Harvard GSD and Perkins&Will celebrate inaugural Black in Design Mentorship Program

The Harvard Graduate School of Design and Perkins&Will recently concluded the inaugural Black in Design Mentorship Program, an initiative to promote greater representation of Black talent in the design industry. Starting on February 12, twenty-one Boston-area high school students completed a 10-week curriculum in which they were matched with GSD degree candidates and Perkins&Will designers.

The mentorship program was conceived by GSD students and Perkins&Will professionals at the GSD’s 2019 Black in Design Conference. Featuring both academic and professional components, the program introduced the high school students to the possibilities and opportunities within architecture and design, and helped them develop their design skills. Following this inaugural cohort, future programs will be offered on an annual basis.

“Design firms have a responsibility to be champions of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession,” says Brooke Trivas (MArch ’88), a principal at Perkins&Will who serves on the firm’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Council (JEDI) and has been a part of the mentorship initiative since its inception. “Our vision for this program is to empower both high school and graduate students to understand what is possible, pursue their interests, and develop their strengths.”

“I really believe in the importance of exposing Black youth to the planning and design fields so they know these fields exist, that planning and design careers are accessible to them, and that they have the power to shape the built environment of their communities,” adds Whytne Stevens (MUP ’22), an organizing member of the mentorship program.

The program grouped participants into three-person teams, each composed of one GSD student, one high school student, and one Perkins&Will professional. This arrangement enabled GSD students to learn from Perkins&Will professionals and, simultaneously, hone their mentorship skills with their matched high school student; allowed participating high school students to learn from both seasoned professionals and budding designers; and gave Perkins&Will participants an opportunity to create valuable connections with their mentees.

“What was really special is that the program had many lessons for everyone involved,” says Sebastian Schmidt Dalzon, administrative director of Initiatives and Academic Projects at the GSD. “High schoolers got to see the life and work of designers and were connected with graduate student role models who look like them, while graduate students had an opportunity to share their passion for design and make design more accessible and relatable for Black students, and seasoned design professionals were able to learn from the perspectives of younger generations of Black students and see the potential of a future of design that includes everyone.”

Over the course of 10 weeks, each trio discussed themes including design research, effective collaboration, Black legacies in design, and how to network and set professional goals, among other topics. In discussion-driven sessions each Friday, participants shared their ongoing work and heard presentations from guests including GSD Dean Sarah M. Whiting and other faculty, as well as a variety of Perkins&Will designers. Homework assignments included creating plans to enhance underused spaces in students’ neighborhoods, writing a letter to a future Black designer, and preparing mock applications for jobs and internships.

To form the inaugural cohort of high school mentees, program organizers extended invitations to select Boston-area schools. Harvard GSD participants comprised volunteers from the school’s African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD. And volunteers from Perkins&Will’s Boston studio made up the third leg.

“We have been intentional in developing this program to lay a solid foundation for future relationships to flourish,” says Laura Snowdon, Harvard GSD’s dean of students and assistant dean for Enrollment Services. “We have paid careful attention to the development of the curriculum, and we look forward to incorporating thoughtful feedback from our pilot group to inform the future program.”

The Black in Design Mentorship Program is the latest expression of the long-standing partnership between Perkins&Will and the GSD. Ongoing initiatives in support of diversifying the design profession include the Phil Freelon Fellowship and the Nagle-Johnson Family Fellowship, which was most recently awarded to Jonathan Boyce (MArch ’22).

“Our firm is committed to diversifying the design profession,” says Gabrielle Bullock, who has served as director of Global Diversity at Perkins&Will since 2013, and who joined the program in one of its weekly sessions. “We actively and continuously seek new opportunities to be stewards of social equity in our projects, in the industry, and in the world around us.”

“The program is rooted in the recognition that everyone benefits from mentorship, but not everyone has equal access because of racial inequality and histories of disenfranchisement,” Schmidt Dalzon adds. “The program recognizes that inequality exists not by accident, but by design, and that we can change the world by doing something as small as creating a community of people who share a passion for design that, thus nurtured, may ripple through generations.”


The Black in Design Mentorship Program’s Executive Board: Brooke Trivas (MArch ’88), principal at Perkins&Will; Rania Karamallah, architectural designer at Perkins&Will; Laura Snowdon, dean of students at the GSD; Sebastian Schmidt Dalzon, administrative director of Initiatives and Academic Projects at the GSD; and Kelly Wisnaskas, Assistant Director of Student Support and Services at the GSD.

The program’s 2021 Organizing Team: Kim Wong, human resources manager at Perkins&Will; Rachael Dumas, associate knowledge manager at Perkins&Will; Caleb Negash (MArch ’23); Megan Panzano (MArch ’10), program director of the Harvard Undergraduate Architecture Studies Track and assistant professor of Architecture at the GSD; and Whytne Stevens (MUP ’22).