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Observations | "Free Your Mind"



Three R&B divas, two days at a conference, one city and a great deal of reflection put in perspective the impact of the responsibilities we as architects have on our peers and our communities. Initially, I thought that my focus for the AIA A'18 Annual Conference on Architecture would center on the theme for this year, which was the implementation of the “Blueprint for Better Cities”. However, there continued to be a reoccurring theme for me throughout my four days in New York City. It seemed ironic and disheartening that while we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Whitney Young's landmark speech at the 1968 convention, the news was dominated by the separation of minority children from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. Whitney Young was, at the time, the president of the Urban League, and an African American architect. His speech in 1968 followed the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Those and so many other turbulent events in that year tend to overshadow this landmark speech in which Young succinctly called out the architectural 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 complete irrelevance…" While many would acknowledge that there is improvement in the visibility of people of color in our profession, events in the news and those who shared with us the inequality firsthand, remind all of us there is still a long way to go.

On Day One, three speakers solidified what I was going to take away from this conference. Author and architecture critic, Sarah Williams Goldhagen, drawing on new discoveries in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, discussed the intangible biological and scientific influencers that are a byproduct of our built environment. The takeaway was something that I have always believed; good design not only makes a difference, but is an equal and unalienable right for all....and is not simply a line item that can be easily removed from a budget, a space, a building, or a community. She spoke of things like greater mortality of those lower socio-economic classes that live close to highways or industrial facilities.

We were then privileged to meet Tamara Eagle Bull, FAIA, this year’s winner of the Whitney Young Award and a Native American. She reminded us all the of the inequalities she had to face and shared her firsthand experiences as a Native American woman who was raised to believe that the best she could do was to have children or be a nurse. She too, knows the importance of the influx of diverse cultures; that it not only improves the built environment, but improves the plight of each class and race that they represent. In her acceptance speech she cited, "Nowhere is it more important to have an inclusive design process than in our tribal communities…The reason we need more diverse architects, especially Native architects, is because that one mile is so difficult to image, let alone experience..."

Keynote speaker and architect Michael Adjaye closed the evening; who shared with us some of his work; including his inspired design for one of New York’s most exciting affordable housing projects, Sugar Hill, which supports Harlem’s homeless community, and the recently completed museum of African American History on the National Mall. Both projects, I believe, will serve as a visible reminder and symbol of hope.

On Day Two, I was also fortunate to witness a roundtable moderated by Rosa T. Sheng, Principal at SmithGroupJJR and a Director of Equity, Design, and Inclusion. The panelists included: Michael Ford, Co-Founder of the Urban Arts Collaborative and the creator of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, Chicagoan Katherine Darmstadt, Founder of Latent Design, and Garrett Jacobs, Executive Director of Open Architecture Collaborative. The panel collectively spoke to equity by design and how our work can affect the social structures of communities everywhere. Not only was the discussion inspiring to me, but it was even more inspiring to be surrounded by so many young architects who represented so many different ethnicities and cultures; they were enthusiastic and ready to take on this mission. It made me take pause, and wonder if our three newly hired female architecture students/part-time staff felt like they had the same opportunities and inspiration as those sitting around me. I also realized I took for granted that I work at a firm not only founded by a woman, but at the time boasted two female AIA Fellows, and several female architects, designers, interns, and vital support staff. At A ’18, I was reminded that this was more the exception than the rule.

What really seemed to cap off the theme was the last-minute addition of the music group En Vogue at the closing event of the A’18 Conference; “The Party". It seemed fitting that they closed their set with their ‘90’s hit "Free your Mind"; a song about bigotry. The chorus echoed literally and figuratively; “…..free your mind, the rest will follow. Be color blind, don’t be so shallow….”

Hopefully, the rest WILL follow.