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Architecture, Design, Action: Sarah M. Whiting on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Sarah Whiting, Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture, with text

Sarah M. Whiting, Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture

How has systemic racism historically been built into and enabled by the design disciplines, in both urban and non-urban contexts? 

Tragically, there are many, many answers to this question, so forgive me for touching only on two, both centered around access. First, how many kids across America have exposure to the design disciplines and therefore access to a design education? The National Education Association has highlighted the inequities of public school education. Forty-four percent of public school students across the country are non-white. We know that the top-ranked public schools—which are also the schools that have strong programs in the arts and design—tend to be located in affluent white suburbs. We need to reach the students who are in the other schools. I think that all of us—students and faculty—in institutions of design education need to reach out to that group of K-12 kids to help give them a sense of what design is, how it affects them, and how they might become designers themselves someday so as to affect others.

Second, a different kind of access happens at the scale of the urban: federal, state, and local policies have shaped inequity into our urban fabrics (in both big cities and small ones). Richard Rothstein’s excellent book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (Liveright, 2017) exposes the systematic perpetuation of housing segregation across the 20th century. A former student from Rice, Giorgio Angelini, turned this story into a compelling documentary, Owned, which I’m hoping to screen at the GSD this fall. I think we have a responsibility at the school to ensure that all of our students understand legislative impacts on our work: we need to know how to push at these limitations as designers and as voters.

How can designers work to build a more equitable future?

 I have not been shy about my belief in the value of conversation—I think we need to up the public conversation about design broadly, but right now we need to talk specifically about how we can build a more equitable future. We need to discuss it among ourselves, with our students, with our clients, and with the broader public. We need to talk about the problems that exist—the structural racism that underlies our history, our cities, and our education, but we also need to talk about the ways that we can address and redress these problems. We need to lobby for underserved communities to get better public spaces, better public housing, better education. We need to be engaged citizens who use our voices and our votes—as much as we use our design talents—to shape the world’s future. I think that schools should help students learn about public processes, here and around the globe.

I also think that the GSD should teach our students how best to guide clients. As an example, I have always been struck by an often overlooked aspect of SANAA’s work: public components are introduced into so many of their projects that are otherwise private. I first noticed this tendency when I was on a jury for a project that they were under consideration for in Houston, and then I realized that you can find it in so much of their work. Both their Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art and their 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, for example, have entirely public areas around their perimeters (outside at Toledo; inside at Kanazawa). Galleries within do require ticketing, and I understand that (museums have to survive), but SANAA has consistently pushed their clients to make a substantial contribution to a broader public audience. They do this quietly: they don’t do it to draw attention to themselves or to make a big statement about program; it’s simply an effort to ensure that the projects impact a broader group than a client’s known or given constituency.

Several members of the faculty have advocated for implementing an environmental justice/climate crisis core class that’s taught across departments. If a similarly structured program on design justice/anti-racism design could be taught as a core, how would that take shape and what would be its most urgent concerns?

I think the idea of having a class that cuts across the school could be incredible. At the same time, I’m mindful of the heavy lifting done by the various disciplinary cores: they cover a lot of the accreditation requirements and they also establish foundations of expertise that are central to each discipline. Our options and electives are meant to be cross-school courses, but I think that having such a course that is deliberately drawing from all the disciplines would be very timely and would speak to the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary concerns. If we could make the course required for every student coming through the GSD. . . that would be an extraordinary common thread, no?

Issues of design justice/anti-racism affect space, form, access, and publicness; they impact public health, the health of the planet, and the health of society. A course that starts from that foundational understanding could take on different forms over different years: the pandemic, for example, has revealed racial inequities across the world that are directly life threatening. A course that analyzes the design roots of such structural racism—but that also points to design strategies for addressing it—would be powerful.

Realizing that very little time has passed since your most recent letter, “Toward a New GSD,” are you able to share any further information about how the school will be strengthening its outreach to Black communities in the Boston area? 

Core studios have been using Boston sites for a long time now, but we are making connections to Community Design Centers as well as to the Boston Society of Architects to get more on-site expertise. Faculty, departments, and the school are also all working to find ways to make real changes in expanding on this work, including directly engaging communities in the Boston area in their individual courses. For obvious reasons, though, doing this right now—at this moment of a global public health crisis—presents special challenges. 

Another idea we hope to get underway this fall is a virtual tour of Boston, led by Alex Krieger, as a kind of mini-documentary about how the city developed into what it is today, but also as a learning module that can be built on in future semesters. These are just a handful of initial ideas, and, obviously, there is more work to be done. The faculty are organizing conversations within and across their departments to make plans.

In your letter, you also mentioned strategies for getting more Black faculty through the door at the GSD. What has been the schoolwide response to these intentions? What kinds of conversations has your letter generated?

One idea from Toshiko Mori and Scott Cohen that came out of faculty brainstorming is to create a teaching fellowship position or positions at the school that can be a launching pad for underrepresented minorities to start off their design teaching careers. We have to fundraise to make such initiatives possible, but I think teaching fellowships like this would be a very productive start.

It’s important to keep in mind that the overriding goal would be increasing the number of Black scholars and practitioners overall who are working in design. But we have to acknowledge up front that that’s an issue that can’t be fully addressed by creating a new position or a fellowship program, even if doing so would represent an excellent, tangible first step for the GSD. Indeed, the students who authored Notes on Credibility understand that. Creating such positions doesn’t necessarily offer a solution to the profound and persistent underrepresentation of Black scholars and practitioners in design as a field. For example, the percent of practicing architects in the United States who are Black ranks in the low single digits, a number that for decades has changed very little. 

So how do we, as an institution, lend support to and provide career-building teaching and research opportunities for underrepresented minorities—scholars and practitioners—who are already working within the disciplines? And at the same time, how do we attract a greater diversity of people to enter the disciplines in the first place, for an education and profession? Going back to what I said earlier about art and design education in K-12 public schools: it is not difficult to see that if such education is currently offered mainly in affluent, mostly white suburbs, then higher education in design will appeal mostly to those students who have had that exposure. It is precisely those students who then graduate and populate the profession and the faculty ranks of design schools, and whose work perpetuates and adds to the disciplinary canons.  That’s why I strongly advocate outreach to middle schools as well as targeting high school and college students.

I’m speaking in sweeping generalities, of course, which I hope you’ll forgive, and I certainly don’t mean for my comments here to stand as a comprehensive diagnosis. But you at least see the range and depth of issues that begin to emerge when we talk about faculty recruiting. Over the last several weeks, a series of intensive conversations among groups of faculty have been convened that have begun to tease out these different threads. And recognizing the need to impact both the school and the field overall, several faculty have also organized their own efforts to help push us forward in productive directions—particularly with respect to the content of syllabi and the variety of precedents and other references taught in individual courses.

What has become abundantly clear is that our approaches to these different threads need to be guided by a holistic, but also an evolving plan, and that they shouldn’t be considered in isolation. That obligation puts a lot of emphasis on communication—ensuring that we all know what we’re all doing so that we can work more effectively together. The complexity of these issues—and the extent to which they are interconnected—requires a collective effort on our part.

Sarah M. Whiting, Dean and Josep Lluís Sert Professor of Architecture, joined the GSD as Dean in July 2019. She is a design principal and co-founder of WW Architecture, and served as the Dean of Rice University's School of Architecture from 2010 to 2019.