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DSI Hosts Creative Reaction Lab Bootcamp Focused on Ending Mass Incarceration

Student blog written by Tara Maurice

Have you ever wondered how the objects and systems that populate our daily lives got there in the first place? Things like racially insensitive T-shirts put out by big global brands? Or the facial recognition software that works really well, just as long as you are a white male? Or old fashioned gerrymandering and red-lining? The short answer? All these things were designed. Everything around us, everything in the man-made world, is a product of design.

But the longer, and more complicated answer is that these examples are the products of either not asking the right questions, not having an array of people at the table, maybe not understanding the design “problem” accurately in the first place, not getting the community involved, or some combination of these omissions. The nuanced answer is that in most cases (most), these are not the products of intent to inflict harm, they are flaws of a design process that has been largely unchallenged to think about inclusion and equity as a practice. If systems of oppression and inequity are by design, shouldn’t design be used to dismantle them? 

Re-designing design for equity is the work of Antionette Carroll, founder and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab. Antionette was living in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and as part of the local effort to change conditions in her community, recognized the fact that the systems that underpin communities are created by design. The primary mission of Creative Reaction Lab is to educate, train, and challenge Black and Latinx youth to become the leaders designing the healthy and racially equitable communities of tomorrow. Antionette is an Echoing Green Fellow and TED Fellow, among many honors, and her co-creation of The Equity-Centered Community Design framework was recognized by Fast Company as a World-Changing Ideas finalist.

To expand the community of people who are able to practice this work, Creative Reaction Lab has been convening Equity by Design Bootcamps open to those trailblazers interested in learning how to use the power of design for equity and inclusion. The most recent bootcamp was held in New York City in the early summer of 2019 and hosted at the Design for Social Innovation graduate program at the School of Visual Arts campus. Over a 3- day weekend, the session was attended by approximately 50 people, from across the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia including 5 graduate students from the DSI, it was a reflection of world we live in today in race, age, identity and the desire to create a more just society.

These bootcamps are organized to take participants through the design process of conceptually imagining and presenting an intervention for a community based issue. During the NYC event the Topic of Focus was mass incarceration.  

In keeping with the practice of Creative Reaction Lab and Equity-Centered Community Design however, it’s important to note that getting from putting on your name tags all the way to designing equitable interventions for mass incarceration has a few important steps. Antionette and Learning and Education Manager Hilary Sedovic are intentional in these bootcamps to allow the group time to calibrate and come to shared understandings of language, the history of how we got here, and an appreciation of the personal role and potential of each person within the larger ecosystem.  Knowing that participants come to these spaces with wildly differing backgrounds, experiences and relationships towards a goal of equity, the weekend moves between individual, small, and large group activities to ease participants toward thoughtful conversation and inclusive design work. Some of the bright spots of this pre-work included small team work to map a visualization identifying the symptoms from the root causes of mass incarceration, defining a personal understanding of the notion of power, and perhaps most powerfully – a living expert panel session where two participants from the design group spoke of their own incarceration. 

One of the core principles underpinning the work at Creative Reaction Lab is the distinction between an Equity Designer and a Design Ally, both of which are roles we can each step into, depending on the context. To successfully design systems, conditions, and products that are inclusive and equitable, these roles are critical to understand. It is important to note that these are not job descriptions or titles to be acquired, but mindsets that help direct our action. An Equity Designer is distinguished as being an actual member of the community that one is solving for, a Design Ally is a supporter and advocate who leverages their power and access on behalf of Equity Designers. When things go awry it’s often this lack of living experts as leaders that are involved in creating solutions from the community. It’s becoming increasingly recognized within the design community to know when to pass the mic and make the space for community members to be the drivers of the solutions that serve them best. 

The final output of the bootcamp was small team ideation and intervention prototyping to redesign or dismantle mass incarceration. The larger group of 50 broke into 10 “ideas” from redesigning prisons, maintaining relationships with family and community, acknowledging mental health and poverty, and ways to ease re-entry. The teams navigated an abbreviated design process: first ideating, then synthesizing the loose ideas, presenting for feedback, re-thinking to incorporate feedback, and finally presenting in 5 minute rounds to the entire group. The final ideas ranged from the practical – a graceful and rational system of triaging people at the choke point of the justice system to avoid unnecessary detention – all the way to a dreamy scenario of in-community small “justice hubs” planted with green roofs as a mitigation for both climate change and to allow people to stay in the community for smoother re-entry. 

It’s an understatement to say we are living in dynamic times. The world is changing and the old conditions do not serve us. The role of the designer is paramount to re-imagine a new future, but the profile of the designer has to change just as dynamically. The important work of Creative Reaction Lab, and programs like Design for Social Innovation, serve as catalysts and beacons for the transformation of systems into ones that are just and equitable.

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