Deanna Van Buren was drawn to architecture even before she heard the term. As the only black family living in a white Virginia neighborhood, she often found herself playing alone — spending many hours in her basement building cities out of refrigerator boxes and Tinkertoys.
The young Van Buren would become an architect who designed luxury shopping malls, high-end office buildings and even an acclaimed video game. But throughout her career and her life, she felt increasingly called to use her talents to create real change in the world around her.
Today Van Buren, 49, is an architect-artist-activist who creates spaces in the spirit of restorative justice. She works to end mass incarceration by designing physical environments that support programs to address the underlying causes, whether they be poverty, racism, lack of access to education, the lack of role models or the criminal justice system itself.
Where the American criminal justice system is developed around prison and other punishments as deterrents, restorative justice seeks to mend the tear in the relationships between those affected by crime by understanding the needs of victims and holding the accused accountable in a way that meets those needs. .
The purpose of Van Buren Restorative Justice Spaces is twofold: to create a space for community members to come together, learn and support each other so that people do not enter criminal justice in the first place. . And if a crime is committed, everyone involved can be encouraged to come together at the center in the spirit of reconciliation.
“From an architect’s perspective, the built environment really impacts us,” Van Buren told Know Your Value in an interview. “We have manifested our values, which include structural racism, in the architecture around us. It is important to us to create spaces that promote well-being and are built in an equitable way.
Van Buren is one of the leading activists seeking to deconstruct the punitive system and develop a new one around restorative justice – around people coming together, talking and trying to work towards reconciliation – through her company Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, which she co-founded with developer Kyle Rawlins. Community spaces designed by DJDS include Restore Oakland, which in 2019 became the first US center dedicated to restorative justice and the restorative economy.
Restore Oakland has become a community center, welcoming people with its brightly colored exterior. Inside, the center offers community members all kinds of resources in intentionally designed spaces: sun-drenched rooms where community groups and clubs can scribble plans on chalkboard-painted walls. Comfy chairs line the hallway where friends might bump into each other. Conference tables where an executive can provide business skills training or interview tips to local job seekers. Intimate, comfortable and private spaces where victims of crime and the accused can come together to talk and heal.
The current US criminal justice system has led to mass incarceration — especially of blacks and Latinos, Van Buren said. According to a 2021 report by The Sentencing Project, black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of white Americans, while for Latinos it’s 1.3 times. Nationally, one in 81 black adults in the United States is currently in state prison. In 12 states, more than half of the prison population is black.
“The message I got as a youngster was that the criminal justice system is not for you. My dad would say as we walked past the courthouse, ‘You never want to be there. It’s not just for black people,” Van Buren said. “So when I heard about restorative justice, it was like, wait a fucking minute. That’s what justice is: that repair and that healing.
Beyond Restore Oakland, Van Buren helped lead the design of the Near Westside Peacemaking Center in Syracuse, New York, including Native American peacemaking processes and inmate feedback within the framework. Other projects include spaces designed for community programs through nonprofits Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and Writer’sCorps, as well as workshops in prisons nationwide and a toolkit for reimagining institutional spaces. like jails.
Van Buren detailed his vision two years before founding DJDS in a 2017 TED talk that went viral, inviting people to imagine a world without prisons. It was not a path she could have foreseen as a child, when restorative justice was not a term, let alone a concept. But looking back on her career, she can connect the dots.
There was no “lightbulb moment” when Van Buren decided she would use her architectural skills to be an activist, she explained. It was more like the slow burn of being a black person moving across the United States and later the world at large. As a child, when she wasn’t working with her Tinkertoys in this white Virginia neighborhood, she visited a family that lived in the black communities of Queens and Raleigh.
“I grew up with many multiple cultural class backgrounds and was often isolated,” Van Buren said. “When you’re not indoctrinated into tribal socialization, you tend to start thinking outside of it.”
It was a good education, as Van Buren felt isolated throughout her career as an architect – beginning with her studies at the University of Virginia and graduate school at Columbia University in New York. York. She was usually the only black student or one of the few, and received little support from professors.
“Especially in graduate school, I was questioning the work we were doing there,” Van Buren said. “Why are we trying to design things in China? I have no cultural background for this; we’re close to Harlem and I see huge and glaring disparities there. The questioning of how we practice was met, ‘You are at the wrong school.’
She moved on and became a designer with Eric R. Kuhne & Associates, who then moved her to London and sent her around the world to work on projects such as luxury shopping malls. She enjoyed the work, which included “beginning to deprogram” from American conditioning as well as a collegial and respectful rapport. But after that she moved to work in Australia – where she found racism and discrimination rampant, but felt she was personally treated with outsized respect for being American. Throughout, Van Buren was often the only woman in the room, or the only black person, or the only person or color, or all of the above.
She returned to the United States in 2005 and continued to work for several American companies, but her time abroad had solidified the questions she was asking in graduate school. Why are we moving people when we could be building on another site instead? Why don’t we solicit feedback from community members before designing? What could architects do to change inequalities in the built environment?
A response began to form in 2006, when she attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in West Oakland. Activists Angela and Fania Davis spoke of “restorative justice,” the first time Van Buren heard the term. She thought of her aunt Bertha, who told her as a child: “God doesn’t want you to bury your gifts in the sand. All of this led her here and to found DJDS.
As for other women who want to do more activism work in their lives or careers, Van Buren said they don’t necessarily need to work for years on the side in order to start their own businesses.
“What’s key is to always dedicate time to doing something you’re passionate about, whether that’s volunteering or helping build a community,” Van Buren said. “Ask yourself, what am I doing to feed my soul? Small things can have an impact, and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved.