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Published June 2020

The Time for Change is Now


By Jen Levisen

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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.