By Dayne Sherman.
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.