Addressing Inequities Part 3: Allyship

by Jerry Guerrier
Dec. 14, 2021 | Back To Explore

It’s important for allies and co-conspirators to understand that the pledges made by firms recently are not the sole responsibility of the BIPOC employees to execute but are instead instilled in the mission of the firm itself.”

Melanie Ray, AIA, LEED Green Associate, NOMA, NCARB | Vice President & Treasurer of NOMA Baltimore

As an African American, I don’t believe I could have been successful as an architect without the concerted effort of “dominant culture” people invested in my interest in architecture.

Former professors and leaders saw me as a contributing peer from a student to practitioner in the profession and poured into me lessons and realities of navigating in an occupation dominated by white men. They told me what it would take to be in the top tier academically, shared with me what leadership looks like as a rising professional, pointed me towards resources to establish a practice, guided me in how to be a rainmaker, and, along the way presented to me nuggets on how to be a good human.

Jerry Guerrier in architecture school at the
New York Institute of Technology-Old Westbury

The disappointment for me is that this experience was and is not an abundant characteristic among the dominant culture for other Black & Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) who are also on their journey in this space we call architecture. These “few good men” were a peppering of intentional allyship in a dish that was served within a culture that views the “non-dominant culture” as undervalued, underestimated, and marginalized people.

For representation and mentorship to be consistent and successful in dismantling inequities in the architectural profession, actionable movement in the industry through allyship is essential. To productively destroy the stigmatic view of the undervalued, underestimated, and marginalized BIPOC, the industry requires a plethora of defenders and champions to combat racism, biases, and unconscious biases in the workplace, the architectural industry, and the world itself.

For this to take root, it is paramount that the dominant culture be an active accomplice and expressionist in emphasizing inclusion and human rights to advance the interest of the non-dominant culture. This is “The Way Towards (Active) Allyship.” Active Allyship means being an active ally in a dominant community that supports the non-dominant member/community and acts on an ongoing basis within the environments they work, play, and live.

It’s important the firm not only recognizes me as a licensed Black architect, but also, a skilled designer who is a contributing member of every team that I am on. I avoid tokenism by engaging with my colleagues’ ideas about equity and diversity.”

There are many types of implicit /unconscious biases that are common in the workplace (excerpt from AIA’s Guides for Equitable Practice):

  • Anchoring bias is the tendency to rely on the first observation or piece of information available to judge worthiness.
  • Affinity bias is the gravitation toward people like us.
  • Confirmation bias is the seeking of information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions. 
  • Out-group bias is negatively perceiving people who are different from those in the group.
  • Perception bias is the inability to make objective judgments about members of certain groups because of stereotypes.

I’ll give you a personal example from my past that rolls these biases together. I was working at a firm where the senior designer experienced “designer-block” on a highly visible project. In witnessing his struggle, I offered my assistance as a junior designer. We worked day and night for weeks to craft a landmark project design that would exceed the client’s expectations when presented to the stakeholders. Fundraising and donor solicitation commenced immediately and a gala was planned by the client.

During design development, the firm hired a white ivy-league graduate architect to assist with the work on the project. The individual’s pedigree and influence usurped my design sensibility and contributions (derived from a private undergraduate degree) and produced significant changes to the previous design. Any remnants of my ideas were presented as his own.

That second effort was developed without the client’s knowledge… until the day of the gala. On the tables and podium were commemorative donor plates, glass etched keepsakes, and a cake modeled after the former design. What do you think the client’s reaction and response was upon seeing the new design? What do you think are the explicit, implicit, and microaggressions I encountered? What state did this leave me in? How would I overcome such adversity in my career?

That was one season. Imagine what an (BIPOC) individual endures for a lifetime career.

So, how do you promote allyship?

Speak out on injustices 

  • Structural Racism: Reconsider client base & project engagements that perpetuate structural racism.
  • Historical effect on BIPOC Community: District redlining, voting rights/laws, housing legislation, law enforcement policing, procurement processes, health disparities, workplace & retail stalking, etc.

Educate and discuss with colleagues the impediments to allyship

  • Unconscious bias
  • Microaggression 

Acknowledge privileges designed and offered to dominant cultures

  • Pedigree & influential connections
  • Social Structure norms

Be actively anti-racist

  • (J)EDI training + discussion frequently
  • Celebrate non-dominant cultures and embrace their history
  • Actively participate in local government to champion needs in BIPOC areas
  • Consider projects that are socially and ecologically responsible

If we are to be authentic in active allyship, as stated (and I concur) by Melanie Ray, AIA, NOMA…“our co-conspirators need to understand that the pledges made by firms recently are not the sole responsibility of the BIPOC employees to execute, but are instead instilled in the mission of the firm itself. As such, every employee is a steward for that mission. Firms should not publicly dedicate themselves to uplift the Black community, then ask their Black employees to be the only ones making it happen.”

Along with other firms, Little’s (J)EDI mission states initiatives and goals that take the opportunity for allyship beyond the corporate walls. The firm’s dominant culture leadership and employees need to actively engross in the engagements, not by a limited committee of development, recruitment/retention, and workplace advancements – but as a whole.

“I always turn the onus back on them and ask, ‘That’s great, do you want to lead that initiative?’ or ‘Sounds good, how can I help you get that off the ground?”

Internship Development Strategies:

Internships – If we are really going to live DEI and grow the capacity of non-dominant cultures in the field of architecture, it’s meeting the students where they are. Be vigilant!

  • A firm needs to be intentional about seeking minority students whether they are Predominantly White Institutions’ (PWI) or Historically Black Colleges & Universities’ (HBCU) Schools of Design.
  • Be intentional in the search for talent. Be deliberate in the resources you use – contact academic advisors and engage the faculty.
  • Create time for senior leadership and staff to engage with HBCU students on campus. Make time for staff to teach at institutions or participate as guest speakers, studio critics, and presenters during career days.

Inclusive Employment Strategies:

Recruitment

  • Be intentional in how you recruit minorities in both PWIs & HBCUs. Inquirer – where are your minority students? I want to meet them.
  • When looking at the resume of an experienced employee, look beyond the candidate’s portfolio or body of work. Look at what their culture and diversity can bring to the firm.
  • It will be challenging to attract the BIPOC community into the firm if the body of work doesn’t align with the mindsets and trajectory of the non-dominant community.
  • Reduce bias at recruitment by leveling the playing field through a deliberate process. Considerations – blind resume, redact names, education, and networking groups, standardizing interview questions, and include behavioral based questions to see how the candidate operates under certain situations, particular to (J)EDI missions.

Attraction

  • Update your website to show that diversity matters with a balance of people and projects that match the culture and mission of the firm, assuming (J)EDI program and culture exists in the firm.
  • Highlight your diversity vision and goals, promote work-life balance, and note sources for professional development leading to personal advancements.

Retention

  • Design regular one-on-one sessions to explore the individual’s professional/personal inspirations and aspirations.
  • Let them know that they have a voice and that they are empowered within their position.
  • Validate their contributions often – say “thank you.”
  • Share with them what you see in them and how you want to work them.
  • Initiate “real talk” about BIPOC experiences in the industry.

Workplace Advancement:

  • Identify non-dominant culture persons who want to pursue leadership positions.
    • Help them understand and navigate the inner workings of the company and industry, and the culture and politics of the issue(s) that hasn’t quite settled in the (J)EDI mission.
    • Learn for yourself and assist the individual in identifying micro-aggression and unconscious bias in the workplace and in finding productive ways to address it.

As we are (J)EDI trained as leaders, we must create an atmosphere of allyship. We are WOKE to a level where we shouldn’t and can’t go back to sleep. Beyond standard diversity training, strategic allyship focuses on developing inclusive company culture and corporate goals that reduce bias in talent acquisition, establish frameworks for accountability checks, and implement cross-race mentorship for advancement, promoting racial balance in leadership.

To provide inclusive design solutions, the design profession must be appropriately diverse in representation. We cannot increase representation through education overnight, but through developing strategic active allyship targeted toward mentorship, internship, and leadership, a culture shift that increases diversity in architecture beyond the goals of 2030 can be achieved if we are intentional with the active dominant culture community, right now.