Rosa Sheng: We can’t go back now
George Floyd was not the first or the last black man to be killed by police or vigilantes, but his documented murder helped spark a rise in discourse on systemic racism. In this month-long series, members of the design community share how their conversations, vision and place in the profession have changed in a year that has also seen an increase in attacks, many of which are fatal. against people of color as well as the lives of millions more disappeared due to COVID-19.
Last year our whole way of life was wiped out. People might say, “Oh, we’re going to get back to normal like things were before”, but we have to accept that we can’t because of the climate crisis. If we go back to this way of life, we will essentially shorten our lifespan.
The reality is frightening but it demands that we change, especially in our industry, one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions. With COVID-19, inequality and everything else we’re facing, we at AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design (EQxD) committee had a mini identity crisis. Priorities had changed. While we still focus on [achieving representation] in the profession, a host of other problems threaten our life, our existence. We had to widen the conversation, this is how the JEDI program (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) came about.
The JEDI agenda
One of the goals is for people to start separating JEDI from race and ethnicity. While [representation] is an important result, it is not the driver. The driver generally improves the human condition by attacking those who suffer the most. In The sum of us (One World, 2021), author Heather McGee discusses the hidden costs of racism. By being complicit or not recognizing that we need to make a difference, we hurt ourselves – as well as our environment and our potential economic outcomes – in the long run.
Architects must know how to talk about environmental and social injustices, health inequalities. We can’t be experts at everything, but it’s important to be aware and have a minimum of basic skills on how they relate to our profession to stay relevant.
We have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. If I’m not uncomfortable, I don’t go into what needs to be. I’m talking about a long term uncomfortable. It is a balance between facing unhappiness and sadness while valuing and enjoying life. [At the same time,] what can I do of the good that I have to make changes so that what I experience is accessible to others?
The first step is to be courageous. Take stock of your situation in terms of racism and environmental and social awareness. Try to learn one new thing a week about fair and equitable practices. You will be amazed at how it builds up over a year.
Saying “I have my plate full here” does not help with global attitudes and acts of violence and oppression. Wherever you are, violence and oppression will perpetuate violence and oppression. World wars are one example.
The driver generally improves the human condition by attacking those who suffer the most.
Practice what you preach in architecture
The 2021 Living Future conference, during which I spoke in April, was a good place to launch version 2.0 of what we talked about in the JEDI EQxD 2020 agenda workshops– that social justice, environmental justice and health equity form an ecosystem. We focused the message on clear stories of how environmental impact has disproportionately affected people of color because of the policies and practices that have been put in place. We learned from 2020 that we cannot view these issues as silos – we need to make connections between them.
Solving this problem requires an intersectional approach – we cannot just focus on societal racism. It is not just about attitudes or hatred expressed between individuals or groups, but about examining what is embedded in our laws, policies, practices, institutions and even in architecture through building codes.
For example, gender binary toilets exclude transgender populations, but not intentionally. Building codes don’t say ‘no transgender’, but the mindset they frame is that gender is binary. It excludes transgender people by downplaying.
The higher education studio that I run at SmithGroup is starting to address these issues. At California State University at Chico, we installed our first multi-gender toilets for men and women. There is no line of sight vertically and tighter interlocking between the stall partitions. The ADA stall has a space, but all other stalls go to the floor; you can’t see the feet.
[Moving forward,] our designs will have some form of all kinds booths. We are trying to get the establishments to adopt a work-study system where everyone can choose. For example, bathrooms for all genders on floors two and three, and binary bathrooms on floors one and four; or whatever makes sense depending on the build schedule. But each floor always has single occupancy toilets of all kinds.
Stanford University hosts an annual Low Income First Generation Student (FLI) conference to help students seek alliance. We were able to share with them our [design and planning] process, where we help people envision the future.
And we recognized that the language of architecture, archispeak, is not accessible to the general public. It is a secret language by architects, for architects. The antidote is spatial equity and the assessment and improvement of architectural culture. Even our designs could be more accessible and user-friendly in a digital environment, where we may not necessarily be there to explain everything. We use more video walkthroughs and infographic diagrams.
And we flip the script. [We tell] FLI students that you are the experts in your community. You have community cultural capital. Their lived experience can be a way for them to build an architectural spatial literacy. They can photograph spaces and express what they make them feel. I was very inspired by the work of [Portland, Ore.–based consultant] Amara Perez, which talks about this experience of the griot and of being the expert in documenting your environment.
We are changing the design process to be more accessible. We have made design justice a priority in our JEDI goals. Not only does this serve the audience, but it also attracts talent by connecting passion with purpose. People want to do this kind of work.
Implementation of Lean in the design
I was hired to be the director of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion for SmithGroup, where I can share thought leadership and new theories. My dual role as head of the higher education studio in the San Francisco office allows me to put theory into practice.
We have adopted many sub-theories. We participated in Thin workshops related to building trust and successful teams. [Business author] Patrick Lencioni has a model of the five dysfunctions linked to team failure: lack of confidence; aversion and avoidance of conflict; lack of commitment or confusion of commitment; avoidance of liability; and the lack of results.
– Jon Barber (@hoosjon) July 30, 2019
Conversely, how do you create a high function? You must reverse or find some other way to alleviate these dysfunctions. You have to build a foundation of trust. It’s not just, “I hope you get the job done,” but it’s “I respect you as a person, I respect the work you do, and I can have a healthy conflict with you. I know we could go out for coffee or dinner afterwards.
You may disagree with your family, but you are still family. Cultivating this foundation of trust is hard work. When you have that foundation, you can have healthy conflict. I constantly try to make the connection between what is happening in society in general and what is happening in the profession of designer.
Having a team kickoff with training is the future of successful projects. In the past, historical structures prevented people from expressing themselves. Hierarchy has led to transactional relationships: “I pay the bills, so you’re going to listen to me. An architect or an engineer may have a good idea, but because of the hierarchy, they were afraid to speak their minds, which ultimately hinders innovation, creativity and problem solving.
Cultivating this foundation of trust is hard work. When you have that foundation, you can have healthy conflict.
We were trained in Lean principles out of necessity. Everyone was stressed. Everyone agreed that things could be better. It has helped us build empathy and understand where people are coming from.
My role has become that of an agent of change. It’s ambitious, there’s a lot of risk taking, but it’s also based on a deep understanding of the construction industry. The design, procurement and construction processes have improved over time, but we still have room for improvement.
How to aggregate the collective strengths of each team member and minimize collective weaknesses throughout a project? To overcome obstacles on the road, like a budget or schedule challenge, teams need to say, “We’re all going to get out of the car and push together. Instead of a person saying, “Well, I’m going to sit in the car and steer, get out and push.” If people have a ‘This is someone else’s problem’ attitude, things start to fall apart.
What we have learned is that the future is uncertain and unpredictable. However, we have also been fortunate to know that we are courageous and resilient, and we can come together to support each other in co-creating a better future.
As said to Wanda Lau. The opinions and conclusions of this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or the American Institute of Architects.