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Racial Inequity in Social Impact Design

June 21, 2017
Courtesy of Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation

Courtesy of Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation

By: Christopher Scott

“You are either so new to public interest design that you are excusably naïve, or so seasoned in the industry that your wisdom defies questioning.” These were the poignant words a seasoned professional once shared with me during the naïve phase of my career.

Like many designers striving for social impact, I wear many hats. With one hat I work for Enterprise Community Partners where I direct the preeminent public interest design fellowship known as the Rose Architectural Fellowship. In my role I oversee architectural designers operating in racially segregated low-income communities across the United States.

I also founded the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, an upstart placed-based nonprofit organization operating in the Parkside neighborhood of Philadelphia. In this role I am leading the revitalization of an impoverished community using design thinking and built environment interventions as a core tool to equitable revitalization.   

In short, I am both an outsider and an insider. I am an outsider in the sense that I am an African American entrepreneur working in a grassroots context. I am an insider in the sense that as the Rose Architectural Fellowship director I guide the largest grant program within one of the foremost national funding intermediaries. In short, I am both part of the top-down infrastructure that determines how minority entrepreneurs access the critical funding support they need, and I’m also a grassroots minority entrepreneur trying access funding from that same top-down funding infrastructure.

These dual hats provide me a unique vantage point on the issues of racial inequity in the impact design field that both frame my perspective and move me to dismantle the established structure from within.


An outsider’s challenge

The Parkside neighborhood I mentioned above is a common lens through which to view the complex contradictions that face disinvested communities of color across the United States. Parkside is situated next to two gems of the city of Philadelphia – Fairmount Park and the Philadelphia Zoo – and mere minutes from Center City and some of the nation’s best health and educational institutions. Yet Parkside, like many of the city’s neighborhoods, remains a racially segregated community, deeply isolated from the economic vitality, public investment and cultural attention that other parts of the city often receive. This isolation is the continuing legacy of policies and institutional practices that go beyond just the city, to state and federal structural racism of the past and present. As a result, the deep poverty and racial segregation that surround Parkside are familiar to many urban neighborhoods of color that have faced years of disinvestment.

Launching the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation was viewed as a catalyzing agent to reverse the disinvestment that has historically plagued this community of color. And though I was naïve at the time I launched the organization, I suspected our organization would encounter challenges in our ability to raise money in order to carry out our placed-based design initiatives. At one point I expressed this skepticism to my friend Jessica, who also served as an observer on the organization’s Board of Trustees; specifically, I told her that our minority-led nonprofit was at a disadvantage in obtaining the necessary funding simply because we were minority-led. She seemed to dismiss my concern as being overly sensitive. She thought I was expressing the type of sentiment suited for a bygone era.  At that time I was, in her view, too new and naïve to know what I was talking about.

Soon after this conversation Jessica accompanied me on a site visit of a building I wanted to make our nonprofit’s headquarters. The building needed minor renovation to make it habitable, and we identified a philanthropic foundation that seemed interested in providing the funding we would need to renovate the property. At one point in the visit the funder, a white man, pulled Jessica aside. I was mystified as to why the funder needed to speak with Jessica privately, but ultimately they returned from their sidebar with good news; our organization would receive the grant to renovate the building.

Jessica called me on the back of the site visit, sounding shocked. Apparently during the sidebar the funder asked her how much funding she thought he should give to my organization. She thought it was strange that the funder would ask for her blessing to fund the organization since she was just a passive onlooker during the site visit; but in hindsight she connected the dots, both she and the funder were white. If I hadn’t previously expressed my concerns about the racial inequity minority entrepreneurs face, she may not have even recognized this form of racial bias in one of its most subtle forms.

Stories like what I am relaying are not extraordinary, and that is an unfortunate reality of structural racial bias. In their article “Nonprofit success? It is a matter of black and white,” the Philadelphia Business Journal quantified the degree to which the experience of black-led nonprofits differ from the experience of white-led nonprofits. Not surprisingly, black-led nonprofits have a much harder time securing the resources and social capital they require within the established funding infrastructure set-up to deliver resources to mission based organizations (top-down funders). The article goes on to chart a clear course of action to building a more inclusive nonprofit ecosystem by addressing the funding and intermediary network that supports mission-based work. Effectively the article proposed changing the structure from within those established networks.


What is structural racial bias?  

I’ll return to this idea of changing the system from within shortly. First it is necessary to couch any proposed, and improved, solutions in an understanding of the roots of structural racism that have yielded detrimental outcomes.

Whether through funding or policy, our top-down institutions, infrastructure and intermediary networks have historically operated with blind spots around racially equitable outcomes, effectively leading to more poverty and more racial segregation. Consider this: the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), formed as an agency to help expand access to housing, explicitly refused to back loans to black people or anyone who lived near black people. A practice commonly known as redlining, this policy “destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived” and reshaped large swaths of our urban form.

On the heels of the disinvestment caused by redlining practices, Urban Renewal practices (again initially well-intentioned) that followed too often obliterated those same segregated minority neighborhoods. Urban Renewal was a nationwide program aimed at maintaining the dominant position of central cities in the face of decades of rapid suburbanization sparked by the FHA’s racially biased policies. The problem was that Urban Renewal was yet another solution conceived without a basis in racially equitable outcomes. As a result, Federal legislation enabled the public-private partnerships behind Urban Renewal’s implementation to effectively cede public interest to private developers who would then redevelop properties without regard for the impoverished residents they were displacing in the process.


The role of the architect

In fairness to the established social and funding infrastructure previously mentioned, the pendulum is, I believe, moving toward a more racially equitable consciousness. National intermediaries, including Enterprise Community Partners, are bringing racial equity into the core of their missions. The implications for the role of the designer engaged in placed-based work is significant.

Within this evolution, the design process itself becomes more democratic and more collaborative. Participatory design naturally flows from this ethos of design practice, a practice in which architectural designers are uniquely positioned to be the connective tissue between the visions of racially marginalized individuals and the top-down infrastructure that should be positioned to serve those individuals.

If the discussion of redlining and Urban Renewal feels too distant in time, then perhaps the present-day events of an Indigenous community in Standing Rock, North Dakota can bring to the fore how easily it is, even today, for marginalized communities to have their rights, their land, their heritage trampled on.

Kaziah Haviland, the Rose Architectural Fellow currently working on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, just a stone’s throw from Standing Rock, is keenly aware of the role of race within the story of poverty. The racial equity lens that Kaziah brings to her work helps her do her job more responsively to the Indigenous population she serves. Rather than just building additional housing on the reservation, Kaziah is helping to design a regenerative community that is rooted in years of a participatory design process led by the local, grassroots organization with whom she currently works. It is a process that centers itself on revitalizing the culture and people first and then having the built environment reflect that rebirthed vision. In short, the design process is putting people and culture first and centering them throughout the process to achieve more racially equitable outcomes.

By engaging the residents in the creation of their physical environment, Kaziah is helping this community of color create stronger self-driven ownership of their heritage. This is a tectonic shift from the previous generation of housing development on Native American reservations, a process by which the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) imposed a flawed Indigenous identity by delivering generic housing that muted the heritage of those inhabiting the housing.

An example of a HUD "Cluster Home", the common housing built in the 1970s-80s on the Pine Ridge Reservation – courtesy Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

An example of a HUD “Cluster Home”, the common housing built in the 1970s-80s on the Pine Ridge Reservation – courtesy Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

These are not just aesthetic outcomes. The process Kaziah and the organization are undertaking is the physical manifestation of a new collaborative response to centuries of racial inequities. In this new process, Indigenous communities work with designers to ensure that the outcomes meet their needs with dignity and with ownership over their destiny.


An insider’s solution

Kaziah’s experience on the Pine Ridge Reservation is an example of the critical role a designer can play in changing structural racism from the bottom-up, through grassroots community-based work that elevates racial equity in the built form. However, the structural racial biases that produce inequity will persist until practitioners working within the system redouble our efforts to bring about structural change. From my insider role at Enterprise Community Partners, I will share the real steps I’m taking to change the structure from within.

  •  Push for racial diversity: Within the Rose Architectural Fellowship, we are taking intentional steps to support place-based nonprofit organizations that are led by and operated by people of color. We are proud that the diversity of our Fellowship cohort exceeds diversity statistics in the architecture industry at large, but we recognize that we can improve our recruiting process to be more accessible to minority designers.
  •  Apply a racial equity lens to our work: Something interesting happens when you layer a racial equity lens into your work; you likely arrive at a different solution than you would have otherwise. For instance, when we applied that racial equity lens to the work of the Fellowship, we discovered that a fellowship program that had exclusively been for architects must necessarily factor in contemporary discussions around the role of open space in producing racially equitable outcomes. As a result, for the first time in the Fellowship’s 17 year history we are including landscape architecture fellows as a means by which to explore solutions to racial inequity and displacement.
  •  Continue having discussions about race: The most important thing we can continue to do as practitioners and as an industry is to keep grappling with race, however messy those conversations may be, in order to uncover our racial biases.


99% odds for the path forward

I am no longer so new to the public interest design field that I am excusably naïve. I am also not so seasoned in the industry to be unquestionable. What I am, is like the 99% of you reading this, some hue of grey between those black-and-white poles of one’s career.

Rather than the conversation of race being reserved for the few members of those two career stages, let’s expand the tent of those instigating the race conversations within our work. Doing so is risky because these conversations are often messy. I undoubtedly took a risk telling my story, given I will need to go back to the same white funder one day for additional support. However, what I surfaced was not that the funder was racist, far from it, I don’t believe the funder is racist. But that’s also not the point.

The point is that even our most well-intentioned efforts, be it those solved through funding or public policy or architecture processes, are prone to our unconscious bias. Those biases undergird an overarching structural racial bias in our culture. A central way to move beyond that racial bias is to engage in conversations that help us see these biases, in all their subtle forms – and in every moment – so that we can center the solutions we propose with a view toward improving outcomes for all.

Christopher Scott serves as program director for the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship. His professional experience includes real estate finance, renewable energy and non-profit community development. In his community development capacity, he led the creation of the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation in Philadelphia. Christopher holds a B.S in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Urban Planning from Harvard University.

One Comment

  1. Kathy Jackson June 21, 2017 at 6:22 PM

    Mr. Scott has written an excellent article describing the biases faced with people of color in community structure and design. It enlightenments the barriers we still face in this millennium; sadly comparison to historical factors.
    I applaud Christopher in his openness to address the issues to those of us who are truly naïve, yet aware of the systematic problem of racial barriers in society today.
    Keep up the good work!

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