How community design advocates can be a force for design justice

For Bryan Lee Jr., “the collective narrative of the people who live in a particular place” should determine what story will be told.

For each project in the built environment, who can tell their story and when can make the difference between a project that succeeds and a project that harms a community. For Bryan Lee Jr. and others in the design justice movement, the community should be an integral part of the process from the start. Not just for an evening at a community center commenting on completed designs, but also to work alongside the architects.

One company thinks they’ve found a formula that works for getting community input: hire residents as community design advocates (CDAs).

“CDAs join the design team before most decisions are made and give their opinion and that of the community at large,” says Lee, director of Colloqate Design, a multidisciplinary architecture and justice firm in design based in New Orleans.

“Each CDA is paid for their time, with stipends to support engagement in any way they see fit for their community. CDAs meet with community members on a weekly basis, and all of this information is collected and developed throughout the design phase during the design phase.

CDAs are not only invited to talk about design, but also about their own experiences and the nuances that are missing in the public consultations where the project is defined and the inhabitants can only ask questions or give opinions. “Asking questions at general town halls to generate the same stories and themes by rote means that you are not fully allowing the widest range of opinions and experiences to be flushed out,” says Lee.

When we recognize that inequalities and injustices are inherent in our built environment, we begin to understand why companies like Colloqate exist. They fill a void in a profession that often strays from the divisions their conceptions create. When an architect or designer is invited to create a project in a city, they either come up with an idea informed by their understanding of the history of a place, or the history is passed on to them by those in power. When the true experts of a place are excluded, this omission from their story is problematic.

Between 2017 and 2019, Colloqate’s Paper Monuments public art and history project sought to include the people of New Orleans in creating a new narrative around their collective visions and omitted stories. It was an invitation to write new stories and express those stories through new monuments. This project became part of a larger discussion that is still ongoing: If oppressive systems use symbols to link the past to the present and declare their values, then why can’t systems built with fair intention? use symbols to do the opposite?

“Part of our Paper Monuments process was all about recognizing and reconciling that people don’t create anything on their own,” Lee recalls. “So what does it mean for us to move away from lionizing individuals and the singular star and to think about monuments of movements, places, collectives and events? “

Beyond monuments, architecture and town planning in general need a broader shift from a top-down and selective approach to a bottom-up and collective vision. By centering those voices that have been muffled, richer, more precise, and fairer stories can be told.

“The most important thing is how to honor those who have lived experience of a place and who hear that voice,” Lee said. “There are thousands of people who have lived in particular neighborhoods for years, and it’s the voices that will tell us what means the most. It shouldn’t be about designers, artists or politicians, ”says Lee. “It really has to be about those who are the most marginalized.”

This is why Colloqate works with communities from the early stages of projects. The more they show the craft that it can be done, the more residents will expect to get involved.

Currently, Colloqate is working with community design advocates on the Midland Library in Portland and the Restorative Justice Space in Dallas.

Contrary to the limits of public consultations, ADCs provide Colloqate with thousands of comments. In the Dallas project alone, they’re just getting started, and they already have 4,000 comments to work with. From there, the most relevant and appropriate ideas are fed into the project to reduce the chances that the end result will not be representative of what the community wants.

“The Dallas project, which deals with a former prison, allows us to think about restorative justice through the prism of those who have been most affected by this space. We were able to hire CDAs who were previously incarcerated and others who were part of the larger city network and they were working together to ask questions of their own communities, ”says Lee.

The reason community members are part of the team, and not just to get their advice once a design has already been made, is to encourage radical design justice practice. Lee hopes this network of CDAs will continue to grow through each of Colloqate’s projects and become a standard in the design profession so that more communities are empowered to influence the results.

“In both projects, the CDAs were brought in to distill the themes, validate the stories at all levels, and ultimately became part of the design team,” says Lee. “It allows us to correct the gap when we deviate from our course and have an accountability mechanism for ourselves as a design team. “

Since 2015, Lee has been at the forefront of a social justice movement that seeks to make architecture more responsible. The movement has grown rapidly since then, but has recently reached more interested architects and design academics. Design as Protest (DAP) began as a year-long organizational effort, involving 250 design professionals and design advocates across the United States and Canada. They examined how injustice can be tackled through the built environment. Issues such as the end of the prison industrial complex, the funding and reassignment of the police, and advocacy against architectural projects hostile to communities of color. It all comes down to knowing whose voice and vision are deemed important in telling a different story and pushing for different results.

The Black New Deal was a studio Lee taught in 2020 at the Harvard Graduate School of Design that examined how “the theologies of the liberation of black movements from the late 19th century to the present day” could be applied to urban design and to contemporary architecture. “From the Pan-African movement to the Black Panther movement, including the Washington Carver community schools movement and Chicago bus carriers. All of these different movements had a set of demands around justice in the built environment, although we didn’t necessarily frame them that way, ”says Lee. “Look at the demands of the Black Panthers. Housing is a huge thing, the freedom to determine how people move in space, how we think about the location of retail and commerce to see what the adjacency is to employment. The Black Panthers have spoken of removing capitalist intentions within communities that are standard tropes around what gentrification is and what it means for capital to enter a neighborhood and wipe out cultural institutions. The ethics of design justice is simply that for every injustice in this world, there is an architecture, a plan, a design, that was built to support that injustice, and for much of our working power is invested in the land.

When Lee reflects on all this work since 2015, he is unwavering. Regardless of everything that happened in 2020 and 2021, like the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, or the malicious forces rallying against anti-racism in the political and media spheres, the attention de Lee is undeterred and positive.

“My intention is to dismantle the profession of architect as it currently operates. I see the larger design justice movement setting up these dominoes, ”says Lee. He is happy to see more people in the profession becoming race aware.

“It is not necessary for a few of us to carry this torch. The more of us there are, the more difficult it will be to stop. So I’m ready to start the next round.

This story is part of The Future of Monumentality, a series exploring the role of monuments in public space in the 21st century. This series is generously funded by The High Line, a nonprofit and public park organization on the West Side of Manhattan whose mission is to reinvent the role of public spaces in creating connected and healthy neighborhoods and cities.

About Raymond A. Bentley

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