Design as Protest: How can designers stand for, fight for, and build an anti-racist future?

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“For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it,” writes the architect and activist Bryan Lee Jr. in his latest piece on CityLab. Lee spells out the ways that white America has militarized architecture and design reinforce its white supremacist ideologies and anti-Black violence in the built landscape of its cities, neighborhoods, and communities. How cities are laid out, the logics of zoning, the flow of transportation infrastructures, access to green space and the precise coordinates of urban renewal initiatives are all conceived to systemically exploit and perpetuate violence against communities of color, particularly Black Americans. Lee calls for the dismantling of the physical and political conditions that have allowed this structural and systemic racism to persist for as long as the United States is old. Now is the time, he says, to acknowledge the ways “in which our profession’s silence is assent,” so we can “stand for, fight for, and build a just future.”

Mobilizing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Design as Protest is calling upon design professionals to dismantle the power structures and privilege that has allowed design and its contingent fields of architecture and urban planning to be utilized as a tool of oppression and violence against Black Americans for too long.

This call to action lays the groundwork for Design as Protest (DAP), a collaborative, Black-led organizing effort by Lee and five other interdisciplinary designers, architects, artists, organizers, and activists: De Nichols, Michael Ford, V. Mitch McEwen, Sunni Patterson, and Taylor Holloway. Mobilizing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, they are calling upon design professionals to work collectively and creatively within their networks to dismantle the power structures and privilege that has allowed design and its contingent fields of architecture and urban planning to be utilized as a tool of oppression and violence against Black Americans for too long. Through a series of national calls held online, in which participants can share resources and brainstorm new and ongoing actions, projects, and strategies to mobilize the design industries, DAP organizes across the many platforms that such injustices are perpetuated.

Together, the five co-organizers have put forth nine Design Justice Demands, copied in full below, which they are asking participating design professions to commit to, advocate for, and disseminate in their immediate networks. Some demands require immediate personal action, like refusing to design prisons and police stations, while others call for revisions in public policy such as defunding the police, handing power and resources to community-led public projects, and protecting the place-keeping of Black cultural spaces. DAP also calls for pedagogical and structural shifts in architecture and design, as well as a reworking of core terms like “public space” and “affordability”. The co-organizers emphasize that so many facets of the design disciplines–from how they are taught, evaluated, and implemented–need to be dismantled so that new structures and platforms can be built collaboratively from the ground up, ultimately enabling a more just future. There is much to be done, and DAP is the place to get to work.

Design As Protest’s Nine Design Justice Demands:

  1. That our cities and towns reallocate funds supporting police departments and reinvest in the critical needs of disinherited neighborhoods and communities.
  2. A cease to all efforts to implement defensible space and (CPTED) crime prevention through environmental design tactics.
  3. We cease support of the carceral state through the design of prisons, jails, and police stations.
  4. We cease the use of area mean income to determine “affordability” in our communities and instead root the distribution of state and federal resources in a measure that reflects the extraction of generational wealth from black communities.
  5. We advocate for policies and procedures that support a genuinely accessible public realm free from embedded oppression.
  6. We ensure communities’ self-determination through an established procedure that incorporates community voice-in-progress and community benefits agreements in action for all publicly accountable projects.
  7. We detangle our contractual relationships with power and capital to better serve neighborhoods and communities from a position of service and not from a place of extraction.
  8. We invest and secure the place-keeping of black cultural spaces.
  9. We proactively redesign our design training and licensing efforts to reflect the history of spatial injustice and build new measures to ground our work in service of liberating spaces.

“Think about how the things you’re already working on can connect creatively to what’s happening on the ground, how you can get your network advocating en masse for social justice and fighting against police brutality,” suggested co-organizer Nichols on the first meeting.

So far, two DAP meetings have occurred on June 3 and 5. The second meeting launched a ‘day of action’, in which those involved with the movement are asked to 1. Commit to the Design Justice for Black Lives Demands and 2. Share the Design Justice Demands with prominent organizations, governments, practices, and academic institutions through a set of pre-filled emails. Participants are asked to add on contacts from their own networks.

In the second meeting, Lee led an immediate feedback session wherein participants were asked to respond to the Design Justice Demands with outstanding questions and personal reflections on each demand. This data is being collated by the co-organizers and will be used to plan future DAP events and actions.

“The more clarity we have from you, the more we’ll have for the world as we move forward,” explained Lee. The co-organizers are cognizant of the ways these conversations will scale upwards and outwards beyond the architecture and design industries; establishing a collaborative process together, here and now, is just the beginning of a durational fight for justice. “What is the just future, the just world we are envisioning?” asked Nichols. “It’s not just the vision of designers but the vision of the people.”

New recruits are asked to fill in the following Direct Ideation Action form, through which DAP co-organizers can learn of their skills and coordinate further calls to action. There is also an open-source Resource Library available for those involved. Additional Action Campaign Calls will be happening weekly, with topics including Digital Histories + Futures, Buildable Memorials, and Tactical Protest Design happening the week through June 14, and more on the way.

“Over the past weeks, we have witnessed various organizations and universities issuing statements of solidarity, but they are still abusing Black lives,” suggests Lee. For students and staff of architecture and design schools reading this and wanting to get involved, begin by using Design As Protest’s pre-filled email template to demand concrete action from your institution. The specific demands for institutions work across different planes of injustice, from reallocating police funding and ending CPTED tactics to restructuring all curriculum to acknowledge the history of spatial violence against Black communities and implementing anti-racist design strategies/knowledge.

Dismantling design injustice begins in pedagogy and collaborative learning, so that students can leave their education equipped with the tools and language necessary to fight for spatial justice in their chosen professions. In the words of Nichols: “Seeking justice is a continuum. It’s not simply about removing barriers, but reconciling with the past, so we can move forward with strategies for success.”

Design as Protest is co-organized by Bryan Lee Jr., Design Principal at Colloqate Design, an architect, writer, organizer, and activist of Design Justice; De Nichols, a current Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and Principal of Design & Social Practice at Civic Creatives in St. Louis, an artist-organizer, social impact designer, and keynote speaker; Michael Ford, founding Director of Hip Hop Architecture Camp, a national collaborative education initiative aimed at introducing and empowering under represented youth in the architecture, design, and planning disciplines; V. Mitch McEwen, a practicing architect and Assistant Professor of Architecture at Princeton SOA and Founding Director of Black Box Research Group; Sunni Patterson, a poet, singer, activist, and spoken word artist; and Taylor Holloway, an architect and educator.