Air, water, and soil pollution in poor communities causes disproportionate cancer, asthma, and other diseases. This is a matter of policy. A growing city like Philadelphia consumes accelerating amounts of resources, and that waste is mostly sent to poor communities for landfill, incineration, or alternative waste-based biofuels. The Design Activist Institute addresses up-stream resource reduction, re-use, fresh food availability, and composting, all of which ease the burden on pollution in surrounding communities.
Philadelphia is poised with the potential for increased green space, lowered automobile emissions, a vast urban farm network, and various other revolutionary ecological ideas. But environmental racism (the de facto scenario by which oppressed communities are treated as “forgotten zones”, the dumping grounds for larger cities’ pollutants and waste), is one of Philadelphia’s most egregious and invisible challenges.
The Design Activist Institute battles environmental racism in the poor communities where waste from relatively wealthy Philadelphia is landfilled or incinerated by encouraging waste reduction or re-use. Objectively, the Institute seeks a statistical reduction in waste sold to incinerators outside the city, a reduction in airborne toxins in cities where Philadelphia’s waste is incinerated, a reduction in fresh food waste, a statistical increase in composting, a decrease in fresh produce waste, an increase in electronic device parts re-use, or an increase in per capita garden plots in the city of Philadelphia.
The Institute is a series of biweekly summer workshops in service of grassroots community groups, using strategic design thinking, investigative research, and community engagement. A collaborative studio system will bring together designers at all points in their careers with writers, researchers, engineers, activists, students, and other experts. It is crucial that the Institute partner with the communities most affected by these issues in order to drive decision-making procedures. Lilla Watson’s “mutual liberation” quote will act as one of the founding principles.
A direction team will serve as moderators and group facilitators. They will conduct research before and throughout the summer program in order to debrief the participants. The direction team focuses on pushing resistance, to dissuade participants away from middling projects that are merely temporary solutions against the larger monolith of the climate crisis. Up-to-date readings on climate change are presented each week, not to cause futility or despair but to inspire passion and urgency. The Institute is guided to create a design intervention in order to implement lasting, palpable change.
Collaborative studio sessions are held every other Thursday evening throughout the summer, interspersed with optional monthly Saturday field trips to study and observe various contributive aspects of the project. Every other studio session begins with a short presentation and group discussion with environmental activists. Participants form working groups based on shared objectives and project ideas, with group ideation influencing collective direction.
Participants collaboratively build outside-of-the-box or established concepts, such as design systems for composting, electronic device hacking and reuse applications, fresh produce waste reduction guides, educational books and sites regarding the lifecycle of Philadelphia’s waste, websites, short videos or web series, minimalist satirical plays, lecture series and presentation videos, local gardening zines, bulletin boards, live community events, or opinion-editorial infographics projects. The final projects continue on beyond the close of the sessions in the form of events, programs, distribution, media campaigns, and publication.