When I was in school at Columbia I was the only African American student in the MARCH program for much of the time. That number only ever increased to maybe 2 or 3 and none of them were women. While at school there was no black student group and no push towards creating more diversity in the school or the lack thereof in the profession. Unlike recent efforts being made at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design there were no strategies to bring in women and design critics of color to the school. I remember the shock on my face when I went to a midterm review in my second year and architect Mabel Wilson was on it. I had never seen a black person on a jury in all my 6 years of architecture education never mind a black woman. I was nearly in tears because I realized in the moment just how isolated I had felt. I also thought “Thank god I am not the only one!” Mabel was brilliant of course and inspired me to keep going as I saw my future self physically mirrored in the profession for the first time. I believe that an extension of this lack of diversity also meant that there was little or no discussion of the role that architects play in addressing the social and environmental inequities around us despite being located near Harlem and viewing the city as a laboratory for learning.
Fast forward 15 years and I find myself amidst a welcome sea of change in all these areas. While at Harvard I was able to be present at the birth of the African American Student Union at the Graduate School of Design being led by another Loeb colleague Jean Lauer Brown. Through her leadership and those of the students in the group I felt supported by them and the Loeb Fellowship in a way I had not previously in my education. I was so proud of these 20 students when they reached out to Kanye West in response to a series of interviews he delivered referencing his growing interest in design and his experiences with race as an artist in the United States. African American students in architecture have long had to lie low and try to tough out an education that did little to embrace their unique cultural view point or address their concerns and interests. As more students of color are coming into the GSD ( 20 out of 700- not enough but better than 1) they are able to organize themselves and the power of their unique contribution can emerge. As I read through the rounds of e-mails they generated to get the letter to Kanye just right I hoped that this could be a catalyst for an understanding of these issues. I was thrilled when I heard that Kanye West and his team responded to say that he would be in town for a concert on Sunday evening and wanted to meet with the group’s leaders. They met on Monday and Kanye led a very thoughtful conversation regarding the trajectory of design discourse and practice as well as the under-representation of minorities in design disciplines. Following that, he was inspired by all of the amazing things the students shared about the work and invited the Graduate School of Design students to be a part of his concert.
I have always hoped that our successful African-American citizens with privilege and capital would raise the awareness of the lack of minority representation in the creation of our built environments. As a professional African American designer for the last 20 years I cannot express how emotional and exciting it is for me to see momentum in this direction. It is time to for architecture and design to be both diversified and democratized so that our built environments reflect the wealth of perspectives that we all have to contribute. Everyone benefits when all of us are at the table and I personally just look forward to seeing myself reflected back to me a little more often.