The workshop, moderated by Lee Altman brought together past Design Trust Fellows to deconstruct the concepts of design and social justice.

Dhanya Rajagopal

"What is Design Justice?" Urban designer Lee Altman introduces the question to a group of Design Trust Fellows at the office of FXCollaborative in early April. “I don’t know,” she poses, as she starts to unpack the question. The Fellows Forum, an interdisciplinary group of designers, artists, policy experts, organizers, and civic leaders, is gathered for an evening workshop led by Lee to consider the relationship between design and justice.

We first brought the Fellows Forum together in 2015 to collaborate and consider pressing challenges facing New York, public space, and the built environment. Despite having worked on different projects over the years, they share the common experience of engaging in what we do at the Design Trust: fostering open-ended inquiry, learning from diverse groups, and working in co-equal partnership in order to build more sustainable and lasting solutions.  

The workshop is based on the inaugural Design Justice Summit held by Colloqate and the American Institute of Architects in October 2018 in New Orleans. Lee was one of 24 ‘Design Advocates’ to attend, joining colleagues from many backgrounds to deliberate the confluence of design and justice through architecture, advocacy, exhibitions, advertisements, even policy and educational pedagogy.

Questions of justice have been explored by many others in the past; the Design Justice group in particular galvanized around the 2016 Presidential Election. Bryan Lee, Assoc. AIA and a group of collaborators organized a protest on inauguration day, which has since expanded into Design As Protest Workshops, and a Design Justice Platform. In March 2017 in New York, the Fellows Forum debated the same topic; convening at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus to grapple with similar questions: “As designers, what can we do? How do we intervene in systems of power? At the very basic level, how can we make a difference?”

After the 2018 Design Justice Summit, the Advocates were charged with using the open-source workshop tools provided to engage a broader community in these questions. Lee brought the work to the Fellows Forum. Now it was our turn, and the Design Trust Fellows were eager to dig in.

“I have a question: how does focusing on design specifically, further the idea of justice?” began Jane Greengold as she introduced herself to the group. The first task was a round of ‘question-storming’ - posing questions, but no answers. The questions themselves began to reveal the essential tensions the group was aiming to tackle, such as:

  • What is the criteria for justice?
  • How can you find the balance between exercising and relinquishing expertise?
  • What is expertise?
  • How do you design or redesign power dynamics?
  • Can design really include community?
  • Is it a community’s responsibility to learn our (the designer’s) language, or is it our responsibility to learn theirs?  
  • Who are the designers of injustice, and what’s their toolkit?
  • Do we need design in order to achieve justice?

Lee then introduced the next task: to define an ecosystem of power, visualize it, and identify opportunities for action to address the injustice. Key questions included: Who does this ecosystem directly or disproportionately impact? How does the built environment manifest, facilitate, or perpetuate this injustice?

Three small groups used open-source worksheets as aids in identifying the ‘transmitters’ and ‘receivers’ of injustice.  One group identified the opportunity for action in the role of the designer--as mediator, a generalist who is able to synthesize many perspectives and disciplines (law, policy, owners, operators, tenants, and more).

Another group explored the system of immigration, working to unpack the understood pedagogy of borders and laws, and map how these were implemented to result in fear, exploitation and, criminalization. Fellow Chat Travieso mused: “We talked about reform versus a revolutionary or visionary approach. On the "Wall" and the built environment, should we be designing more compassionate spaces for detention? Or should we even be considering detention as a thing at all? I think that’s an important aspect for designers – where are we fitting in? Is this just going to perpetuate this injustice in a more compassionate way, or are we actually thinking about a new system and a new society?”

The third group explored the concept of agency, especially as it applies to ability and disability. They explored service design as an approach to how people get access to the resources they need. “When we design for the most vulnerable, it absolutely opens up the door for the rest of us” affirmed Petr Stand, making the connection to the group’s discussion of The Curb Cut Effect.  

Each idea for action was a ‘beginning’ - the purpose was not for Fellows to come up with solutions, but to learn a new framework for thinking about power. Lee ended the evening asking Fellows to write down a few new ways in which they wanted to address justice in their work.

Throughout the workshop, the value of the conversation came not just in debating strategies, but also in unpacking language. The convergence of Fellows across disciplines forced a re-examination of the shared vernacular of particular professional groups, even terms like designer, community, justice, and expertise, were looked at through fresh eyes. Michael Fishman expressed his sentiments at the beginning: “I jumped on this opportunity to be here with the Fellows - especially lawyers and artists, not just designers to address justice and design.”

Though coming from many different perspectives, the Fellows shared a common pull towards imagining a more just future. 

One thing I find interesting about putting ‘design’ next to ‘justice’ is this idea of imagination. Inherently, design is a creative act of imagining something that doesn’t exist. If we are thinking through a visionary lens, are we taking as a given that there will always be private property and ownership of land, or are we imagining systems (like community land trusts, for example) of how design can be part of imagining a new way of owning a place, and sharing that place?

Chat Travieso

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Dhanya Rajagopal

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Dhanya Rajagopal

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Dhanya Rajagopal

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