On a chilly day inside The New School’s Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, dozens of designers, policy experts, students, and activists huddled together in circles, sipping coffee and jotting down answers to questions on white index cards.
Nicole Foirtier shared her answer to the question, “Who should be involved in a dialogue about incarceration?”
“Those caught up in the system and their loved ones,” said Foirtier, a counsel in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “They shouldn’t be isolated from the prosecutors. They shouldn’t be left out of the discussion.”
The question was one of many that came up during brainstorming sessions at the launch of Humanities Action Lab (HAL), a New School–based international hub where the humanities and design come together to foster public engagement with urgent social issues.
After sharing their answers to several questions, (“What histories should we share?” “How might we engage?” “What can we achieve?”) participants tagged the index cards to color-coded walls. A blueprint for a dialogue on incarceration began to emerge.
Launched on January 5, HAL brings together stakeholders from around the world to create traveling public projects and exhibitions on the past, present, and future of pressing social issues. Its first initiative, Global Dialogues on Incarceration, addresses the United States’ position as the world’s leader in incarceration: It imprisons more of its people than any other country, and more now than at any other time in its history.
“We were pleased to have so many different people—scholars of incarceration, formerly incarcerated individuals, advocates, and policy experts—who have such deep, yet diverse kinds of expertise to bring to bear on this question of how we build a public memory of mass incarceration,” said Liz Sevcenko, co-director of Humanities Action Lab. “The meeting was the foundational moment for identifying what we remember from the past and raising questions in the present.”
At the January 5 conference, participants took cues from a panel discussion on incarceration with Jeffrey Smith, assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy; Marie Gottschalk, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania; and Glenn Martin, founder and chief risk taker at JustLeadershipUSA.
The following day, participants in The Humanities and Technology Camp (ThatCamp)—an “unconference” in which humanists and technologists learn and build together—descended on HAL to brainstorm ways to develop a digital platform for a national discussion on crime and punishment.
HAL, which is funded through a grant from The Institute of Museum and Library Services, will continue for three years. During that time, stakeholders will link up for additional courses, opportunities and events in which they will collaboratively design, implement, and evaluate a nationally traveling exhibition, a Web platform, and public dialogue strategies. The first exhibition will begin its run in spring 2016.
Surveying the collage of white postcards blanketing the walls of the Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, Sevcenko noted that incarceration is not confined to the walls of a prison—it is an issue that touches everyone.
“Some people speak of a carceral state—a system that has permeated so many aspects of life, from relationships between neighborhoods and law enforcement to the continuum of surveillance to discriminatory policing and racial profiling,” she said. “It’s something in which everyone is implicated, something everyone should address.”