Art Works Blog

We Are Not Missing

The City of Baltimore was on fire last week, in ways real and surreal. Peaceful protests that started in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray have escalated into police and resident violence. 

My first real tour of the neighborhoods of Baltimore was in the early years of my Rose Fellowship. Enterprise Community Partners had gotten its start in neighborhoods in Baltimore over three decades ago in the very neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester. We visited neighborhoods in the city, walked the streets we are now seeing on TV, saw the dilapidated housing, and learned about the crime statistics, education gaps, and poverty indicators. The physical violence of this week is horrifying, but less visible, although perhaps more pernicious, is the violent effects of racism and generational poverty which has plagued these neighborhoods for decades.

During that trip, I also got to meet Baltimore’s neighborhood activists and community designers. We learned about our host, the Neighborhood Design Center, which had coordinated thousands of volunteers over 40 some years working with community members to beautify and dignify their parks, streets, community centers, and houses.  Founded by and for architects working in local firms, NDC was a design center in the early model of pro-bono design, leveraging the design profession’s passion and skills for the benefit of the local community.

I had found my people.

I consider myself an architect, but with a small "a," I suppose. I have a Master of Architecture degree and have worked as designer, design advocate, design funder, and design fueler for over 15 years. My team and I have helped to design and build over 10,000 units of housing for people with low incomes in over 33 states.  But because I am not licensed to practice architecture, and do not work in a licensed architecture firm, I am perhaps thought to be "missing" from the profession.

Tonight, as I think about the long term violence and poverty that has been allowed , policy by policy, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, I am reminded that there is important work for architects to do—work that benefits the 99 percent and not just the 1 percent, and that’s work that we cannot go missing from.

We are not missing.

As a community designer, I found that the structures that govern the health, well-being, and social cohesion of people, have a lot to do with the built environment, but perhaps even more to do with the infrastructure connecting the people and systems. Even more than that, they have to do with the social systems that connect people with each other, and thereby with opportunity. As an architect working in community design, I get to move up the chain and add value at the front end, where most of the key decisions are being made. Through our work, we have found that 70 percent of design decisions are made in the first 10 percent of a project, exactly at the time there are the fewest resources for design. We are not opting out of design by any means, but taking a different approach to fueling on the ground outcomes.

The recent Equity by Design 2014 survey on the “Missing 32%” suggests that women may be leaving the field of architecture in part because the profession of architecture is failing at providing a path to growth for women, providing adequate compensation, and giving people the respect and autonomy so they can balance work and life. It also highlights just how important working on projects of personal and professional significance is, and providing a direct connection between day to day work and larger meaning. The social impact design field offers a clear opportunity to provide for these necessities. Staying in a profession should not be the battle. The things that one needs to lead a full lifemeaning, pride, flexibility, autonomy, compensation, benefits, great peoplethese things should be the easy part. What women want and what the profession and society needs should not be in conflict. 

Could mission be missing?

I think what is missing from the profession is the missionthe ability to marry the professional mission with the personal passion of its work force. Reversing decades of environmental degradation, ending racism and crushing poverty, creating great buildings in great neighborhoods in great cities where all people can thrive in a way that is harmonious with the planetthat should be the battle we are fighting. 

Next week I will be hosting a webinar for the National Endowment of the Arts called “Social Impact Now: Women in Design: We are not Missing.” I’ve invited Dawn Hancock, founder and managing director of Firebelly Design, which has built mission-based work into its very core; designer, urbanist, and social innovator Liz Ogbu; Lakshmi Ramarajan, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School who studies organizations and how they deal with issues of impact and equity; and Mia Scharphie, who researches social impact design business models and founded Build Yourself+, an empowerment workshop for women in design.

The agenda for our talk is two-fold: We’ll be looking at how that key mission component plays out in the lives and practices of female practitioners, but also how our movement needs to work harder at practicing equity in our field, and pursuing equity at large through our work. Ready to get to work on creating more equitable and meaningful careers, organizations and communities? Join our conversation

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