Planner Lily Song on continuing the push for anti-racist design

Keeping On

Planner Lily Song on continuing the push for anti-racist design

An LA Metro train at La Cienega station. (Steve Hymon/Metro/Wikimedia Commons)

In summer 2020, AN spoke with leading faculty members at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) to discuss work that challenges racial violence and a host of inequities in the built environment. One year after calls for anti-racist approaches to design research and education prompted deeper conversations across U.S. campuses, we checked in with one of those educators to understand how design schools might sustain their efforts to challenge power structures in the discipline. Formerly a lecturer in urban planning and design and the founding coordinator of CoDesign at GSD, Lily Song is now an Assistant Professor of Race and Social Justice in the Built Environment at Northeastern University. Here’s what she had to say:

Aaron Smithson: It’s been a year since our last conversation about CoDesign at the GSD, when we spoke about the need for designers and planners to foreground radical, BIPOC-led community work. What are some of your key takeaways from the past year? 

Lily Song: What really strikes me is the compounding effects of the pandemic, particularly on BIPOC and low-income people, together with the global mobilizations and protests in defense of Black lives and [against the] rising tide of anti-Asian violence. The fact that all this unfolded while most designers were working from home and spending so much time online—including social media— produced a revelatory effect, especially for privileged groups. Many designers were suddenly noticing how racially segregated this country remains, and how the spaces, places, and environments created with the best intentions are deeply inequitable, in part due to organizing by the Design as Protest collective, student activists, and others. We saw a lot of design institutions and agencies issue anti-racist statements, not to mention all the reading lists, talk series, special issue publications and other demonstrations of symbolic solidarity. How leaders in the field actually implement changes in design culture, pedagogy, methods, and structures remains to be seen. Surely nothing will happen without continued organizing and advocacy to subvert and reconfigure design to serve communities historically ignored or marginalized by the discipline. For now, I think it suffices to say that anti-racist movements have created openings and portals for aligned designers to come together and gain more legibility and resources for our ongoing work, though not without constraints and contradictions. 

A group of activists posing in front of an LA metro station
Activists and organizers with ACT-LA. (Courtesy ACT-LA)

What has CoDesign been working on over the last year or so?

In addition to collaborative work with Destination Design School of Agricultural Estates, CoDesign also partnered with the Alliance for Community Transit- Los Angeles (ACT-LA), a coalition of 41 community-based organizations that combine grassroots organizing, coalition building, and direct-action campaigns to make L.A. accessible and affordable to all. At the invitation of ACT-LA staff, three graduate students and I joined the “Metro as Sanctuary” campaign, which seeks to shift funding from LA Metro’s multi-agency law enforcement contract to critical investments in job creation, inclusive safety services, and rider-friendly active spaces that promote holistic safety for all L.A. County residents. Working alongside other university-based allies such as the Veterans Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law and the Movement Lawyering Clinic at Howard University School of Law, our team of planners and designers developed the environmental design component of the policy proposal to promote safety on public transit beyond punitive, police-first models. LA Metro has already approved a $40m package of programs to reimagine public safety on transit in accordance with some of our recommendations, an initial outcome that excites us.

It’s noteworthy how your team translated research into practice and actionable policy changes through the Metro as Sanctuary campaign. Once reports like this are published, does the role of the design researcher continue, and how so?

Yes, absolutely. It’s important to highlight the relational nature of the work, which is what assembles various inputs and forges a whole that is greater than the sum of parts. First, CoDesign’s involvement in Metro as Sanctuary built on my preexisting relationship with ACT-LA and premised on mutual learning and co-creation. So, when Harvard graduate students Anne Lin (MUP, MPH 2021), Elifmina Mizrahi (MUP 2021), and Fiona Riley (MArch 2022) conducted research and generated design interventions to inform the campaign, this wasn’t a one-off thing. It was part of a longer-term partnership focused on repurposing design to promote equitable transit-oriented communities, not just in Los Angeles but also in Boston and other places where displacement is rampant. Through ACT-LA, we were embedded in a larger network of Los Angeles-based activists, participating in subcommittee meetings, teach-ins, and workshops with other allied and member organizations. Perhaps more important than the report’s contents was ACT-LA’s keen understanding of regional political dynamics and points of entry for progressive action. Getting back to the role of the design researcher, distinctly reaffirming and bolstering existing forms of social organization and movement infrastructures delivered actionable changes—in contrast to mainstream design standards of authorship and excellence, which often promote originality in individualizing and atomizing ways. 

A diagram of safety-oriented design strategies for the la metro
Design strategies developed by ACT-LA and researchers from the GSD. (Courtesy Lily Song)

Academic research focusing on marginalized communities is often extractive; what are the specific ways the CoDesign team built trust with grassroots organizers on the other side of the country? 

It helped that we were showing up at the invitation of ACT-LA’s director, Laura Raymond, and not leading with an independent design agenda. Most of us also have family ties to L.A. or California. Still, it was important to consider why and how we were showing up, to clarify that we weren’t there to “help” so much as participate in a trailblazing, historic initiative to divest from over-bloated policing regimes and invest in humanizing urban infrastructures and spaces. Design conversations and debates about anti-racism over [the] summer 2020 had primarily illuminated the unjust and oppressive aspects of design with fewer calls to action for insurgent design, so we were very happy to come on board with ACT-LA. As a team, we did some personal work to confront our respective positionality, assumptions, and biases. Rather than just sympathizing with injustice, we wanted to actively reflect on how we are each implicated—as immigrants, non-Black people of color, queer people, and more. We worked to establish trust among ACT-LA staff, members, and other allies by showing up for regular meetings, listening, volunteering to take minutes, and otherwise responding to requests as they came up. Honestly, it took some restraint to not get ahead of ourselves and iterate spatial forms, structures, policies, or programs as we might do in the studio setting! But this also allowed us to understand the political context and align ourselves with the organization’s priorities before contributing ideas. 

I’m thinking about the importance of language for designers and how we might expand the ways we conceptualize, visualize, and communicate to promote design justice and equity in the world. Earlier you referred to the “sistered” design action research with the Destination Design School in the Black Belt region. Should sistering be part of the design lexicon?

I initially learned about sistering as a construction method from two students of mine, Cynthia Deng (MArch, MUP 2021) and Elif Erez (MArch, MDes 2022). My own take on sistering as a methodology entails using our creative capacities as designers to supplement and amplify the work that frontline organizers and place-based design activists already do to heal communities, commons, and the planet. It goes beyond community engagement and social impact design, which maintain authorship in the domain of the designer. Sistering is predicated on a conception of designers as socially situated, partial, and fallible, yet also gifted, caring, imaginative, and cooperative when given the chance. Working in community with others allows us to address our biases and limitations, exercise our creative strengths more impactfully, and attend to the power differentials that structure extractive systems of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. With its emphasis on deep partnerships with abolitionist organizers, sistering compels us to reappropriate our disciplines in service of anti-supremacist, liberatory movements.