The African American Student Union of the Harvard Graduate School of Design

African-American graduate students at Harvard are putting the urban planning and design fields on notice.

Black design matters. As does design in general in today’s critical discourse on black lives—and black deaths, while in police custody, incarcerated, or in the streets. But the design profession, made up of architects and city planners, seems not to fully understand this yet. A group of black graduate students at Harvard is determined to change that.

The African American Student Union (AASU) of Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) will host The Black in Design Conference on its campus this October. The student group hopes this conference will, as its website states, “serve as a call to action for the GSD to instill within each and every student who passes through its doors the responsibility to build just and equitable spaces at every scale.”

Notice that it emphasizes that this is for “every student,” not just black students. This is perhaps a nod to the feeling that the burden of addressing social injustices too often falls on people of color. The burden currently certainly falls on urban designers to figure out “fixes” to deeply embedded problems—as opposed to integrating social justice into the design field at large, so that all practitioners consider these things when first hitting the drawing board.

Part of AASU’s purpose is to push for a broadened definition of what design means so that it better responds to the lives of those disadvantaged by race, gender, income, and those of other marginalized identities. In doing this, the AASU recognizes “that it is designers who construct our built environment, which in turn contributes to social inequity within our lived experience.”

The two-day conference so far has roughly 20 speakers enlisted, mostly black and Latino academics, artists, planners, and architects from across America—a testament to the fact that there are plenty of people already out there thinking through the intersections of justice and design, though with little attention from the mainstream.

Earlier this year, the black design grad students hosted a one-off event where they engaged professionals from the design field in discussions about Ferguson, police violence, and other problems plaguing black communities. Two years ago, the Harvard students brought Kanye West to the campus to talk about how to better relate design to people’s everyday lives.

As media outlets look back at the conditions of cities like Ferguson and Baltimore that have been rattled by civil unrest, many are taking a keen look at both the social and built environments of those devastated communities. These black Harvard grad students are hoping to guide those insights in the months and years ahead.

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