Designing space — for growth
By Monica Blasko, AIA
Advocating for change by first understanding where we stand today
A global pandemic. Work-from-home challenges. Self-isolation. Financial uncertainty. Mental health struggles. A looming presidential election. And now another (filmed) instance of police violence against a Black American. As one of our Women+ in Design Pittsburgh community members came to realize, “My response of ‘I don’t have time for this’ comes from a place of privilege.”Grappling
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police and the resounding demands for racial justice, the women of W+iD PGH were rattled like so many others and reckoned with how to appropriately respond as people, allies, designers, and leaders of a community dedicated to equity. As an organization, W+iD PGH has been clearly committed to fighting for equity when it comes to gender in our profession, and although our name does not as explicitly state it, we are also committed to advocating for racial equity and social justice. Our community is composed of female architects, interior designers, landscape designers, graphic designers, and (even) engineers; although we are not affiliated, AIA Pittsburgh supports our work. Architects tend to stay in our comfortable, architectural bubbles, yet these issues of social inequity are deeply ingrained in many design industries, so it is important to have a cross-disciplinary approach to work toward more impactful change within the larger community.
We understand that the protests throughout our country are not in reaction to a single event, but to the decades of intentional and systemic racism that pervades our society. We also recognize that as a community of “design professionals committed to making our allied industries more diverse, more inclusive, and more equitable,” as it stands today, W+iD PGH is a group of primarily white, privileged women. We must use our privilege, our talents, our resources, and our platform to align with and support historically marginalized people of color, and we are determined to be more intentional in our next steps as an organization.
The informal nature of our organization — with a decentralized leadership, no board, no dues — positions us to respond quickly, yet purposefully, to support our community. Thus far, our lack of official structure has worked well for us, allowing us to swiftly convene, make decisions, and act. There is a balance of honesty, trust, and empathy in this group of women that is categorically unique and unlike any organization I have ever been a part of. Reckoning
We knew our community was eager to act, but most of us did not know where to start.
As a first step in an effort to offer support to our community and as an opportunity for growth, we pivoted a regularly scheduled Breakfast Club into a series of small-group conversations to build upon our lacking skills, better understand the historical inequities within our society, encourage those within our organization to scrutinize ourselves, uncover our shortcomings as allies, explore tools for important and often uncomfortable conversations, and learn how to confront racism directly.
The event involved about 70 women in seven virtual small-group discussions over the course of a week, each led by a pair of wonderful W+iD PGH volunteer facilitators, grounded in questions posed by Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist.” We encouraged all to participate in the discussion even if they had not read the book and to give it a read eventually. (It has proved immensely helpful for me as I continue to learn and unlearn.) The moderators were not experts; we were all engaging in this work together.
To acknowledge that each of us was entering the conversations with a differing perspective and set of experiences, we created space for honesty and trust and encouraged thoughtful participation. We used the interactive polling software Poll Everywhere to pose questions that the participants responded to anonymously, and the polling results fueled deep, meaningful conversations that far exceeded our expectations for our one-hour, virtual learning session.
Our individual awakenings were the strongest theme in these discussions. To support the W+iD PGH community’s expanding education on these topics, we developed a set of regularly updated Social Justice Resources. We are all on our own personal journeys, and coming together to talk about them was important and valuable to many. While our conversations barely scratched the surface of what it means to be an antiracist, it did become clear that our desire for authentic allyship and action was strong.
Many participants contemplated how to expand our antiracism discussions beyond ourselves and be advocates in our workplaces, through our work, and in our communities. Our community members are building their knowledge base to bring these conversations into their firms and improve communication with clients and end users.
We are curious about how antiracism work may reshape the business vision and culture of a workplace — more intentional recruitment and hiring practices, establishing annual auditing of employee pay, designing mentorship programs, setting goals for representation in leadership, pursuing project types that create spaces for healing and thriving rather than oppressing, and committing time to social justice work inside and outside the office walls.
How do we create space and meaningful opportunities to invite others in or step outside of our group? How do we better collaborate with our larger community — bringing our talents and passions with us?
There has been a strong collective desire to continue the momentum of the social justice movement, but uncertainty about what to do next. After realizing the large gaps in our education up to this point, we determined that our community should next explore how we got here — to this moment in this movement.Relearning
With the support of our interior designer colleague Jo Berchielli, Katie Walsh (fellow architect and W+iD PGH leader) and I developed a three-part “Breakfast Club” series dedicated to “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein. (Dive deeper into this eye-opening book with W+iD PGH leader Emily Pierson-Brown’s review in this issue of Connection.) As we made our way through the book in the monthly sessions from July to September, we dissected systemic racism and learned how we might begin to dismantle and rectify decades of intentionally racist policies at the local, state, and federal levels.
For these virtual discussions, we touched base in the large group, then broke out into small-group discussions in Zoom rooms to dive deeper and encourage participation in the often uncomfortable conversations about racial injustice. We found that addressing and overcoming that discomfort is key to holding productive conversations.
We are at a moment in our country’s history in which we are starting to dispel myths that have persisted for decades, if not centuries. This book helped us to understand where many of these myths originated — notably the false narrative of the American Dream. It was inevitable that our discussions would directly connect to what is going on in our communities today, from the protests led by Black Lives Matter activists to the gentrification and destruction in the name of development of certain Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
Also inevitable were personal and professional connections to the book. One member of color remembered her family needing to weigh the consequences of homeownership in a white neighborhood: Is the social and emotional threat worth the wealth? One designer relayed how the book influenced the way she approached a recent Planning Commission hearing. Some of us discussed the parallels with the book “That’s What She Said” by Joanne Lipman, which outlines sexism in the professional world. Being a woman poses many challenges and struggles, but women of color, especially Black women, encounter many more barriers in the workplace and beyond. Navigating
“So where do we go from here?” The question lingers at the end of each W+iD PGH session we hold. We do not exactly know the answer, but we do know that we must keep moving forward. W+iD PGH is developing programming on racism rebuttals and racism interrupters inspired by the staggering data and feedback we collected in our first antiracism discussions.
We do know that we must keep an open line of communication with our community, respond to its needs, and continue to create space for growth — personally and professionally.
We do know we need to continue the process of learning and unlearning, educating ourselves, and striving for improvement. We must embrace the unfortunate truths and uncomfortable conversations in the name of progress.
We do know that it is imperative that we create a more inclusive and diverse space in which all feel welcome to participate. Our community is enriched by those from varied races, cultures, perspectives, and experiences. We support these differences and believe they are an asset in our mission of achieving a more equitable design community in Pittsburgh.
We do know we must hold each other and our organizations accountable to their stated commitments for true change. It is vitally important that our efforts are genuine and not performative. Sustaining
To achieve long-term success, we must start by scrutinizing ourselves (individually as architects and collectively as the AIA) and our role (implicit and explicit) in upholding the oppressive systems in our industry and society. We will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way, but we should not let that hold us back any longer in this movement toward true equity.
The makeup of our organization and our industry are not reflective of the general population or of young architects entering the profession. While the U.S. population makeup is 13% Black, Black Architects represent only 2% of all licensed Architects. We have a duty to consider how we might create an inclusive space for BIPOC architects — especially Black female architects — to thrive. Just like the Blueprint for Better initiative is a call to action to consider sustainability with each move we make, we should be doing the same regarding racial equity. We cannot truly achieve a sustainable future in a world where systemic racism persists.
It is critically important that our design communities face the deeply ingrained issues of systemic racism head on. We must speak about them specifically, learn how to respond effectively, and engage with our communities meaningfully. We must each ask ourselves, am I contributing to the status quo, or am I acting intentionally to dismantle it and help design a more equitable future?
You do not have to be an expert to take steps forward. From what I have learned thus far, you simply must be well-intentioned, ready to listen, prepared to misstep along the way, to own your missteps, and be willing to learn from them. I challenge each of you to consider how you are designing space for growth within your community or how you might take that first step.
Monica Blasko, AIA
Blasko is a Project Architect at qkArchitecture and serves as the Young Architect Regional Director for Pennsylvania. With Women+ in Design Pittsburgh, she co-organizes the monthly “Breakfast Club” series.