Women, Design, Politics & Community Improvement. Some Thoughts

A few nights ago I attended a Boston Society of Architects panel on community engagement. Among the panelists was Mariko Davidson, an MIT-trained city planner, former New Urban Mechanics team member and Managing Director of the Emerson Engagement Lab.

Mariko’s talk was fantastic–she showed us great work that uses the power of games to help people understand and make decisions about complex issues.  Yet what stood out to me and got me really excited is that Mariko is running for Cambridge City Council.

A few months ago I sat down with Megan Costello, who is heading up the City of Boston’s Office of Women’s Advancement. Megan was a Region Field Director for the Obama campaign in Iowa and managed Mayor Marty Walsh’s campaign. Megan told me just how hard it is to get qualified women to run for public office–I’ve heard that they need to be asked 9 times on average, and some even say 16. Megan told me that one of her ultimate dreams is to incubate and prepare women candidates to run for office.

The Office of Women’s Advancement is working on an ambitious goal. Understanding that the economic success of Boston is tied to the economic success of its women, the office is rolling out an AAUW Work Smart program to train at least half of Boston’s female workforce in job and salary negotiation.The program will bring women of different backgrounds together all over the city and teach them to evaluate, negotiate, and articulate their worth confidently in the job market.

Ever since my chat with Megan, I’ve been mulling over the issue of women in running for office, and over the course of the past few months I’ve been asking the young, intelligent and promising women I’ve met–especially those in design–if they’ve ever considered running for office.

“I’m just putting the thought in the back of your mind,” I tell them, “Put it back there and think about it– especially in fifteen or twenty years or so.”

While these women are young, just entering their careers and professions, they are thoughtful and ethical. They are sharp, systemic thinkers and know how to solve problems. They stand for something and I want them to keep their ambition, and the possibility of using their talent to influence our communities through the political sphere.

I’ve heard that the millenial generation is one of the most active in terms of volunteering, but one of the least politically active. They shy away from things that seem ‘too political’ and they believe that the political system is corrupt and broken. I learned from Mariko that the last council election in Cambridge was decided by eight votes.

Architects and designers too often shy away from the political aspects of their work–I know I certainly never learned how to navigate the political aspects of urban projects, or act to improve on them when I got my training as a landscape architect, but as Tim Love, principal of Utile and an interviewee for both my Proactive Practices and Northeastern research taught me, the political context of a project matters to designers. Understanding those dynamics and taking a stand in how you scope a project to address that political messiness and bring the right stakeholders to the table (and sift their competing views) is part of how you produce good urban design work. And as Tim taught me, it also means it’s more likely that your project will actually move forward, and not get stuck in the mire of political complexity and opposition.

I’ve lived in this area for five years, but didn’t fully commit to living here until last fall when I attended  the Design for Equity Conference, hosted here in Boston by Enterprise Community Partners, and the Bruner Loeb Forum which connected me to the real issues in my city. I’ve never invested the time in educating myself on local elections, but not only do I think that local government decisions may affect my quality of life more than federal government ones, but I believe in the power of precedent–improvements and new ideas in my community have the power to inspire other places to follow suit.

So here’s what I’m going to do.

Get involved, get messy, get started understanding my local context and the political options I have through voting this year. Make the best informed decision I can. I’m researching, but I’m also chatting with good friends who have followed local politics for a while and can help me understand the context. And vote, obviously.

And here’s what you can do.

  1. Figure out your own process of getting involved. This is a lifelong process of being a democratic citizen, you don’t have to get it right the first time.
  2. Support the women in your life, the ones who have potential to be powerful changemakers, even if they might not know it yet.
  3. Join in on the Boston’s Office of Women’s Advancement negotiation program. You can attend or host a workshop, or even get trained to facilitate one. Encourage your friends, colleagues, communities and industry to attend and host one. Join in and strengthen the women around you–you’ll strengthen your community.
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