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How Oakland architect Deanna Van Buren's passion for restorative justice manifests in her work

“We’re abolitionists. So we don’t build prettier prisons or jails,” said Van Buren.
Image: Illustration of Deanna Van Buren.
Architect and abolitionist isn't building prisons. She's building centers of justice and equity. Richard Chance / for NBC News

In 2007, Deanna Van Buren visited a historic African American church in Oakland, California, for a birthday program honoring Martin Luther King Jr. An architect, Van Buren listened with rapt attention as the renowned activist Angela Davis, and her sister, attorney Fania Davis, spoke about restorative justice.

Even though Van Buren had never heard of the concept before, the idea that communities could create safe spaces to address wrongdoing while giving voice and healing to those harmed proved a revelation.

“This is aligned with my values,” she remembered thinking. “I was inspired. I’ve been doing this work ever since.”

Van Buren, one of just 500 licensed Black female architects in the country, is the co-founder and executive director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, or DJDS, an architecture and real estate development nonprofit based in Oakland.

The firm’s mission is to end mass incarceration by building infrastructure that addresses the root causes of what can entangle individuals in the criminal justice system, be it poverty, racism or disparate access to education and resources.

DJDS eschews traditional punitive architecture — jails, prisons and courthouses, for example — in favor of buildings and spaces that foster restorative justice, rehabilitation and community building.

“We’re abolitionists. So we don’t build prettier prisons or jails,” said Van Buren, who holds a B.S. in architecture from the University of Virginia and a master's from Columbia University. “That’s our stance. We don’t do any type of space of incarceration.”

Some 2.1 million people are imprisoned across America, according to The Sentencing Project, and prison populations are disproportionately Black. Justice reformers have long decried systemic human rights abuses and ineffective public safety outcomes.

“It doesn’t really matter if you make them better looking,” Van Buren said. “You are still incarcerating the same Black and brown people over and over again. So our belief is that we have to divest from that system and invest in the communities that are most impacted with the resources they need.“

Growing up in Virginia, Van Buren said she first dreamed of becoming an architect at age 9. Her career began as a design lead on urban design, institutional and education projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. She later founded a public interest design firm, FOURM design studio, and in 2015 launched DJDS with Kyle Rawlins.

Deanna leading a site tour at the Love Building in Detroit in July 2020.Stephanie Kamera

Van Buren, who also serves as the firm’s design director, leads a team of 15 who are predominantly Black women and people of color. The staff is spearheading a host of innovative projects across the country. For instance, their Concept Development Fund program helps nonprofits and advocates transform ideas for community infrastructure reinvestment into concrete plans complete with proposed budgets, imagery and other core details.

In San Francisco, a retrofitted, colorful, mobile trailer offers refuge and support to women newly released from the penal system. In Syracuse, New York, a peacemaking center allows residents to come together and forge sustainable solutions to violence and conflict.

Then there’s Restore Oakland, a community hub that Van Buren and her team designed in East Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Before it opened in September 2019, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United jointly purchased the 20,000-square-foot building.

Inside, restorative justice rooms are painted in sky blue hues and light streams through oversize windows. Seating is arranged in the tradition of peace circles inspired by some Native American cultures.

Youth nonprofits with offices at Restore Oakland have worked in tandem with prosecutors to divert criminal cases involving young people here instead of the courts. The center also offers eviction and tenants’ rights counseling, plus a living wage restaurant that provides job training — all under one roof.

Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center and one of Restore Oakland’s co-founders, called it a place where “people can come together to organize and act.”

“We hope that our center serves as a model for other cities across the country as a place where folks impacted by prisons and punishment can unite, access restorative justice services to resolve conflict, and create opportunities rooted in healing,” Norris said in a statement.

Oakland isn’t the only jurisdiction where Van Buren and company are helping cities reimagine a more equitable future via socially conscious design.

Construction has begun on Detroit’s LOVE Building, a century-old structure that will serve as a hub for multiple social and restorative justice organizations. Broad accessibility for people with disabilities is a centerpiece of the project, and the site will incorporate childcare, prayer/meditation spaces and gender-neutral restrooms.

“We helped the owners find financing to purchase the adjacent land, to expand it into what we call the LOVE campus,” Van Buren said. “It should be done this year. So that’s exciting.”

In Georgia, DJDS served as consultants on proposals related to the Atlanta City Detention Center, an 11-story, concrete-and-brick fortress-like structure built in 1995.

Social justice advocates have pushed for years to close the 471,000 square foot facility. In 2019, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation creating the “Reimagining ACDC Task Force” to study the matter. In 2020, its 52 members recommended that the facility be demolished and replaced with what planners are calling a Center for Equity to serve the community.

Van Buren’s firm submitted four design concepts. During a series of subsequent town halls, the team used board games, stickers, building blocks, dice, poker chips, models and other tools to spur dialogue. DJDS also educated community members on the basics of design, financing and real estate development.

While debate continues about the jail’s future, in January, the mayor signaled her commitment to reform. “We will continue to champion initiatives and policies that reduce crime and violence, address the root causes of these problems and ensure fairness and accountability in the criminal justice system,” she said in a statement.

As a thought leader and pioneer, Van Buren has led efforts to catalyze architecture, design and real estate into tools for decarceration, garnering national and global recognition along the way.

Her TEDWomen talk on what a world without prisons could look like has been viewed more than a million times. In 2013, she was selected for a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Van Buren received University of California, Berkeley’s prestigious Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize in 2018. Upon announcing the $100,000 award, university officials described her as “a visionary leader, whose design work and activism are reshaping the cultural construct of justice in the U.S.”

Van Buren is active in her profession, and formerly served on the board of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Along the way, she’s taught college courses to incarcerated people via the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Chester Prison in Pennsylvania. And she has also helped found a co-working space to support small minority and women-owned firms in the architecture, engineering and construction industries.

“I wasn’t always a social impact architect," she said. "But I have learned a ton."

Van Buren said she believes DJDS is the only architectural firm in the country fighting to end mass incarceration via design, but she’s hopeful more industry peers will join the effort.

“I always say that if there are 100 architects in the room, one can be looking at making those facilities better," she said, referring to prisons. "And 99 of them need to be involved in building the kind of infrastructure projects in communities so you don’t need them at all.”

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