Episode 28

Spaces for Survivors

Justice and healing after violence is critical to the health and future well-being of survivors. Since environmental design impacts health in many ways, how might the design of spaces used by violence survivors while seeking justice and support services impact their ability to heal? Tola Thomas from Designing Justice shares the surveys, interviews and workshops they conducted to identify and recommend types and qualities of spaces for survivors.

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And I think that's something really key about this type of research that you really do have to engage many different types of stakeholders because these spaces are ultimately going to be used by different types of folks with different backgrounds and different reasons for being there. But we made sure to make sure that it was centered around the survivors’ needs, so that ultimately what came out of the toolkit are that the design guidelines we gained had the survivor in mind. Oretola Thomas, Architectural Designer and Project Manager


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast, this is your host CCB, and I'm here today with another one of our ONEder Grant 2020 award winners, a representative from the team, from Designing Justice Designing Spaces. But before we start having a conversation, I want to do that little brief explanation of the ONEder Grant. One Workplace launched the ONEder Grant program in 2019 to support and celebrate Thought Leadership in the Architecture and Design community. We strive to elevate the role of architects and designers in our constantly changing landscape of the modern workplace, and we support the research and insights that each one of the teams are individually interested in. So with us today, we have Tola Thomas and I'm going to say welcome and Tola, how about you introduce yourself. First, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to be where you are today.

Oretola (Tola): [00:00:57] Sure. Thank you for having me today. My name is Tola Thomas. I'm a Nigerian American Architectural Designer in the Bay Area, and I grew up not too far from where I am based right now in Oakland and Richmond, California. And that kind of served as my jumpstart into architecture. It was kind of my inspiration for wanting to just build better communities for my family. I don't think I really knew what architecture was, but I knew that where we were living just wasn't cutting it. So I would just kind of get into, like SIM City and all these different games where you can build cities and stuff. And I think it just really stuck with me. And eventually it turned into a career where I'm working now at Designing Justice.

CCB: [00:01:41] Ok, so tell us a little bit about Designing Justice.

Oretola (Tola): [00:01:45] Sure, so Designing Justice is an Architecture, Nonprofit and Real Estate Development Firm. And our focus is kind of shifting the narrative on how architecture can influence how we think about justice in our country, specifically in the built environment. Typically, how architects are involved in the conversation of justice is building courthouses and prisons and jails. And we really want to shift that thinking and reimagine what can be built instead of these things. So, our focus here is to kind of prototype and work with other mission aligned organizations to kind of think of new ways to build for public safety and justice in our country. So, this project that we worked on is kind of in one of the many buckets of projects that are kind of getting us to that goal of ending mass incarceration in our country and just kind of building just better infrastructure for our communities.

CCB: [00:02:45] Excellent. So, you bring up the project. The title is Spaces for Survivors. I'm going to give us a lot of time to kind of dig into all elements of the project. The first thing I'd like to know, or I'd like you to share with our audience is the overview of the project and the why.

Oretola (Tola): [00:03:06] Yeah.

CCB: [00:03:06] Why Spaces for Survivors?

Oretola (Tola): [00:03:07] Yeah, so this particular project was kind of sparked by some conversations that Deanna Van Buren, our CEO, was having with Center for Court Innovation, another great organization that's really rethinking justice and social justice in our country. And they were working on a pilot to kind of see how victims and law enforcements and survivors interact after a homicide has been committed in a community. So, they were looking at the actual interactions between there, and just kind of seeing how trust was or wasn't there during those interactions. And we were brought on to kind of think about the environmental piece of that. So, there's the actual conversations between members of the community and law enforcement, and there's also the settings that these interactions happen in. So typically, after there's a homicide in the community, law enforcement are interviewing survivors either at the scene of the crime inside of homicide task vans or inside of their offices. Or these places that aren't necessarily trauma informed and could do more harm, and aren't necessarily helpful to the process, especially if people are going through these really traumatic experiences. So, what we were kind of tasked with was kind of engaging with survivors and justice professionals around how these existing spaces, where these interactions work, how they feel in those spaces and just kind of start to co-design and redesign what these spaces can look and feel like.

CCB: [00:04:50] So I'm going to say your proposal was so compelling. Last year we received, I think, 25 different proposals and we awarded 7 grants and we added 1 because of the, I'm going to say, the amazing proposals, the level of research and passion that people had proposed to us. And there are some things that were really, what's the right word, that were, that stood out in your proposal that were so different from most of the other proposals, though there was a common element there about the concern for the human in the environment. So, talk about, if you will, and how you put together this project and the project team.

Oretola (Tola): [00:05:44] Yeah, it's so kind of in the lines of what I mentioned, with like the prototyping of these projects, like a lot of these spaces don't exist yet or if they do exist are not necessarily trauma informed. So, this project kind of followed a similar path a lot of projects do where we engage with the community, do engagement sessions around the look and feel and just what these spaces we need to redesign need to look and feel like. And through that process, we're able to really understand how to specifically design for survivors after a homicide. There's a lot of research around how architecture and design can really benefit our emotional and physical health and spaces. And what isn't necessarily out there is research dedicated to the specific process of, if folks are engaging with law enforcement after homicide, how should these spaces respond to the needs of the victims and survivors? So we structured it with the first part being the engagement workshops and surveys where we just kind of really start to interact and really think about these spaces, and then we take that information and code and analyze it. So, in architecture, just typically we just programmed with a client. It's typically just one person with a lot of money and you're designing for them. But I’m really thankful at DJDS we've got, we get to really open up the design process a little bit more. So, we're coding all this information.

CCB: [00:07:21] So I'm going to make you answer this in a little bit greater detail. So, because I had the good fortune of being a support coach on your team, I know a little bit more about the project. It was fascinating to me to watch the level of detail and thought that went into the construction of the survey itself.

Oretola (Tola): [00:07:46] Yeah, yeah.

CCB: [00:07:48] Talk about that a little bit and also, who the other people who are on the team?

Oretola (Tola): [00:07:51] Right, right, right.

Oretola (Tola): [00:07:53] Yeah. So, our team at DJDS it was me Deanna Van Buren, our founder and CEO and Barb Toews, our researcher on the project. So, it's just kind of like attacking this research from a design perspective and also research perspective. And then I was kind of like the project manager, but also doing a lot of the engagements and research and production work on the project. And you had one more question, can you repeat that?

CCB: [00:08:20] Well it was going to be about the construction of the survey. So, the approach that you took, even those specific audiences that you were working with, and then I'm going to say add Covid.

Oretola (Tola): [00:08:34] Yes, Covid, the big elephant in the room. Yes. So, just to take a couple of steps back. So, originally when we do our engagements, it's usually in person. We go to the community. We have these events with music and there's food and we have these games and it's really interactive, very lively. And we had planned to travel to Essex, New Jersey, and New York where the project is. But unfortunately, COVID happened right like a week after we were planning to go. So, we had to kind of rethink how we were going to do these engagements. So that's where we kind of shifted our in-person stuff to these virtual platforms. So, we created this survey that was kind of a way to introduce people to design that don't normally think about it in terms of space, where we really got into making people kind of put themselves in these spaces. So we asked questions like, if you were like if you were to have an emotional, difficult conversation like many people do during these homicide interactions, what are the special characteristics of these things? How big is the space? Is that inside or outside? What are the scents, what are the colors? So really trying to get at all the senses to make people kind of immerse themselves in and what they're about to embark in with the redesign of these spaces? So it was a very deep survey. We tried to make it as fun as possible. So we had a lot of imagery. We kept it very, short as possible. So we weren't sending out like a giant essay or giant test to people it was more of just kind of like them imagining a new space to have these type of interactions.

CCB: [00:10:18] Well, with seeing the essay, I mean, the survey myself, I thought it had such an everyman design element to it that could have been, that same process, could have been used for many different types of questions around eliciting how you might feel about an environment, and what an environment might be, and what the ideal environment for any particular activity might be like.

Oretola (Tola): [00:10:49] Yeah, yeah. I think that it took us a while to finally craft down that survey. It was a lot of back and forth with our team internally, just having them review what we're proposing and making sure that the way we're asking the questions are clear and are as trauma informed as possible. And you kind of alluded to it. But these questions about space and environment, they're not so specific that the results we got for them can only be used for this specific space. They're kind of general things that people don't normally think about on a daily basis, about what makes a good space, like natural light, nature. So, things that can be applied to many different types of spaces, but just really kind of putting it in a short survey format.

CCB: [00:11:33] Right. OK, so you get the survey built and there's Covid. So you're going to have to find people to answer the survey who are not any place that you might be able to find them. So, yeah. How did that go?

Oretola (Tola): [00:11:48] Yeah, it was tough and was very eye opening because I think we had a schedule or kind of like a timeline of when we wanted to do our survey and get the response backs like, all right, we've got this awesome survey with all this imagery. We're going to send it out. We're going to get like a flood of responses. I think after the first maybe two weeks, we had like maybe one or two responses. And it kind of really just highlighted the challenges of doing this thing during Covid, it's not as engaging. You can't be there with the people. So we were fortunate to have some really good partners on the ground in New Jersey and in that area where Court, Center for Court Innovation and also the Essex County Prosecutor's Office and their victim advocate groups really got the word out there. We were able to really connect with people and just kind of tell them about our organization, what we're trying to do. And that really helped us get a lot more responses and people really showed out for the surveys.

CCB: [00:12:49] That's great. Those were the people that were the victims or that had experienced the violence. Then you also had the surveys with the law enforcement side.

Oretola (Tola): [00:12:59] Yeah, yeah. And I think that's something really key about this type of research that you really do have to engage many different types of stakeholders because these spaces are ultimately going to be used by different types of folks with different backgrounds and different reasons for being there. But we made sure to make sure that it was centered around the survivors needs, so that ultimately what came out of that toolkit are those design guidelines we gained had the survivor in mind.

CCB: [00:13:26] Ok, so you've done the surveys, you've implemented them. You get all the research, then what do you do?

Oretola (Tola): [00:13:34] You get all the research, we've done the surveys, and then this is where we kind of like reel the folks in with interactive design kind of workshop, virtually, we use this tool called Miro. A lot of firms and people are using it now. It's just a virtual whiteboard where you can kind of think collaboratively with people who aren't in the same space as you, which was really amazing and kind of opened up a lot of possibilities for us. So, the survey kind of led folks into the design workshop. So the part one of the survey just kind of asking them to think about space and the existing spaces, just kind of like tease some things we might do in the workshops. Then in the actual workshops is where we would dive deeper into what they said in a survey about those existing spaces. So, we were able to get their really true, unfiltered thoughts about how these existing spaces are working and also design for better spaces. So, we were kind of moving around pieces on a whiteboard with folks. And it was a really cool exercise. And I think it's a tool that we wouldn't have explored as much if we weren't forced to during Covid, so now we can kind of engage with people even if we aren't physically present with them.

CCB: [00:14:43] I think the unintended byproducts of a lot of the research projects that we have worked with on the ONEder Grant are pretty fantastic because it's like the “lemonade out of lemons”. But the Covid challenge asked a lot of people to do things in a different way and a lot of new skills definitely were developed. OK, so there's the data and the research and the workshops and then your team has all of this information. So, then what do you do?

Oretola (Tola): [00:15:19] See, you teased it out. Yeah, so after we had submitted our report to you guys, we actually kept going with the research and the design work. Where we've gotten all this information now, what are we going to do with it? So we actually took all that information and we're able to kind of narrow it down to, I think, 26 specific design characteristics that folks wanted to see in these spaces. And from that, we were able to apply those characteristics to the actual case study spaces we were working with. So there was the Essex County Prosecutor's office is where survivors usually meet with law enforcement officials to kind of talk about the experiences and kind of get information about what had happened. So, the three main spaces we were looking at were the hallway kind of like entry area, the waiting room, and also the conference room where they're actually having these conversations. So, what we then did was take these design elements and applied them to those existing spaces. So, the current spaces are typical of a lot of institutional public spaces, very sterile environment with fluorescent lights, white walls, lots of doors, lots of bureaucracy to get to the place. And what we did with the research was start to really open up what these spaces could be and look and feel like. So, we took those characteristics and actually redesigned the spaces based on what people said in the workshops. And if I get a chance, I would love to kind of share that as part of our additional piece of research. We didn't get to do with the grant, but we actually redesigned these spaces with what we learned from the research. And now that toolkit is kind of a guidelines for if you're going to design these spaces or you want to build out these spaces for survivors. Here are some ways that you can apply to real space, but it's still kind of broad enough that it can be applied in other types of spaces as well.

CCB: [00:17:22] We will be delighted to see the finished toolkit. And I know what part of the intention was to create this toolkit and template and details to be able to share with others, not only projects that Designing Justice is working, but others within that and the broader community.

Oretola (Tola): [00:17:44] Yeah, this is, this project is already bearing a lot of fruit for our organization. I think it's sparking a lot more internal initiatives around really building out this research and just realizing that there's a lot more people we can engage around this. And what we started here is just kind of like the starting point of this, that there are still a lot more to learn about how we can redesign these spaces. And this toolkit is just kind of like that first step. And we're already trying to see if we can partner with organizations, can really do more of this type of research to make the data a little bit more robust and richer.

CCB: [00:18:32] So I'm glad you brought up the data because I wanted you to just describe Barb Toews. Her focus, her position, kind of her credentials as she was also an amazing member of the team.

Oretola (Tola): [00:18:52] Yes, can amazing be summed up in one word?

CCB: [00:18:56] Yeah, she is amazing.

Oretola (Tola): [00:18:57] She is amazing. She is a researcher, a restorative justice expert. And she really helped us really craft this research. So, it was as robust as it can be. So, she was kind of guiding us, along with making sure that the questions we were asking could lend itself to data that can be coded and analyzed in a way that could be used by other people and not just us. So, it was really great.

CCB: [00:19:25] She's a professor at University of

Oretola (Tola): [00:19:29] Washington.

CCB: [00:19:29] Washington,

Oretola (Tola): [00:19:30] Yeah.

CCB: [00:19:32] OK, so the pulling it all together and, I mean like the dream end of the story is lovely that there is the toolkit and there is data, very evidence based, very rich data that can be shared with and explained in rolling it out and in presenting it to others. I had a question and you're talking about redesigning the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. There's still going to be that tension when you said opening things up. There's that tension between what the secure nature of law enforcement facilities feel they need to be.

Oretola (Tola): [00:20:16] Yeah.

CCB: [00:20:17] And then this you're seeing some of the designs and some of the details in the report, which is going to be attached in the notes to this podcast so people can actually get to it. But the idea of the hospitality and the fragrance of coffee and or something else that feels warmer as opposed to the cooler, sterile environment, how easy do you think that shift is going to be to make?

Oretola (Tola): [00:20:52] I'll admit, it's not an easy shift because it's not typically the way that we think about justice spaces or institutional spaces in our country. And one of the things that did emerge from our engagements was that some people are just saying that at the end of the day, these spaces sometimes just have to exist in the community, that they can't be inside of the actual prosecutor's office or places that already have a lot of prior, I guess, weight to them. Some people have had negative experiences from going to these spaces. So sometimes they do need to exist outside of these kind of typical justice like centers of the part of the city. And it is something you mentioned about that shift. So, at the end of the day, this also is a secure facility where there are concerns about people's safety. And that came up in the engagements too, with the detectives as well. They also acknowledge that, yeah, this way that we're kind of pulling people in is not the best because you don't have a lot of privacy in certain areas. You just kind of have folks walking through a hallway and you might have someone in the waiting area visibly crying or showing a lot of emotion. So, there is a sense of how do you make these spaces a little bit more private, so kind of account for these many different types of people that are coming to these spaces for different purposes.

CCB: [00:22:28] So, Tola, tell me, is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you think we need to know either about this particular project or about Designing Justice?

Oretola (Tola): [00:22:40] Let's see. I think I talked about a little bit, but this research that we started on Essex is leading to potential work with other organizations. So, we're kind of in the works of just kind of figuring out what spaces for survivors really means and what it looks like if we were to expand this out. So, this project in Essex is, we're kind of looking at as a case study that if you were to build a space like this in this instance in a prosecutor's office, here are the type of things you should consider. But there are other types of spaces and other places that these things can exist in. So we're trying to see if we can kind of continue this research to build out other types of case studies so we can apply research to different types of scenarios that aren't as specific as an interaction between law enforcement and the survivors. Sometimes folks after these types of events need to go to many different types of spaces. It's not just the interaction with the justice professionals. Sometimes they need to have emotional support. They need to do therapy, art therapy, music therapy, which was something really amazing that came out of the workshops. Some people were like, yeah, I just want a yoga studio or music studio.

CCB: [00:23:56] You know, this is a total aside, but I worked with a service dog training agency in New Mexico and we trained dogs for CASA, the Court Appointed Special Advocates who worked with children who were victims of violence and to help them feel calmer. But you just think about all the types of interventions that would make. And we just are talking about this, making environments more human and making them more supportive to the people that are using them. So, the work that Designing Justice Designing Spaces is doing is spectacular. I do also, having watched the presentation and looking at all the details, I encourage people to look at that full project which will be attached to the podcast transcript, because there is such a wealth of design thinking in the most human way that it struck me, how I'm going to say that “everyman” word again, and probably politically incorrect today. But the nature of how it could work for every human being. So thank you again, Tola Thomas from Designing Justice Designing Spaces.

Oretola (Tola): [00:25:10] Thank you, CCB.

CCB: [00:25:11] Yeah, we're so happy that you were a part of our ONEder Grant 2020 Award Team group and this podcast is available, the ONEder Podcast is available on all the streaming services. We will look forward to speaking with the other members of our ONEder Grant 2020 teams and the series is going to be released together as a series. So you'll have the opportunity to listen to a wide variety of perspectives on human beings in the built environment. Thanks so much. And we're going to sign off now.