June 25, 2020

Novita’s Juneteenth Diversity in Design Town Hall Spotlights the Importance of Action

Image courtesy of Robert Reuland. 

It couldn’t be more fitting. Novita’s senior vice president Joseph Cephas chose Juneteenth for the second installment of his panel addressing diversity in design. The auspicious date is one to celebrate and learn. And learn we did. This time around the esteemed panelists responded to questions from the roughly 150 participants in the webinar’s town hall format. Before doing so, however, Cephas; Dr. Angelita Scott, interior design professor at Georgia Southern University; Ronnie Belizaire, corporate real estate manager for Daimler; and Maya Bird-Murphy, founder of Chicago Mobile Makers, acknowledged the work that needs to be done.

Then came the questions. First up: what’s the difference between representation and tokenism? Belizaire explains the difference as “getting this one person on staff instead of finding a pipeline to get these people in.” What matters are strategic moves, not one-off measures. “An organization should reflect the ratio of what the minority is,” she says. Also, beware of diminishing someone’s capabilities. “As president of the Georgia chapter of IIDA, I was the first person of color. That didn’t have to be said.” She was there for ability, not as “a white savior complex” tied to skin tone. Scott noted: “If you’re the only black person in the company, often the only time you’re part of a committee is when it’s addressing black issues.” Tokenism, Cephas adds, is when a person may be asked to make a presentation but “not on a subject matter in which that person is an expert.” And from Bird-Murphy: “I’ve always been the one black designer, and I’ve felt less respected.” Yes, she calls it tokenism.

The conversation got personal when panelists were asked how they counter feelings of isolation being the only black person in the room. For Scott, it used to be “duality, wearing a mask to take on a certain persona.” But no longer. “I decided I wasn’t doing that anymore. We have to keep on going. That’s how we survive.” Cephas, too, vows to end the duality. But habitual isolation and suppression lead to trauma, he notes. “It’s rare that this has been discussed.” Belizaire, on the other hand, never felt uncomfortable. Early on, she was exposed to and focused on black people achieving at high levels. “I come from a place of power and I’m spreading my black girl magic.”

Are any in our design community getting it right? Perkins and Will got a unanimous shout-out. Not only for its leadership, but for the types of projects tackled. And not just for what’s been happening now, but for long-held discussions. Gensler, Chicago, received kudos from Bird-Murphy. “They’re walking the talk.” McKissack was singled out as a black family-owned, construction firm, now in its fifth generation at more than 100 years old.

Questions came about corporate mission statements. What should be included? How can they be used? Re the latter: as a path to start conversations and a means to create bias training. “Implicit bias exists,” says Scott, or Dr. Angie, as she was affectionately and respectfully called. And in the name of best practices, “firms have to share the changes they’re making even if feedback says they’re not doing enough,” notes Cephas. “They have to take the risk.” To which Belizaire adds, “Negative feedback can be an impetus for change.” Corporations, too, should be tasked with having an HR department as a place of safety. Grievances should be anonymous. False accusations should be addressed.

Research also was addressed; its far-reaching implications noted. From Scott: “It drives policy.” From how architects and designers are practicing to the huge factors of access to equity. Black participation is vital if communities of color are to be understood. The recurring theme of representation is particularly relevant here.

Advice for us all? Broaden social circles. Put yourselves in others’ places. Lead with actions. Belizaire ends with poignancy: “We have to move past this discomfort and do the work. We can let the tears flow.”

Read next: Black Design Leaders Outline Needed Change During Novita’s Diversity in Design Panel

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