Game Changer Deanna VanBuren

Frustrated by inequities she saw in the U.S. justice system, incoming Loeb Fellow Deanna VanBuren knew she couldn't simply stand by. Instead, she found a powerful way to use her design skills to raise visibility for an alternative justice model that could change the lives of millions of Americans caught up in the corrections system.

As a child growing up in Virginia, VanBuren had her own run-ins with the justice system, and was convinced that this system was not meant to work for her or her family. Her uncle was killed by a group of boys, and when she asked her mother why it had happened and who they should talk to, she was told there was nothing any of them could do; it was being taken care of.  "My dad always said, you never, ever want to go to court," she remembers. "That was just part of the legacy of slavery, apartheid and the current experience of justice by African Americans in our country."

Once VanBuren became an architect, she began to search for a way to incorporate her practice of meditation and personal development into her work to address the inadequacies she saw in the justice system. Five years ago, she heard Dr. Fania Davis, sister of activist leader Angela Davis, speak passionately about “restorative justice,” and she knew she had found the critical link through this alternative, non-stigmatizing form of justice. "I feel that this work is similar to the psycho-spiritual work that I do," she says. "They both help people to understand their actions and their effect on others," she said. "This was the first potentially sustainable solution to our criminal justice system that I'd ever heard."

Ideally bypassing the criminal justice system entirely, restorative justice seeks to repair harm and ultimately allow offenders to return to their communities without the damaging reputation that accompanies a criminal record. In a safe and neutral space, a trusted moderator enables both sides to tell their stories. Together they craft a plan to address the needs of the victim and the behavior of the perpetrator. Often after hearing the perpetrator's story, the victim’s needs can be as simple as a sincere apology and a recognition of pain inflicted on another.  Explains VanBuren, “In the standard system, neither the victim nor the perpetrator's needs get addressed. This is a more reparative process between the two, based on listening."

VanBuren started FOURM Design Studio 6 years ago to work with nonprofits with limited access to architectural design services. She realizes she's an outlier when it comes to architects with an interest in the justice system - and she knows that few architects want anything to do with this work. "We're not taught to think outside a certain set of beliefs," she muses. "While architects try to make things that are beautiful and functional, it's hard to really think differently about the types of projects we take on. We try to avoid the thought of 'Am I really helping? Or am I just trying to make the best of a questionable situation?'" She does believe, however, that the field is starting to change. "When I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia there was no community design center. Now I see pockets of change springing up around the country."

During her Loeb Fellowship, VanBuren will build on the collaborations she's begun with other innovators of the justice system to use principles of restorative justice in the research and design processes . Her goal is to create prototypes for spaces for peacemaking , prison structures that advance rehabilitation and centers for restorative justice. "You need an infrastructure to build the system of restorative justice, and the existing conditions don't support it. So you need to create visibility for an alternative approach, with an image of what that could look like. That’s where designers come in."

She also insists that architects need to be better about showing up and making their voices heard. "Few of us are talking about this in the design community. I go to so many events, and I'm always the only architect talking to a bunch of criminal justice folks. Nobody really knows what I do or why I am there but that is exactly why it’s important that I am. We need to start getting out there and engage with our community so this is not the case anymore. And if I can do it, I know it can be done."

Read more about Deanna VanBuren’s work in the May 2012 issue of Metropolis

Fellowship Year: 2013
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