Enterprise Daylighting the Numbers
By Mia Scharphie
Design is full of good intentions. As designers, we just love that conceptual design phase when creativity rules and the renderings are so promising.
But good intentions are not enough. Especially in social impact design. Our design work is often meant to intervene in broken systems, using the power of objects, experiences and spaces to repair the world. However, if our socially-minded design work is not creating the ultimate impacts we intend them to, we need to ask why and what needs to change about our work or the systems we work within.
For this reason, the design initiatives team at Enterprise Community Partners, for which I serve as a creative director, created Design for Outcomes. Design for Outcomes is an ongoing initiative to develop design tools for achieving specific outcomes—like population health, our educational attainment—and then to track and understand whether those goals have been reached.
Recently we decided to take this lens of outcomes-based thinking to an important internal issue: racial equity in our flagship program of the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship.
We know that the architecture field does not have a great track record when it comes to inviting, involving and embracing people of color into its profession. In 1968, civil rights activist Whitney Young Jr. was invited to address the American Institute of Architects national convention, and took the opportunity to excoriate the field:
“[A]s a profession, you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.
Now, you have a nice, normal escape hatch in your historical ethical code or something that says after all, you are the designers and not the builders; your role is to give people what they want. Now, that’s a nice, easy way to cop out. But I have read about architects who had courage, who had a social sensitivity, and I can’t help but wonder about an architect that builds some of the public housing that I see in the cities of this country. How he could even compromise his own profession and his own sense of values to have built 35- or 40- story buildings, these vertical slums, and not even put a restroom in the basement and leave enough recreational space for about 10 kids when there must be 5,000 in the building?”
Young’s talk helped spur the founding of community design centers across the country, which were precursors to the modern social impact design movement, but there is still so much work to do today to improve low income communities through design, and address the history of historic injustice and structural racism that Christopher Scott, director of the Enterprise Rose Architecture Fellowship outlined in his essay last week. The fellowship is one of the most substantive and supportive training opportunities in social impact design for architects and landscape architects. It places emerging architects in three-year positions in community-based organizations to work on community development and affordable housing projects. Rose Fellows work in low-income communities, most of which are predominantly communities of color from both inner cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia to tribal communities in the South- and Midwest. Being attuned to issues of race and inequity is written into the very DNA of the Rose Fellowship—many of the advisors and partners we work with are of color, or highly fluent in the impact of racial dynamics within built environment design. It’s part of the core way we approach change in our field.
But as we know, intentions do not always add up to reality. The day-to-day of running a program that brokers productive, intrepreneurial relationships between the design and community development fields can be all-encompassing. Taking a step back to ask “how are we doing? Do our outcomes match our values?” takes an active decision.
So we decided to do just that.
This image shows the percentage of minority U.S.-based architects, as of 2016, compared to current and former Rose Fellows. In reality, each person on the left side of the graphic represents about 3500 people—3565.22 to be exact — but we thought it would be helpful to imagine the U.S. architecture field as if it were the community of Rose Fellows, 69 architects large. The Rose Fellowship outperforms the general architecture field in the participation of minority architects. In the nearly two decades since the fellowship has been founded, 37% Rose Fellows have been from minority backgrounds; not far off from the U.S. minority population of 38%. The Rose Fellows are typically younger than the rest of the U.S. architecture professionals, which could represent the natural process of a more race-blind generation evolving in our culture and profession. Certain minority groups however are still entering the architecture profession at lower rates than the national population of those groups. You don’t have to look very far to find stories of architects of color who have experienced bias in the field.
This exercise revealed a few things to us: first of all, the U.S. architecture field has some serious transformation to do. We know from the recent founding of JustDesign.Us that the field has some significant labor challenges, and having a wealthy personal network is one of the easiest paths to business success in the field.
We are proud of our impact on the architecture field: Rose Fellows have helped build many affordable homes across the country, influenced many more initiatives that benefit low-income people, and many of our graduates have gone on to become leaders in the field. While we’re pleased with our success, 26 minority fellows out of a pool of 69 is only a drop in the bucket relative to the scale of change that is needed. We would need to add more than 40,000 architects of color to the U.S. labor pool today in order to fill that gap between architects of color and people of color in the general population.
Secondly, this exercise made us realize we hadn’t been looking very carefully at the numbers before this point. We’ve only been specifically tracking fellow and applicant data since 2016 and hadn’t looked closely to see if our intentions were matching reality. Today, thanks to a move to an online system we can in theory, look closely to see what kind of applicant pool our recruitment efforts are bringing in and at what happens to them at each stage of our recruitment process.
This is a useful exercise because over time, we will be able to see whether there are biases in our process. We have noticed that there is a slight decrease in the percentage of Asians from our raw applicant pool, to our pre-selection round, from 11% to 6%. Only 5% of the applicant pool was Black, and no Blacks were chosen in the last two years. It’s hard to draw conclusions from these numbers when you are only choosing a handful of fellows but over time, looking at the data can help us ask what outcomes we’re getting in terms of racial diversity in the fellowship and what kinds of dynamics might lead to those outcomes. Because it turns out, that when you’re tracking real numbers, you start to see these kinds of dynamics. Early-career Latinos leave the architecture field at a different point than when Blacks do (many less Blacks enter the architecture field to begin with) so we need different interventions to invest in address these population-level challenges.
The Pitfalls of Numbers
Focusing on the numbers can have its dangers. First of all, real life is messier than data. An increasing number of people don’t fit into one racial identity box in today’s world. Secondly, many architects and designers of color have experienced being asked to join project teams often in response to public work, with a preference for minority owned businesses—and have then found their participation to be nominal at best. “Minority businesses are often asked to be part of project teams in an effort to achieve the required minority participation criteria, and are then relegated to project members only in name, not in design influence or fee” says Jonathan Garland, Senior Associate & Lead Designer at Arrowstreet Architects and Co-Chair of the Boston chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. When tracking the numbers becomes a ‘check the box’ activity, the change is merely superficial, and business cultures remain unchanged. That is not the change we seek.
Social Impact Design’s David Complex
Social impact designers often feel like the underdog. We are often toiling away on the issues we care about on our own time after long work hours. We run scrappy organizations with small budgets. We’re struggling to stay afloat as little Davids, and to influence industries–those huge Goliaths–that are resistant to change. We often feel we have no real power.
But as I remind women in my empowerment workshop for women in design: we all have agency. In my first job out of college as an administrative assistant at an architecture firm, I was the first line of defense when reviewing resumes. Research shows that White-sounding names on resumes are viewed more positively than Black-sounding ones. Lauries get more callbacks than Latoyas. In that first job I had little experience and what felt like I had almost no power, but I was playing a role in the racial dynamics of the architecture industry.
We social impact designers often use our agency to address issues beyond our immediate control but many of us have more power than we realize. We need to look inwards and ask how we are doing and what we can do to have an impact. Do we have racially equitable practices? Are we running racially equitable organizations? Are we using the agency and position we have to be active agents of greater equity?
Doing this work means actually looking closely, and curiously at how we’re doing it. What are your numbers? Daylight them. Take the time to look at them. Even a back on the envelope check-in can help. And doing this work means looking creatively at what could be possible, looking at how we can bring our creativity into how we approach racial equity. Could we create partnerships that make our organizations richer and more impactful? Can we use the power of our creativity to generate useful projects that also make a statement? I am inspired by Just Nøt The Same’s racially diverse figures for design renderings and CUP’s new fellowship creating a career pipeline for minorities in the field.
Looking at our numbers for the Rose Fellowship inspired a season of retrospection in our office. Are our recruiting strategies matching up to our values? What kind of bias do we have in our selection process, even if unintentional? How can we make the Enterprise Rose Fellowship an active leader on issues of racial equity in our field? How can we use our position to influence the architecture field and community development?
As part of this season of introspection, and as Christopher Scott described in his post last week, we initiated a conversation with NOMA to discuss opportunities for partnership and support. We have many informal connections with NOMA—many NOMA members have played leadership roles in our programs and projects, and we financially support the annual NOMA conference. We decided we wanted to be more explicit about our shared mission of supporting architects of color in a way that’s qualitative and quantitative. So that means getting creative together, looking at our programming together, and asking how can we do more and do better by doing it together.
We invite you to daylight your numbers. Our field needs more transparency, more introspection on these issues, and to hold ourselves accountable.
Because good intentions are not enough.
Mia Scharphie, founder of Creative Agency, is a designer, do-er and big-picture thinker. Mia runs Creative Agency, a research and design research firm focused on place-based social change, and she founded Build Yourself+, an empowerment workshop for women in creative fields. Mia serves as a creative director for the Design team of Enterprise Community Partners, working on projects such as cookbooks of creative placemaking strategies, and intentional meals on racial equity in social impact design.
Junior Tatis-Zapata is a aspiring minority architect and Community Engagement and Design Intern with Enterprise Community Partners working closely with the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship during the recruiting and application phases. Junior is currently working towards his B.Arch + Graphic Design degree at Northeastern University. Junior assembled and analyzed the data for this piece.