On the surface, inFORMing Justice was a typical event at the GSD: a panel of experts discussing the role of design in building equitable communities with an audience of students, faculty, staff and fellows from across the university. But the seats in Piper Hall were arranged around tables, the panelists spoke from the heart and the audience members were the experts.
The panelists’ bona fides are impeccable: Kimberly Dowdell, a fellow at the HKS Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellowship, is co-founder of SEED. Theresa Hwang, director of community design and planning at Skid Row Housing Trust and adjunct assistant professor at Woodbury University, got her MArch at the GSD in 2007 and was an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow. Seitu Jones is an artist, a former Loeb Fellow and an activist who recently organized a meal and conversation for 2000 neighbors at a half-mile long table in St. Paul, Minnesota. And Liz Ogbu, a designer and social innovator, is founder of Studio O, faculty member at UC Berkeley, Stanford and California College of the Arts and a MArch ’04 graduate of the GSD.
The event was cosponsored by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, the Loeb Fellowship, and the GSD African American Student Union. JCHS director Chris Herbert introduced the agenda, recognizing the “urging of students” from AASU, an important voice in driving the conversation about racial injustice and concentrated poverty after the violent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and around the country. Herbert emphasized the spatial component of injustice in the United States: “Where you live matters a significant amount.” He encouraged attendees to “inspire, ideate, and implement.”
Michael Hays (professor of architectural theory and associate dean for academic affairs), the panel moderator, emphasized the importance of understanding form not as an object, but rather as an ideology, particularly as it relates to race and racism. He charged the company to think about design, justice and equity in light of race. In sharing their work and backgrounds, the panelists were quick to bring in personal experiences, so the tone of the event was immediately reflective, thoughtful and provocative.
Liz Ogbu reiterated 3 essential commitments designers need to make: to be willing to be vulnerable, to authentically engage and to listen intentionally. Theresa Hwang questioned “how we’re defining design.” She is emphatic that designers can leverage their own privilege to work in communities and to respect the knowledge of the community, using “residents as researchers” in order to create truly participatory design that generates solutions.
Kimberly Dowdell spoke movingly of her family’s history in Detroit, where she realized that “design isn’t going to fix Detroit.” Rather than discourage her, this spurred her to broaden her work beyond design toward coalition building, whether with the host community, the public agency or the private partner. Seitu Jones framed his participation by stating simply, “I don’t to talk about design. I want to talk about designers and our role.” He powerfully noted that the unrest that prompted the founding of the Loeb Fellowship during the Civil Rights era, is “still the same discussion.” He encouraged attendees, but particularly students, to remember to find passion and root themselves in “responsibility to the beloved community,” because “we love what we do.”
Following the panel’s brief presentations, Jamie Blosser (LF '15) who helped to organize the event, led a unique brainstorming session in which roundtables discussed the power of urban form, the responsibility of design professionals in the creation of more just communities and the contributions of design education in preparing graduates to perform an effective role in promoting justice and equity. Facilitators at each table shared the collaborative reflections with the larger group.
As the conversation continues at the GSD, a number of panelists have also been contributing articles to Design for Equity and Impact Design Hub. If Twitter is your medium, read the tweets from #inFORMingJustice.