The Ekvn-Yefolecv eco-village
Ekvn-Yefolecv The Ekvn-Yefolecv eco-village

At the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities, a commitment to social justice grantmaking guides efforts to address the historical inequities embedded across disciplines, institutions, and places. The New York–based organization’s newest program area, Humanities in Place, has deployed $136.6 million since its inception in 2020 to expand the capacity of communities to keep and shape their places and built environments through grants for design projects and the social and cultural infrastructure they provide. In embracing this responsibility to create and care for spaces ethically, Humanities in Place asserts that we must learn from, and contribute to, existing community- and grassroots-led efforts to embed social justice in the practice of designing a more just future. Across the spectrum of work that Mellon supports, human connection in place is the driving force of dynamic change, allowing communities to challenge which structures and spaces are valued, what histories are kept and shared, and how we expand knowledge and design sustainably for future generations.

This work includes organizations like Ekvn-Yefolecv (pronounced ee-gun yee-full-lee-juh), which means “returning to the earth, returning to our homeland” in Maskoke and refers to a group of Indigenous Maskoke people who are establishing an intentional eco-village on 2,648 acres of their ancestral land in Alabama. With the support of a Humanities in Place grant in 2021, Ekvn-Yefolecv was able to begin construction of its Vlahoke project’s main lodge, which will serve as a space for visitors holding retreats, board meetings, and other gatherings upon opening in 2027. A museum that centers Indigenous justice will also be housed in this building. Social justice–informed grantmaking is called to address the pressing inequities of our world, and the issues faced by places at the forefront of environmental catastrophe are some of the most urgent. Often these communities are people of color who have experienced decades of displacement and environmental injustice, as was the case of the Maskoke people who were forcibly removed from their homeland by the United States federal government 180 years ago.


Ekvn-Yefolecv proposes an alternative to extractive economies that have abused their ancestral lands, committing to an ethical stewardship of natural resources and relationships. Marcus Briggs-Cloud, co-director of Ekvn-Yefolecv, states, “Embedded in our language is a traditional Maskoke ontological worldview that mandates living in right relationship with all beings of the natural world. Thus, for the Vlahoke eco-lodge, we seek to embody these values in the built environment by coupling traditional Maskoke ecological knowledge with sustainability science, which is why we’ve registered to achieve the Living Building Challenge 4.0 certification, the most rigorous green building standard in the world.” Adding urgency to this regenerative project is the potential loss of the Maskoke language, which has become endangered as a result of the ongoing violences of settler-colonialism. Reclaiming land and building upon it sustainably, with natural building construction, renewable energy, and low-tech integrated regenerative systems, is both the means and the end to advance environmental, linguistic, and cultural conservation.

Kevin Harris Architect
Kevin Harris Architect

Another Humanities in Place grantee, the Descendants Project, represents the Black community of Wallace in St. John the Baptist Parish, La., which is enduring the burden of toxic pollution and destructive land use under heavy industrial facilities. The immediate environmental crises in this landscape are haunted by violent echoes of the plantation system, as more than 200 petrochemical and industrial agriculture facilities lining the Mississippi River occupy former plantations. In addition to threatening the health of frontline communities, industrial complexes enact a suppression of relational ties to land and history, in certain cases transgressing unmarked burial grounds of those enslaved. In 2021, the London-based multidisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture published a report on the environmental racism occurring in a region between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that residents call “Death Alley.” Through a method of cartographic regression, which involves an analysis of historical maps and contemporary satellite and aerial imagery, Forensic Architecture has helped to locate unmarked burial grounds of the enslaved in order to preserve ancestral sites and simultaneously legitimize demands to halt the expansion of petrochemical facilities. Many residents of St. John the Baptist Parish are descendants of enslaved people who labored on surrounding plantations. This is true for the founders of the Descendants Project, sisters Jo and Joy Banner, whose organization is undertaking the restoration of a 19th-century house that will provide educational programs, genealogical research, and archaeological training. These programs will equip residents with the skills and knowledge to protect the land upon which they live, the air they breathe, and the sites and histories they steward. Empowering communities with knowledge, material culture, and land counters the dominant methodologies of destructive architectures and systems.

In the Texas cities of Socorro and San Antonio, Mellon Foundation grants are supporting new cultural spaces through the rehabilitation of two unique sites: one a former processing center for migrant workers, and the other a shuttered neighborhood meeting place. The nonprofit group City of Socorro Community Initiative is leading a preservation and reinterpretation project at the Rio Vista Farm Bracero Reception Center, likely the last remaining processing center in the United States for the Mexican Farm Labor Program, or Bracero Program, that was created to address labor shortages during and after World War II. Between 1942 and 1964, nearly 5 million Mexican guest workers participated in the Bracero Program to work primarily in agriculture and on railroad construction, and those that passed through the Rio Vista Farm center were subjected to dehumanizing working and living conditions that included low quality food and harsh medical examinations. To ensure that the contributions of braceros are not erased, the rehabilitated center will house the Bracero Museum, offering exhibits that engage with visitors from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Ruben’s Ice House, a cultural space located in San Antonio, will also receive a reimagined design and function. Once a cherished community space for the Mexican immigrants of San Antonio’s Westside barrio, today the ice house stands abandoned following its closure in 1987. Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, a multicultural arts and social change organization, is converting the building into the Museo del Westside, an institution that will document, preserve, and share the histories of the immigrant, working class, and poor populations in the Westside barrio, which today are threatened by development and displacement. Humanities in Place funding has made possible the renovation of Ruben’s Ice House and the construction of a compressed earth block addition to the structure to serve as a gallery space. Through understanding historical and unused places as opportunities for cultural investment rather than barriers to development, the communities of Socorro and Westside are cultivating new spaces of education, investments that will lead to a more complete narrative of Mexican American history.

Jo Stallings/Cross Street Partners
Sulton Campbell Britt & Associates

A significant barrier to social justice is the propagation of incomplete narratives about our country’s places and communities. This is prevalent for the city of Baltimore, a majority Black city that is often reduced to recurring and oftentimes racist narratives about crime, violence, and disinvestment. Here, two developing humanities-centered projects funded in part by Humanities in Place will provide radical spaces for the abundance of Black Baltimore stories to flourish. The Upton Mansion, a landmark building in the Old West Baltimore National Register Historic District, is the future home of the Baltimore AFRO-American newspaper, or the AFRO, the longest-running Black family-owned newspaper in the country. In past lives, the mansion has been an estate, a radio station headquarters, a music school for Black students, and a Baltimore City Public School System administration building. Notably, it is also situated on what was once a 10-acre plantation. The redeveloped building will invite city residents to explore these and other histories, as it will contain the extensive archives of the AFRO newspaper and give the public unprecedented access to the collections. AFRO Charities, the nonprofit partner of the newspaper, hired local Black-owned architecture firm Sulton, Campbell, Britt & Associates for the restoration of the extant structures and a new addition for expanded office and public uses.

Lindsay Marshall

Nearby, Baltimore-native artist Derrick Adams is likewise establishing social and cultural infrastructures to support collective memory in place, but with the construction of an entirely new built project. The proposed space of the Black Baltimore Digital Database will be located in the Waverly neighborhood, where Adams has already established the Last Resort Artist Retreat, a residency space that will host an inaugural cohort of artists in 2023. Consisting of a digital archive and a physical center located in a historical black neighborhood, the Black Baltimore Digital Database building will reference the visual and spatial elements of Black life that surround it, as seen in features such as the large porch and the interior design of the kitchen. The vision for the physical space that would house the database was initiated by Adams in collaboration with East Coast–based designers and Dark Matter U members Jelisa Blumberg and Curry Hackett. That visual language and subsequent design, developed by Brooklyn–based designer Lindsay Marshall of L. Dawn Designs, is purposeful; it will create a place for local residents who may feel unwelcome in traditional institutions and inform the co-creation of the archive through community connection. Digital labs will occupy the second floor of the building for the purposes of collecting and preserving the archival projects brought by local creatives and community members. In preserving the generational accomplishments of Black residents of Baltimore, this innovative archival project

African Futures Institute

There are gaps in how and where histories are preserved and told, and the design of built spaces needs to be responsive to the multitude of experiences in place. In addition to supporting built projects, Humanities in Place grants have advanced the work of architectural education and training groups like African Futures Institute. AFI founder Lesley Lokko shares that “through the Humanities in Place grant, we have been able to realize a long-held ambition to bring Africa closer to the global conversations on social, racial, and environmental justice, and vice versa. For Africa, the world’s youngest continent, education is our battleground and our future. With so few resources in place locally, support of this kind is a lifeline. Now, more than ever, the ties that bind us are necessary and deeply cherished.” AFI exemplifies disruptive practice in ensuring that the design discipline does not become beholden to the singular dominant voice, and that the multitude of perspectives in the built environment reflect the intellectual power of the Black Atlantic Ocean—the confluence of cultural identities formed through migratory connections across the Atlantic. Only through a social justice lens can the interests of social, racial, and environmental justice be prioritized in design education and practice. As Humanities in Place grantees attest, the true liberatory power of design lies in continual evaluation and interventions of the systems and relationships of power that shape our world—a call to engage in visionary teaching and learning, practice sustainable design, and act on a renewed understanding of place, history, and one another.

Reviewed by Lisa C. Henry and Victor Zagabe

This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of ARCHITECT, which was guest edited and designed by Dark Matter U.