Grace Farms continuing work to eliminate slave labor from global supply chain with exhibition

I had the immense honor of attending the third annual Design For Freedom Summit held March 26, 2024 at Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT. The event brought together leaders across the global building supply chain for the purpose of eliminating slave labor from that massive sector of the economy.

As a follow up, on May 4, 2024, Grace Farms will open a new long-term exhibit, With Every Fiber, which aims to inspire people to understand and care about the materials that make up the built world around us. Forced labor (slave labor) is pervasive in our building materials supply chain worldwide, and it is only now being addressed through a collaborative global movement called Design for Freedom, which launched at Grace Farms in 2020.

“First the food industry was called to be accountable to fair labor and supply chain transparency, then fashion, and now shelter is being called to account,” Sharon Prince, Grace Farms CEO and Founder, said.

With Every Fiber is Grace Farms Foundation’s first major initiative to bring the Design for Freedom movement to the public. To do so, Chelsea Thatcher, curator of the exhibit and Grace Farms Creative Director, brought together some of the most committed and innovative leaders in the movement to contribute. The work of 20 preeminent designers, material suppliers, artists, cultural institutions, and construction industry leaders are featured in the exhibit, including Studio Cooke John Architecture + Design, Pentagram, Yale Center for Ecosystems + Architecture, Buro Happold, MillerKnoll, Sherwin-Williams, Sciame Construction, New Canaan Library, Serpentine Galleries, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Joy Harjo, Carrie Mae Weems, Alyson Shotz, Hayes Davidson, Delta Light, Nucor, and North American Stainless.

“This exhibit is a dynamic environment in which people can pause and consider the hands making our building materials,” Chelsea Thatcher, Chief Strategy Officer and Founding Creative Director of Grace Farms Foundation, said. “With Every Fiber is a composition of collaboration; it weaves together the agency each of us has to design a more humane future for all.”

The exhibit is designed by Studio Cooke John Architecture + Design. Its Principal, Nina Cooke John, one of the first architects in the U.S. to commit to embarking on a Design for Freedom Pilot Project, tracked materials for fair labor in a public monument supported by the City of Newark, N.J., called Shadow of a Face, celebrating the life of Harriet Tubman. The concrete cast of Tubman’s eye, used in the creation of the monument, is on view in With Every Fiber.

With Every Fiber responds to Design for Freedom’s efforts to remove the veil covering the reality of unethical labor practices in the construction industry,” Cooke John said. “The exhibit draws Grace Farms visitors – neighbors from across the street and design professionals from around the world – into the space and invites them to contemplate what goes into making our homes, places of work, cultural spaces, and sites for commemoration.”

Cooke John collaborated with MillerKnoll, the first global manufacturing and retail company to support the Design for Freedom movement, to wrap the exhibit in a new façade using a Maharam textile that creates what she calls a “shadow wall” to invite the viewer to notice the architecture in a new way.

On view is the poem Honoring, by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, who was a featured speaker at Grace Farms in 2023, and a text by artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose piece reminds us to “consider the men, women and children who make your lives easier, and theirs harder.” Weems was also a contributor to Grace Farms’ Design for Freedom Report. Also on view are several photos by humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine, including Red, Blue, Black, 2010, from her ongoing Modern Day Slavery series that documents the pain of forced labor and the hope of freedom for those who are exploited. 

The most significant audio component includes an immersive 18-minute recording by a quartet of the London Philharmonic Orchestra of three short works by Purcell, Dvořák, and Mozart.  The selection was initially curated and performed by a string quartet on June 12, 2022, UN World Day Against Child Labor, in London during the opening of the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion — Black Chapel by Theaster Gates, a Design for Freedom Pilot Project.

Ethical Decarbonization

Ethical Decarbonization is a new term proposed by Grace Farms CEO and Founder Sharon Prince with Anna Dyson, Founder of Yale Center for Ecosystems + Architecture (Yale CEA), which recognizes the link between the climate crisis and the embodied suffering of forced labor in the building materials supply chain. The term also illuminates the need to pursue decarbonization strategies that protect ecosystems and those that live within them.

Ethical decarbonization is presented for the first time in this exhibit through research, objects for the viewer to interact with, and an immersive biomaterials installation. T

he biomaterials installation by Yale CEA on view emphasizes the relationship between culture and sustainability by featuring several indigenous materials that are part of UNESCO’s Intangible World Heritage and harvested while keeping ecosystems intact or even improved. The materials are dyed in variations of indigo, referencing a long and complicated history with global trade and labor practices. The biomaterials installation will become the key feature of a full-scale Pavilion at COP 30 in Brazil.

Once the biowall is removed, new components and displays will be added to the exhibit to highlight new, innovative materials that prioritize fair labor and sustainability.

The objects presented in the exhibit are examples of Yale CEA’s research into emerging new materials that are made with circular processes, such as a car part made from agricultural waste.

“If we transition our materials to circular processes, we will reduce the amount of extractive industries that destroy the environment and are among the highest risk for forced labor and unfair labor practices,” Anna Dyson, Founder of Yale CEA said.

The exhibit itself became a site for research and the development of new methods of exhibit design and material tracking.

Buro Happold and Grace Farms created the first Ethical Decarbonization Score Sheet; a simplified way of merging the tracking of carbon and fair labor.

With Every Fiber, has been an exciting opportunity to approach material selection simultaneously through lenses of both embodied carbon and ethical sourcing,” Gabe Guilliams, Principal, Buro Happold, said. “We’ve recognized positive synergies between the two for materials like locally sourced wood, which has a simple supply chain. Most goods in the construction industry have more complex supply chains, where labor practices at raw material points of extraction are commonly unknown.”

Buro Happold also conducted a neurodiversity study, which informed the exhibit’s design to make it as inclusive as possible. In addition, Hayes Davidson developed the virtual With Every Fiber exhibit, layering in new ways for the viewer to understand the journey of the exhibit materials.

“Bringing the With Every Fiber exhibit to life was a year-long journey marked by wonderful collaborations and shared vision,” Eddie Opara, Partner, Pentagram, who led the graphics for the exhibit said. “Along with architect Nina Cooke John of Cooke John, Anna Dyson, and the team at the Yale Center for Ecosystems + Architecture and Grace Farms, we at Pentagram engaged in a deeply creative process, crafting an exhibit that informs and inspires. This endeavor exemplifies how determination, teamwork, and a commitment to ethical practices can initiate real change. It’s been a joy to see how diverse minds uniting for a cause can showcase what is possible and light a path toward a more equitable and sustainable future.”

The exhibit will be free and open to the public at Grace Farms and will be updated annually with new material highlights and artwork. It will also be available online as a virtual exhibit designed by Hayes Davidson, accessible by link to all. Visitors to the exhibit will have the opportunity to learn more through the Bloomberg Connects app and other supporting technology.

About Design for Freedom

Formally launched in 2020 by Grace Farms Foundation’s CEO and Founder Sharon Prince, Design for Freedom reimagines architecture by raising awareness and inspiring responses to disrupt forced labor in the building materials supply chain. The Design for Freedom Working Group comprises more than 100 leaders who together are spearheading a radical paradigm shift and mobilizing the full ecosystem of the built environment.

The movement has raised global awareness, with noted recognition from Fast Company (Most Creative People in Business 2022) and Connecticut Green Building Council (Trailblazer Award, November 2022), and created institutional responses through media, high-profile events such as the Design for Freedom Summit, and international Pilot Projects including the Black Chapel by Theaster Gates (21st Serpentine Pavilion, U.K.) and Nina Cooke John’s Harriet Tubman Monument (Newark, N.J.).

About Grace Farms

Grace Farms is a center for culture and collaboration in New Canaan, Connecticut. Grace Farms brings together people across sectors to explore nature, arts, justice, community, and faith at the SANAA-designed River building and Barns on 80 acres of publicly accessible, preserved natural landscape.

Its humanitarian work to end modern slavery and foster more grace and peace in local and global communities includes leading the Design for Freedom movement to eliminate forced labor in the building materials supply chain.

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