My Trip to the Black Futurism Conference at Harvard

Schuyler Mobley, visual designer at Fifth Tribe, attended the “Black Futurism: Creating A More Equitable Future” conference at Harvard University this past October. The conference explores pathways to liberation through a design lens, considering the historical past and present structural oppression of black and brown communities locally and internationally. The conference will demonstrate how designers, creatives, organizers, educators, and policymakers are imagining more sustainable and equitable futures for black and brown bodies. 

Friday, October 4th



I attended the conference with a fellow designer friend, Karen Spears, where we greeted and checked-in at The Harvard Graduate School of Design. There weren’t any panels during the day, a few keynotes towards the end of the day, but there were a number of exhibits being held throughout the building. We mingled a little with some of the other attendees and explored some of the interactive exhibits.

Saturday, October 5th 

Panel 1: African American Design Nexus (Speakers: Felicia Davis, Allison Grace Williams, Diane Jones Allen)

Seated in the front row, I was amazed at all the power and warmness in the room. It was so exciting to see like-minded individuals who were in the same or similar professions as I. We all got our breakfast and scrambled into the conference room for the first speakers of the day. The African American Design Nexus spoke before the panel. Finally, we were introduced to three black, female architects. I started to realized that Harvard’s design program primarily focused on architectural and urban design, however, most of the tips and information given to us applied within all of our fields. Most of the ladies advocated to explore our individual roots, so that we’re able to create a sustainable future within ourselves and our communities—pushing us to create more confidence and engage in those broader conversations. Another takeaway was to be more proactive when creating. Instead of always making a plan sometimes you have to just “do it”. 


“Eyes open, mouth shut, and pen loaded. There’s power in the pen.” — Diane Jones Allen


An attendee asked the ladies how to take part in a world where the black woman’s voice can be so small. Felicia suggested to “learn how to argue correctly and effectively” if you want to get your point across to someone who make hear you but are not exactly listening. There are power in words, not only power in your voice. In the end, it’s valuable to state your position, place yourself in a neutral place, and say your words clearly. Also, properly promoting yourself and always keep working to make an impact on others; learn how to argue correctly and effectively. Most importantly, change and evolve yourself in your career because you command for it.


“Words by themselves don’t make it legible for others.” — Allison Grace Williams

Black Futurism Conference

Panel 2: Imaging Black Futures: Designing for the Possible (Speakers: Toni Griffin, Kenneth Bailey, Malcolm Davis)


We took a lunch break where we were able to network with other attendees at the event. At the table we got to engage with engineers, urban planners, and other designers. We talked about a range of topics and exchanged information to hopefully create with one another in the future.


The next three speakers came from a range of different backgrounds. Toni Griffin, the Professor in Practice of Urban Planning at the HGSD is the creator of the Just City Lab, a research initiative for developing values-based planning methodologies and tools, including the Jus City Index, a frame work of metrics for evaluating social justice in public space. She was the most outspoken of the group, highlighting that we breakdown the barriers in order to make a change. She asks, would we design better if we put the values of equality, inclusion or equity first?


“We can talk about equity but don’t take it forward and throw it out in the world.” — Toni Griffen


Malcolm Davis, an urban design planner for the Destination Crenshaw project, a 1.2-mile trail celebrating black art and culture within the Crenshaw community. It started off as an unapologetic response to a train (aka gentrification) planned to interrupt the area without consulting the people of the community. What was inspiring about some of his points was that as designers, we have to champion for our voiceless communities. We have to use our skill sets and knowledge to support us.

Panel 3: Black Power Meets the Digital: Equity & Justice in Technology and Media (Speakers: Bridgette Wallace, Jerome Harris, Ari Melenciano, and Billy Almon)


My favorite panel included the only graphic designer of the set of panelists, Jerome Harris. Unforunately we missed part of the beginning of the panel but he did share with us his “As Not For” project, an incomplete historical survey of work created by African-American graphic designers over the last century. The exhibit seeks to question, inspire, activate, and challenge the design community and beyond with the objective of promoting the deep history, design theories and aesthetics of African-Americans. I did speak with him 1-on-1 after the panel and he gave me some pointers on how to strengthen my skillset as a designer.


However, one of my favorite speakers of the entire day was Bridgette Wallace, the creator of [G]Code House, a safe-haven for underprivileged women of color in the urban areas of Boston (ranging from 18-2 years old) with community, mentorship, networking, and leadership opportunities. [G]Code House helps build coding skills for young women, creating pipelines in tech, life skills, and health and wellness. The Victorian-style house also provides housing and education opportunities. What is so beautiful about this space was that it was designed to take action and give back to those who are disadvantaged, specifically for women who can be displaced by numerous situations (I.e. domestic violence, foster care, poverty etc). As a designer, I want my designs to create impact within my communities and to teach others how valuable it is to advocate for ourselves.  


Overall, I had a great experience at the conference. I learned a lot and networked. I truly was inspired by all the things that our generation and past generations have to make a name for themselves in this industry. I hope to attend again next year and maybe I’ll be on that panel! 

Adam Motiwala

Certified in Agile Scrum and Design Thinking, Adam Motiwala is a Product Owner at Fifth Tribe. He has launched digital products with clients across multiple industries such as healthcare (Kaiser Permanente, INOVA, Aetna Innovation Health), finance (KPMG, Guidance Residential, Wahed Invest), NGOs (Oxfam America, AARP Foundation, the Vatican Accelerator, the Hult Prize, Silatech), government (Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Peace Corps), and education (Mississippi Public University). Adam is currently leading a project to help AARP launch a web application in over 30 states across the country that will assist over 10 million low income seniors with learning and applying for property tax credits. He serves as startup mentor at Seed Spot and the Hult Prize accelerator and has been featured in Thrillist, technical.ly, and Arlington Now.