitation. Thrilled to share this conversation with you. Now let's go on to the show.
Jasmine, welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast! Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Jasmine Burton 1:21
Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
Jessica Williams 1:23
Me too. So I'm going to be fully transparent for all of our listeners – this is our second interview, something happened with the original recording. So we're doing this twice. This is how much we love you listeners! But also how amazing Jasmine is, because the first conversation was so magical. And I'm hoping we can recreate that because it was awesome. Jasmine's amazing. I can't wait for you to hear from her today.
Jasmine, let's start out with…you describe yourself as a Social Inclusion and Design Specialist. For those who maybe don't know what that means, can you take us into that? What does that mean?
Jasmine Burton 2:03
Yeah, great question. So I think it can mean a number of things. But for me being a Social Inclusion and Design Specialist really is rooted in the concept of empathy. I'm trained in product design from Georgia Tech. And as a product designer, we really get a robust education around design thinking, human-centered problem solving, particularly as it relates to solving real people's problems that exist, right? And you have to really empathize with different types of users in order to create solutions that truly meet their needs. So for me, being a Social Inclusion Specialist really means kind of meeting different people where they are, different life experiences, different identities, different worldviews. And then using my design skill sets – product, graphic, etc – to help kind of bridge the gap and help connect people in an equitable and inclusive way. So a lot of my work is really around creative problem solving, but always keeping empathy at the center of the work that we do.
Jessica Williams 2:59
I love that. Using the language of empathy reminds me of a very common study, which is human-centered design. Is it similar to that?
Jasmine Burton 3:10
Yes, yes. So human-centered design and design thinking are very, very closely related. And I think for me, yes, the concepts – both of them really – kind of utilize the concepts of empathy, to drive innovation, to drive sustainability to drive impact, but then also use this framework of iteration. So this idea of, when you try something, whether it's creating a product or a program, or an organization or something and you get feedback, you actually, you know, listen to that feedback and change it based off of that, to best meet the needs of your customers, clients, users, etc. So I think, yes, human-centered design and design thinking are very closely related. And yes, both of them are sort of in my toolkit, and I value them very, very much.
Jessica Williams 3:52
Well, one of the things I love about you is your work is so interesting. It's not everyday that you meet someone who works on toilets and is considered a toilet innovator. And I know when you were in school, you founded an organization called Wish for Wash, and that kind of got you into this work. So can you tell me more about what inspires you to feel passion for toilets, and to start an organization that really supports that work?
Jasmine Burton 4:19
Yeah! Kind of similarly to how we started, my journey in the toilet space is really, again, rooted in this concept of equity and inclusion and in driving innovation around that. So when I was a freshman beginning Georgia Tech in my product design studies, I attended the Georgia Tech Women's Leadership Conference where I learned about the enormity of the global sanitation crisis. How you know, over 4 billion people lack access to safely managed sanitation and how, in particular, this disproportionately impacts the livelihoods and career advancements of women and girls and other marginalized groups around the world. And again, like starting my product design career, I was like okay…you know, this makes sense. Like, I'm gonna design toilets. Granted, I was 18. I called my parents and I said, You know what, I know what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna design toilets. Which if you can imagine, it was a very, very unique thing for them to hear. Yeah, they're very supportive.
And the journey has been kind of blossomed way beyond strictly just physical toilets. Because again, if you think about sanitation, and how it affects the health of our day to day society. If we think about just wellness in general, if we think about economic viability, all of it has to do with health and hygiene. And I think COVID has underscored that more than ever. But yeah, that was the beginning of the journey for me at the Georgia Tech Women's Leadership Conference. A few months later, I was on stage at the Georgia Tech InVenture Prize competition, which is the largest undergraduate invention competition in the United States, with three other designer and engineer women from Georgia Tech. We were pitching this toilet concept called the “soft shoe.” And we won, we won first place and people's choice. And that funding enabled us to go into our first pilot, where we were able to actually kind of live our values of human-centered design. We put our concept in front of real users, South Sudanese and Somali refugees, working with, you know, female translators, female-headed households, to really kind of have this through-line of gender equity as it relates to innovative toilet innovation, in communities that don't have access to toilets. And from there, we've become an organization that now has a for-profit and nonprofit arm, again, all very rooted in human-centered design. Toilets are our sweet spot! But we have expanded beyond that as well. Because you know, water and hygiene are closely related. But yeah, that's a little bit about our beginnings.
Jessica Williams 6:47
Awesome. So um, it's interesting. Since our first recording, I read this article that came out in June by NPR, and it was called, “Half The World Lacks Proper Sanitation. Is It Possible To ‘Transform The Toilet'”? And I thought of you when I read this article. And in the article, it starts out by saying the United Nations estimates that 4.2 billion people – so more than half of the world's population – live without any access to safely managed sanitation. That's crazy to me. I mean, it's 2021, right?!
Jasmine Burton 7:26
Yeah, it's mind blowing to think about the fact that we have so many technological advancements.. you know, we have all these things that are making our world technologically-savvy and connected, but people still don't have toilets. Which is a basic human rights human need. And why can't we help fill that gap? I think that's a big question. That's a driving force in a lot of the water, sanitation, hygiene spaces, you know, what will it take to not only create the products, but then create the ecosystem, so those supply chains will last – those product innovations will not just be broken down. So those communities can sustain them and some of these bigger questions around systemic issues. But yeah, it is mind blowing to think that, you know, in 2021, people still don't have toilets.
Jessica Williams 8:10
So what are they doing when they don't have toilets? Tell me what's happening.
Jasmine Burton 8:14
Yeah, so there's a number of things. I mean, one of our favorite things to say at Wish for Wash is: everybody poops. That is, statistically 100% of all people poop. So this is something that we hold true in all of our work, no matter how disgusting or how uncomfortable it is, this is a universal phenomenon. And even if you don't have access to the safe or hygienic infrastructure, you got to go somewhere, right? And so a lot of times that will result in what's called open defecation. So, going to the bathroom, outside, which is tends to be in full view of other people, which leads to both mental and physical health problems. There are things called Flying Toilets. You know, think of like a Kroger bag or Publix bag or shopping bag, people go to the bathroom in those and sort of throw them into a water body or on top of the roofs. There's a bunch of case studies talking about roofs actually, of houses kind of collapsing because of all these poop bags on top of them.
Which is crazy. It's crazy. And so it's this concept, if you if you think about it, when you ask people what is a toilet? We like to do this exercise, like what is the toilet? It is, you know, a way to go to the bathroom, right? But it also is this concept of getting poop away from people, whatever that looks like, whether that is going into a body of water, whether that's going into, you know, a hole and burying it, whether that's throwing it in a bag, or whether that's using a flushing toilet that we're used to in a lot of our context here today. So that is the kind of nexus of a lot of this innovation, is how do we effectively and safely get poop away from people in a way that you know, makes sense for them culturally? And so, yeah, there's a number of very creative, not necessarily the most healthy solutions. But when you gotta go, you gotta go. And so people have to figure out a way to manage that when they don't have toilets.
Jessica Williams 10:05
So tell us about some of the innovations that you are working on. I mean, you're not just working at Wish for Wash; you are also on the Toilet Board Coalition. So like you're steeped in this every day. So what are some of the interesting things that you see coming out to solve this problem?
Jasmine Burton 10:23
Yeah, so a lot of exciting things are happening in this space. So at Wish for Wash, we are really focused on this concept of, you know, modularity. How do we create a toilet system that works for different people, you know, where they are? So creating a system that could be a sit toilet, that could also be a squat toilet, that could also work as an off-grid/compost toilet, or that could also be connected to a sewer line – all within the same series of parts, rather than having to invest in a whole new system for each type of use case, or each type of waste management system. So that's sort of where like, our focus has been in terms of product development, for Wish for Wash, over the past couple of years. We're still very much in in pilot and are hoping to get to a larger production run in the next few months. We'll sort of see how COVID and things pan out. But that's sort of where we're headed.
But there's a number of really exciting things that we've seen across the world, as it relates to things called the circular sanitation economy. So turning waste into a renewable resource, whether that's, you know, compost or bio gas to turn on a light bulb in a house or a complex. There's a number of different things that, you know, waste could be transformed into that is a productive use case, in society. And it's really cool to see people building sanitation infrastructure around this, because if you think about it, as population size increases, the only thing that is going to increase with it is the waste that we produce. And we have to create systems that will turn waste into something productive. So we're seeing a number of use cases around that in Sub Saharan Africa and India.
Another really kind of exciting opportunity that we've been looking at at the Toilet Board Coalition is the smart sanitation economy, which is this idea of: how do we use things like biosensors and technology to put into waste and sanitation infrastructure, as a preventative health mechanism, at an individual level or at an aggregate level? So there's a number of people I know – an organization called BioBot, based in Massachusetts, is doing some really incredible wastewater management in the Boston area. And actually in the US, right now, kind of using this technology or using technologies to kind of determine the levels of COVID in each community based off of sensors and wastewater robots. And kind of what that implies is, what if we could have these preventative indicators at a larger scale before things like a pandemic or a public health crisis happens? So there's a lot of really interesting stuff that's happening, that's sort of bigger than just getting poop away from people. It's like, what can we do with the waste that's also adding value to society and its people? So yeah, lots of really cool stuff is happening in the US and around the world when we're talking about sanitation.
Jessica Williams 13:18
Yeah, I think that's so fascinating. I love looking at innovations for problems like this. So one of the things you mentioned earlier that I want to go back to is like, connecting this kind of through-line between sanitation and proper access to waste management systems, with empowering women and girls. So can you talk about how you connect those two?
Jasmine Burton 13:44
Yeah. So you know, as we think about sanitation, and a lot of the burden as it relates to cleaning sanitation infrastructure, managing sanitation infrastructure at a household level, or at the institutional level, often times in communities it does fall on the shoulders of women. And when we're talking about things like diaper changing, we're talking about things like fecal transmission with with young infants, that also is a burden that falls on women's shoulders as well. And I think, you know, when we're also looking at young girls – and this was sort of something that I learned early on in my career – is a lot of girls around the world, both in the US and globally, are dropping out of school when they reach puberty because their schools don't have toilets. So this idea that they can't properly manage their menstruation in a way that's safe and dignified for them, because of this basic human need not being met in their school facilities. Which is just so crazy to think about, that a toilet is a barrier – or the lack of a toilet is a barrier – for a lot of these girls from advancing in their career and their educational attainment.
And so, this through-line, again, is sort of kind of recognizing that there is gender inequity when we're talking about the burden of health outcomes, educational outcomes, economic prosperity as it relates to health and hygiene, when we're talking about women and other marginalized groups. So I think that that's something that's been top of mind for us since the beginning, trying to be inclusive and amplify the voices of a lot of these women in their, you know, varying communities. Because again, coming in and making sure that we're recognizing that different people come from different cultures and different worldviews. And our goal as a human-centered design organization is to meet them where they are, rather than sort of coming in and saying, you know, this is the right way you should be using your toilet, or this is the right practice that you should be having. It's really about understanding, okay, this is what you believe to be true. This is your understanding, and how can we create a solution that best meets your needs, while also creating a healthy environment for you and your community?
And I think that again, sanitation at large closely ties back with menstruation, menstrual health, equity, period poverty, and all of these things. Because like I mentioned, girls are dropping out of school because they don't have toilets. But then also, you have to have the materials and the infrastructure in place for for the girls to actually manage their periods. So I think, yeah, that's a new direction that Wish for Wash has actually been taking on. And we're really excited to be diving into this world. A project that I had the honor of cofounding over the pandemic in 2020 was called Periods Features. And it's kind of been founded with this idea of kind of thinking about, how can we emerge from this time in a way that's inclusive, generative and sustainable for people who have periods around the world? And this initiative has since been housed under Wish for Wash. And we're really excited to sort of amplify some of our educational work around the future of period, education, period product design, period innovation as it relates to sanitation infrastructure, because they're all connected.
Jessica Williams 17:04
So, one of the things that I love about your work is…well, I don't know that I felt this way until I interviewed you the first time. But I started to realize how interesting, I mean, I really do feel like maybe in another life, I'm going to be a toilet board innovator myself. I don't know why! I think it's because I use the restroom a lot, like a tiny little bladder, and I'm constantly going into public restrooms. And I'm always thinking about, you know, well, that one had that better experience. And that one, you know, that one felt safe. Or it was really clean. And you know, in the United States, we have access to a lot of nice bathrooms, and a lot of innovative bathrooms, like when where I live in Portland, they have this one downtown that's like this really cool. You might even know about it. It's like its own little system that people can use. And I think the homeless actually use it a lot. I don't even know if you're familiar with this toilet in Portland?
Jasmine Burton 18:11
Jessica Williams 18:13
Oh, you are?
Jasmine Burton 18:14
Yes. Yeah. There's a lot of really cool sanitation work that's happening in Portland. And yeah, I think really inspiring too, because like you said, public bathrooms, and having access to public bathrooms for all people, including people who are experiencing homelessness is so imperative. So yeah, I've been closely following a lot of the great work that's happening in Portland that's both aspirational in terms of design, but then also in terms of inclusion.
Jessica Williams 18:36
Yeah, yeah, I know. A lot of what you're working on might be not as like, technologically advanced as like – you go to Japan, and the toilets are just, there's so many buttons and controls…you're like, woah, there's some more on this than my computer, right? I don't how to operate this! But where are you operating mostly? Or are you mostly concerned with kind of the global south and developing countries? Is that where you generally focus?
Jasmine Burton 19:07
Yeah. So that's a great question. So we definitely started off with very much having a global lens. And I would say that that's still a priority of ours. And particularly when we say global, we started with pilots in Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda, in our first initial years. But I think, you know, in addition to a lot of the constraints that we've seen with COVID, we've also seen a lot of opportunities to innovate and move the needle in the U.S. as well, particularly around you know, underrepresented communities here. So we're actually kind of pivoting some of our focus to to look at rural America. There's a big need for improved septic systems in the in the U.S. in rural America, specifically, like failing, collapsing septic systems that lead to hookworm outbreaks, which is so crazy to think about that that happens still. That there's hookworm outbreaks in the U.S. because of the lack of infrastructure. And then also, like you said, communities experiencing homelessness, like there's been a bunch of research that have come out over the past few years looking at cities like San Francisco, you know, Atlanta, where there's big populations of homeless people. And they're going to the bathroom in the streets, and so what are some opportunities to innovate around that? So I would say, yes, our focus is still very much global. But we want to also have an inclusive lens that is touching, you know, in our own backyard. And I think, again, this COVID epidemic has really showcased opportunities – how if we innovate and create solutions here, there's an opportunity for them to proliferate in a sustainable, meaningful way as well.
Jessica Williams 20:44
Yeah, speaking of COVID…has that pushed any innovations that wouldn't have otherwise kind of moved along? Because of the pandemic?
Jasmine Burton 20:53
Yeah, so there's been a really big – you know, there's been ups and downs, as with a lot of the world and organizations. In terms of product development, a lot of our manufacturing has significantly slowed down. And so we're still figuring out kind of next steps, what that will actually look like in terms of product manufacturing. Moving forward, we're hopeful that we'll be able to kind of pick that back up in the in the coming months. But on the other hand, a lot of our research and education work has really, really picked up steam, particularly as a relates to public bathrooms. And menstrual health – period poverty and menstrual health innovation at large – has really just had a massive inflow of interest from from schools and educators, Girl Scout troops, International Rescue Committees. So we have a bunch of various stakeholders around around the U.S. that are interested in sort of creating opportunities for people to learn about these in in more of an academic research way, but then also in like an experiential, kind of advocacy, educational way.
And so at Wish for Wash, we've created these workshops, these series of workshops that we call “design jams,” using the design thinking, human-centered problem solving mindset, to rapidly go through this process of empathizing with people that have different experiences and worldviews than you, and innovating and coming up with potential solutions. And all of our workshop offerings relate to water, sanitation, and/or menstrual health. And it's been really cool to see young middle schoolers of all genders, of all backgrounds, coming together talking about, you know, the future of periods in a way that's not weird or taboo, and kind of being excited about building a prototype around periods. And I think that's something that I've never seen before. And just seeing, you know, educators and parents being open to this as well, has been really powerful as well. So yes, I would say that we've seen this big inflow of interest in terms of health and hygiene, educational content and the interest in building more infrastructure around that as an organization. But then we're also still navigating what it means to be a product-facing company as well. And so we're hopeful that we'll be able to kind of make some strides on that in the coming months.
Jessica Williams 23:06
Amazing. Well, I just love all the work that you're doing. I think it's so fascinating. If people want to connect with you and learn more about your work at the Toilet Board Coalition and Wish for Wash, where can they go?
Jasmine Burton 23:19
Yeah, so Wish for Wash can be found at wishforwash.org All of our work is there. Our Period Futures work is periodfutures.org. Again, a lot of publications and educational content can be found in that arena. Toilet Board Coalition is the toiletboard.org. And I will say to they're doing a number of really incredible things at the Toilet Board. I've actually, in the past month or so – and I know this is recent news – I've recently rolled off my contract with them. And I'm actually focusing on an MBA to focus on the future of scaling some of these sanitation and menstrual health innovations. So maybe that's something that will, you know, in our next conversation, we'll be able to talk about the future of sustainable financing, as it relates to the things that I can bring to the conversation.
Jessica Williams 24:07
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, wait a minute – we got a little extra time. I want to hear about this. What MBA talks about scaling for toilet innovation? Or is it that specific?
Jasmine Burton 24:20
Yes! So my MBA program, I'm studying at Emory, which is very health focused as a university, as a healthcare system. And so that's been really awesome to sort of have that network of support that's really kind of health based, as I'm pursuing a business education. So I will say with that backing, there isn't really a program focused on business as it relates to toilets and menstrual health, but I have sort of been empowered and enabled to make that happen through through my program at at Emory. So I am getting an MBA, but because of my interest and focus, I've been able to do some joint work at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory – to do some social impact, as well as impact investing, related projects and work. That then hopefully will be able to combine with my interests with sanitation and menstrual health to talk about the future of scaling these ventures.
Jessica Williams 25:16
Amazing. For those who aren't familiar with impact investing, can you can you break that down for us?
Jasmine Burton 25:22
Yeah. So, I will be honest, I'm very early in my learning journey of impact investing as well. But the basis of it is really, that it acts like traditional investing, where there is X amount of money that's given to a founder or to an organization to scale up a project or a product, with expected return, with typical interest rates. But in addition to having the return on the investment in terms of monetary value, there's the expected return on the social value. So there's an understanding that, you know, in the social impact space, your return is likely going to be slower – in terms of the monetary come back, particularly if you're working with marginalized or resource-constrained communities. But there is that factored-in component, that value of how are you driving impact towards the SDGs, to the Sustainable Development Goals? And how is that adding value to society at large, in addition to giving them a return on the monetary investment? So it's basically giving you, or people that move in the impact space, an opportunity to get larger amounts of funding, but then also to have their evaluation, their value as an organization be captured in the the value that they create for society, that's not always captured in the monetary come back, if that makes sense.
Jessica Williams 26:42
Yeah, that totally makes sense. So cool. I'm really looking forward to following you and seeing what you do next. You know, you're a very interesting person.
Jasmine Burton 26:52
Thank you so much! Ya know, I'm so excited to have had the chance to chat with you. And again, Wish for Wash is online at wishforwash.org and periodfutures.org. We're on all the social medias as well. And I'm really excited to see what the future of both the the WASH sector and the menstrual health space, kind of as we continue to emerge from this time. And what that will look like, because it seems like the future, as much as it's uncertain, there's opportunities for it to be very bright. So I'm very excited about that.
Jessica Williams 27:21
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