In recent years, a profound shift has been sweeping across our nation, reshaping how we remember, honor, and engage with our history. This transformation transcends mere intellectual exercises; it is a movement that breathes life into our communities, fueled by the unwavering passion of individuals and the resilience of communities, all driven by a deep commitment to truth-telling and reconciliation. It signifies a shift that goes beyond the removal of old statues or the construction of new monuments; it is a journey towards redefining our collective identity and actively shaping the course of our future.
In my personal journey, I have witnessed the profound impact of community-led memorialization. Just last year, I stood at the opening of The Embrace and the 1965 Freedom Plaza—a monument and space in Boston dedicated to honoring the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and over 60 local civil rights leaders. Surrounded by hundreds of individuals, many of whom shared my heritage as a Black Bostonian, I felt a deep appreciation for the significance and elation that comes from being recognized, represented, and acknowledged in the public memory. This experience fortified my desire to participate in this transformative movement towards inclusive public memory, as a designer, a mother, and an educator.
In 2018, MASS Design Group (MASS) designed the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, located in Montgomery, Ala., in collaboration with Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. This profound symbol of remembrance for victims of lynching in the United States challenged entrenched notions of what should be remembered and how it should be memorialized. Its inception ignited a groundswell of emotion and interest across our nation, rallying individuals, groups, and entire communities to the cause, stirred by the imperative to bring untold stories and histories to light.
This demand for change has been underscored by groundbreaking research like the Monument Lab's National Monument Audit and preservation efforts led by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. The translation into transformational action is nurtured through major investment, foremost by the Mellon Foundation. Their $500 million Monument Project initiative is “aimed at transforming the nation’s commemorative landscape to ensure our collective histories are more completely and accurately represented.”
In response to this growing interest, MASS launched the Public Memory and Memorials Lab, founded on the belief that the act of spatializing memory holds the remarkable potential to mend wounds and ignite collective action for generations to come. Our memorials work has grown exponentially to nearly 30 projects in development worldwide. These initiatives are not directed by remote authorities or institutions; they are firmly rooted in community-led initiatives, deeply connected to local histories, and driven by an unwavering commitment to truth-telling and societal transformation.
Through our work, we have come to recognize the profound influence of design, which can transform not only narratives but also culture and, ultimately, policy. As we endeavor to reshape a landscape marked by segregation with spaces for collective gathering and healing, we shift the focus onto whose stories are told within our public sphere. We have the capacity to design spaces that contribute to the common good. We are not merely creating physical structures; we are shaping participatory spaces that ignite a call to action and instigate change that resonates globally. Our approach to developing living memorials must be grounded in a regenerative process, designed to inspire collective action for generations to come, and is founded on three key principles:
People are the History Makers
Many memorials originate from the passion of individuals who lead and drive projects. They are the keepers of history, initiating and propelling memorial endeavors while bringing their passion and stories from the heart to the forefront. Foot Soldiers Park, in Selma, Ala., is one such example. Established in 2021 by JoAnne Bland, a Selma native and lifelong advocate for civil rights and racial justice, the park pays tribute to the Foot Soldiers of the 1960s who marched from Selma to Montgomery, bridging the gap between historical social justice movements and those of the present. As a child foot soldier during the historic events of 1965 in Selma, Bland was arrested 13 times during protests by the age of 11, dedicating her life to educating others about the significance of the Civil Rights Movement.
Through collective community action Bland's vision for Foot Soldiers Park is becoming a reality. Our role as designers commences with the process of accompaniment and engagement; by gathering diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives, we move closer to understanding what the impact of a project could actually look like. If we aim to design for action, it must begin with personal stories, addressing pain points, and embracing hopes and aspirations.
Memorials wield significant influence by offering a unique spatial encounter with narratives shaped by decisions made by various stakeholders, including planners, policymakers, politicians, and designers. Decisions related to location and materiality primarily aim to ensure both public accessibility and permanence. However, as we contemplate the significance of contested space in an evolving memorial landscape, it is crucial to use design to encourage proximity and participation.
Consider the Gun Violence Memorial Project (GVMP) as an example of this notion. Given that gun violence is a nationwide issue, the GVMP is not limited to a single static location; it is designed to be mobile, beginning in Chicago, moving to Washington, D.C., and will open in Boston in August 2024. Its very essence is participatory, inviting families and communities to engage in its evolution. This mode of engagement emphasizes the profound idea that our stories and societies are continuously evolving. The mobility of the memorial is integral to the project's mission.
Slowing Down: Let the Healing Happen
As designers engaged in this work, we must find a delicate balance between the time required for navigating the traumas associated with radical truth-telling and the urgency to rectify and address historical injustices that have impacted communities across our nation. Time is a crucial element in memorial work, and it's imperative not to underestimate the significance of allowing ourselves and our partners the space to pause. By slowing down, respecting room for healing, and fostering restorative conversations, we acknowledge the need to grieve, process, and address lingering questions. Sometimes, this occurs as an integral part of our engagement process, while at other times, it may need to precede our engagement and accompaniment process entirely. As Adrienne Maree Brown, author of “Emergent Strategy,” aptly states, we must move "at the speed of trust."
Jerome G. Little, the first African-American president of the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, advocated for the creation of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center as a means to break the national silence surrounding the death of Emmett Till, the African American teenager whose murder catalyzed the emerging civil rights movement. The first step involved a profound engagement with the community, co-facilitated by Susan Glisson, The Welcome Table Collaborative founder and executive director. Only after dedicating time to healing and conversation could the design work proceed. The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, declared a national monument by President Biden in 2023, confronts the injustices of our past, but is firmly grounded in a process that prioritized pausing, slowing down, and waiting for the community to be ready.
Elizabeth Alexander, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president, said “Our built environment is in motion. Memorials, like history, are never truly complete. We bear the responsibility of shaping our future by looking to the past and reflecting our present.” History is not static. It is layered, complex, and continually evolving. The narrative of a memorial is similarly dynamic, transforming over time and calling us to action. When we designed the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with Bryan Stevenson five years ago, displaying 800 markers from counties complicit in lynching crimes, we never imagined change in the form of legislation would follow. But it did and in 2022, The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was signed into law by President Biden, making lynching a federal hate crime.
Read more about MASS Design Group on The Power of Provenance | The Architect's Philanthopist | Learning from Poughkeepsie | A Guide to Rewilding | Advocating for Disability Justice in Design | AIA Firm of the Year.