Rachel Kuo, Mon Mohapatra, Rigoberto Guzmán
Abolitionist design (AD) seeks to identify the ways violence permeates laterally across collaborative formations who are trying to dismantle oppressive systems. We have seen different networks collapse because of unresolved internal conflict. As organizers and designers concerned with building and maintaining networks, we asked how we can transmute energy when conflict arises in collaborative spaces without producing lateral violence, or displaced harm directed horizontally against each other rather than our adversaries. If conflict cannot be transformed, how do we close a network in a way that preserves good relations? How do we separate in ways that are healthy? What can we provide to people interested in forming networks that include the possibilities of failure, dissolution, rupture, and endings? And more importantly, how do we build and sustain relationships with one another ? Beyond valuing networks for their speed, distribution, and duration, we must also organize at the scale of relationships, especially when we organize against state violences. Often, our relationships are dependent on an organization, rather than our organizations depending on our relationships.
The three of us have participated in, organized, and convened multiple movement networks and political formations together in New York City. When we first met in April 2020, we were seeking ideas for "co-designing solidarities" within and between networks. We came together to discuss strategies and exchange ideas about horizontal network building. At the time, we were organizing different network gatherings for the 2020 Allied Media Conference and were also grieving the loss and endings of movements we had been a part of. Throughout the pandemic, we maintained a series of studies where we discussed planning as a speculative practice, exchanged notes on healing, and continued to think about the ways in which networks form and dissolve.
We often enter into movement spaces because of trauma, carrying the hurt, the grief, and the scars that come from encounters with state violences. We enter with visions for ending the systems that harm us and make plans to fight and struggle together. In other words, our momentum usually begins from an oppositional framework. From this position, we often neglect to create the preliminary tools or shared languages for addressing the multiple ways in which harm inevitably permeates our movement spaces, what we refer to as lateral violence.
We can anticipate lateral violence by remembering that networks, like all energy configurations, have a life cycle: emergence, when principles and values are established, then growth and maintenance, which emphasize capacity building, and finally, the ending of a network, which may create new offshoots. These iterative loops are non-teleological and don't follow a linear, progressive trajectory. The heart purpose of a network should always be about collective power.
We concluded that designing for democratic movements and participatory design must anticipate endings and exits. In our studies, we began to generate a shared symbolic language, or a set of metaphors, as exit strategies for network organizers. For example, as Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong suggests , fire escapes are built into the infrastructures of buildings as a place to escape during an emergency. The fire escape can also be the place to move away to for a moment, to breathe and to hold a quiet conversation. It can be the place you use to grow medicinal plants or cultivate a small garden. It is there in case you need it. One cannot build a fire escape during an actual fire. Exit strategies are harm reduction strategies for lateral violence.
Readers may take these offerings on anticipating and reducing lateral violences through centering people and relationships before organizations. Abolitionist design seeks refusals, endings, and regenerations rather than reforming or innovating what is already broken. As a model, AD can be applied across a variety of terrains including participatory design, technological development, humanistic and social science research, and movement building.
We need to take time to speculate  in order to build the world we need to heal. We look for relational models that accept transformations and endings. To do so, we ask the following questions:
- What are we caring for?
- Who is our community?
- What are our boundaries?
- Whom do you trust to hold you accountable?
We look toward a reorientation of organizing to focus on care. We seek a better discipline around relationship building and knowing one another. We hope to cultivate spaces in which we can uphold our agreements to one another.
In doing so, we offer a code for divination—a shared language through an assembly of imagery for exit strategies within movement spaces.
Beyond design logics  that seek to create anew to find solutions, we build for long-term sustainability while creating containers, strategies, and circumstances that people need to obtain closure.
- Decipher knowledge by decrypting images you receive from the past and present.
- Speculate about what you may need to know 100 years from now.
- Divine the language you may need to share the knowledge.
- Remember that if we can start things, we can also end them.
1. Ewing, E.L. Mariame Kaba: Everything worthwhile is done with other people. ADI Magazine. Fall 2019; https://adimagazine.com/articles/mariame-kaba-everything-worthwhile-is-done-with-other-people/
2. Vuong, O. The weight of our living: On hope, fire escapes, and visible desperation. The Rumpus. Aug 28, 2014; https://therumpus.net/2014/08/the-weight-of-our-living-on-hope-fire-escapes-and-visible-desperation/
4. Mohapatra, M. Good design…for whom? The New Inquiry. Mar. 27, 2019; https://thenewinquiry.com/good-design-for-whom/
5. Simpson, L.B. Being with the land, protects the land. Abolition Journal. Feb. 21, 2020; https://abolitionjournal.org/being-with-the-land-protects-the-land-leanne-betasamosake-simpson/
Rachel Kuo writes, teaches, and researches race, social movements, and digital technology. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and visiting scholar at Duke University's Asian American and Diasporic Studies program. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mon Mohapatra is an Indian abolitionist, feminist organizer based in New York City working on decarcerating the city's jails and a jail moratorium national network. email@example.com
Rigoberto Lara Guzmán is a Mexican producer, organizer, and conduit. They live in the forest as a remote worker in the technology research environment facilitating dialogue on issues of data governance and decolonial computation. firstname.lastname@example.org
Scrying identifies demons. It can be a tool to locate where problems are through the use of reflective surfaces (e.g., mirrors, crystals, water).
DO NOT DISTURB
"Has left the chat." If your group begins to spiral into lateral harm, leave the conversation.
An organizing body that gathers together to steward land —to love and tend to a space. Growing a garden is a slow, iterative process and it can be an organizing tactic based on maintenance and care.
a hammock is a sling made of rope or netting used for swinging, sleeping, and resting. it is a woven patterning of rope meshed together to sustain and hold weight.
it is a restorative device suspended between two or more anchor points held together in tension (trees are reliable anchor points).
a hammock is a space to nap and daydream, to look up at the sky. a space to forget and remember.
you need a strong knot to hold a hammock, a knot that won't slip or loosen under pressure but is easy to undo.
the word hammock comes from the Taino hamaka. it is an indigenous technology developed by cultures that valued rest.
you can certainly make love on a hammock, or just cradle yourself into a womb state.
Tree padding is a form of harm reduction. The purpose of padding a tree is to avoid a rope scar. Rope damage can expose the tree to infection and pest infiltration. Prolonged tension may constrict the vertical flow of nutrients and stunt the tree's growth.
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