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2015 looks to be a refreshingly disruptive year in the public interest design movement. The community design movement birthed in the social activism and organizing years of the 60s and 70s was reformed in the early 2000s, with the emergence of Architecture For Humanity, Public Architecture, the Enterprise Rose Fellowship and a new wave of public interest designers reinventing the practice of social impact design. With AfH closing this year, and many new modes of practice emerging, 2015 offers a fundamental re-boot. What is exciting about the moment we find ourselves in now is clarity that the profession no longer need be defined by the work of one or two large organizations. There are thousands of nonprofit organizations, for-profit entities, and volunteer networks across the globe doing this work well, and without fanfare. Further, we have arrived at a point of maturation where it is time to take stock in what we do, how we do it, and what types of change it creates in the communities we serve. There is not enough critical discussion about the actual impacts of our work – we operate under the assumption that our intention to work in the “public interest” makes our work inherently good. This is not enough, and it is holding the profession back from making the meaningful impacts to which it aspires. We need to orient the profession more directly to notions of civil rights and learn more from the base building organizations helping community members become change makers. We need to rid ourselves of jargon so practitioners can talk across disciplines and backgrounds without the need for translation.
Eager to learn from and hold up new models of practice, of evaluation, and of leadership, what started as a few friends seeking moments of collective reflection became a working group of practitioners from diverse organizations, skill sets, and geographies who have met over the past year to identify the greatest challenges to elevating and sustaining the profession’s impact. Christine Gaspar from the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Jess Garz from the Surdna Foundation, Theresa Hwang from Skid Row Housing Trust, Nicole Joslin from Women.Design.Build, Liz Ogbu from Studio O, Katie Swenson from Enterprise Community Partners, Barbara Brown Wilson from the University of Virginia, and Jess Zimbabwe from the Rose Center for Public Leadership formed a working group, identifying two key needs: one around promoting diversity of all kinds throughout our leadership spectrum, and the second to actively commit to equity outcomes.
As the field has matured, many practitioners acknowledge the need for more thoughtful critique, a more rigorous focus on equity and impacts, and a better understanding of how this work gets done well. Nonetheless, that attention to process, methods, outcomes and evaluation remains sorely lacking. We need to be more reflective about what we hope to achieve, and more honest about what we actually achieve. We need to hold ourselves collectively accountable. Committing to equity outcomes instead of focusing on only process or product will enable the profession to deliver on the promise of design engagement as a tool in the fight for social equity.
DIVERSITY NOT HEROISM
Leadership pipelines that amplify the voices of younger practitioners, non-architect/planner disciplines, people of color, and grassroots community leaders are still notably absent in this field, and leave the conversation to be driven by only a few perspectives. If we are to elevate the dialogue related to designing for equity, new platforms are needed in which new voices can contribute to the language, the metrics of evaluation, the principles upheld, and the narratives told about this work. And this will not happen until we also have a leadership model that pays attention to more than a few architect-heroes who dominate popular critique. We need a diversity of practitioners and spokespeople contributing valuable insights from a range of races, genders, ages, disciplines, and economic backgrounds. We need to hold up new voices and new perspectives that can lead the field to innovate around notions of equity in every facet of practice.
We are writing a series of blog posts to dig into these questions, and formulate a fresh approach. Topics will run the gamut from use of language to tangible outcomes.
Our goal is to bring a more nuanced approach to the conversation that opens up the field to more impactful results and more balanced forms of critique. Future blog posts from our amazing cohort of colleagues include:
· Using Our Words: The Language of Design for Equity: by Christine Gaspar and Liz Ogbu
· Designing for Equity: Using a civil rights framework to sustain just processes and long-term: by Theresa Hwang, Anne-Marie Lubenau and Alexie Torres-Fleming
· Finding Your Place: Young People's Values & Struggles: by Nicole Joslin
· Organizational Health: Walking the Walk: by Jess Zimbabwe, Jess Garz, and Christine Gaspar
· Process, Collaboration & Diversity: by Jess Zimbabwe
· Designing for Outcomes not Products: by Liz Ogbu and Barbara Wilson
· Moving Forward: by Katie Swenson and Barbara Wilson
We invite you all to join, comment, critique, and suggest ideas and topics on how to propel the Public Interest Design movement forward at this critical juncture. Let’s make 2015 a year of seismic positive change. Let’s collectively talk through how we can elevate the standards of community engaged design practice so that we all understand just what it takes to design for equity.
BARBARA BROWN WILSON
Barbara Brown Wilson is Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. Her research and teaching focus on community engaged design, the ethics, theory, and practice of sustainable development, and the history of urban social movements. Brown Wilson holds a PhD in community and regional planning and a masters in architectural history, and this urban historical perspective informs both her teaching and her research.
Katie Swenson oversees Enterprise’s National Design Initiatives, including the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute (AHDLI) and the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, a program uniquely designed to nurture a new generation of community architects. Katie holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from UC-Berkeley and a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Virginia.