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The Young Architects Forum (YAF), a program of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the College of Fellows (COF), is organized to address issues of particular importance to recently licensed architects.

AIA Honolulu’s commitment to racial justice

By Matthew T. Pultorak AIA posted 05-02-2021 08:00 AM


AIA Honolulu’s commitment to racial justice

By Aki Yoshida, AIA, LEED AP 

Throughout Hawaii’s stay-at-home order in March and April, our inboxes were flooded with actions taken by companies and organizations during this global pandemic. Shortly after the police killing of George Floyd, the emails focused on the national response to the Black Lives Matter movement, including AIA National’s message making its role and responsibility clear in dismantling systemic racism. I noticed that not many local Hawaii businesses or organizations had taken the time to publish a message on their stance or address the conversation at all. Hawaii is typically considered a “racial haven,” with many of our residents having diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. While there are inherent cultural differences from Hawaii to the U.S. continent, the problems of racial inequity still exist here, though they may come in different, not as obviously discussed ways. This became apparent to me during the AIA Honolulu Equity Diversity Inclusion Committee’s process for writing and issuing the Statement of Solidarity and Commitment to Racial Justice. I have interviewed the co-chairs of the EDI Committee, Kapua (Megan) Pimentel and Kim Claucherty, who spearheaded the process of writing the statement and the approval within the committee and the AIA Honolulu Board.

Aki Yoshida (AY): How did the idea of publishing the statement come about?

Kim Claucherty (KC): Shortly after George Floyd’s death, the AIA Honolulu president, who is also an EDI Committee member, approached our committee with the idea of putting out a statement. Several of us saw the need, as well as the opportunity, to engage with our chapter on the very critical issue of BLM, and we started having discussions about a statement.

Kapua Pimentel (KP): George Floyd’s killing came up in the media right after I heard about Ahmaud Arbery’s murder and Amy Cooper weaponizing her whiteness in Central Park. For weeks, I felt consumed by constant discussions on social media about the lack of accountability of the officers involved in George Floyd’s killing the subsequent protests, and overall systemic racism in America rearing its head yet again in an unavoidable scale in the media. This feeling was not unfamiliar to me as someone who had gone to school in Miami just a few months after Trayvon Martin was murdered and could very clearly see the connection of racial and social injustices in America and how they related to Hawaii and our history with American colonialism. Like many of my peers, topics of social justice and systemic injustices in America were commonplace throughout my education in Miami and then Los Angeles.

In an effort to fill the deafening silence from my office and larger design community in Hawaii, I emailed statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement from AIA National and NOMA to my co-workers to begin discussions within our (virtual) office. A couple of days later, at one of our EDI Committee meetings, the AIA Honolulu president expressed an interest in getting help from the EDI Committee to write and release a statement on behalf of AIA. I was pleasantly surprised at the invitation because I saw releasing a statement as a very baseline minimum of what we needed to do as a committee of AIA Honolulu to make the distance from systemic racism not feel as large to our communities in Hawaii.

AY: What were some of your positive experiences in writing the statement of solidarity?

KC: Ultimately, the process of writing this statement was fruitful. We received strong support and positive feedback from a number of other AIA Honolulu members, both board members and non-board members.

KP: There were a few moments that were great in the process, mainly in the willingness of a couple of AIA Honolulu Board members to support and in one case lend their expertise to help elevate our statement, in their case through graphic design of a very moving poster. I think the process of writing served as a great educational tool for many in our own committee, on the AIA Executive Board, and ultimately for our design community. 

AY: Were there any challenging experiences?

KC: Writing the statement involved many hours of discussion on a number of conference calls, on evenings, and over weekends. It went through a number of drafts, all over a couple weeks, before reaching its published version. It was a labor of love for sure!

KP: The entire process was challenging, far beyond the commitment of my time to meet with the committee and my time writing our outlines, drafts, and final statement. For me, the emotional labor of educating a committee with different experience levels in social justice work and different personal experiences with privilege and comfort was the most challenging obstacle. It was important for me to openly and honestly discuss the issues at hand in the Black Lives Matter movement and draw clear parallels to our realities in Hawaii and our responsibility as creators of the built environment.

I have a very different lived experience from many in our committee and broader design community as a young Native Hawaiian woman, and sometimes it is disheartening to feel that there is no room to discuss from my perspective in many spaces. Though my light skin affords me many privileges in these spaces, there are many times when my full identity and perspective in advocating for my relatives who do not have the same light skin or economic privilege that I do becomes a problem for my colleagues. I am constantly asked to prioritize the comfort of the majority before my own expression of my and my community’s experiences.

It was challenging for me to learn to accept that there will be people who are simply not ready or willing to engage in the level of discussion that I would like to. It became clear that my willingness to call things out explicitly is not mutual for many folks who may just be beginning the process of learning and unlearning. There were some committee members involved in writing who felt uncomfortable using words and phrases like “white,” “white supremacy,” and “police brutality.” The discomfort from these members came from an expressed worry that these terms would feel like an attack to some in our community and would be divisive. Every single word in the statement was debated and picked at, and I found myself exhausted simply trying to defend using words to clearly describe the issues we as a committee said we would be working to resolve.

It is frustrating to feel on one hand that we could and need to do more, and on the other know that I cannot force people to be where they are not ready to go. Most people are not doing this maliciously or consciously to leave out narratives that typically lie in the margins, but instead are unwilling to push past the discomfort to actively center those most marginalized to achieve true equity and inclusion. It was challenging for me to write this statement with integrity and commitment to honestly engaging with and naming injustices, while simultaneously being pulled by our own committee to tiptoe around feelings and fear of offending folks with facts. Eventually, I had to realize that even as co-chair of the EDI Committee, I do not have the say in the messaging that AIA releases, and as much as I tried to advocate for clearer, more precise language, it was ultimately not my decision to make.

AY: What would you have done differently?

KC: I would not have done anything differently. Writing this statement was difficult, emotionally wrenching at times, but ultimately fruitful. Even within a group of somewhat like-minded EDI Committee members, I learned there are very different perspectives, painful histories, feelings, and goals. That said, I think the process brought us closer together as a committee and made me realize more fully the pain borne by all due to inequity.

KP: I would have managed my expectations a little better before jumping in with the assumption that our committee would be ready to fully engage with topics of white supremacy, systemic racism, colonialism, etc. I feel like I could have avoided the immense pain and disappointment I felt when the final version of our statement came down to our own committee members’ comfort levels rather than the messaging I felt was necessary to include for the statement to be powerful, direct, and challenging.

AY: With this experience, what is the EDI Committee’s future like?

KC: The group awareness we developed through the process of writing our statement will better prepare me, and I think us, for future equity discussions and learning about BLM. Empathy is needed for compassionate, meaningful dialogue to make progress toward equity for all.

KP: I’m doing the difficult work of coming to terms with the possibility that this committee, and ultimately the AIA and larger design community in Hawaii, is not at a point where we are even able to discuss these topics without being deterred by naming historical facts. For me, if the future of this committee cannot shift away from catering to the comfort of our privileged and powerful audience (and thereby being complicit in upholding systems that reinforce said privilege and power), I will not be able to stand behind the work we do. I know that we will need to do some collective reflection on the true goals of the committee and understand the restraints that come with being a committee under an executive board and broader AIA organization that ultimately gets the say in the work we do.

AY: Any other thoughts?

KP: Though I feel like the final version of our statement was shying away from words that I’d like to normalize to be able to name problems as a first step in solving them, I am happy that our statement was published and received well. I think it has still challenged some people’s thinking, as made obvious by the board’s own approval process, where initially there were a handful of board members who expressed their opinion to only release a statement that said “all lives matter.” In that context, I am happy that this statement facilitated that learning opportunity and dialogue for the board to ultimately fully understand and support our solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The writing process itself felt very much like a microcosm of Hawaii’s communities in many ways. Most of us were just starting to discuss these issues, most of us were very willing to learn as we go and come to mutual understandings, some of us felt the discomfort to be too much to push through, some of us had been doing this work for a while and felt the burden more than others. I know this process was eye-opening for all of us involved, and I know that translated outwardly as well.

Author Bio: 

Aki Yoshida, AIA, LEED AP
Yoshida is a Project Architect at de Reus Architects in Waimea, Hawaii. She is a founding member of the AIA Honolulu EDI Committee.
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