Old Boy Justin Brown ‘96 visited St. Bernard’s last week. Justin is a co-founder of MASS Design Group, a non-profit architecture firm with an inspiring mission, to promote social justice and human dignity through the built environment. Justin gave a presentation of his work to the Upper School boys and then visited a fifth grade social justice class.
The MASS mission statement begins, “Architecture is never neutral. It either heals or hurts.” To Justin, architecture should be more than just a beautiful design, it should inspire hope and create quantifiable positive social impact. So often the “built world reflects the power structures that fund it” and often the needs of the people who use the space are forgotten. Justin and his team designed a hospital in Rwanda that was built with the patient in mind with simple ideas, like having the patient beds facing outwards to the outdoor view instead of inward facing other sick patients.
Justin was also the project architect for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a powerful memorial to the thousands of racial terror lynchings that took place in the United States, which were largely ignored in history books. Justin recommended we read the work of Bryan Stevenson to understand better the process of truth telling and reconciliation the memorial seeks to facilitate.
Justin is currently working with his team to revitalize downtown Poughkeepsie, New York, and other cities like it. An exhibition at the Center for Architecture on view through January 18, 2020, called Fringe Cities explores the traumatic effects of Urban Renewal in small American cities and the organizations on the ground working to help heal those wounds.
Another installation developed in partnership with Dr. Baz Dreisinger and Hank Willis Thomas called The Writing on the Wall, on the High Line earlier this month, drew attention to the voices of incarcerated people around the world. It invites us to see the humanity of individuals made invisible by mass incarceration. While it is no longer on view in New York, the team aspires for it to travel to sites nationally and internationally.
After the lecture, Justin took an impromptu visit to a Grade V Social Justice class, a serendipitous occurrence, as the topic is close to Justin’s heart and the class greatly benefited from hearing his thoughts on the subject. The class talked about various atrocities that go unmentioned in traditional history texts and Justin seemed impressed that these types of conversations are taking place at St. Bernard’s. He said it is important to begin having these tough discussions as a group at an early age.
We thank Justin for coming back to St. B’s to share his insights. He is certainly an inspiring role model for our boys to look up to.