Black in Design conference. Harvard Graduate School of Design African American Student Union

In 2014, students of color at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design were wondering how they could better impact social justice issues. Less than three years later, they’ve built a movement.     

The Black in Design conference at Harvard University this past weekend featured presentations from some of the top names in design and social activism, including Hamza Walker, Walter Hood, Sharon Sutton, and DeRay Mckesson. Not bad for a student-led movement that began less than three years ago.

“We didn't really understand how big this thing would become back when we started planning it back in 2014,” says Cara Michell, an alum of Harvard Graduate School of Design’s African American Student Union, the organization behind the conference.

The whole Black in Design idea started with Michell and a bunch of other students of color at the school talking about how they as architects, planners, and designers could affect racial justice issues nationwide. That grew into a panel discussion and brainstorming charette with design and planning practitioners one evening in May 2015 on what their professions could do about issues such as police violence. The students used information shared from that session to pull together a conference in October that year called Black in Design, for which Michell co-chaired the organizing committee. Phil Freelon, the lead architect for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, was the keynote speaker at that conference, a year before the museum officially opened. Now open, the Black in Design movement is officially part of the museum’s legacy and heritage.

Standing before a packed, racially diverse crowd at the second Black in Design convening at Harvard this past weekend, Michelle Joan Wilkinson, a curator for the African-American Smithsonian museum revealed that she included t-shirts and memorabilia from that inaugural 2015 conference in the museum’s collections. She also credited the group for providing her “food for thought” on how to design other exhibits and what should be included in them. Another exhibit she helped curate focuses on Soul City, a municipality planned and developed in North Carolina by and for African Americans in the early 1970s, a subject of the first conference (and also the subject of a CityLab series in 2015). In just two years the Black in Design cohort has become a major influencer for one of the most powerful institutions in the U.S.

(Brentin Mock)

“I felt that the museum was really in a position to highlight design and architecture as critical sites of engagement about black life,” said Wilkinson. “We would need to consider the limits that black architects and planners felt in terms of access and issues of spatial justice, restorative justice, and just cities—terms that we're talking about at that black in design conference.”

“Just cities” is a reference to the “Just City Lab” initiative, headed by Toni Griffin, founder of the New York-based Urban Planning for the American City nonprofit and an organizer of this year’s conference. The Just City Lab project is an incubator of ideas around how to center urban planning on the values of racial justice, racial equity, and inclusion, and how to create metrics for measuring how well a city is or isn’t performing in achieving such “just city” results.

This is the kind of work that the design students from that initial one-night gathering in 2015 decided they wanted to do, but that design schools weren’t preparing them for. When CityLab and other media outlets highlighted those grievances, Griffin responded in Next City by pointing out that she offered courses like that at the Harlem-based J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City, which she founded in 2011. She’s now an urban planning professor at Harvard’s design school, where she runs the Just City Lab, providing exactly the kind of racial-justice focused work that these students had been craving.

“[The Just City Lab workshop] was perhaps the most technical and hardest work of the conference, the kind of work most of us don't get to do a lot of, because we're often too busy just advocating for being visible,” says Justin G. Moore, executive director of New York City’s Public Design Commission and member of the Black in Design advisory committee. “But I think the conference having that workshop was doing the work of giving people more tools and more skills for how to go back and actually do something.”

Black in Design’s influences don’t stop there. Maurice Cox, Detroit’s director of urban planning, said at the 2015 conference that he wanted to hire a bunch of the black and brown planners in attendance. He reported back at this year’s Black in Design conference that he made those hires for Detroit’s city planning department, and they are now helping with the recovery of the economically beleaguered city.

There’s also the rise of the BlackSpace network of African-American urban planning developers and policy makers, which sprung out of the first Black in Design gathering. BlackSpace made waves this year when it held an un-conference of sorts that ran parallel to this year’s American Planning Association (APA) conference in New York City. Moore says this was spurred in part by the APA’s rejection of BlackSpace’s social justice-focused workshop proposals, and it ended up drawing attendees beyond their planned capacity. Moore suspects that the popularity of these sessions may be the reason why APA has decided to include a social justice track for the first time ever in next year’s national conference in New Orleans.

Finally, Harvard announced that it’s launching the African American Design Nexus, an archive that highlights “the important contributions of African American design leaders and increase[s] accessibility to their work and stories of the work and contributions of black designers and architects.” The canon that design students of color have had to use to acclimate themselves to the design profession has been almost exclusively white. This new archive will change that.

Cara Michell, who’s now an urban planner at the Toronto-based Brook McIlRoy firm, says she’s still trying to “wrap her head” around what this conference has produced in the short time since she and her colleagues began dreaming this up.

“It’s been amazing to see the connections that have been made through the conference,” says Michell. “Toni Griffin came to speak at the first conference and now she's a professor here [at Harvard] doing amazing things with the Just City Lab. To see those transformations are happening not only within the doors of the school, but also outside of the doors of the schools is just really incredible.”

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