Unbuilding Racism

As a predominantly black firm working for the liberation of black and brown people, we are hurting and deeply grieving with you. We are grieving for the intolerable and constant deaths of black and brown people at the hands of the police, and all the other lives lost through the impacts of mass incarceration. This is why we are prison abolitionists. Since our founding, we at Designing Justice + Designing Spaces have stood for the complete unbuilding and radical reimagining of the criminal justice system and its financial and racial underpinnings.

We are not content to repair some windows or simply “improve” what we had before. What we had before and have today is an architecture of oppression, built on the backs of slaves and the bodies of prisoners. Now we are in a moment of protest and listening. What we will need is an architecture of liberation. Communities must plan and design new systems of justice, and all levels of government must stop building structures that oppress us and start working with us.

#1: Divest / Invest!

The criminal “justice” system is paid for with public money — our money. We must divest from the institutions that oppress and traumatize us and reinvest in healing, restoration, and empowerment. People of color are taxpayers, too — for far too long we have been paying for the infrastructure of injustice. As everyone now understands, thanks to COVID-19 and #BlackLivesMatter, public safety is not the police; public safety is healthcare, jobs, education, housing, and social cohesion within all our communities.

With the Ella Baker Center and ROC United, DJDS recently completed Restore Oakland, the nation’s first building dedicated to restorative justice and restorative economics. All our communities must have access to and ownership of programs and places like these.

Restore Oakland (photos by Emily Hagopian)

#2: Ignite Radical Imagination!

Nobody yet knows what the architecture of liberation will look like. Black and brown communities are speaking out now, and we must recognize that they (we) are the only experts that can identify the goals to aim for in rebuilding and restoring communities. There must be an enduring and honest commitment from all levels of government that significantly shifts resources to the most vulnerable. We, as architects, designers, planners, and developers, can help by supporting the urgent radical imagining and planning that must happen now to build a truly just future.

In partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Atlanta, DJDS brought Atlanta residents to the table to transform the Atlanta City Detention Center into a Center for Equity by playing the Planning and Finance Game. Watch the reimagining process in action.

#3: Close Jails!

Prisons and jails are the built environment’s knee on the necks of our most systematically marginalized brothers and sisters. Now is the time to close these buildings and liberate our cities and rural communities. Tens of thousands of men and women are already being released from our prisons and jails in response to the pandemic. They and their families need places that offer healing, job training, short-term shelter, and other resources. We are working with community partners in the City of Atlanta to transform an oppressive jail into a Center for Equity — a hub for building social and economic equity in the black community. Every jail across the United States should be transformed into a Center for Equity.

Imagining the future of Atlanta’s Center of Equity

We know that the architecture of mass incarceration is the expression of racism in the built environment. The time is now to unbuild its structures and imagine the architecture of liberation.

In solidarity,

The DJDS Team



Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

We are an Oakland-based architecture and real estate development nonprofit working to end mass incarceration.