In response to the severity of the divide that is growing in the US, we attempted to design a space for individuals on opposite sides of the spectrum to encounter one another.
By Nadia Asfour and Aime Vailes-Macarie, Harvard GSD
Our project was inspired by a particular media phenomenon wherein liberal minority movements are quickly defined as solidaristic while rightist extremist movements, while similar in format, are never described using that term. While we do not condone or defend the ideology of the alt-right, we have observed that this particular media phenomenon reinforces the idea that the group is, in fact, acting solidaristically, among its members. It became clear to us that in our present condition, there are many oppositional groups acting solidaristically, regardless of whether or not their movements are defined that way. Rather than continue to support solidarity which can potentially lead to hyper insular, siloed groups, we thought it might be better to diffuse some of this solidaristic energy in favor of cooperation between groups, using conversation as the vehicle. We are living in a time of extreme tension, particularly in the US. This tension and the cultural divide it fuels must be addressed before it implodes. In response to the severity of the divide that is growing in the US, we attempted to design a space for individuals on opposite sides of the spectrum to encounter one another.
Our research phase was split between our own experience as participants in the Harvard Law School’s “Let’s Disagree” series, as well as a workshop we held to source popular opinions about facilitating difficult conversations. Our goal was to use the HLS experience to understand the demands and limitations imposed on facilitators. Ideally, conversations would be between individuals rather than groups, and would be repeated over a period of time to allow space for participants to assimilate all they learn. In addition, we noted the spatial limitations and obstacles of the HLS experience, verifying them with our facilitators who themselves had a laundry list of ways in which the space could be more performative. In addition, the “Let’s Disagree” session gave us the opportunity to engage with such a space as participants, enabling us to curate a relatable participant experience for our own workshop.
In parallel to our visits to HLS, we held a workshop to collect data on the ideal space for controversial discussions from the participant perspective. We sent out an open call for participants and were pleased when a wide range of people responded; we had a diverse group with participants from, MIT, the GSD, HUGSE, HLS as well as some non-Harvard affiliates. We asked the participants of our workshop to respond to specific prompts about what sorts of spatial elements would add to the comfort of a space for difficult conversations. We asked them a series of questions and had them write out their responses on sticky notes. The questions we asked them aimed to understand the type of encounter participants were looking for as well as the elements and attributes the space would have.
Once we had compiled our data, we began to work on the second phase of our project: designing the space. We deconstructed our observations of the “Let’s Disagree” series, and brainstormed ways the space could have been better used to our advantage. For example, we thought of ways to use the same space as both a place to write, and be presented visuals simultaneously. We also analyzed the answers from the workshop we held, and found that the majority of people prefer dimly lit, or cozy places to discuss and the warmer the lighting, the more pleasant the conversation.
As a penultimate step, after designing our space, we decided to construct it and put it to the test. We came up with several possible topics for debate and then finally decided the best topic that concerned everyone at Harvard was the infamous affirmative action lawsuit. We again sent out an open call seeking participants, and were fortunate to have a diverse group turn up. In order to make sure we felt prepared to moderate the discussion, we also reached out to Naseem Khuri, a professor at Tufts University who specializes in moderating similar discussions. The main innovation of our space was focusing the entirety of the experience inward, using a circle that was unbroken until the end of the session. Participants sat around a round table where all questions, prompts, and visuals were projected in front of them, creating no spatial hierarchy and maintaining a palpable sense of equality and respect for each participant.
In our final phase, we thought we would attempt to disseminate our findings. A key feature of our project was the reproducibility of the experience. We created a ‘How to’ manual that walks through our experience, deconstructs the answers we received from the workshop, explains what we learned, and provides the reader with the insight to build their own space.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this entire project was our realization that many people are more than willing to have these difficult conversations and need only to be asked. Their willingness needs to be acted upon more directly and consistently. Maybe then it is the role of Harvard to invest in such a space that encourages individuals to break away from their comfortable spheres of influence and encounter someone who thinks differently. It is in Harvard’s interest to mediate and foster such oppositional encounters since considering the place it occupies in the world. With a variety of people with wide-ranging views, Harvard is one of many ideal laboratories for how spaces like these and the outcomes they seek can be achieved.
NADIA ASFOUR&AIME VAILES-MACARIE
Nadia Asfour has spent most of her life between Beirut and Boston and has grown fascinated by the starkly different views people in each place have about the same topics. Having studied fine arts, and worked in film, she has often experimented with the different subtle messages each media can embed. Nadia continues to explore how design can facilitate social and environmental justice movements, and believes design can play a key role through system, social, or information design.
Aime Vailes-Macarie is trained as an architect and primarily concerned with the ways in which architecture can help solve social ills. Being half African American, Aime is also curious about the way race is invoked as a distraction from larger systemic issues in the US. His work outside of architecture encourages people to go deeper than race despite living in a hyper-racialized society.