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Deray McKesson: Here’s What Designers Can Do To Advance Social Justice

“If you can’t imagine it, you can’t fight for it.”

Deray McKesson: Here’s What Designers Can Do To Advance Social Justice
[Photo: Andre Chung/The Washington Post/Getty Images]

Activist and organizer Deray McKesson knows what freedom means at an existential level. But how does it materialize practically? That’s harder to pinpoint. At Black In Design, a Harvard Graduate School of Design conference about social justice this month, he challenged the audience to come up with the future progressive people are fighting for–but can’t quite envision.

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“I think about freedom as not only as the absence of oppression, but also the presence of justice and joy,” he said. “So much of the work we [activists] focus on is the absence of oppression, but the presence of justice and joy is the part that we don’t talk about in this work. . . . We’ve never seen that world before. That requires deep imagination. We have to dream that up. If we can’t imagine it, we can’t fight for it.”

McKesson believes that because of white supremacy in the United States, the country has never been truly just and therefore people of color have never seen a world of true justice in the country. In his experience, he’s found that while many people can articulate what they don’t like and what is oppressive, they have a harder time communicating an equitable replacement.

“So many of us don’t know what we want, we just know we don’t want what we have,” McKesson said. “We spend 99% of the time talking about how bad it is, but only 1% of the time talking about how we can do something about it. It’s, how can we make our spaces into spaces where we can dream again? We dream by design.”

He cited a handful of examples, at different scales showing how designers can make an impact. When he was an educator in the Baltimore school district, the administration embarked on a plan to renovate every building in its portfolio. Architects came in and showed the administrators something as seemingly simple as access to daylight in every classroom. Before then, they didn’t even know this was a possibility.

McKesson also discussed larger systems that affect the entire country, like healthcare. While the country’s residents have made it clear that they want equitable healthcare, and they are upset with the current system, they haven’t necessarily articulated what healthcare means in a broader, cultural sense.

“This is about you, the designers,” he said. “I think about freedom and the urgency around our imagination. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t fight for it. It’s a question about what does freedom actually look like in the future, what does it feel like, what does it sound like? These are things that I want to believe our designers and our artists can do for us.”

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Take police brutality. It’s an obvious problem that requires sweeping, systemic change, McKesson said–and it’s an area where designers, as problem solvers, can make an impact.

“This is an idea of ‘ask the bigger question,'” he said. “People always talk about the police, but we talk about this issue of safety. There will always be a rule, there will be people who break the rules, there will be consequences. We fundamentally think these things will be true for a time. The question becomes what are the consequences? Who enforces the consequences? What are the worst consequences? That’s a conversation about what safety looks like. Maybe it’s not the police who enforce the consequences; let’s think about something different.”

What’s needed now is a clear vision, McKesson said. “People don’t want pep talks anymore, they want a plan and there’s fatigue because there isn’t a plan we can get behind,” he said.

So while designers can and should do what they do best–communicate values, raise awareness, upend established systems–there’s infinite opportunity to do more, and designers should feel empowered to have the agency to do it.

“There are more spaces in which I think [designers’] thoughts would be welcome, and you might have to be the one who invites yourself there,” McKesson said. “Invite yourself into some spaces.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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