With a summer of protests against racial injustice and police brutality behind us, De Nichols believes the work is only beginning. The St. Louis–based artist, lecturer at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, and 2020 Harvard GSD Loeb Fellow has been using her “visual voice” to condemn racial injustices for over a decade. After the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Nichols found herself using art supplies from her community-educator classroom at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis to support the early protests. By 2018, she, along with other activists, had created over 82 projects addressing police brutality and racism in cities. Today she is founder and principal of her firm, Civic Creatives, and one of roughly 120 BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) organizers of the Design as Protest initiative.
You’ve been an activist and a voice against oppressive design for years. Has the country’s latest social-justice movement affected your work?
As an educator, I am being asked to lecture on these topics more often than I was even two years ago. So much of pedagogy has been about design as social practice or a tool for general social change, but now people really want to get to the heart of racial justice—specifically, looking at how it differs from racial equity, equality, diversity, and inclusion. It has also led to thinking more about racial healing, collective trauma, and how that informs and fuels the processes, outputs, and creative power of designing justice.
The nuances of how I structured my practice have also shifted greatly. In terms of content, adding more clarity around the language I’m using—it’s constantly evolving.
Tell me about Design As Protest (DAP) and its initiative network, Dark Matter University. Why were they created and what’s the vision for the future?
DAP was created to hold the profession accountable—to reverse the violence, harms, injustices that architecture, engineering, and construction have inflicted upon Black and brown communities over time. What needs to be shifted and dismantled so that, moving forward, we’re not collectively contributing to harm and legacies of harm? More than 800 individuals and almost 200 organizations have signed on.
The other side of that vision is championing new reparations for the ways that design and architecture and planning have harmed communities. That includes looking at the ways in which we are trained, the ways we learn about these injustices, which are not in our design curriculum and institutions. So we’ve created Dark Matter University (which is also largely BIPOC-led) in order to reframe the learning process and experience, and to look at the ways in which BIPOC design educators and antiracist folk—including white educators who are teaching from an antiracist perspective—might create a learning space to fill gaps in their own understanding.
The DAP manifesto talks about “architects’ obligations to the short- and long-term outcomes of justice.” What are examples of that? How can those in the profession work toward achieving such goals?
In the short term, designers should be looking at their contracts with prisons, jails, and police stations, and find ways to divest from the spaces that have inflicted egregious harm upon Black bodies. Abolition is a long-term outcome.
Also, because we’re entering the school year, design educators need to do the diligent work to reassess their curriculum, required readings, and the guest speakers they invite, so that there’s not only an increased diversity of text from Black and brown architects and designers, but so that there’s also community input, so that we can shift the savior complex that we often have in this profession.
More long-term, we must consider how we can further disentangle ourselves from exploitative practices, especially thinking about our relationships to developers and gentrification. The work has to start now.