I’ve had the very strange and wonderful opportunity to get to be part of two of architecture’s current advocacy efforts focused on social equity–two which run in parallel, in a way that often seems like ‘never the twain shall meet’.
Because they are both design-based movements, they of course have hip, typographic abbreviations–EQxD and D4E which stand for Equity by Design and Design for Equity, respectively. See that funny mirroring even in the title.
Equity by Design is a national effort, launched out of the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco to address gender inequality in architecture practice. In 2014 they conducted a rigorous survey on issues like salary, leadership level, work flexibility, that give advocacy for women in architecture a firm data-based grounding.
Design for Equity, started out with a strikingly similar set of intentions. A group of female leaders in the social impact design field began meeting to talk about issues of gender equity. These leaders such as Katie Swenson, Design VP of Enterprise Community Partners, Barbara Brown Wilson of UT Austin’s School of Architecture and Liz Ogbu, a designer and social innovator (and former boss of mine,) run social impact-focused design projects, run social impact design institutes, and run fellowships for architects to lend their skills to community development corporations. Their conversations quickly evolved into a larger conversation about the role of design in catalyzing social equity. The group has seeded a number of programs and efforts out of their respective organizations including a Design for Equity conference hosted by a few Boston organizations that I went to this fall.
I founded and teach a Build Yourself+, a workshop on empowerment skills for women in design, and have been involved with both Equity by Design nationally and local efforts in the Boston design community. I’ve also been in the social impact design field since 2008, and I founded a research collaborative that researches business models of social impact design, (we just got funding from the NEA to publish our research next year.)
What do all these things have in common? All my work uses design and an entrepreneurial mindset to drive social change. I fell in love with design as a holistic problem solving tool capable of making physical change. I went to design school to get those tools, and have always intended to use those tools to work on issues of social impact. If I needed to ‘hack’ the design profession to do the work I wanted to do, so be it.
So I find myself on the inside looking out from both of these movements. Here’s what I’m seeing are the points they could meet, but ultimately diverge right now.
The “Missing” / We are Not Missing
Equity by Design has defined itself by the concept of “The Missing 32%,” the women who ‘go missing’ between graduating from architecture school (50% of grads) to architectural leadership (18% of firm principals.) The basic notion is clear: Why don’t we have equal representation at the leadership level and why are women either leaving architecture or not making it to leadership?
In a recent EQxD blog post, Emily Grandstaff-Rice, former president of the Boston Society of Architects writes, ” We are the survivors. We’re the ones who despite all the research and data that you will hear today still practice architecture and no one needs to convince us why architecture matters.”
Women like Katie Swenson of Design for Equity, find the idea that she is ‘missing’ from architecture deeply ironic. Swenson has an architecture degree, and while she provides the resources for her organization’s fellowship to get licensed, she chose not to pursue a license, recognizing that licensure was not the key for her to become a leading voice in promoting design excellence in affordable housing at Enterprise, which fuels a billion dollars a year into affordable housing.
To be sure, licensure is a key milestone in traditional practice, linked to power and a prerequisite for most leadership in firms. During Build Yourself+, when I have women set 3 month, 6 month, and 18 month goals for themselves, ‘Get licensed’ or ‘Finish my license exams’ is one of the most common.
Yet as I make very clear in the first workshop, it’s not my job, or the job of my workshop to get you to the corner office in your firm. My job is to keep you leaning in and not shying away from the challenges involved in directing your career towards the opportunities and scale of impact you’d like to make. My job is to help women “align their work with their values” as Emily Grandstaff-Rice says.
I’ve long thought that the architecture and design fields hold a little too tightly to our professional identities and our jargon, learning to defend our work to juries of only designers, and publishing our work in publications that only our fellow professionals read. Yet we know that the workplace is changing, and ‘slasher’ careers (read: hybrid careers, I’m this/that) are on the rise. Even Rosa Sheng of Equity by Design says architects should engage more intensively in (and get paid more for) the ecosystem of services around traditional architecture, including branding, data and other offerings that she calls “Architecture &…” instead of just providing these services pro bono in service of an eventually building contract. I wonder if the intense focus on licensure and traditional practice is a focus on the wrong issues.
(Gender) Equity / Equity
Design for Equity quickly evolved from a women’s group to to focusing on design’s role in reducing social inequity, especially issues of race and class.
Equity by Design is currently solely focused on issues of gender equity, despite the wider scope implied by their name. I am a believer in tightly scoped and disciplined advocacy efforts. I think when you loose precision and specificity in your goals for change, your chances of achieving them decrease. I give Equity by Design major cred for running a sustained campaign that I believe will result in real lasting change. Design for Equity could learn from their insights on how to organize parallel efforts that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Yet he architecture profession has real issues when it comes to issues of structural privilege. We historically (and currently) have a pretty strong relationship with the ‘haves’, and don’t have the same infrastructure for using our skills to serve the ‘have nots’ that the legal and medical professions have.
We also have a horrendous record when it comes to representing the racial diversity of our country in the ranks of our profession, and a history of low-wage labor practices that make it hard to make a living in this profession without a trust fund, unfairly disadvantaging poorer students. And it’s not accident that a lot of these issues are what drive the gender inequity, in our field by the way. Just see the now mostly defunct group Design for Equality (gosh why do all these orgs have the same name?) for a great articulation of the linkage between poor compensation and issues of equity in our field.
I believe it is the job of the people who are in positions of privilege to to change the structural realities that keep others from entering that space. Just look at the infamous ‘e-textiles’ comment in the hacking community, or this recent comment on an Architect article, to see why it’s ridiculous and unethical to put the onus on left out groups to shove their way into spaces of power.
In Build Yourself+ we spend the last week looking at strategies that we can use to ‘pay it forward’ and use our agency to create the cultures and workplaces that we want to live and work in. We talk about everything from asking your firm leadership to run a wage gap salary audit, to encouraging your public clients to provide childcare at community meetings in order to get higher quality, more diverse feedback and buy-in. In that session I also talk about how we might move beyond the issue of gender to think about how we might use our roles to advocate on issues or race, class or sexuality.
Questions of Impact
I’ve been struck by how the concept of impact comes up in both movements.
In recent blog posts for Equity by Design, Emily Grandstaff-Rice wrote, “Why is what you are working on changing people’s lives? We change people’s lives ..I have come to terms with the fact that my work has significance beyond the day-to-day.”
In my research for a Harvard Business School study on architecture, professional identity and pro bono service, I came across a lot of architects who cared about changing the world, but defined that change in very different ways. For some, it was about getting to impact the urban fabric and streetscapes that people walk past every day, and making ‘the public’ a better place to be, for some it was about serving their clients well by bringing spaces to life that would help their clients work better or achieve their missions.
In the social impact design world, we talk about impact also in a variety of ways but the focus and frame is different. The starting point is a community issue or opportunity, not the designed object that comes at the end of the process.
I know many practitioners who left ‘traditional’ practice and moved into social impact work precisely because they felt they weren’t actually achieving the impact on people’s lives that they hoped to make through their jobs. The structure of traditional practice, which often consists of firms hired to design and execute building projects, in situations where the important contextual matters that have the power to shape reality have already been made makes it hard for designers to move the lever on larger social issues through their work.
Another element that differentiates social impact design from ‘traditional’ design is that the process and the intangibles are almost as important ‘end products’ as the finished work. So, for example, the community meetings in which volunteers met each other and folded paper cranes for a neighborhood public art installation might be more important, or just as important as the installation itself as an art piece.
This means that the focus is less on architecture as a craft and more on it as a convener, a clarifier and an idea generator. This fact, in addition to the scarcity of resources that often plague social impact design practice, mean that sometimes the execution and level of craft of these projects is sub-par, and give it a bad rap in ‘traditional’ practice as not ‘real’ architecture.
Yet both of these worlds have so much to learn from each other. A work is only as good as its implementation–I think community-based projects need to have a level of craft or they have the danger of quickly falling apart, or looking so ‘homemade’ that they don’t command the care that art pieces and buildings that look more ‘real’ can achieve. The craft-based knowledge that comes with years of building projects with decent budgets is needed on community projects.
And social impact designers often answer to a higher set of goals in their projects–goals that are not defined by design-oriented priorities. Designers in ‘traditional’ practice would do well to learn from the social impact designers how to truly listen to clients, and how to take an entrepreneurial approach to linking a built intervention to a larger set of community goals.
Emily Grandstaff-Rice says in her blog post, “The concept that there is one perfect pathway to practicing architecture (i.e. the traditional firm setting—all that fun stuff) denies the experience of those of us who have charted our own path or the flexibility, significance, and team comradery that frankly keep us in architecture.”
I’d like to see the ideas of flexibility, significance and comradery that both movements share applied a little wider. I’d like to see these two passionate, disciplined, impactful worlds enlist each other as allies in creating the larger change we’re seeking.
Unfortunately, it conflicts with the Equity by Design Hackathon (due to scheduling reasons out of our control) which should also be really fantastic.
photo credits: Feature image adapted from Francesco Sgroi.