Calls for Change: On Race and Racism in Practice and Pedagogy, Policy and Design

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June 6, 2020

In the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions, governments, businesses, and individuals have added their voices and intentions to the eruption of protests and the forces behind them.

Both in the media and in the streets, a challenge to all is that the long history of racial injustice and anti-black violence and demands for change must be grappled with in the complex context of our time — and to see the convergence of voices and actions from people who bring different perspectives and resources to the table.

AAP black alumni who are leaders in design pedagogy and practice are part of the national dialogue on a shared vision and calls for coordinated actions for justice and change.

In the space of no more than a month, Chicago-based architect and National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) president Kimberly Dowdell (B.Arch. '06) has offered several interviews, comments, and public statements on racial inequities and injustices.

For cities like New York and Chicago, where communities of color are being disproportionately stricken by COVID-19, Dowdell emphasizes the importance of policy design over physical design. Dowdell told Archinect, "It comes down to how resources are allocated, and how people are able to move about in their environments," and urges government to invest in the under-resourced parts of Chicago as well as its youth. Her "ALL in for NOMA" platform and NOMA's new Fellows Program are part of that effort.

Days later, as protests escalated with outrage and demands for justice over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Dowdell pressed the issue in a statement released on May 31 — the 99th anniversary of the racially-motivated burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. NOMA's Public Statement Regarding Racial Injustice outlines NOMA's new mission statement and strategic plan for change that the organization had been working on for the past several months.

NOMA's mission, rooted in a rich legacy of activism, is to empower our local chapters and membership to foster justice and equity in communities of color through outreach, community advocacy, professional development, and design excellence.

"If we can promote these basic ideas in our firms, our organizations, and in our communities, our nation will be better for it," writes Dowdell. "Only then, can we target our energy and creativity towards designing a better world for all."

Joining NOMA, the American Institute of Architects, Cornell, and other institutions, University of Southern California School of Architecture Dean Milton F. Curry (B.Arch. '88) also issued a statement on June 2 that, according to alumnus Sekou Cooke (B.Arch. '99), "stands out in its unapologetic ownership of architecture's direct involvement in and responsibility to confront this country's history of racism and violence."

"Collectively, we too are the guardians of the democratic space and civic imaginations," Curry says. "An intersectional approach to address the root causes of racism (and other forms of discrimination) will yield the most productive results."

"The intellectual project of the university is simultaneously a deeply democratic project based on a core intention and determinate aspiration that accessibility for all yields opportunity and upward social mobility. . . The principles and values that motivate us as practitioners, designers, and scholars must be in alignment with how we organize our school, invest in our collective future, and innovate with purpose and intentionality."

Curry ends his statement with a challenge "to think about specific ways in the coming academic year that we can — together — develop syllabi, courses, seminars, and research projects on how to address structural racism in the built environment."

Cooke's commentary for Architectural Record: "Blackout: Amplifying the Voices of Blackness Within Architecture" was spurred by the recent #Blackouttuesday action and a number of questions around representation, media, and the role of architects who both teach and practice.

"The idea that Black and designer, or Black and architect, can be one and the same is absent from the language used by many of these leaders of architectural education," Cooke writes. "Any wokeness embedded in public messaging from the profession at large is undermined by its presumed Whiteness."

Furthermore, "Instead of trying to use design to fix society, let's bring structural racism, systematic oppression, white supremacy, white privilege, and police violence into our design studios for interrogation. In doing so, we will learn far more about our world than through any process focused solely on solutions."

Architectural Record also recently published an opinion piece, "In Education and Practice, Architecture Fails to Hear Black Voices," by architect and educator Cory Henry (M.Arch.'12), who notes a dire lack of "narratives that speak to the black experience or a wider range of socioeconomic conditions." Henry points out a resulting failure to properly address crisis conditions, leaving black voices "unheard by society — and by the architecture profession."

Artist-activist and AAP visiting critic Amanda Williams (B.Arch. '97) invited a further challenge by asking followers of AAP's #Blackouttuesday Instagram post to replace COVID-19 with "RACIST" in the title of AAP's recent story titled "CRP Faculty on the COVID-19 Crisis and the Post-pandemic City."

When asked for further comment, Williams acknowledged AAP Dean J. Meejin Yoon's willingness to make fundamental shifts in thought that will lead to meaningful actions — and adds, "I can't help but note that the urgency is in fact not now. This has been urgent for me for 45 years, and 157 days. It's been urgent for people that look like me since this country was founded on principles in which Black Lives not only didn't matter, they did not exist. Black lives were chattel property."

"I'm struck, that the vast majority of these declarations and statements issued across academia and the country, are actually still not speaking to me. They are lovely examples of performative empathy, wokeness, and privilege. I don't need any more conversations about race and design. I don't need any more workshops to understand what diversity looks like in the classroom or workplace."

Williams asks for whom these statements are intended. "No more talking is needed," she said. "Measured, dispassionate pledges of substantial financial resources to proven methods of creating equitable spaces are all I need to see to let me know the sentiment is genuine. Reflection, self-education can happen in tandem. The kind of action we need to see isn't predicated on those who've historically enjoyed power, reflecting on that power. Redistribution of that power is what is urgent, and has been."

"Dean Yoon has enthusiastically agreed to meet with a critical mass of black and brown alums who have called for structural changes to how the school should operate. We are willing allies for action and looking forward to urgency becoming permanency."

By Patti Witten

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