Published June 2020
The Time for Change is Now
By Jen Levisen
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis just four weeks ago spurred rallies and protests across the country, and the world, in support of and to fight for racial equality. While Joseph Cephas, Senior Vice President at Novità Communications, marched through the streets of Brooklyn, he came up with the idea for a panel discussion on diversity in the design community.
“I knew it would be a good time to have this conversation and to have a captive audience,” he says. “That march I was on, was the same one that my grandfather made, and that my parents have made, but I’m concerned that my nieces and nephews will have to do the same."
"It's because of this that i live every day trying to make this world different so that they won't have to march. So that they can live in true equality.”
The second part of Novità Diversity in Design: The Time for Change is NOW Panel was held Friday, June 19. Led again by Cephas, the townhall style format allowed panel participants to respond to the myriad of questions received during the first panel discussion held June 5 and since then.
“Two weeks ago, we held this panel and were blown away by the engagement and response by the audience, but we were unable to answer many of the questions,” says Cephas, who organized the first panel in just 24 hours. “Part two allowed us to continue the candid conversation addressing the diversity problem facing the architecture and design communities.”
There was also significance on why this particular date was chosen for part two of the conversation.
“[June 19], Juneteenth, is a day that while now being recognized on the national stage, has long been celebrated in the black community,” says Cephas. “The date marks the freeing of slaves in Texas, which effectively ended slavery in the U.S. The abomination of slavery is deeply rooted in many of the challenges we face today. That is not to say there has not been significant progress, there has been, but there is still so much work that needs to be done.”
The same panelists who joined Cephas on June 5 joined again. Ronnie Belizaire, IIDA, is a Corporate Real Estate Manager at Daimler and serves on the International Interior Design Association’s Board of Directors. Maya Bird-Murphy, Associate AIA, is a designer, teacher and founder of Chicago Mobile Makers, a nonprofit offering youth design-thinking and problem-solving workshops in Chicago communities. And Angelita Scott, Ph.D., who grew up in Minneapolis, and is currently an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University, teaching in the school’s interior design program.
Before the questions started, the panelists addressed the fact that a number of architecture and design firms, and other companies, are reviewing their hiring practices and are working to put measures in place to diversify their staff.
“There is something that is going to play a role in these actions and that is tokenism,” says Cephas. “We need to be clear on the difference between tokenism and representation.”
Tokenism, Belizaire explained, is saying now we need to get this type of person on staff, instead of representation, which means creating a pipeline that feeds different populations of people into an organization.
“Companies need to put in place strategic measures that allow for representation to take hold within an organization,” she says, “so that they start to align with the general population.”
Hannah Snyder, who works at a small to medium sized architecture and engineering firm, asked how her firm could balance making sure not to ask emotional labor from minority team members, but also not create a white savior complex.
“When looking to have these discussions and conversations, invite your minority colleagues to the discussion, but ensure that the labor is tasked to more than just them,” says Belizaire.
“If the tables were turned, what would you do? "
"Have you internalized what it might feel like to be in that space? As black people we’ve often been the only one in the room – in this industry and outside of it – and we’ve learned to move with ease, hold our heads high and walk through that space. Put yourself in that space intentionally and start to determine what would have made you feel more comfortable.”
Kathleen Margolis, who works with large architectural and engineering firms around the world and most recently in the U.S., is currently researching their new normal and has found that consistently the issue of diversity comes into the conversation. She asked the panel if there were model firms she, and the industry, could look to.
Scott shared that Perkins and Will, from a global level, has been doing diversity work from the top down. Rudolph shared that Gensler, particularly their Chicago office, is another example of a firm putting action to their words.
Interestingly, the panelists all mentioned the same firms. “It’s very telling,” says Cephas.
Interior Design Deputy Editor Edie Cohen’s question addressed the feelings of isolation the panelists shared from often being the only black person in a room, “What can we do?”
“We need to stop the duality,” says Scott. “If you are a minority in a group, and consistently so, you feel you have to take on a persona or wear a mask, so to speak, to appear acceptable to certain groups of people. To ensure you say the right thing, do the right thing, in order to move forward within an organization. As black people this persona is how we survive and how we have to act in America and around the world. It is in us to keep on going, to keep fighting."
"One of the reasons i’m so proud to be a black person is because of the strength and resiliency we have to survive in this country.”
“Black people are used to that fight,” added Cephas. “To always suppressing our feelings in certain situations, but that causes trauma. The impact on individuals’ mental health is a deep conversation.”
Rebecca Dorris Steiger brought up the fact that there has been a showing of well-crafted, well-intentioned statements on social media about what design firms and manufacturers are doing to move forward and create change in their organizations, but that some companies have deleted comments and turned off commenting on these posts, “How do we understand these actions?”
“This is a civil and human rights issue,” says Scott. “Ask yourselves if you’ll continue to do business with these companies. Pressure needs to be put on these businesses whose actions are not matching their statements.”
One question came in about how to better promote young black designers and encourage interest in the field early on.
Rudolph was able to highlight some of the work that her organization, Chicago Mobile Makers, does to help this effort in Chicago communities.
“We go into schools and work with people, ages 8 to 18, on design thinking and problem-solving workshops,” she says. “If you work at a firm, a great way to get into the design education space and to work with young designers and students is to hold a workshop at your office.”
Representation, says Scott, is needed across the board, not just in design, but in engineering, architecture, the list goes on.
“Consider light sensor faucets,” she says. “When they were first released, they didn’t work for black people, because the sensor couldn’t detect the light change on darker skin. The faucets were designed by white engineers who didn’t consider how a dark person’s skin color would affect the ability of the product.”
Each panelist was given the opportunity to make a final comment.
“Continue to speak up and out, as long as you are not speaking over a voice,” says Scott.
“Regardless of what your skin looks like – all of our voices are needed to make a difference.”
“These past three weeks have been extremely uncomfortable and hard to process,” says Belizaire. “And despite all of the discomfort everyone is feeling, we need to move past that. We have a unique opportunity in this space to change this country for the better, to change the world for the better. We need to do the work — that is what I ask everyone to do.”
“Over 300 people attended our first panel and there are over 150 on this one,” says Rudolph. “The fact that people are tuning into this conversation, and asking the questions they are, is a huge first step and indicates that our industry is willing to make a difference.”