Restorative Justice Design-The Mediation Womb

“Biophilia hypothesis suggests that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems

~Edward Osborn/Wikepedia

Washington DC Skyline Lightning Montage

Original Photography by Navin Sarma

As the Loeb year draws to a close projects that I have been working on are start to bear fruit. The first of these is the manifestation of designs for restorative justice that include  “The Mediation Womb” a space for restorative justice peacemaking circles and “The Mediation Panel” a furniture system that can be used to create circular spaces within rectilinear ones for the same purpose. The preliminary prototype design for this system is nearly printed but “The Mediation Womb” is out and ready for further development. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and impressions of it.

The Mediation Womb

The form of this architecture is generated from a woman’s womb filled out with a child. It represents my belief that spaces for peace making and reparation need to explore more organic forms to represent the values inherent in its philosophy and to connect to our innate connection to biophilic forms. So far we are testing the impact of translucency but further models will look at perforations in the envelop and texture. The volume splays out to provide spaces for up to 25 people and there are two entrances for victim and offender before they meet in circle. Many thoughts are coming to my mind when I view these wondering how and if we need to create a smaller spaces that aggregated around these entries where those parties can prepare and reflect for the meeting about to take e place. Light will spill in through an oculus above but it may be essential to create additional openings around the perimeter with views to nature. We will then need to explore how to shield views into the womb, simultaneously providing containment, privacy and openness.


Clustered Wombs
Photography by Deanna Van Buren

Mediation Womb Close Up

Mediation Womb Close Up
Photography by Deanna Van Buren

Washington Monument Panorama Montage

Photography by Have Camera Will Travel

The Boston Marathon

I try to sit down every day to write in my blog and had great topics about the peacemaking center planned in Ireland or the release of The Ken Burns’ documentary The  Central Park 5. I was even going to write about an uplifting session I just had with a local parish wanting to diversify its congregation and get involved with social justice. However I just can’t seem to proceed until I write something of my thoughts about the Boston Marathon Bombings and my experience there.



On Monday the 15th I had been in class and lectures all day so it was closer to 1:30 when I got to the finish line of the Marathon just across from the grand stand. People were calling out to loved ones and encouraging others they didn’t know to the finish line. It was lovely with the flags waving in the air from countries all over the world. I soaked up that amazing atmosphere you get at unique events like this where people have worked hard to achieve something so personal, so physical. I couldn’t help but have a huge smile on my face. I was so happy I had decided to join everyone. However with all the people and flags I couldn’t see the runners very well so I walked down Boylston street a bit stopping in a space that looked free and clear of obstructions with a closer spot to the edge. I nestled my way in and checked my watch. It was 2:30 and I had plenty of time to take some more photos before heading back to do more work.  I was trying to catch the colorful and enthusiastic runners with costumes. I saw at least 2 runners wearing hamburgers. One guy had a beer floating out in front of him on a pole urging him towards his reward. Kings, gladiators and sparkly fairies drifted by my camera with smiles or with focused attention as they struggled towards the finish line. I was happily snapping away when I felt the first bomb go off like a shock wave through my body. I dropped my lens cap and the second sensation was a nasty smell. It was then that I turned to see the smoke just in time to feel the second bomb go off on my right. I turned to look at the new plume of smoke expanding out and moved to take in both billowing clouds. I knew they were bombs. Were there more? Would they go off right here in front of me? Which way should I run? Were people going to panic and trample us all? Should I take more pictures? Where’s my lens cap?



These thoughts were running through my shocked mind until I heard the woman saying to her daughters next to me that we should run. Only then was I able to move.  I started jogging down Exeter Street. A woman next to me held her little girl in her arms whispering to her that it would be OK. I nearly tripped them as I tried to get around a light pole. I apologized and placed my hand on the woman’s back to comfort her as she comforted her daughter. I realized I needed to pay more attention to where I was going but as soon as I looked up I saw a woman with blood on her face being carried on either side by two men taking her to safety. Just after her was a woman was being held back by her boyfriend or husband as she tried to run into the smoke to find her brother. He wouldn’t let her go trying to convince her there might be more bombs. She kept fighting him anyway. I picked up my pace after this getting to Commonwealth Avenue where I stopped and was confused as police cars, ambulance and fire trucks started pouring in knocking down barricades to get to the smoke. I called my roommate and sister thinking logically that someone should know I was there in case something happened to me. It was only then that I realized before I had moved to avoid the flags I had been standing in front of the place where the first bomb went off. ( It was days later that a friend told me I was lucky I had also stopped short of the second one.) Lucky doesn’t even begin to capture what I felt.  I was however still in shock. I only started to cry when I heard my sister’s voice mail pick up and left a slightly hysterical message saying I was OK.

All around me people were crying, asking questions and trying to find their way home. I felt lucky to know where I was going and fell into line with others walking along the river to get to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. My roommate met me halfway with a tea to calm my nerves and I went home to digest what has happened as I still do.

Being a big believer in restorative justice I think every day about the bombers and want to know why they did it. I also wonder if I had been injured or lost a loved one would I want a restorative process to occur. Would I want to sit down with the bombers and ask them why they did what they did as I do now? I do not feel like a real victim in this situation so I just can’t say. What I do know is that healing dialogue between the living victims and living perpetrator probably won’t happen for anyone even if they want it. If we had the desire and legal system to support this where would we even go to do it? How would we structure a session like this with 1 remaining perpetrator and hundreds of victims who may want to participate? There is no social or physical infrastructure that allows for this kind of justice on a mass scale in our country. I hope that one day there will be.

For now I have placed some of my pictures in this blog to try and honor the spirit of this great event and hope that some healing will follow for all of us in whatever way it can.


Design as Therapy

Throughout the year I have been having experiences that have me thinking about the capacity of the design process itself to heal. There are two that stand out to me that I would like to share.


Results from Peacemaking Pallete Process

The first was when earlier this year I ran a seminar with the Loeb fellows testing a new process I developed for community engagement. It is called the Peace Making Pallet and it is based on the traditions of Native American Peacemaking Circles and my early training as a circle keeper. I ask members of a given community to bring an object, material, texture color they are drawn to. Once I open the circle with the parameters of confidentiality I ask each person to act as an elder and tell a story associated with the content they have brought.  It is an amazing thing to watch people share intimacies through materiality. The objects provide both emotional safety and a doorway through which people feel comfortable to share more intimate experiences of space. Their stories are rich with content for a designer like me looking to imbibe the spaces of peacemaking with the rich cultural legacies of a given community. It was the first time I have experienced using design as a tool for connection, expression and psychological discovery.

Chester Prison Student Collage

Chester Prison Student Collage for Community Space

A second experiences was when I went to teach at the state penal institution. We sat in circle together and I asked the students what jumped out at them from the readings we gave regarding their personal or perceived experience of the courthouse( Frank Greene-The Image of the Courthouse, Steve Bogira Courtroom 302, Restorative Justice Design-Deanna Van Buren). The inside students were quick to raise their hands to speak about the shame they felt and  the perceived judgments as they walked the crowded halls of the courthouse in handcuffs after being squeezed through the security and dingy back entries for the accused. They spoke about the way their hearts sank into their stomach as they rode the long elevator ride to the top floor where the more serious crimes were heard and into a courtroom where the judge sat high on his dais knowing that there was no way out. It was an intense circle to facilitate and the fist time I had ever taught in this style. While the outside students had less experience and charge around the content they also spoke about their feelings triggered by grim and depressing environments in Courtroom 302 and the film they had watched “Beyond Conviction”. When discussing the need for restorative space the students spoke about the necessity to have views to outside, the desire to have a table between or no table in victim offender mediation. What size should it be? What shape? One powerful image was invoked by an incarcerated student who suggested there should be a confessional booth to shield the victim from the perpetrator before coming in to full view of each other. As always I was amazed by the powerful insights people have into space when given the language and tools to speak about it.

After this we went into creating collages that were to represent a restorative space for a victim, offender or the community, the great triad of the restorative process. It was quite a scene to watch the students gathered in mixed groups huddled over the few magazines we were allowed to bring in and the rulers we made out of chipboard to meet prison security in order to tear the images out of them.

I walked around trying to support the students and saw one inside man, looking distressed. He said he was done but his collage had only a few images. He explained he had been assigned to create a restorative space for a victim. He showed images of people alone, isolated, aging and afraid. He said this represented the experience of the victim and his family who were suffering now that he was in prison. I asked him if there was a way to think about a space that would support them and he said this was not possible. I asked if there was something that could be changed in the space of his family’s home to perhaps heal and restore some of what was lost. He said “no, they just need me back there”. I felt a little helpless but suggested that he might then want to show pictures of families that would represent this restorative reunion. He looked hopeful and all the students helped find him images of families. When I came back around his board had some new images. Families, fathers and sons even a richly textured image of owls huddled together. He was smiling. As we finished up I started to see other collages and the impact they were having on the students as they expressed themselves through images of peoples, space and material. It was not unlike the experience I had with The Peacemaking Pallet.

Restorative Collage of Chester Student

Chester Prison Student Collage for a Victim’s Restorative Space

One my way back to Boston I started to think that while art therapy had been used across a broad spectrum of disciplines was there anyone using design as therapy. Could the processes and tools designers use every day be a way to access emotions and restore healing? To be honest I am not yet sure but I am inspired by the two experiences I described and the words of an incarcerated woman in her mid-50s, Belinda, who my co-teacher Barb Toews interviewed for her dissertation research. When asked to create space to represent self-forgiveness she was seeking Belinda selected a magazine photo of a beautiful backyard garden, propped it up like a window wall and stated:

“If the time of self-forgiveness ever comes, I believe it will look like this. I am in my house, content and feeling free. This backyard is like my “serenity place.” I would walk out there, thank God for my life and for overcoming my obstacles and for what I held on to for far too long.”

Belinda's Collage

Belinda’s Self Forgiveness Space

The Good in Gaming- A report from the Game Developer Conference 2013


I have just come back from the great Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and thought an update on the state of gaming as it related to design may be in order. I fully attended this year and went to many terrible and wonderful presentations. Many of the sessions including most of the nominees for game of the year at the Developers Choice Awards Ceremony told me that the video game industry still has a long way to go before it  divorces itself from the violence and misogynistic images that many of us associate with its products.  However there were many talks I found inspiring and informative. The most helpful for me from a technical point of view was Building Sim City Art in the Service of Simulation with creative director Ocean Quigley.  I learned sim cities get created as designers choose from a pallet of textures and architectural elements (what we might call a kit of parts) that got applied across various volumes which are also chosen from a palette that includes everything from taco trucks to skyscrapers. Quigley said that architects were involved with this process but I wasn’t sure how. The poor guy tried to get the designers to use scripted grammar or algorithms to create facades but apparently they weren’t into this which I totally get.  In addition to the design process I learned about façade and relief mapping on quads and tried to understand how to get polygon counts down. This polygon count issue is the enemy of the architect/designer trying to make cool and original buildings in the virtual world but like me has no idea how to do it minimally.

After learning how to make virtual cities I went to see a post mortem review of the 20 year old Myst which The Witness has been repeatedly compared to. They are right. While it is working with old technology which makes it less dynamic and has  badly designed cut and paste buildings it is still a lot like The Witness. After getting a little panicked that I was going to get sued  for copy write infringement I calmed down and realized that with all the gun toting death eating zombie games our there we were hardly out of bounds on this one.

Myst 02

The next day I switched gears and learned that while they sounded like infomercials lectures that broke things down into steps seemed to work well for gamers.  My old client( for real buildings) Pixar told us about The 5 Key Plot Points to Creating A Great Story which I had actually learned in Marshal Gantz’s class last year when I had to write my own narrative. I learned from the creator of The Witcher series how to be innovative and creative in 8 Easy Steps that involve asking questions and identifying feature dependencies.

I also felt a little uncomfortable as he put up images of naked women playing cards that were at one point part of the game. While people started giggling I looked around this massive room filled with thousands of people and was reminded  that I was one of the few women there and only 1 of 3 black women that I saw during my 3 days. In short I stood out just a tiny bit. This prompted me to go to the IGDA Diversity Advisory Board round table discussion where I was the only black woman there and the discourse was a little bit skewed for my liking. I wasn’t so sure that having more black men on the screen with guns was the solution to creating diversity in the gaming industry.  I shared how the National Organization for Minority architects was doing things with Project Pipeline but also wasn’t so sure they were interested. Either way I got some cards and scuttled out.

Later the day, I heard the most inspiring talk during my time at the conference. It was Designing Journey by Jenova Chen the president of That Game Company. This year Journey swept the IGF & Choice Awards Ceremony. It prompted standing ovations at both their talk and the ceremony. Journey is a refreshingly humanist game that creates emotional connections between players who are searching to find their purpose as they travel to a looming mountaintop surrounded by miles of burning, sprawling desert, age-old ruins, caves and howling winds.


During his talk Chen spoke about emotional pallets and his evolution from needing the power adolescents sought in games to wanting a feeling of awe and mystery, intimacy and friendship. This game along with other indie game winners such as Kentucky Route Zero and Cart Life helped me to see how incredibly creative and beautiful virtual games can be. It showed the magnificence that gets created when art, architecture, graphics and story come together to create a new world where you as the actor can participate, influence and receive something new.  I am not sure if there is a place for my practice in this industry. As someone who refuses to engage in designing environments where violence or the objectification of women is a primary theme I am going to struggle. However I learned this week that indie games are current culture and hopefully the future for this industry. If games like Journey are winning the highest honor in the industry and games like The Witness are being picked up early by Play Station there is a new era coming and perhaps we can be at the forefront of this change for the good in gaming.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero

From the Academy to the Institution

Over the last two months I have been teaching more than ever and it has been rewarding to discover how much I love it and all that I learn. I think many teachers relegate themselves to one institution or another but there is a rich perspective to be gained teaching across a set of disparate conditions that so far this year has taken me from the Ivy League academy to the institution we know as the prison industrial complex.

At The Academy the January Term is an opportunity for students to learn something completely knew in a condensed format. I taught a class called Retrofitting Suburbia over two days with my Loeb colleague Lynn Richards. We were fortunate to have 14 engaged diverse and brilliant students that showed me how amazing it is to teach when you have students who throw themselves completely into the work with confidence. Many were there to understand how they could transform the suburban environments they grew up in and others were seeking to expand their already extensive knowledge on urbanism.

vanburenrichards 7805 Retrofitting Suburbia Harvard Class

Over two days we had support for the class from staff that helped us set up the room for power points and they brought in large tables for working in teams on large format drawings with trace, pens of every kind and scale rulers. Every student had a laptop so they could work with digital models that complimented their designs of Sandy Utah’s new town center.  Access to the internet and other graphics software allowed students to put together montaged perspectives and place presentations into drop box so we could project their work on the screens around the room. Overall the two days were dynamic and vibrant.  The students enjoyed themselves, learned a tremendous amount in a short period of time and gave great feedback on how Lynn and I could do it better next time. I was exhausted, pleased that it had gone well and surprised at how easy it all was.


As the spring semester began I woke up at 3:30 AM and traveled by train to Pennsylvania to teach in the second of two very different institutions. My co-teacher this time was Barb Toews a brilliant social scientist, restorative justice practitioner and PhD candidate at Bryn Mawr . Barb picked me up from the train station and drove us to the state penitentiary where we were teaching a class with 9 incarcerated men and 9 students from a local liberal arts school.  As we waited to be screened I was nervous but also excited.  Both sensations increased as we were escorted by a corrections officer through a series of locking doors until we finally reached the family waiting area where we would have our class.

Tucked in a corner we had plastic chairs and tables for children that we put together in a circle and waited for the men to come. No laptops, projectors or access to any digital media was allowed and any pens we brought had to be counted in and out. When the men arrived they were late due to a lock down earlier in the day. They  were mercifully unshackled but still in the standard brown uniform. Each man politely moved around the circle introducing themselves and eventually all sat down. As I looked around the room I noticed that while most of the outside students were white almost all the inside ones were black. The outside students were there to get a different classroom experience but the inside students had a range of reasons like wanting to get off the block, some never had an education and really wanted to learn but there were more who were actually interested in design.

Over two hours we had icebreaker exercises, learning  what we had in common and how we were different though architectural imagery.  It helped the class to start talking about design right from the start, planting seeds that everyone knows about design and how to design to meet their needs and to create safe way to talk about personal things.



As we worked in small groups a program staff official hissed in our ear telling us the students were too close and we hastily moved them apart.  When we came together again I introduced our first tool that would have them using a sketch book to begin thinking visually about the spaces they lived in. I asked if anyone had any exposure to design and most of the students raised their hands to say no. I tried to encourage them but as the class drew to a close I looked around the room noticing that the inside men and outside students ( 8 women and 1 man) seemed nervous, insecure , perhaps a little excited.

I on the other hand felt overwhelmed in way that I had not after two days teaching the J term class.  The race and class contrasts between the privileged and the under privileged was staggering. How could learning about design and restorative justice improve the lives of the students inside who had experienced so much trauma? How were we going to teach a class with such disparate levels of education around a topic they knew nothing about? How could we create a design studio atmosphere like the J term class at Harvard with  no access to the  digital and analogue tools that had facilitated such rapid learning over two days. Barb and I had been working on the curriculum and authentic architectural tools to adapt to the strict rules of the institution for over a year but I still wasn’t sure if it would work.  We also weren’t sure if the staff would change their minds about what we could use.

As we left the penitentiary I left somewhat energized since the class had gone well. I knew despite the challenges we would just have to do what we could with the tools and time we had.  One thing I was sure about is that I was going to learn more than I was teaching.

The Great Chicago Fire Festival

As the spring semester  started  7 out of  the 9  Loeb fellows  skipped out on Harvard shopping days and flew to Chicago to support Jimmy Lasko , the co-artistic director of  Redmoon Theater Company.  The reason was a good one if not a little unusual. Our task was to brainstorm about a festival that would celebrate the legacy of a city raised from ashes in 1871 during the great Chicago Fire and it would be aptly named The Great Chicago Fire Festival.  Prior to the big day the city would bring outside and local artist and deploy them throughout neighborhoods in Chicago to create a series of collective sculptures.  These would be launched on the Chicago River on the anniversary of the fire encased in luminous lotus like shells that would process along the river. When the floats reached the mouth of Lake Michigan the shells would explode into flame revealing the collaborative creations behind. It frankly sounded ambitious and I didn’t see the fire Marshall anywhere but thought that if anyone could pull it off it would be Redmoon.

Despite it being 15 below we toured the banks of the river to understand the conditions along the water that would need to be accommodated.  Even though I thought I would die from cold I was glad we went. I was finally able to understand Jimmy’s vision of fire, light and activated bridges that would bring Chicago’s diverse community together to celebrate an amazing city that has for the most part turned its back on the river.


After defrosting myself I was fortunate to facilitate the groups on different types of spaces that are conducive to different types of participation and methods for engaging across the water from floats to banks. I was lucky to be facilitating my favorite kind of group; passionate and feisty with a touch of humor. We had a children’s story book publisher, representatives from The Chicago Community Trust and Chicago Parks department as well as the other co-artistic director of Redmoon, Frank Maugeri. Together we generated a strong range of ideas that built on capturing the 5 senses through the basic elements of earth, air, fire, water, metal and wood.  Ideas included everything from creating bonfires honoring the death of Chicago’s dying ash tress to extendable bridges that allows spectators to touch the floats. Creative collaborative sessions with these kinds of participants are amazing and energizing for me. I also realized facilitating is something I enjoy almost even more than generating ideas alone. There is something enriching and powerful about holding the space for creativity that fulfills me beyond just being a participant. I made a note to myself to do more of it before we were lucky enough to be whisked off to a Redmoon for hire party with men and women in mechanical costumes that poured glasses of wine and doled out hors d’oeuvres with very good fake English accents. The trip so far was proving to be quite a unique experience.

Working Session


The next day we met with illustrators, makers of every kind, musicians, playwrights and social media technologists to develop specific portions of the festival. I worked with a talented playwright and illustrator named Dav to envision the many of the ideas we had come up with the day before. How would we fasten a manually operated crane to the edge of the river bank for swinging large balls of incense? How would an inflatable slide get participants from the road to a raft on the river?  Now I love re-envisioning justice architecture for peacemaking and reparation but this was the kind of creative fun I had been really missing.

In other rooms at the Redmoon headquarters in the south side of Chicago we stopped to hear everyone’s progress on the design of the floats, the digital media strategies and how to improve the rivers ecosystem.  Listening to all the amazing ideas and watching them come to life through illustrations was like witnessing a kind of birth. I felt humbled to have assisted Redmoon in creating a new ritual on par with the great carnivals of the world. I couldn’t wait so see the festival come to life, feel the fire and maybe feel just a little bit proud about being a part of its vision.


Architect as Avatar

3-Peak Int1

Raw Image from The Witness

Last semester I took a class with Nicco Mele called Media Power and Politics in the Digital Age and to my great surprise loved it even though the room was so crowded I always had to sit on the floor craning my neck to see the slides. After a year of understanding web as platform and Google analytics I was alert with excitement as I finally had a seat and he was going lecture on  video games. To be honest I had been looking forward to it all year.  As he spoke about the impact they were having on our lives and the world, people in the class started to snigger in a  patronizing way.  I didn’t judge them since it was not that long ago I had a similar reaction to indie game developer Jonathan Blow when he asked me if I would like to work on his new game The Witness. I was working at Perkins+Will during this time and told him they would most likely not be interested in doing something like this and why didn’t he just find a young designer just out of school. Like a lot of people I thought video games were for teenage boys filled with violence, exploitation of women and war which is still true for many games in the industry.  However Jonathan wasn’t open to my suggestion and was clear that he wanted an experienced designer to work on the project who knew how buildings went together.  I decided to get him started with a few design workshops and realized that in some ways it was not so different than the process of designing real buildings and to my surprise was having more fun doing my job than I had for a long time.

Working with Jonathan

Working with Jonathan

Being a designer who loves to research I thought I better investigate this new industry and it was then that discovered all the things Nicco was speaking to us about in class. I realized that the demographics of the modern gamer are not what we think it is.   The average age of a gamer is 37 not 17 and almost half of these are women.   I learned that my client’s previous game, Braid, had been touted as the first true intersection between art and video games.  (Nicco even told me at a Loeb dinner that he was considered a genius.) I learned from gamer Jane McGonigal at the Institute for the Future that 3 billion hours a week are spent playing on line games. I was amazed to learn that she was using this untapped resource to solve major social problems such as poverty, disease and investigate new energy futures.  I was aghast to find that the US army was using a multi-player video game called America’s Army to lure teenagers into volunteering to serve and that annual revenue generated in the video game industry was over 25.1 billion and growing yet architects weren’t doing this kind of work.  Where the hell had we been?


In the end I left Perkins+Will to start my own practice and have been working part time for Jonathan ever since. Along with Jonathan’s amazing team and the landscape architects at Fletcher Studio we have begun to reinvision the digital gaming environment that will use this platform to do many wonderful things but the dearest to my heart is to increase our consciousness of the world around us.   I believe that  if the billions of hours people spend in virtual environments are better designed then we can begin to raise the visual literacy of our population and impact the physical world.

As I looked around Nicco’s class after his lecture I realized that no one was laughing and one gentleman in the front row raised his voice to tell Nicco he had changed his entire view of the industry. It was a familiar transformation and in a class filled with future leaders it is one that I hope helps the gaming industry to follow a positive trajectory out of war and misogyny to manifesting social change. I also hope that they industry will evolve to make sure that skilled design professionals are part of their teams and that architects will begin to become avatars.

Choosing Silence

While this entry doesn’t have a lot to do with design it is a different kind of bridging experience that I think speaks to the struggles of being an African American women designer in a predominantly white profession. In many ways a kind of cultural bridging that often goes unacknowledged.  I am the only African American in this year’s Loeb class. While I appreciate the efforts made by the fellowship to  create diversity in the program sometimes it’s hard to be the only black face in the group.  While most people think they are not racist, the fact is that we all are and it means I am inevitably forced to confront these subconscious attitudes and make a decision to speak or to remain silent.  This was tested at our Loeb Fellowship dinner on Wednesday. Every week in the Loeb Fellowship we have a dinner guest at the Doebele House. As 6:30 draws near our cohort files into my home while delightful smells waft from the kitchen as our chef Matt makes the final preparations for dinner service as 7:00. At the last dinner our guest came at the proper time and was both engaging and interesting as we delved into a conversation about women and tenure at Harvard. However as she told her story of struggle she chimed in that she was perceived as a nigger, an uppity nigger no less.  As the words flowed from her mouth my usual thought processes came into play as I had to make the usual call as to weather or not to say anything potentially ruining the dinner atmosphere. I never expected my White, Jewish , Asian or Latino counterparts to speak up which is a shame because for some reason I always find it easier to defend the rights of others since I don’t seem to go into as much shock when it’s a slur against another race. I don’t think that our guest intended to be racist. She was a Jewish- American woman using the word to explain the discrimination she experienced but it was insensitive, arrogant and inappropriate to use language that has such a painful historical legacy amongst people she did not even know.  In the end I remained silent as we moved into the dining room for dinner.    I realized later that I would have liked for someone to acknowledge that it was said and reach out to see if I was OK or what my thoughts were.   Some people thought I handled it well but did I? Why didn’t I feel comfortable in calling out our guest on her comments?  If I had would this also be perceived as handling it well or would my colleagues have been uncomfortable even angry? I don’t know the answer to this since I haven’t tested it. Hopefully next time I’ll have the courage to do so. 

The Heart and Cranial Conference


Recently I spent two whole days at the Harvard law school at two very different conferences. The first was called “Building Communities of Care Wherever We Are” and was sponsored by the Massachusetts Restorative Justice task Force. Being a little bit obsessed with Restorative Justice I knew I had to be there. I walked into room full of round tables and sat with a diverse group of students, non-profit organizations, lawyers and city officials.    Within the hour we were in a sharing circle connecting around our shared values and identities that formed our sense of self.  When I identified myself as a designer of spaces for peace making and reparation I was embraced with interest, questions and offers to work on projects with the various members of my table. I also sat that day with Native America elder Strong Oak and passed the talking stick sharing about my ancestors and how I dealt with conflict in my life. I felt nourished, grounded and connected to a primarily heart centered community that previously seemed absent in my experience at Harvard. However the learning I hoped to get implied by the conference title had not come to fruition for me. I hadn’t really learned anything that I didn’t know before about restorative justice. As we closed the day in a giant circle reciting the Declaration of Interdependence I decided it didn’t really matter. I felt grateful to have been received as a design professional trying to explore the intersection between space and reparation as well as someone trying to be in their heart space perhaps more than their head.


The following Thursday in a room next door to the first, I attended the second of the two conferences titled Tribal Courts and the Federal System sponsored by the Harvard Law School. Again I walked into a room of round tables and sat down with a group of women near the front.  I introduced myself as a Loeb Fellow at the Graduate School of Design working on spaces for peacemaking and reparation. However this time I received a slightly different reaction.  Mumbles of my having to hang out with boring lawyers were uttered and then a general silence and what I perceived to be a lack of interest in engaging with someone who was not within the legal profession.  Several people came up to introduce themselves and quickly walked away once I mentioned I was an architectural designer. They didn’t seem as excited as the attendees from the first conference or perhaps they didn’t know what to say.  It was not the first time I had experienced the wall of ignorance on design but it had never been this luke warm of a reception.  Throughout the day we heard from law scholars, tribal judges and even the Honorable Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.   My hand moved quickly across my sketch book soaking up the incredible amount of information coming my way.  As the day drew to a close I was reluctant to approach anyone in case I got another cold shoulder.  However as the chairman of the Indian Law and Order Commission came out of the room I couldn’t help myself.  I wanted to connect the dots between the work of his organization and The Center for Court Innovations Tribal Justice Division who I had been in dialogue with around spaces for peacemaking.  He seemed mildly interested and I  was given a quick anecdote about the round rooms being created in native communities. Two business cards were quickly produced and then off he went. The commissioner seemed in a rush to go.  I left that day with a head full of information but feeling  undervalued.

After these conferences I was reminded once again that leaving our industry silos means the professional identities we cling to for our narcissistic supply will get cut off and we’ll be left standing in a room alone, our egos screaming for recognition. Ouch!  Despite the bruises I did come away from the heart and cranial conferences with a deeper belief that we will need to incorporate and have facility with both our hearts and minds if we want to solve problems and possess healthy professional lives.  With this as my goal I keep stepping outside the nest of traditional architecture knowing that sometimes I might be embraced as part of the tribe and others times an alien.