Cynthia Voza Lusilu explores community-based support for mental health

Cynthia Voza Lusilu (MA Design: Expanded Practice 2019) is one of the four young designers chosen by the Design Museum for their Designers in Residence programme to respond to this year’s theme of “Care”. The work she will be developing as part of the residency is a continuation of her MA project “Healing Chronicles”, which aimed to facilitate discussion around mental health support in Black British communities. 

Cynthia's Healing Chronicles toolkit at the 2019 MA Design Expanded Practice show: Confluence
Cynthia’s Healing Chronicles toolkit at the 2019 MA Design Expanded Practice show: Confluence

Cynthia was inspired to talk about mental health after her encounter with GARA (Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action) during their occupation of Deptford Town Hall in 2019, when students gathered to share their experiences as people of color: “My own experiences resonated with them and I felt like it was a way to validate them. The type of space that they managed to create is valuable and important, it allows people to talk about what they are going through on a collective level. Unfortunately, a lot of spaces and institutions are not designed to take into account the wellness of Black people, and the collective traumas that Black communities can go through because of systemic racism have a direct impact on their wellbeing. This is a problem of public concern.”

Mental health issues are widespread in the UK, and Afro-Caribbean people are more affected than any other ethnic group, as Cynthia found out through her research. There are many challenges and barriers to getting help: “A really important factor is the mistrust that Black communities can have towards institutions that historically have not protected us. Often, in spaces where we were meant to receive care, there was more neglect or abuse than care. Another issue is representation; when the person trying to help you is not familiar with your experiences and cannot relate, it creates a distance.”

Cynthia’s work is focused on structures of community care that are very different from the mainstream paradigm in mental health support. “It’s a culturally sensitive approach, I want to address collective trauma, but in a creative and perhaps playful manner. I really pay attention to what already exists to provide wellness amongst Black populations, I spend time with people and listen. It’s important to map out what’s truly relevant for the community, to identify how we receive and give care, and how we can influence a new support system. I also want to question the role of a designer, so there is accountability when you are in a position to speak for others. I’m not going to have all the answers, but it’s all about asking good questions.”

The MA project Healing Chronicles involved unpacking emotions and feelings through storytelling and the meaning of personal belongings. Participants would share a belonging that is meaningful to them as a material, whether it was inherited or found, and use it as a starting point to shape spaces from shared stories. “The work I will do at the Design Museum will be a continuation of this project. During the residence, I will observe how care is manifested in a neighborhood and how designers can create more caring relationships when they engage with communities; my practice is based in Lewisham. From this, I want to design a toolkit or platform, in collaboration with mental health professionals, that would enable Black families to open up and talk about difficult emotions in non-traumatic ways.” Cynthia has a background in user experience design, and she chose the transdisciplinary MA in Design: Expanded Practice at Goldsmiths to challenge herself as a practitioner, to “go against being seamless in my design process, to experiment new ways of learning, doing and thinking”.

For the time being, Cynthia and her fellow Designers in Residence are working remotely due to Covid-19 restrictions. Will the pandemic change in a fundamental way how the project develops? “We have to be aware of the constraints that we have, but work I’m doing is not designed to be responsive. There are no shortcuts for the concerns raised by the pandemic, or by the Black Lives Matter protests; deep research and long term action is needed. ”

A composition symbolising the importance of shared moments where everyone has a seat around the table.

We do know, however, that people of color have been extremely affected by COVID, especially with so many working as caregivers or in other professions with high exposure to the virus such as taxi drivers. “There is collective grief needed to process all this trauma. Historically and culturally, Black populations have a tendency to gather around as a community to celebrate, which means the current situation where gatherings with relatives are not possible has an even stronger impact. But there are still some spaces operating online, and it’s interesting to see how people try to find comfort and support by keeping those spaces of care alive.”

In the end, as Cynthia stresses, people shouldn’t have to wait for a large social movement like the Black Lives Matter protests to see this kind of concern being addressed. “It’s important to support groups like GARA, to have solidarity and also to keep in mind: who cares for the carers? There are so many activists at the forefront of things, putting in a lot of energy for others, we have to be mindful and think about the care they themselves need, at the end of the day.”

Images courtesy of Cynthia Voza Lusilu, from her website