What would a world without prisons look like? Can we build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by addressing it at its root causes and using the tools of architecture and real estate? Deanna Van Buren shares with us the mission, vision and work of Designing Justice Designing Spaces to create peacemaking environments.
"What we know is that our system of incarceration and really our entire criminal justice system was built off of enslavement. So it is structurally racist system in its core, right down to its very bones. And so the problem is that is heavy, right? That's intense. That is entrenched. So we don't really think you can fix that. That's not a system of fixing. But what we really need to do in this moment is begin to re-imagine something different. There is another way to do this." Deanna Van Buren, Co-Founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] Good afternoon and welcome to another episode of The ONEder podcast. This is CCB, your host and I am broadcasting from another room in my house this afternoon, because that's where we are. And I think the place where we are is something that we're always concerned about. And we're going to spend a lot more time talking about place as it relates to people and their feelings with our guest this afternoon. We're very fortunate to have Deanna Van Buren joining us, who is the founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces in Oakland, California, and a number of other endeavors. And I am going to have Deanna share the real story as opposed to me trying to make up something about who she is. So, Deanna, thank you for joining us.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:00:58] Thank you. CCB, it's good to be here.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:01:01] And as I like to do, I'm going to have you introduce yourself. So if you would share as much as you'd like to share about your path that brought you to where you are today, we'd love to hear it.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:01:14] Sure. Sure. So I'll start with the end point of the path, which is now where I am. I'm an architect and I founded Designing Justice + Designing Spaces about five years ago. And the focus and mission of the firm is to build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by addressing it at its root causes, which we see as poverty, racism, lack of access to resources, a lot of the things that are really coming to light now. And we do both real estate and architecture. So that was kind of the vision. And so my path to getting to that was, you know, not direct. I was born, in Virginia during the 70's and 80's. And really we were still desegregating then. And my family desegregated a community in rural Virginia, you know. And, you know, at that time, you were kind of in between those things if you were doing something like that. Well, where both sides of the community were volatile. And so I grew up in a kind of in-between place, kind of where to which group is my group, you know, where do I fit, where's my tribe in this situation? And while I think that was painful, what it did was it kind of gave me a different point of view. And I wasn't quite as socialized as everybody else. I could kind of see things that other people couldn't see because they hadn't been locked into a particular group growing up. And so, you know, when I went to become an architect, I was experiencing architecture as something that education-wise and even professionally, just wasn't really my jam. Right. The values were not really aligned. I was always asking, why can't we work for those people that look like me or folks who might not be rich developers? Right.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:03:05] There are other people, architecture, design, matters. Should we be working for everyone? And I spent time working overseas. I worked overseas for about six years doing corporate stuff. So I did, I did the whole work for the man, thing. I worked for huge developers globally doing retail centers and mixed-use development projects in the Middle East and in China and Malaysia. And I lived in Australia, in the UK and that was my life. And I got back to the US in 2005 in California. And I saw that there was this other thing going on called the public interest design movement. You know, Architecture for Humanity was popping up, Public Architecture in San Francisco. And I was like, wow, I want to do that. I don't be doing this other stuff. I want to do that. And it took some time to figure out how to do that. You know, I was kind of doing the corporate thing, you know, with great projects like Pixar headquarters, higher educational buildings, and a lot of commercial stuff. And I started to think about something else at that time. I had gone to see Angela Davis, the civil rights activist, and her sister, Fania Davis, speak during Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday celebration. It was 2007 and they started to talk about this thing called "restorative justice". And I had never heard of restorative justice. It turns out that the justice system we have actually hasn't existed for that long. Right? There was a way of doing justice beforehand called "restorative justice" and restorative justice is being reignited by indigenous people. And it's where, you know, those who've been harmed, those who've done the harm, come together to actually address the offender's conduct and what's happening. So we know then like the truth and reconciliation courts.
Victim offender mediation, things people probably heard of, peacemaking. And I thought, well, I'm going to design for that. That's what I'm gonna do. I'm going to not do the corporate thing and I'm going to do this. And, you know, easier said than done. It took a while to figure out how to make that happen. But what I managed to do was begin to work at the intersection of design and restorative justice for the first time that had been done and started to do projects for peacemaking programs and restorative justice programs in Syracuse and in Oakland. And that was when I realized, you know, pretty pictures are nice, but we got to figure out how to pay for this stuff. You know, we can't just draw the pretty pictures because nobody knows how to pay for a peacemaking center. Nobody's tax dollars were paying for that. You know, there was no developer like dying to make this, there's not some revenue stream for that. So I started Designing Justice + Designing Spaces to do that with my co-founder, Kyle Rawlins, who's the real estate finance person. And we started to do this thing and it started with Restore Oakland, which opened just last year, actually, finally with the country's first Center for Restorative Justice and Restorative Economics. That's an example of the kind of projects that we do that we call "restorative reinvestments" in community. That is a place for young people to not go to court. They go into restorative justice. And also, it's a restaurant that trains low-wage restaurant workers to get living wage jobs in fine dining.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:06:14] So that's the "restorative economics" part. It's always trying to build in some kind of revenue generating piece. We helped non-profits buy that building right? We'd like people to own their stuff. And it's a community organizing hub. And so we learned a lot about how to do that with folks who may have never done development work before. And it's open and very successful. And then we started to realize, oh, you know, we can't just do this. We have to support people coming out of prison and jail. We want to end the whole system. We want to whole systems change and started to develop projects which can talk more about for reentry. And then also realized we had to figure out what to do with all these emptying prisons and jails. What do we do with them? They're starting to close. And I think you're all probably seeing if you look at the news. I can't keep up with how fast they're trying to close or stop them. Me organizing is really pushing that. So we start to be like, OK, well, we got to figure out what to do with that, too. So we we don't design prisons or jails or detention centers or police stations or courthouses, we don't do any of that. We're abolitionists. We believe that there's a bazillion buildings that have to get built instead of those. And what are they? What did they look like? So that's what we do. What, what do we build instead?
CCB (One Workplace): [00:07:30] Ok. Well, that was Deanna Van Buren in a nutshell and totally amazing and so packed with information and nuggets that we want to talk about. I'm going to start peeling back a little bit and say the idea of “structural inequality”, I think is a flag that we can put down in the ground and say, "What does that mean and how does that relate to your work?"
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:08:05] Yeah. Yeah. No, that that's a really important piece, CCB. And it really tells why we've chosen not to design prisons and jails or make them look better. So I think many of us are learning if you watch the movie Thirteenth or if you've read The New Jim Crow, or if you've been to Bryan Stevenson's museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:08:25] Not yet, though I want to.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:08:27] It's very powerful. What we know is that our system of incarceration and really our entire criminal justice system was built off of enslavement. So it is structurally racist system in its core, right down to its very bones. And so the problem is that is heavy, right? That's intense. Those are that is entrenched. So we don't really think you can fix that. That's not a system of fixing. But what we really need to do in this moment is begin to reimagine something different. There is another way to do this. We know what it actually takes to make communities safe. It turns out it's not the policing. It's not incarceration. The stuff actually isn't working. We can see it doesn't work, particularly for black and brown folks. So I think it's important for designers and folks within the built environment to step way, way back. Really open your minds and imaginations. And let's start from scratch. We can learn from the past. You know, I love indigenous justice, right?
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:09:34] I love that model. So that is a model. But there are many people out there, exciting programs emerging, and communities are starting to come up with their own solutions. And so when we align ourselves with that opportunity, we can really make new stuff right. This world that we live in is not our imaginations, right, it's somebody else's imagination like this was designed and constructed centuries ago. It's not my imagination. If I was designing the world around us, it wouldn't look like this. So what does the future look like? What if we truly had racial equity and we can't start with what we know? You have to understand that we don't know. But we're creative people. We can figure it out, you know? Like, we just have to take that. We have to start from there, not start. Let's put a Band-Aid on it. Let's not put lipstick on a pig.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:26] Totally. Totally. I saw it in an article written today or released today from the Minnesota American Institute of Architects chapter. One of the major quotes was, "As a predominantly white profession and organization, we recognize that we have contributed to this pain". And another piece that I thought stood out very, very strongly, and one would hope that that it would be taken truly to heart, is that “people matter more than buildings”.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:11:01] They do.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:11:03] Don't they?
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:11:04] They do. They do so that's such a great thing to say. I think if people matter more than buildings, and that means all the people have to matter. Right. So not just the rich clients. All the people have to matter. If people really do matter, then who are you accountable to? Which people are you designing for? And you should be designing for our poorest. For the ones who are the least resourced as a starting point.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:11:37] Right. Because we've been working around the COVID-19 issues and helping get our corporate customers back to work, helping those clients figure out how their physical structures are going to support their people in health and safety and well-being. We grabbed Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to build a framework and say clearly, you know, if we're not safe, if we're not secure, we can't move forward and bring our best self to do anything. And so taking that, you know, to your point. Clearly, there's a balance that needs to be inserted into what's going on in the world today. So I loved reading about a lot of the projects and some of them I would have been familiar with. But I'd love for you to spend a little bit of time talking about that new prototype, the new prototype of, "What does place need to look like or need to be? How does it need to be configured to create that environment for that healing that needs to take place?"
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:12:59] I think a lot of people asked me that, and I think what I point to first is that you have to have a process first. It's about the process, not as much about the outcome, because the process itself is what's going to get you the right response. Everybody's different. All communities are different. All peoples are different people of different needs. And they might answer that. If you ask a person, they might have a different answer to that question, depending on where they are, if they were rural or urban or here or there. Right. So it depends. It's cultural, space is cultural. I think we were just talking about that. So if you have a process, a creative process, that actually engages the end users in a robust way, a really robust. Our community engagement process is super robust and that we're both sharing our knowledge of design. Right? This is what, these are elements of designed to think about. We also share information on financing so that people are really able to contribute to their vision about what a place should look like. What kind of things should happen there. And from that, we are able to come up with solutions, specific, customized solutions to that particular group of people. And I can give you an example.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:14:11] Our mobile refuge rooms are becoming a very urgent need right now. And the mobile refuge rooms are a pop-up room that was intended for folks coming home from prison, as they go into reentry facilities. I don't know if anyone's ever seen The Last O.G. on Netflix or knows anything about reentry facilities, but you should watch that show because that sort of shows you what the conditions are, right? It's like it's barely better than prison. They crammed ten people into a room and, you know, you're sharing a bathroom and it's not, it's very stressful. And that's actually it's unsafe. And people are coming out with PTSD, and this is a terrible environment to support their transition. People might have been incarcerated for, you know, 30 years. So we had been working with formerly incarcerated people to develop a reentry campus. And out of that came this idea for these pop-up rooms there, a quarter of the price of building out a room. We know the cost of construction. The Bay Area is crazy. And so these pop-up rooms provide dignity and privacy. They're beautiful. They're made out of, they're all wood. They have a fold-down bed. They have a dresser. They have a little desk that folds down with a little cupholder. This is all stuff we designed with them together. And they might be living in these for, like, up to two years. And so we were showing this idea to people and then the Alameda County Department of Probation is like, "I need 15 of those". Right? OK. So I guess we got to figure this out. So we actually had some folks trained in digital fabrication who were formerly incarcerated students. They learn digital fabrication. They built our first prototype. So they got a living wage. Now they can get a living wage job and a cool job. And we have one in the field. It's going really well. And now COVID hit. And all of the sudden, the demand for these units skyrocketed because you have a lot of people coming out. These units are perfect for distancing. Right, they'll keeping people from catching it. The aesthetic of it, it's very organic and cut. But also just the way that it works is turning out to be. Very powerful. And that just came out of a process. This came out of a creative process.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:16:30] To me, a specific need for a specific group of people to start. But the generic concept clearly has, you even took that further in some of your other projects where the pop-up turned into a village. Yeah.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:16:48] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the pop-up village was an idea that was coming out of a need for a mobile classroom. People coming on from jail, going back to their communities. They weren't getting the programs like people are coming back to school. What's that about? So we were able to take a bus, turn into a classroom. But when we talked to them, we can't just mean classroom like people need a coffee, and this, and that. And it grew and grew. Well, let me just make the whole village pop-up. And so now we have one, you know, and that's sort of a complete collaboration with community to pull that off.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:17:25] And does it move around, does it actually move around?
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:17:27] Yeah, yeah, we pop it up all over the bay. I think it's more relevant than ever now with COVID because so many stores are closed. People still need to to get access to resources. We want to come together as a community. We want to be. We would talk about connection as a priority for One Workplace, like people need to feel some connection to one another in a safe way. And because the village is so flexible, right. Is just a set of pieces and units, we can organize them for social distancing. We're able to activate sites, you know, that are under-utilized, and small entrepreneurs can come sell the things they have and people can get information. So we've redesigned it for COVID and are hoping soon to be popping up again.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:12] So that's a micro community project, it feels like, as opposed to some of the macro work that you've been doing in, say, Detroit. Can you tell us a little bit about what's going on there?
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:18:28] Yeah, I mean, sometimes my head spins a little bit at the scale level, so, like from rooms to like entire county planning. So we've got a project in Detroit that we are in the process of executing where we're gonna be purchasing land there, eight parcels from the city of Detroit to create what we call "the Love Campus". This is an entire social justice campus that will provide daily needs to the community, that will have nonprofit office space, that will have hyper-urgent re-entry housing for formerly incarcerated folks potentially, fabrication space, you know. And it's an environment that supports both the community it's in, the neighborhood it's in, but also this whole constellation of nonprofits from allied media projects that's doing, you know, supporting, you know, alternative media, and the arts, and to the Detroit Justice Center that supports formerly incarcerated people. So it's an expansion of our prototype of these multi-purpose social justice hubs like Restore Oakland, except much bigger in Detroit.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:19:30] It's pretty amazing.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:19:33] I'm excited about it.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:19:34] I bet you are. We can. We can. I love that.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:19:41] We are. We are can do people.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:19:44] I know that. I am wondering a little bit more about Designing Justice + Designing Spaces. So you and Kyle started it. How many people are working with you now? And how does that, how does that process flow?
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:19:58] Sure. There are about ten of us. We're hiring like four and five new people. So we're growing fast in a time where people are shrinking, we're growing. And our process. We have a wide range of people. You're going to say something, CCB?
CCB (One Workplace): [00:20:13] I was going to say you have a huge pool of people to choose from at this moment in time.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:20:20] I hope so. We haven't been getting as many as I'd like for some rolls. So hopefully more people will check the website and see that the ads we have. But I think because our firm is very odd, where we have architects, we have real estate developers, we have community organizers on staff. Right. So we have operations people on staff, you know, who are helping run the events. So it's a very multidisciplinary firm. And together we do something called the concept development process, which is a deep community engaged process where we work with folks to figure out both the aesthetics of a project, but also the financing of the project. And that's how we all end up really working intensely together. Community organizers out working with the community. The real estate developers are crunching the numbers. Designers are taking the community data and turning it into spaces and checking with the real estate. I mean, so it's like all this thing together is sort of messy process that, you know, at the end we come out with this awesome package that we tell you, like, now you can go get the money now go get the money with this, because it's a feasibility study. And, you know. Right. Architecture is expensive.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:21:29] Yes. Yes. What's the most? I don't want to say that, I was going to say what's most successful project you feel that you've worked on? But I would assume that you think a lot of them are successful. Is there one that that touches your heart more than others?
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:21:50] I mean, we've been very, very fortunate that they have all been successful so far. And I'm really grateful for that because that, they're complicated. And I would imagine they wouldn't. I mean, I have. I have one that I'm just my, you know, the first project I kind of did, which was the peacemaking center in Syracuse, is very dear to my heart, you know, because the environment has really allowed them to do things they couldn't do and increase the amount of cases that they've been able to do. So that means people are getting diverted out of court and into Native American peacemaking practices where the elders in the community moderate the dialogue to heal and address the harm. Beautiful. Right? And it's like a drug house that we just converted into a space for peacemaking. And and it feels great. It feels like going into a home rather than going into a courthouse. And I just that that is since it was the beginning and it's been really successful. I feel so much love for the program, the space, the people who run it are just wonderful. It's wonderful.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:56] That's just, almost every story I hear related to Designing Justice + Designing Spaces is so lovely that it makes me stop and just be appreciative of the work that you're all doing. I would like to close with a question about, we can't avoid the current situation and everything that has been, the huge spotlight that has been put on racial inequality in our country. And I wonder what message of hope and, you know, advancement, you might see from this? Because you've been so good at seeing your opportunities.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:23:50] I mean, this is a very exciting time. I know it's a painful time, no doubt. But I am so fired up and so excited about the fact that now is truly the time we can actually imagine our systems. It's happening now, literally in the past five days, we have seen it happening already. Right. So in the last five days, we had a project in Atlanta to close their jail and re-purpose it into a Center for Equity. We did this beautiful package. It's gorgeous. And we saw that, you know, the council was like, OK, we're going to keep it open. We'll close it later. Within five days, we now hear that the mayor is announcing to the council that not only are they planning to just to close it, but they're allocating money for it's re-purposing just like that. Right. So there's a sort of instant thing. We're getting calls from other municipalities, hey, we want to close our jail to or we shouldn't build that one at all. And that's kind of a future for someone who's like an abolitionist. Like, I'm like, "no jails at all" to see this happening, this fast and that people are now open to things they were never considering before. It's amazing. Amazing. And we're just gonna be right there with them. Like, yep let's close it. Close it. Let's do it. Mm hmm.
CCB (One Workplace): [00:25:11] All right. Deanna Van Buren, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces. You will continue on. I am certain. And we will be delighted to watch the success that follows. I would like to close our podcast conversation by saying, we're always delighted to have listeners and we share information about our guests, so please look up it in the info section, and you will be able to find this podcast on every streaming method you choose. Thank you for joining us and goodbye.
Deanna Van Buren (Designing Justice): [00:25:49] Thank you.