Kim Robledo-Diga, Director of Learning and Audience Engagement at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Kim Robledo-Diga, Director of Learning and Audience Engagement leads Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Visitor Experience, Learning and Accessibility & Inclusion teams. In Kim’s 14 years with Cooper Hewitt, she managed Cooper-Hewitt’s nationally recognized Smithsonian Design Institute and City of Neighborhoods professional development programs, led the multiple Process Lab installations, and served as Deputy Director of Education. Prior to joining Cooper Hewitt, Kim was Director for Innovation and Learning at The Newark Museum of Art where she developed and executed new strategies for learning experiences to engage the Museum’s diverse audience. Kim’s background includes an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art.

What is your favorite part of working in the learning department?

The teams united passion for advocating for audience. In 2022 the Education department evolved with the addition of the Visitor Experience and Accessibility and Inclusion teams to make the new department of Learning and Audience Engagement. These three teams experience the most interaction with our visitors and communities than any other department. I love working with peers that think about audience first and look for ways to create meaningful conversations and exploration with design.

You recently traveled to rural Kentucky and Michigan as part of a new initiative. Tell us about your experience.

Through a Smithsonian two-year grant we have been able to launch the Youth Innovation in Rural America (YIRA) project in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street. This project is meant to engage youth in rural communities to be agents of change. Rural communities are struggling with population loss, drug addiction, job loss, and the feeling of being forgotten.  As part of YIRA, in early 2023, we trained middle and high school educators on our Designing for Change program. This program showed educators how to use the process of design to innovate in their communities and share this with their students. Students in Mt. Sterling, KY and East Jordan, MI engaged with various members of their community to identify a challenge they face. Through research, community conversations, brainstorming, and prototyping these amazing youth are proposing positive solutions to real challenges and presenting their work to local political leaders, stakeholders, and their peers.

I learned that this is not a school project for these communities—other youth, elders and local politicians are completely invested and supportive of this project. They see the value of this being a youth-led project. The more local youth become knowledgeable about community history, have meaningful conversations with key stakeholders, and contribute to positive change the community feels that these youth will become more invested in their hometown.

Next year we will work with rural communities in Iowa, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

What is the Design Hive program? 

For decades our department has been dedicated to sharing design and design as a career path with BIPOC youth. Our goal is to share design with a wider audience and to contribute to the diversification of the field.

Design Hive is a paid, youth-led initiative. High school students dive deep into design objects and processes to develop their own collaborative projects.  In Design Hive, knowledge is co-authored. Students mentor one another and receive mentorship from working designers. They are offered unprecedented access to the museum’s exhibitions, objects, and people, and use it to design a world that is more responsible, equitable, and collaborative.

Deconstructing Power: W. E. B. Dubois at the 1900 World’s Fair showcases his data visualizations of systemic oppression and even includes an interactive element, what is it and what does it tell us?   

This exhibition has had an incredible response from multiple audiences. The combination of a path to conversations about inequity and telling of stories through data has engaged graphic design enthusiasts, K-12 educators, and youth. We’ve had talks in partnership with Smithsonian Libraries and Archives Research Collections on Examining the Legacy of a Sociologist and Historian Through Research and Design, a training for educators on how use data in the classroom and led programs for K-12 youth on communicating a story through data design.

Design Field Trip youth and Cooper Hewitt’s security guards have also shown great enthusiasm for an interactive data wall located in the ground floor gallery. One guard was so inspired by the project he created a data collecting wall of his own so his children can non-verbally ‘check in’ on how they are feeling and when they want to talk. The power of this exhibition is inspiring.

Why is museum education so important?

What is the value of researching, collecting, and preserving if we don’t share those stories and convene conversations with the public? We are all educators at Cooper Hewitt. We all play a part in unpacking and crafting these important stories, but more importantly we work to listen to how design impacts our communities’ lives and share the optimism that design can bring to our shared future.

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