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Issue 10 Jul 25, 2023

Learning and Imagining Reparations with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics

Erik DeLuca examines the ongoing project of reparations in Boston by investigating the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics—an experimental civic design agency within the city government.

Feature by Erik DeLuca

An artwork by Estrella Rodriguez Tabares that resembles the core of a tree.

Estrella Rodriguez Tabares, "Seed, gathered, translated, and connected forms of the Earth" (2023). Photographed by Jason Christopher Higgins.

Colonialism, slavery, and genocide are nestled into everything. My students, who teach art in K–12 public schools across Massachusetts, feel the effects of this dysfunctional reality in the cracks of their broken schools with overworked faculty and antiquated curricula. We are inspirited, though, by teaching the role of creativity in asking difficult questions, supporting different value systems, taking risks, and improvising. For a model, we often look to the New York–based nonprofit Center for Urban Pedagogy, which, since 1997, has been imagining the future of students in public schools using the power of art and participatory design. When I recently started teaching community-engaged courses at Massachusetts College of Art And Design (MassArt), I learned about a similar group in Boston. My students and I went to city hall to meet them. 

Initiated in 2010, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) is a city government research and design team that rejects traditional standards of success in favor of experimentation. It recently prototyped a project (“Moving Through the Budget”) that uses storytelling and dance to guide Boston residents through the puzzling city budget. The team has launched a range of projects that deal with food and housing insecurity, access to college, surveillance, broken city infrastructure, and climate justice. With newly hired MONUM members who focus on spatial justice, the possibilities for projects that directly confront the systemic problem of a possessive investment in whiteness are timely. 

Midway through our tour of city hall, MONUM led the class through Mayor Wu’s personal office. We noticed a Paddington Bear puzzle on her desk—a gift left for Wu’s kids from Prince William and Kate Middleton when they were in town for the corporate Earthshot Prize, whose goal is “to find and grow the solutions that will repair our planet.” My students took selfies with the royal puzzle as the conversation ironically turned to the nuances of reparations.

I encourage my students to approach the task of reparations as grounded in active learning, a mode that I also follow. Infused with the values of the person using the word, the global project of reparations is amorphous, with recourse to a vast history of context-specific circumstances. For example, when Haiti achieved independence in 1804, they were ludicrously required to pay reparations to France for dismantling their enslavement. Equally astonishing, in 1979 the Narragansett Indian Tribe were made to relinquish all preexisting government land claims in order to receive 1,800 acres of land that was stolen from them in Charlestown, Rhode Island. The context of reparations is specific in Timothy Pigford’s 1997 lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture for racial discrimination in farming practices; within the Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy report on the restitution of African cultural heritage; and for Norwich resident Tamara Lanier, who wants Harvard to return photographs of her enslaved ancestors Renty and Delia. As a recipient of citizenship restitution, my identity will forever exist within Germany’s robust reparations project, which has mutated into a toxic memory culture in Europe and North America founded on Holocaust guilt. Meanwhile, the same German reparations money that my family received continues to fund more violence and dispossession for Palestinian humanity through a structure of apartheid in Israel. In these cases, reparations are focused on recalling past harms. Moving forward, philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò maps out reparations that are “central to the expansive project of building a more just world.” (1)

Following efforts in Providence, Rhode Island, and a host of other US cities, Boston’s government convened in late 2022 to start their own Reparations Task Force (a wing of the government that current MONUM members were clear to separate themselves from, though MONUM was enthusiastic about collaborating with the Task Force if called upon). Amid official apologies, memorial programs, and the removal of statues, the Task Force centers cash payments to Black Bostonians for white accumulation of capital from slavery. While essential, Táíwò warns readers in his book Reconsidering Reparations that payments for past harms can operate as a distraction from systemic change. For example, he explains that “cash transfers directly redistribute social advantages in a powerful way, but they do not directly redistribute disadvantages: including the vulnerability to environmental harm and the burden of climate policy.” Nigel Jacob, cofounder of MONUM—who now works with the Boston Society for Architecture—explained to me recently that cash reparations are “a good way, but not the only way. It’s also about building trustful relationships.” 

Both Jacob and Táíwò strategize reparations to fix local systems of inequity on a networked, worldmaking scale. This happens through an intersectional approach where race, gender, and class discrimination are foregrounded when making safer neighborhoods, better schools, a less punitive criminal justice system, fair healthcare and housing, and in the recontextualization (or removal) of monuments. In networked worldmaking, these reparations are synergistically interlinked with global issues of freedom and security related to oppressive surveillance modalities. My students and I are activated by this expansive approach to reparations because we can see our unique skills in art education being used to imagine and rehearse ways forward. 

MONUM led the class from Wu’s personal office to the Eagle Room. As we sat around the policymaking table, my students made the observation that MONUM is an agency within the government that generates overlooked ideas, recognizes alternatives, and tests possibilities for being in communion. This is also how my students approach their creative processes and teaching. For the first time, my students began to see themselves within the activity of the government. They noticed connections between their work in poetry, performance, collage, sculpture, sound art, and experimental curricular development within MONUM’s civic design. In my own reflections of this moment, I recalled Robin D. G. Kelley’s passage in Freedom Dreams:

“Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society. We must remember that the conditions and the very existence of social movements enable participants to imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way.” 

Soon after our visit to city hall, I sat down with Jacob for a conversation. He made it clear that a more just Boston, for MONUM, is about building trust within a tense city hall and its constituents. “We connect with as many people as possible, about a challenge, an issue, or an opportunity on how to make Boston better. We’re trying to see if there’s an idea that we can test together.” Along with Jacob’s current projects geared toward abolitionist approaches to civic design and circular economy, he was excited to tell me about an early MONUM prototype that intended to revamp traditional community planning meetings.

In 2008, Harvard was buying up Allston (a practice that continues); community planning meetings were erupting into fights because people didn’t feel heard within an increasingly gentrified city. In collaboration with the Engagement Lab at Emerson College and the Boston Planning and Development Agency, Jacob facilitated Hub2. The project used the virtual world of Second Life to engage residents in the planning of a neighborhood park behind the Honan-Allston Public Library. The project consisted of in-person workshops where residents explored a to-scale virtual model of the park and its surrounding infrastructure. In real time, residents could move around the virtual park and offer design priorities. Workshop facilitators implemented these design priorities immediately into the 3D model of the virtual park for consideration. Residents were also asked to role play within the virtual park through avatars of different identity perspectives. Throughout, residents could leave comments within the virtual park and plant flags by areas of interest. Residents could then vote on what was flagged. 

To help guide these augmented community planning meetings, youth interpreters were hired to aid residents who struggled with this new technology. Jacob reiterated that Hub2 facilitated a multiplicity of dialogues of differing perspectives at once. Each augmented community planning meeting generated a virtual sketch that was then made available to the architects and planners. Hub2 has transformed into additional MONUM projects like Participatory Chinatown (to consider different planning scenarios) and Community PlanIt (to facilitate contentious debates and solicit feedback about the quality of Boston Public Schools). Jacob reiterated that “by focusing on dialogue we have a chance to make things better, to talk it through, and to learn from one another. It’s about building empathy in the community.” He and his collaborators offer Hub2 as a potential tool for non-domination to be embedded within city infrastructure. Jacob made it clear that Hub2 and other projects like “Moving Through the Budget” aren’t perfect, but they embody the “experimentation needed for democracy.” 

The other day, I talked to MONUM’s first director of civic design for the city, Sabrina Dorsainvil (who has since moved on from the team). Dorsainvil is now the director of design strategy and creative practice at Agncy, a nonprofit that uses design as a tool to reduce structural inequity. She makes the invisibility of redlining practices visible. In our conversation, she asked me, “How do we repair the irreparable systemic cut? What do we need to learn about ourselves in order to heal?” Dorsainvil reminded me that she doesn’t use the word “we” lightly. She clarified that the “we” in her question was meant to hold reparations up as a global project that everybody needs to participate in. Táíwò reinforces this point by explaining that “since the injustice that reparations responds to is global and distributive, the constructive view helps explain what reparations needs to accomplish: building a just distribution.” To accomplish this, merely using the language of reparations (involving diversity, equity, and inclusion) isn’t enough and can’t become a stopgap.

At the inauguration of Dr. Mary K. Grant as the thirteenth president of MassArt—Dorsainvil was in the audience with me—Governor Maura Healey and Boston Chief of Arts and Culture Kara Elliott-Ortega gave short speeches. In different ways they all asked how art and design might work its way into policy change. To focus on art’s ability to conjure up critical questioning about redress, Dr. Grant, in her speech, offered a powerful analysis of a new symbolic reparation on Boston Common. The Embrace is an immense bronze sculpture created by Hank Willis Thomas and funded by the nonprofit Embrace Boston that depicts an embrace between Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. While this sculpture is immeasurably valuable, it can’t restore life, voting rights, or financial losses caused by racialized economic structures. The impossibilities of restitution are considered within worldbuilding reparations via never-ending processes of learning and unlearning, making and remaking. Along this path forward it will be impossible to agree on every aspect of a new world. Táíwò explains that the transition to justice “will come with its share of benefits and burdens […] Even in times of immense political opportunity, the possibilities for change are profoundly constrained by the balance of power we inherit from centuries past.”

Boston has a rich history of groups like the Combahee River Collective that focused on worldbuilding. Similarly, today, organizations like the Design Studio for Social Intervention, Boston Ujima Project, Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville, and MassArt’s Center for Art and Community Partnerships are carrying on with their own context-specific reparations. I’d like to call MONUM different from these influential organizations because it is uniquely situated to unwire injustice from within the government using taxpayer money. As pinpointed by my students during our city hall visit, MONUM is positioned to facilitate the link between policy change and art that Healey, Elliott-Ortega, and Grant mentioned. My students and I are particularly interested in working with MONUM on a project (potentially using Hub2 or performance/dance modalities) where we rehearse and strategize curricular plans and class schedules that are conducive to building networks of trust in the K–12 public school art classroom. We’ll bring these ideas to MONUM soon (they have open office hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays).

At the end of my conversation with Jacob, we moved from topics about risk aversion and imperialist projects of extraction to innovation (as treated through a corporate lens). At one point I mentioned that mechanics repair broken things. Jacobs’ response drew a parallel between that seemingly everyday practice and the work of organizations like MONUM, “mechanics don’t build from scratch. They work to repair what’s already there.”

1. Olúfémi O. Táíwò, “The Fight for Reparations Cannot Ignore Climate Change,” Boston Review, January 10, 2022, https://www. 

This piece was originally published in Issue 10: RECALL, our spring/summer 2023 issue. Order it here.

Erik DeLuca


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