The Pop-Up Approach to Fighting Mass Incarceration

Retrofitted school buses provide resources, empathy in the Bay Area.

A rendering of the School on Wheels bus (Credit: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

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In her training as an architect at some of the country’s most respected academic institutions, Deanna Van Buren learned many valuable skills, including how to create beautiful renderings, how to design to code, and how to sell clients on an architectural vision. But one skill, which she has come to learn is the lynchpin to the success of her projects, she had to develop on her own: how to listen.

Honing this skill has been crucial in the development of what colleagues call her “activist architecture” practice, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS). The Oakland-based practice, which Van Buren co-founded with fellow Echoing Green Fellowship winner and real estate development specialist Kyle Rawlins, seeks to collaboratively create catalytic spaces that will lead to the end mass incarceration in the United States, particularly for the individuals and communities of color that it disparately impacts.

Picture this: An executive from Twitter, a former gang member, a probation officer and a community activist sit together at a table and share what kinds of spaces make them feel inspired, and what makes them feel dehumanized. They discuss their personal experiences and memories. Slowly, empathy builds and a shared understanding of needs emerges.

This approach was vital in the development of a new initiative that DJDS is working on, called the School on Wheels. The School on Wheels is a new mobile learning center for the Bay Area, custom built inside a decommissioned municipal bus. It will offer educational programming and other services for formerly incarcerated individuals, in partnership with the Five Keys Schools and Programs.

Five Keys runs educational and workforce development programs for over 8,000 participants at schools, prisons and community centers across California, and has been successful at significantly reducing the recidivism rate of its participants, among other successes. Five Keys was recently awarded an “Innovation in American Government” award by Harvard. But staff still find that many who need their services for cannot afford the transportation or childcare necessary to access their brick and mortar centers — some are former gang members who cannot enter certain territory, for example — so the School on Wheels will help Five Keys come to them.

DJDS’ approach to community engagement — what Sunny Schwartz, Director of Community Restoration and Government Affairs for Five Keys, calls “all hands on deck” — mirrors the Five Keys’ vision of a restorative justice approach. Schwartz describes this approach as one in which everyone impacted by a crime or the justice system comes to the table to determine its consequences.

Deanna Van Buren helps an incarcerated student with his design.(Photo by Lee Romney) 

“To restore, we have to recognize time for everyone — the victim, the offender, and the community — and create an obligation to make that right,” says Schwartz, the author of Dreams from the Monster Factory and a respected leader and early advocate for restorative justice. “The right design, combined with effective leadership, can create enormous pro-social change.”

The School on Wheels is under construction and will roll out later this fall in the Bay Area. It is featured in Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s recently opened exhibition, “By the People: Designing a Better America”.

Just one in a series of projects Van Buren calls the “Pop Up Resource Village,” the School on Wheels will soon have a mobile counterpart — the Women’s Resource Bus. Still under development, the retrofitted bus is a response to needs identified by incarcerated women during a week-long workshop with the architect and volunteers from DJDS. Prisons and jails release people at all hours of the day and night without any support and often into dangerous situations so the resource bus is designed to park near prison exits and provide safe, comfortable and clean shelter to women as they are being released. The bus will be outfitted with WiFi, phone chargers, showers and coffee, and will be staffed with counselors to help reconnect the women with whatever they may need.

Before workshopping their idea with incarcerated women, Van Buren’s team had begun designing with the assumption that women would simply want a safe place to sleep. Quickly, through their interactive workshops, they learned they had thought wrong. After their time apart from loved ones, the re-entering women wanted a clean, healthy-feeling space to relax, clean up and reconnect with people using phones or the internet. They wanted to learn about what they had missed while they were incarcerated, and receive basic items like personal hygiene products and comfortable clothing. Van Buren emphasizes that that the Women’s Resource Bus was ultimately co-created with its end users and that through that collaborative design process, DJDS hopes to provide a space that will ultimately reduce recidivism and help women re-enter their lives on the outside in more productive way.

Van Buren’s development of the idea for the Pop-Up Resource Village was supported by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Artist as Activist fellowship; the project also received a Google Impact Challenge Grant and is a finalist for the prestigious ArtPlace America National Creative Placemaking Fund. But the team needs more partners to make sure the entire vision can become a reality. A “constellation of resources” are required, Van Buren says, to “address the social challenges that both lead to and have been created by mass incarceration.”

Beyond the Pop Up Resource Village, DJDS working on a suite of other projects that utilize design and development towards restorative justice. They have released a toolkit specifically for justice-involved people and other stakeholders to explore and evaluate how design and restorative justice intersect. They are also working with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) to create Restore Oakland, a restorative justice business and nonprofit hub in Oakland, and developing a project called “Creating Home” for youth transitioning out of foster care and at high risk for homelessness and incarceration.

A rendering of the Women’s Resource Bus (Credit: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

For Van Buren, developing a mission-driven practice focused on building a society that restores rather than incarcerates, required redesigning the design process itself. The process, she says, has been formative.

“I find this kind of engaged design much more effective and practical, not to mention inspiring. It doesn’t make sense to me to do things in the way I was taught to in corporate architecture, without the benefit of that information, especially when I am designing with and for people who have experienced things that I have not.”

The process of listening, and of working collaboratively is so vital for Van Buren that she wants to reframe community engagement as part of research and design (R&D) work.

And it doesn’t end with research — because the project is done in partnership with its end users, everyone will be part of evaluating and measuring its success.

“This is doing your due diligence — just like you would consider the building code before designing,” Van Buren says. “If you are designing for people other than yourself, you need their voices in the room to hold you accountable and make your project more successful.”

This article is part of a Next City series focused on community-engaged design made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Danya Sherman is an urban & cultural planner who specializes in collaboratively developing strategy, research, and programs that work towards a more creative and just society. She is currently a Research Consultant to ArtPlace America, the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, a contributing writer for Next City, and the Case Study Initiative Project Manager at the MIT Sam Tak Lee Real Estate Entrepreneurship Lab. Previously she founded and directed the Department of Public Programs & Community Engagement at Friends of High Line. She holds a Master's in City Planning from MIT and a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan University.

Tags: community-engaged designprisonstactical urbanism

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