Deanna Van Buren and Her Work

“Even though I began my career designing for the corporate realm, working with developers, institutions, and wealthy clients, deep down I always had the desire to design for 100% of our community,” explained Deanna Van Buren, architect and co-founder of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), an Oakland-based nonprofit harnessing the power of design and development to transform people and communities. “While I was fortunate to work on significant projects, I was also starting to question the values of corporate architecture in America. Public interest design fulfills in me the need to use my skills to address bigger social issues and systemic injustices.”

Currently, Van Buren focuses on supportive justice interventions to help solve the crises caused by mass incarceration. Examining how other countries deal with repairing mass social conflict, and drawing from traditional practices of restorative justice such as the family group conference in New Zealand and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Van Buren is developing design responses that look very different than the authoritative courthouses that define the incarceration entry point for a disproportionate number of men of color.

Changing the architectural forms of justice systems is one key. “The thing about architecture is that it lasts forever. Belief systems are built into architecture, so while we can change our beliefs, existing structures still reinforce old beliefs,” she says.

Taking a holistic systems approach is the other. Van Buren co-founded Designing Justice + Designing Spaces in 2015 with real estate developer Kyle Rawlins with the intent to develop an infrastructure to end mass incarceration through the support of diversion and reentry. Grounded in the belief that poverty, racism, lack of access to resources, and the criminal justice system itself are at the root of the crisis, the firm works with non-profit, government, and community partners to counter the societal inequities evident in the dominant architectural models of the justice system in the U.S.

At the heart of Van Buren’s work is a deep conviction in the power of architecture to change culture. “Architecture is a potent medium for shifting and solidifying and fomenting movements,” she explains. We can’t do much without space. We can’t launch movements without a place for us to gather that is safe and nourishing.”

Peacemaking centers, mobile villages, and housing for foster age youth are just a few of the projects Van Buren and her team are co-creating. Prototyping began with the Near Westside Peacemaking Project (NWSPP) in Syracuse, New York, the first program in the country to implement both a peacemaking program and a purpose-built space for its use. Working with the Center for Court Innovation, Van Buren led a community-driven design process in collaboration with UPSTATE and Ashley McGraw Architects that prioritized community engagement and good design. The adaptive reuse of a vacant building at the heart of the neighborhood enabled the NWSPP to serve the community and support positive outcomes for those participating in the peacemaking process.

Working closer to home, in collaboration with Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Van Buren transformed an existing space within Castlemont High School in East Oakland to support the school’s new restorative justice program that will train teachers, administrators, and students to address conflict using restorative justice peacemaking circles rather than expulsions and suspensions.

Also in East Oakland, Restore Oakland is a joint initiative between the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United). Slated to open in the spring of 2019, it will be the first center for restorative justice and restorative economics in the country. The community advocacy and training center will include a ground-floor restaurant that attempts to break the racial divide in the industry by training low-wage restaurant workers to obtain living wage jobs in fine dining. It will also serve as a hub for the Ella Baker Center’s initiatives to end mass incarceration and provide a local space to “break bread” as a “restorative justice approach to addressing crime, in which victims feel heard and supported, conflicts are resolved, and communities are strengthened.”

Underscoring the benefits of a restorative justice approach, Van Buren explains, “It’s very sustainable, it’s affordable, and it’s effective. Those who engage in restorative justice have lower rates of PTSD and violent reoffending. Data show that it works and has worked before.”

The idea is catching on. Van Buren has written guidelines with basic design principles for those who want to make places for restorative justice. Reading through, they sound like design guidance for one’s home or living room: a comfortable space with soft finishes and warm materials, integration with the natural environment, and room to move. The effect is highly deliberate according to Van Buren, “It is almost like a domestic experience but for a community – it’s our home for dialog.”

However, the effort toward developing solutions to end the mass incarceration crisis can’t just be about reparation, but must also address ways to keep people out of the system in the first place. Pop-Up Resource Village is a DJDS endeavor that brings an entire constellation of resources — including health and wellness, youth and family, retail, food, and education — to isolated, under-resourced communities in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Customized buses and other types of mobile architecture activate sites through creative place-making.

Van Buren also recognizes that in order to drive change, the design and build community must be supported as well. Co-working spaces prevalent throughout the country aren’t well suited for sole practitioners in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry who require spacious layout tables, large-format plotters, and the like. With Kickstarter funding, she and three partners launched BIG Oakland in January 2018 (BIG, for Building Industry Gathering), a space to allow small design firms to share resources. The partners are also looking to start a fellowship program to enable small minority and women contractors to secure larger contracts and diversify the supplier pipeline. “This is just a pilot – we’d love to see a BIG Detroit, a BIG San Francisco, a BIG New York,” said Van Buren.

“There’s a lot happening in our industry right now, a consciousness-raising shift taking place that I’m excited to be a part of,” said Deanna Van Buren. “The Rupp Prize means that people see the value of this type of thinking. It means that I’ll be able to advance the work and I’m so grateful for that.”