Medical workers' principle of mutual aid is a call to action for designers, too

Designers have turned to fabrication labs to produce 3D-printed personal protection equipment for medical workers. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

This article appears on CityMetric courtesy of Blueprint magazine.

This year, we entered what I was seeing as a decade of action. Along with much of the rest of the world, architecture and design as a discipline would come together to address some of the most pressing concerns of our time. We would take collective action in response to the climate emergency armed with science, data, and other tools to tackle and advance resiliency, adaptation, and sustainable practices in the built environment. We would catalyze a shift in dispositions rooted in consumption and growth by prioritizing the circular economy, the Green New Deal, affordability, and equity.

What we did not know is that as early as January we were watching the formation of the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives (a growing figure) and lay bare a number of critical gaps in our global systems. Breakdowns in these systems have required urgent responses at every level of government and leadership. International travel, exchanges, and supply chains that underlay the global economy and related socio-economic structures went from hard truths to open questions. And much of the globally coordinated action that might have been dedicated to problems with a 10-year timeline was channeled into the current crisis that appears to have immediately compressed response times to weeks or days wherever it has landed.

The near collapse and various kinds of safety netting thrown under the global economy has not only revealed its vulnerability and our personal dependencies, but also our interconnectedness. As we see the virus continue to spread across the United States, I do not have a perfect analogy to describe the series of actions connecting so many different people with so many different needs, but I can speak to its power fairly clearly having witnessed an interconnected and expanded form of mutual aid.

In the emergency medical services profession (as well as in activist circles) the mutual aid agreement is a common understanding that in moments of crisis the jurisdictional boundaries between practitioners, each with distinct expertise and knowledge, dissolve. The medical profession as whole unites around a common problem to work quickly to address urgent conditions and effectively manage contingency. Everyone comes together with their resources – materials, skill, time, and effort – to help in whatever way they can.

The Covid-19 crisis has placed enormous pressure, to a degree that much of the world has never seen, on the health care industry and its workers. Despite preparedness and selfless response efforts in hospitals and other health care centers, the crisis not only overwhelmed the system but also created a direct threat to the lives of both providers and the sick. Under the current conditions, the call for mutual aid is extended well beyond the health care industry. The industry cannot handle this crisis on its own. The crisis requires spatial and social practices to work in tandem with health care measures. Our situation demands the mobilization of resources and quick action from a broad range of perhaps unlikely disciplines to meet urgent needs by any means possible.

What we have learned from design practice and applied research is that with the most pressing issues, we often work best in collaboration with other disciplines that inform our work, and with new tools and new perspectives, be they from science, engineering, or the arts. Whether we could anticipate the many Covid-related needs that emerged quickly and urgently, I have recently found that as architects and designers we are primed for working together across boundaries toward a mutual benefit – and, that this brings me a bit of optimism in these difficult times. Our willingness to act has opened many of our eyes and minds to what we as designers and global citizens have to offer.

To share a few examples, though there are many more – there are designers at work on problems that are material and require pragmatic action, and simultaneously, those who are analyzing and calling out inequity as the virus affects those who face discrimination and have less access to care than others.

Operation PPE was sparked by a call from medical professionals at Weill Medical to faculty at Cornell University's College of Engineering, who then connected with Professor Jenny Sabin, director of the Matter Design Computation program at Cornell, who rebooted the recently vacated fabrication labs at AAP to produce 3D-printed personal protection equipment. Many of our alumni and students joined in producing PPE from an open source design file and designers utilized and modified as needed.


J. Meejin Yoon is dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. (Andy Ryan)

At the Harvard Wyss Institute and the Graduate School of Design, students, researchers, and faculty responded to an urgent need for personal isolation hoods that would keep patients and doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital safer as they fight the virus in infection wards and operating rooms. By coordinating ideas and action via a Slack channel, collaborators across the design and health disciplines initiated a completely horizontal creative process so that the strongest designs could be modified and added to in real time and advance to clinical testing and production in a matter of not months, but weeks.

 Kimberly Dowdell, Chicago-based architect and president of the National Organization of Minority Architects recently responded to figures citing the tragically disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths among black and Latino people in New York City and Chicago. Dowdell highlights how all of our communities, particularly those still affected by discriminatory policies in our cities, now suffer greater challenges and losses in the face of this crisis.

There are other data and design ideas emerging that may impact the future of how a crisis of such magnitude might be handled.

In the past several weeks, designers and architects have assumed the agency and responsibility we share to engage new problems and offer meaningful service to a cause that asks us to reach far beyond disciplinary lines. We acted quickly and were able to do so by seeing past ourselves and our claims to authorship, by working across professional boundaries, and providing crucial help where needed. Many of us already have an eye on the long term and are asking important questions that I wonder if – despite the holding pattern between worry and hope most of us share – we can better understand in terms of what it will take to come together around a mutually beneficial plan for recovery, and for the future. A future where we enact our interconnectedness not as a shared vulnerability, but a strength – extending the practice of mutual aid beyond the medical profession to coordinate action and contributions to shared problems in a shared world where design and planning have critical agency.

J. Meejin Yoon is the Gale and Ira Druckier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.