A meditation on race, design, and social justice: the Black in Design conference

Recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, and elsewhere have positioned racial inequality as a prominent point of debate, and a series of lenses—socioeconomics, ethics, and the law, among others—have been applied to ensuing dialogue. Questions of design, urban planning, and the built environment loom beneath these concerns, and designers and planners have been considering their roles in addressing them.

At the same time, though, critics argue that the prejudices and priorities inherent to design as a field can breed the disparities that find form in the nation’s buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. Eyeing these and other questions around race, inequality, and design, the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s (GSD) African American Student Union (AASU) orchestrated an unprecedented event at Harvard: the Black in Design Conference, held at the GSD on October 9 and 10.

The conference harmonized with the AASU’s broader goal of fostering a network and community that actively promotes the interest of the GSD’s African-American students and alumni. The AASU was founded in 2012 by Jean Lauer (LF ’12) and Tracie Curry (MLA ’12) and is currently led by president Dana McKinney (MArch/MUP ’17).

“We felt that there is an unfortunate lack of discourse around the accomplishments of black designers and the social effects of design on the black community at the GSD and in design academia altogether,” says Cara Michell (MUP ’16), AASU member and one of the conference co-chairs. “We considered the Black Lives Matter movement a call to action for us as designers to begin taking responsibility for widespread and historically rooted equity issues within our own field and in society at large.”

The GSD has recently made a priority of discussing and addressing these dynamics. Dean and Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design Mohsen Mostafavi introduced the Dean’s Diversity Initiative in 2008 with the goal of tasking GSD faculty, staff, students, and alumni with increasing the number of underrepresented minorities within the GSD community and maintaining an inclusive environment that encourages an active and effective exchange of views. Meanwhile, programs, conferences, and general dialogue around issues of social justice and inequality have germinated throughout the school, including last April’s panel Informing Justice: A Conversation about the Role of Design in Building Equitable Communities.

Yet, as Mostafavi noted in his opening address at Black in Design, the global dynamics between race, space, and design are persistent—evidenced by the fact that, 20 years ago, he found himself in the GSD’s Piper Auditorium leading a conference titled Denaturalized Urbanity: Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in the Landscape of the American City.

“The relationship between race and space, the way in which one could say the racialization of space is becoming more extreme, is continuing,” Mostafavi told the Friday evening crowd. “These issues have remained absolutely pertinent.”

A slow-build project

The AASU started planning Black in Design two years ago, ultimately defining its goals categorically: recognizing the contributions that African descendents have made to design fields; reclaiming the histories of underrepresented groups in design pedagogy; focusing designers toward their roles in bettering the built environment; and ingraining in designers a sense of compassion, as well as the responsibility to build just and equitable spaces at every scale.

Sharpe (L) and Michell

The group began official planning discussions in spring 2014. Along with Michell, Courtney Sharpe (MUP ’16) co-chaired the conference and its planning. This past spring and summer were dedicated to finalizing an invitation list, conducting sponsorship outreach, and producing a website and general marketing content.

Among the student portraits gathered for marketing content, the group was drawn to one in particular, which would become the conference’s primary branding visual: a black-and-white photograph of Allison Green (MUP ’15) with a black bar over her eyes.

“In my mind, that black bar over the eyes plays with the notion, and very common experience at the GSD, of being the ‘token’ black person in the room,” says Michell. “It evokes feeling as though your unique identity has been removed and replaced by the blunt fact of being black—with all the stereotypes, burdens, and so forth that come with it.”

Scalar, immersive conversations

Friday evening’s opening panel was moderated by K. Michael Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and examined design pedagogy. In his opening remarks, Hays drew attention to the concept of the white spatial imaginary, a dynamic that, he noted, has prevented some from understanding fundamental features of the social spaces in which citizens live.

“The white spatial imaginary produces the kind of defensive localism that dominates decisions about public interventions and how services are distributed, and of course it produces that privatism that sometimes turns hostile,” Hays said.

“If we can think about teaching the techniques and practices and forms of design that distribute space and time, that distribute subjects and objects, with [the white spatial imaginary] in mind,” Hays continued, “then we can pedagogically have very real effect on place-related opportunities.”

Saturday’s panels and sessions built upward in scale. The first panel focused on buildings, followed by sessions on the neighborhood, the city, and the region. See a listing of conference speakers.

Saturday’s panel on the neighborhood. L to R, panelists Frank C. Lee, Kimberly Driggins, Kwame Owusu-Kesse, Maurice Cox, and Seitu Jones

“The scalar structure of Saturday’s panels was designed with the intention that the format would reinforce cross-disciplinary intersectionality and promote discourse,” says AASU president McKinney. “Using this approach, we hoped to also demonstrate the scalar fluidity of varying design practices.”

The AASU embedded a variety of cultural, sensorial experiences into the weekend’s events. Yoga instructor Maya Breuer opened Saturday’s events with a series of yoga exercises that evoked introspection and openness.

“Maya created an overwhelming sense of hope and togetherness that permeated the room during every moment of the conference,” Michell says. “She set a tone for the day with joy and hope.”

Saturday’s lunch was a thoughtfully curated event, designed by chef and food-justice activist Bryant Terry and chef and food consultant Didi Emmons. After a discussion of the cultural significance and legacy of soul food, and whether it can or should be healthy, the meal provoked dialogue on public health and on questions of where food comes from, who has a hand in its production, whom it serves, and what is its cultural importance.

Later that day, an interlude featured Latin American poet Jenesis Fonseca reciting an original poem and leading the audience through a rendition of Janelle Monae’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” which recites the names of victims of police violence. The audience also heard the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, a historically African-American chorus founded in 1970, sing a series of traditional spirituals as well as “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often called “the Black National Anthem.”

Holistically, these programmatic elements worked to elevate the conference to an immersion in and meditation on the intersectionality of culture, design, and social justice, with an eye toward the work that needs to be done.

“We hope that the conference incites increased interest in and appreciation of diversity such that more underrepresented minorities choose and are invited to join the GSD community as students, faculty and staff,” McKinney says. “The GSD belongs to the broader Harvard community and stands to inspire other design schools to better promote diversity, inclusion, and a discourse of social justice.”


The Black in Design conference was organized by the Harvard GSD African American Student Union with support from the Joint Center for Housing Studies, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Loeb Fellowship at Harvard GSD, the Dean’s Diversity Initiative at Harvard GSD, H-OAP, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance & Innovation (HKS), and the Harvard Art Museums.