The dignifying power of design

I had the great fortune to go to the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a newly constructed headquarters for GEMS last week. For those who don’t know, GEMS, which stands for Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, is an organization that serves girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. It was founded in 1998 by Rachel Lloyd, a survivor herself.

The space was designed, pro-bono, by an architecture firm called Perkins + Will. The firm has a robust Social Responsibility Initiative which means, according to their site, “Every year, Perkins+Will contributes the equivalent of a 15-person firm working full-time to provide pro bono services to organizations in our communities who would otherwise not have such access.”

While some of us might initially dismiss such efforts as nice window-dressing in comparison to the “real issues” that we must tackle as feminist activists, I’ve actually come to see these kinds of collaborations quite differently. My guy, John, is an architect, by training, and an advocate for design for the public good, who recently wrote a book on the topic. We’ve had incredible conversations about the ways in which design shapes our lives, something that I’d never really thought about up until meeting him–at least in any explicit way. Here’s an excerpt from a recent column I wrote on the topic:

One of my literary heroes, Virginia Woolf, talks about the importance of a woman to have a “room of one’s own.” I’d always believed in her premise but never considered that it wasn’t just the existence of that room but also the quality of it that made inspiration possible. Suddenly, I realized how deeply I was affected, how deeply all human beings are affected, by the spaces we inhabit. All of these profound, if unconscious, messages are spoken to us through color, shape, space, air, light, or lack thereof. Basement offices weren’t a badge of honor; they were an affirmation of our worst fears — that the work we were doing wasn’t respected or valued by the larger institutions and communities of which we found ourselves a part. That message must have extended to the women we worked with. That none of us deserved beauty or the ease of mind that comes from working in a functional space.

John and I are cookin’ up some ideas about how to forge relationships between some of the amazing nonprofits and community organizations I know, and the talented and committed architects he knows. Stay tuned…

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