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Racial Inequity Critical Review 2

July 26, 2017

Asking the Tough Questions

By Bryan Lee Jr

A few years back I was asked by a journalist covering post-Katrina New Orleans: how does it feel to be a black gentrifier in the city? The question took me aback and made me assess my presence – and ultimately my work as a designer – in the city from a more nuanced perspective. I asked myself a few other questions. What is the threshold for becoming a gentrifier? What is the process of gentrification? How does one practice design in a manner that counteracts its impact?

I never really entertained the concept of a black gentrifier to be a reality worth considering for many reasons, but mostly because I believe the idea of a black gentrifier to be akin to the concept of a “reverse racist.” Much like gentrification, racism requires privilege and power structures that maintain and exacerbate oppressive systems. Thus, systems like this rarely apply to those historically oppressed.

Regardless of my predisposition on the matter, I have carried the question of these two conflicting states with me. The power-based position operates inside a system beholden to the rules and regulations. The disadvantaged position functions outside that same system, actively seeking to cause substantial disruption in favor of equity. In some ways this question defines my fundamental drive toward addressing issues of racial inequity within the design profession at large.

I find simplicity in the Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) quote “if a [person] wants to lynch me, that’s their problem. if a [person] has the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism isn’t a question of attitude, rather a question of power.”


Why Aren’t We Taking Racial Challenges Head On?

There are plenty of issues facing the growing practice of social impact design from environmental and political to economic and cultural, but Christopher Scott’s article Racial Inequity in Social Impact Design clearly draws a direct link to structural racism as a lingering issue of the profession, and thus a core issue within the impact design sphere specifically. I would like to focus more deeply on this aspect of his piece.

The struggle over the insider/outsider position Scott articulated is familiar to my own experience. As both a Designer and Advocate, I find the most deliberate examples of structural racism within the profession to fall along the lines of access. Scott highlights access to funds, but there is also access to education, to property, to service. Our failures are exemplified through perpetuated through the pedagogy and procedures we use to control the architectural profession’s outputs, namely jobs and buildings. To date African Americans make up less than 1.5 of the profession. Under 3 percent Latino or Hispanic and so on. Both obviously less than the demographics of our nation might imply. Perpetual under representation leads to a misalignment of spatial values that implicitly negatively impact the resilience of communities.

Given the state of access in the profession, I’ve had the privilege, over the past 6 years, of leading the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) Project Pipeline Program, which is designed to introduce middle and high school students to social justice through design practice. In addition to the youth education effort and with the elevated public consciousness as a result of last year’s slow-motion election political meltdown I worked on a project called the Design Justice Platform and Design as Protest. This work, sitting at the border of practice and activism, of insider and outsider, has defined the formation of my own private practice, Colloqate Design, which focuses on the organizing, advocating and designing for racial, social and cultural equity.

Social impact design work is difficult and often requires us to clarify the language we use to make progress. In this work, people often conflate structural racism with individualized prejudice or bigotry. It is not. Both are components of racism, but not the defining characteristics. Racism is a system of oppression institutionalized through pedagogy, policies, procedures, or practice. It is an act of subjugation of the powerless. A power dynamic premised on the superiority of one culture over another. This is important because in our work, bias becomes engrained in the buildings and spaces we create and ultimately shapes the culture of interaction people will have for decades if not centuries. The inequity within the design profession is symptomatic of our larger unresolved history and our unwillingness to course correct in any significant manner.


What is to be Done?

So, how do we address the issues of racial inequity that exist in the design profession? Scott points out a few ways in which bias and racism manifest in practice through funding considerations and what response looks like more broadly in the built environment , an example coming from Kaziah Haviland’s work with the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Both salient points to make.

For me, addressing these issues starts with understanding the nuances of the deficit. For example, if social impact design is premised on the fact that we are actively seeking to serve communities historically disinherited from the design process, we must acknowledge that many of these communities are black, brown, economically poor, and culturally rich. As a profession, our deficit is that we are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, and culturally antithetical, which makes the profession generally ill-equipped to serve the cultural needs of these communities in any sustained way.

One way to make change requires us to expand our notion of practice to include design advocates rooted in community organizing and who might not formally be a part of the profession as we know it. In order to do this, our profession would need to ground itself in more than just site context and sterile data, but in the socio-cultural context of place. Culture gives us the opportunity to understand the historical connection to place in a way that is often negated by the immediacy of current practice. This is not to say that some in practice don’t consider history as important but it is to say that in order to have a true understanding of how that history has played out on the ground you need people who work on the ground. Expanding our view of what is considered professional allows for stronger connections to a broader community.

We must also consider how we engage and retain those who are inline to inherit the profession. The current generations motivation tends towards purpose and social impact so the more opportunities we make that identify purpose in the entirety of the work, the more likely we are to resolve racial and social disparities and retain designers throughout a career. In both instances, acknowledging our current deficits is needed to proceed.

Scott refers to a quote from the onset of the article that speaks to the idea of identifying deficit:

“You are either so new to public interest design that you were excusably naïve, or so seasoned in the industry that your wisdom defies questioning”

In this work, opportunities (or lack thereof) can starve or sustain you and while many people want to pursue public interest design, the lack of clear growth opportunities can push young designers to standard practice for the sake of survival. The fact that we don’t foster social impact design work, en mass, within pedagogy or practice, leaves those wanting to pursue a career in public interest seeking the stability, growth opportunity, and clarity of purpose.


What Moves Us Towards Racial Equity?

We face a severe lack of professional presence in the community, thus a lack of substantial relationships. If working for a public interest design (PID) practice is the only way in which we interface with communities on a regular basis, we are going to continue to struggle given the limited number of PID practices. In order to be socially responsible the profession must first become bound and responsible to the communities we serve in a way that the current practice does not allow. This only happens through the radical inclusion and power over vision of, for and with the community we serve.

Presently, vision control is often in the hands of developers and government agencies. If we believe that most, if not all projects should serve the public good in some fashion then the public must be a part of defining what the “good” is.  When I travel to cities to speak, I make a point to ask city leadership how many people from and of the city work as planners within the planning department? What role do they have in bringing to light the issues of those most likely to be ignored through the process? The point here is that if we allow overarching planning decisions to be made without the input of generational residents, we have ceded the story of the city to those lacking context. Clearly, this is not moving in the direction of greater racial equity.

The larger body of the profession has a tendency to devalue the community design process for the sake of “Architecture” as if the process is insignificant. This limits our potential impact and reach, and has the effect of delegitimizing the work of social impact design. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard from those who can’t grasp the nature of this work “So, is this a volunteer gig?” “How does this interfere with your real job?” I mention this because it can be difficult for some to quantify the impact of the work through traditional means. Racial equity requires us to find better means to measure impact both in and outside of the profession and to push back against the forces that eschew this work.

Like most social impact designers, I appreciate watching building and spaces come to fruition, but our skill set has value beyond the physical product and at its best has the potential to facilitate growth and healing in communities through the spaces and places we design together. This is not revolutionary, but if we are truly seeking to make progress as it pertains to racial equity in the social impact design practice we must organize, advocate, and design for equitable and just outcomes.

The challenges to racial and cultural equity are long standing obstacles that have been with us for the entirety of our profession. They are systemic conditions  and will require a systemic response that parallels the impact of past injustice. So, as we look our respective individual impact on the larger structural issues we can root ourselves on a few questions to guide us. first is the James Baldwin test, which states that “We can work together and disagree as long as the disagreement is not rooted in my oppression, the denial of my humanity or my right to exist.” We can and should start our projects by asking a simple set of questions. will this work perpetuate or exacerbate existing injustice in the community? If so, how can we acknowledge the humanity and rights of a community and push against this injustice? If not, how can we continue to heal the community?


Bryan Lee Jr. is a Designer and Design Justice Advocate. He is the founder/Director of Colloqate Design, a nonprofit multidisciplinary design practice dedicated to expanding community access to design and creating spaces of racial, social and cultural equity. Lee most recently served as the Place + Civic Design Director for the Arts Council of New Orleans and prior to that at the 2014 AIA National Firm of the Year, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (Architecture) in New Orleans.  Bryan is the founding organizer of the Design Justice Platform and organized the Design As Protest National day of Action. Additionally, he has led two award winning architecture + design programs for high school students through the Arts Council (local) and the National Organization of Minority Architects (national), respectively. He serves on several boards; most notably as the Design Education Chair National NOMA board  and on the National AIA Equity + the Future of Architecture Committee. He was selected as the 2014 NOMA member of the year, 2015 Next City Vanguard Fellow, 2015 International British American Project Fellow. In 2016, Bryan was selected to give a TED Talk and to Keynote at SXSW Eco on Design Justice.


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