adrienne maree brown + Lesley-Ann Noel | Books

This Is Our Time!

adrienne maree brown

adrienne maree brown on design, liberation and transformation as told to Lesley-Ann Noel.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection, edited by Anne H. Berry (Managing Editor), Kareem Collie, Penina Acayo Laker, Lesley-Ann Noel, Jennifer Rittner (Developmental Editor), and Kelly Walters (Creative Director), out now from Skyhorse Publishing and is reprinted here with permission of the editors and publisher. The 595 page anthology centers a range of perspectives, spotlights teaching practices, research, stories, and conversations from a Black/African diasporic lens. Through the voices represented, this text exemplifies the inherently collaborative and multidisciplinary nature of design, providing access to ideas and topics for a variety of audiences, meeting people as they are and wherever they are in their knowledge about design.

This essay was created from a conversation with adrienne maree brown about her words of advice for designers in their new roles as facilitators, activists, and organizers, and creators of radical and liberatory spaces. It has been edited for length and clarity. —Lesley-Ann Noel

I didn’t realize it when I was first writing. I didn’t realize how much design language is part of facilitation and creating space with other people. But it really is. Sometimes you are having a whole conversation with other people without realizing this. One of my comrades at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute calls herself “the architect” because she says we’re designing spaces. We are building them up from the ground and from the heart.

The initial advice I would have for Black designers is to listen for the design that is the original design within you. The design that predates the trauma. The design that predates the socialization. The design that predates the shaping of Blackness as something lacking or something absent, or something less than or something plagued by suffering and struggling and pain. If you can lean into the concept of design as the sacred work of creating the world in which we share space, share lives, share the miracle—to me, that’s the impetus of Black design. The focus of Black design should be to help us create the spaces where we can return to ourselves, the selves that predate whiteness, the selves that predate white supremacy, the selves that predate patriarchy, and capitalism, and all these things that have really distorted our concept of what it means to be a Black human being.

I’d also recommend that Black designers read a lot of science fiction! I think a lot of science fiction writers are designers of the future. We’re really trying to think about the future. What does it look like, feel like, smell like? What does it mean to be in spaces that are green, and spaces that are equitable, and spaces that are collective and collaborative, and spaces that work for all bodies and spaces that don’t require you to categorize yourself in order to enter? You know, science fiction is one of the places where all of that is getting explored. So Black designers, read science fiction! And listen underneath the trends and listen underneath the socialization for what is your unique design to bring into this world.

If as designers we read each of your books, what is the message that you’d want us to get from each one?

Each book has a special message for designers. In Octavia’s Brood, it really is to find the lineage of those whose imaginations touch yours. For me, it’s Octavia Butler. But for you, it might be other people. Don’t assume that you’re starting from scratch, even if you feel like a novel thinker or a novel ideator. Really identify a lineage for your own work. Then imagine inside of that.

For Emergent Strategy, the message is to get in the right relationship with change. I’m really interested in designs that accommodate the fact that we are constantly changing. How do we make spaces and places that actually can adapt and change with us as we grow and change?

For Pleasure Activism, it is reclaiming our universal right to have pleasure in our lives. And to understand that is a measure of our freedom. I’m constantly thinking about how I design spaces, movement spaces that people enjoy being a part of. So it’s not all sex and drugs, although that’s there too. We really have to think about pleasure. Read Audre Lorde!

In We Will Not Cancel Us, the message is about thinking about abolition, and what it means to create spaces that can hold our worst selves and our best selves, and space for us to grow.

Finally, in Holding Change, the message is that change is something that we have to intentionally hold space for. We have to hold each other in processes of change. Otherwise, it’s very easy to change in ways that just put us into familiar loops, familiar behaviors, familiar shapes that serve capitalism, and that serve the elite. We all end up in jobs that we hate, and we wait for a couple of years of retirement. It’s not an accident that that’s what happens to most people. So really the message there is about holding changes, and asking, “How do we come together and make it easy for us to do the hard work of changing everything together?”

On the changing roles of designers from producers of artifacts to facilitators, organizers, and activists, and about feeling less uncomfortable in new roles for design.

I wrote Holding Change/ because I believe that everyone is not necessarily called to facilitation or mediation, but I think that everyone should have the basic skill sets. I think that our humanity would be much more intact if everyone understood what it meant to come up with an agenda together, and if everyone said something like, “Let’s identify what it is we’re here to do.” “Let’s begin by listening to the people who are here, what do we want?” Let’s listen to this land. What kind of things need to be built here? What do the trees know? What do the materials know? Everything has a purpose. So, how do we create space where all of that purpose can be in a dance with each other?

Enjoying this changing role helps a lot. Relinquishing control also helps create more comfort in these new roles. One of the principles for Holding Change is to relinquish your way to find the way. I think that this is one of the most important pieces as a facilitator, the ability to establish: “Here’s what I want to happen. Here’s what I’m trying to convince, and sell and pitch everyone to do.” And also to think, “How do I set that aside and see maybe there’s something that can only come from the collective and many voices, shaping it together, that’s more valuable than my singular idea?”

The collective may not be the way for everything. There might be some projects that you tell yourself, “I just want to do this one by myself!” So go do it by yourself! Don’t torture everyone by pretending to collaborate. But for those things that are collaborative, for those places where many voices fit, lean into the collective. Nowadays, I think design is so much about listening to who’s already there. Who are the survivors and the long-timers? I have been living in Detroit for these past twelve years. And in this space it’s been important to really watch who listens and who doesn’t listen. In terms of shaping the city, who sees the city as a blank canvas? And who sees it as an existing, beautiful, complex mural that’s layered and has a lot to offer about what it means to live there. The best facilitators are able to be part of the container. It’s not about you. It’s not about your ego. It is not about performance. It’s not about any of those things. It’s really about relinquishing those things to be a part of the container that allows people to be their truest, most honest, most authentic selves, and to dream together.

On maintaining after making liberatory and radical spaces.

The maintenance of radical spaces, after you have made these spaces, is its own kind of work. It is being able to develop structures and systems and rhythms that everyone enjoys and understands and returns to. One of the things I think helps a lot is decentralization.

Decentralization of the vision and the practices is one of the best ways you can maintain things. Because then if the “leader” isn’t there one day, everyone else already knows, “Oh, well, they didn’t show up, but we know that we’re here to fight for justice. And this is the thing that we’re up to. And this is the agenda that we always have for these meetings. And so we’re just going to continue on.”

I really love co-facilitation, as a way of maintenance or shared facilitation, taking turns. It helps when different people actually are holding the space. They bring a different energy to it. The meeting is not the same meeting every single time. When other people lead, each person brings slight variations and delights from their personality. Maintenance works best when you’re not tied to a particular outcome. If you try to maintain something, but it’s no longer energized and no longer vibrant, it’s okay to let it go. We call it “sunsetting” in movement work. It’s like sunset, that organization. Just let it come to a close. Focus on maintaining the things that are vibrant and alive and that are still ready to offer things. But be also willing to let go.

It’s like a breakup. Don’t overstay the relationship. Don’t overstay the organization. I find a lot of times people are struggling to maintain things that should be let go of, or to maintain things that are past their life cycle, you know. So you are left with these zombie projects that you’re struggling to maintain. Zombies don’t eat food. They don’t drink water. There’s no life flowing through it. So let go of what is needed to let go of. Then take turns and decentralize what’s left to hold on to.

The last thing that I would add for Black designers is to really think outrageously in terms of the scale of their visions. I want to see Black designers looking at entire cityscapes, looking at entire community garden efforts, looking at entire intentional community efforts. I want them to really think on a large scale. I want them to ask themselves: “What would things look like? What would the aesthetic be if, if the nation focused on Black design? Or the foundation of a city was built on and by Black design?” I want Black designers to not just think about a building, or an object; not just to think about an interior. Practice, practice, practice! Have a really massive vision! Because I do think that this is our time.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Books, Inclusion

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