Imagining the Future Now

Cynthia E. Smith

We stood together silently. Above, in rows stretching out ahead and behind us, hung hundreds of memorials to the more than four thousand African Americans lynched in the United States. Each six-foot-tall Corten steel pillar, approximately the size of a person, was etched with a county name and the dates of the acts of racial terrorism that had occurred there, along with the names of the victims.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, comprises more than eight hundred Corten steel monuments, one for each US county in which a racial terror lynching took place. Credit: Cynthia E. Smith © Smithsonian Institution

As we moved outside and down the hill, duplicate monuments, laid out horizon- tally on the ground like caskets, sat ready, waiting for the counties to claim them and bring them home to confront what had happened in their communities.

We had come to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice from the nearby Legacy Museum, where the direct connection between American slavery, the tyranny of lynching and Jim Crow segregation, and the current mass incarceration of Black people is clarified and brought to life. It is fitting that the museum and the memorial are located in Montgomery, Alabama, the city that launched both the civil rights movement and the Confederacy. It signals that even in this conflicted locale we can move forward together toward truth, justice, and reconciliation if we honestly confront the legacy of slavery and racial injustice. The two physical spaces, part of a broader initiative that aims to end mass incarceration, challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable, exemplify a growing movement to envision, design, and build the future we want to live in now.

This concept of prefigurative intervention has roots in the civil rights movement, in which peaceful activists presented an alternative to the injustice they experienced daily, modeling their aims in advance of achieving them.[1] If humans are to survive as a global community, peace activist John Paul Lederach writes, we must find ways to foster moral imagination: the capacity to recognize turning points and possibilities, to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. This means admitting that our current response modes—in which domination provides the only security against being dominated, “us” is pitted against “them,” and violence is the default defense—are failing us. It is necessary to cultivate an interdependent web of relationships and honor its complexity, trust that creative and meaningful change is possible, and seek constructive engagement with the people and things we fear most and least understand.[2]

In response to increasingly urgent social, environmental, and economic inequities, divisions, and crises, a myriad of inspired creative partnerships are surfacing around the world. Designers, architects, and artists are collaborating with disenfranchised youth and stateless people, international aid agencies and community groups, athletes and scientists, and think tanks and foundations, both in their local communities and across international borders. Designing Peace asks us to join with these creative efforts to confront injustice and to imagine new narratives. To build inclusive, participatory societies that value equity and justice, truth and dignity, creativity and mutual cooperation, beauty and difference, and agency and empowerment, and that nurture respect for each other and for our entire ecosystem. To envision a world that is accepting of multiple voices, behaviors, views, and expressions. To begin designing peace, now.

Cynthia E. Smith

Cynthia E. Smith is Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design. She integrates her training as an industrial designer with her advocacy on human rights and social justice issues, organizing a humanitarian-focused design exhibition and publication series, serving on international design juries, and lecturing widely on socially responsible design.

For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented,
and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace
requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is
a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.

— National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

Heavy brown columns, inscribed with names and dates, appear to float above the ground in a memorial structure.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, comprises more than eight hundred Corten steel monuments, one for each US county in which a racial terror lynching took place. Credit: Cynthia E. Smith © Smithsonian Institution


[1] “Prefigurative Politics,” Beautiful Trouble, See also Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell, eds., Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (New York: Or Books, 2016).

[2] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 172–73.