Build it Better

Designing Justice + Designing Spaces builds infrastructure to end mass incarceration

DJDS designed the Five Keys Mobile Classroom in collaboration with the Five Keys Schools and Programs in California’s Bay Area. (Courtesy of DJDS)

While “justice” might be considered too abstract a design initiative for most architects, it has become a second language for the Oakland-based Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS). Co-founded by Deanna Van Buren and Kyle Rawlins, DJDS was established to create spaces for restorative justice, rehabilitation, and community building to provide solutions to the root causes of America’s mass incarceration crisis. As Van Buren stated in her popular TED Talk, the goal of DJDS is to focus design attention away from the “improvement” of the prison system and to instead transform the everyday spaces where justice should be taking place. By helping transition the punitive justice system into one of restorative justice, the firm hopes to improve the living conditions for millions of traditionally-underserved citizens while seeking an end to mass incarceration.

Given that the projects they create do not fit into any traditional funding mechanism, the eight-person team decided to become both an architecture firm and real estate development nonprofit. They receive funding from philanthropic organizations, which is then used to leverage financing from socially-responsible lenders and investors, and state and federal programs, such as New Market Tax Credits, which support investments in low-income communities. These strategies have allowed DJDS to avoid many of the traps other justice-oriented firms have fallen into while establishing and improving upon several novel building types, including “resource villages,” “peacemaking centers,” and “social justice campuses.”

To develop each project, DJDS intimately engages with the communities it intends to service. For a housing facility for youth transitioning out of foster care in Atlanta, for instance, DJDS engaged with the community during a nine-month process that included model-making, visual games, and finance education. In many cases, they learned that the spaces they create should be flexible, reconfigurable, and mobile in order to provide civic resources wherever they may be needed.

Restore Oakland

Exterior of a bright red space renovated by Designing Justice

Restore Oakland is a 20,000 square foot complex with several programs intended to serve the recently incarcerated. (Courtesy of DJDS)

Completed last July, Restore Oakland is a 20,000-square-foot complex providing community advocacy and training sessions in the Fruitvale district for those in the Bay Area requiring such services, including immigrants, people of color, and those who have been previously incarcerated. Its bright walls, use of warm woods, and well-lit spaces are intended to contrast the aesthetics commonly associated with the prison system. Restore Oakland is a “social justice campus,” which Van Buren describes as a center for facilities in the service of restorative economics, including housing, restorative retail, and spaces for peacemaking and trauma-informed education. “What Restore Oakland represents,” said Van Buren, “is programs, place, and people coming together to build infrastructure that’s equitable.”

It is jointly owned by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, whose goal is to reduce incarceration rates and improve resources for people of color in the neighborhood, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which has placed a COLORS restaurant on the ground floor to train low-income communities of color for jobs in the restaurant industry. The two owners of Restore Oakland hope that the new campus will help community members “dream, organize and act together for real community safety and self-determination.”

Mobile Refuge Rooms

Temporary plywood housing on a concrete floor

DJDS designed their Mobile Refuge Rooms as an efficient, low-cost living solution for those recently released from prison. (Courtesy of DJDS)

In collaboration with Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), DJDS designed low-cost living units in Alameda County for recently incarcerated men. Each unit is primarily made of durable, inexpensive wood and is equipped with three essential furniture components—a bed, a desk, and storage space—that can be easily reconfigured to meet the personal preferences of its occupants. Sliding doors, folding panels, and built-in amenities are installed as space-efficient design gestures that appear both solid and permanent, despite the fact that the units can all be easily transported.

Formerly incarcerated citizens not only participated in a two-month community engagement process following their design, but were also involved in every step of their fabrication, from initial designs to the finished product.

Five Keys Mobile Classroom

Interior of a bus converted to be a classroom

The Five Keys Mobile Classroom is a retrofitted MUNI bus that drives to communities whose residents often cannot afford to travel to educational facilities. (Courtesy of DJDS)

For the Five Keys Schools and Programs in California’s Bay Area, DJDS created the Five Keys Mobile Classroom, a retrofitted MUNI bus with classroom space, a library, and a mobile hotspot for online learning. The ergonomic detailing of its built-in furniture makes the compact interior ampler, providing room for guidance counseling sessions and social services that address issues including violence and drug abuse prevention.

By bringing “the school to the people,” the Mobile Classroom provides much-needed educational facilities for neighborhoods whose residents are below the federal poverty line and cannot easily afford to travel. Its lime-green exterior becomes a beacon of hope in the neighborhoods it services, helping participants “choose their own path in life rather than stumbling along one strewn with gangs, drugs, and possibly, jail.”

Pop-Up Village 

A series of pop-up tents

The Pop-Up Village provides civic resources with uplifting design. (Courtesy DJDS)

Much like the Five Keys Mobile Classroom and the Mobile Refuge Rooms, the Pop-Up Village is not fixed in any one location, as a way of providing services wherever they are needed. When the Pop-Up Village was first deployed in February of this year, it turned a vacant outdoor lot in an underserved area into a vibrant public space catalyzing “the magic that emerges when people and programs come together,” according to DJDS.

As a “site-activation tool,” the Pop-Up Village brings together several justice-oriented programs, including those for health and wellness, retail, food, education, and services targeted toward youth and families. With the aesthetics of a swap meet or a farmer’s market, the project elevates the task of providing civic resources with dignity and uplifting design.

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