What Stories Will You Help Create?

by Alicia Belton, FAIA, NOMA, AIA Minnesota President

We celebrate Black History and Women’s History months to honor those who have made meaningful contributions to our society. Uplifting Minnesota trailblazers like Clarence Wigington, Robert Morgan, FAIA, Emma Gruetzke and Elizabeth Close, FAIA remind us of the importance of recognizing those who broke barriers when there were few people of color or women in the profession of architecture. In this time of bridging understanding across race and gender within the profession, we have the opportunity to think about the design process to ensure that it is a more inclusive one. Using the Framework for Design Excellence, we can Design for Equitable Communities to address the systemic barriers that are still present today.

Each person has a story that is their own unique gift to the world. My story as a daughter of an immigrant mother born during a time when interracial marriages were just becoming legal has given me an understanding of being seen as “other.” There have been times when I have been mistaken for the admin for teams I was leading or as the help for fundraising events I have hosted in my home.

I share these stories to show the biases that impact behaviors and condition our responses – behaviors and responses related to how we engage with each other as people, and in the design process and the work of architecture. We can choose to use an inclusive lens to knit together the stories of the past, present, and future into the built environment. With a focus toward regenerative solutions, we can bring transformative healing and wellbeing. 

As designers of physical space, we hold the responsibility of creating equity in the built environment. When I look at how the culture of architectural practice needs to change, I believe that centering equity in firms will translate into how we think about designing for the communities we serve. In a recent meeting of AIA Minnesota’s Community of Practice for Culture Change (CPCC), participants discussed a scenario where a project team had decided on a hybrid approach, with a blend of in-office and remote work. A senior male staff member who opted to work in the office every day expressed their frustration and took offense that a more junior female staff member was not there to print out work for review, requiring review of electronic files instead.

 There was lots of nuance in the scenario to unpack, from workstyles, power dynamics, gender differences, and generation gaps. Bottom line is that, until we intentionally engage to see other perspectives, we will not be able to bridge differences to make systemic changes in our firms – and to work alongside communities with thoughtful and relevant design rooted in equity.

Marginalized people and communities have been weakened by the systemic injustices of historical policies and plans. We know the intentions of legislation like the 19th Amendment in 1920 to permit white women’s right to vote, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end segregation, Loving vs. State of Virginia in 1967 to allow interracial marriages and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to end discrimination in housing. These actions eliminated many barriers, yet their intended impacts have yet to be fully realized; the effects of policies like redlining and racial covenants remain present.

Whether your design tool is pen to paper or mouse to screen, let’s find a path of design that is infused with the stories of those who have been misrepresented, misunderstood, and just missing from the discussion. Let us, together, create more equitable communities. 

What stories will you help create that bring about a more complete and inclusive narrative? It is a design challenge that we can each take on for the greater good of all.

View the March 2022 edition of Matrix.