Discussions about racial diversity need to focus on people of colour's work, not just their background, if we want to make positive change – something that architecture diversity platform Sound Advice is doing in its Now You Know publication, says Joseph Henry.
The conversation about diversity needs to expand to celebrate the work and practice of people of colour. The racial reckoning that we witnessed after the murder of George Floyd created much-needed space for black people to talk about our experience. Our experience in wider society and our experiences within the architectural and design industries.
But the discussion of diversity as framed by "white-institutions'' often feels extractive and is coupled with the constant requirement to recount experiences of discrimination as a form of learning for what seems to be for the sole benefit of helping white colleagues feel better about their performative ally-ship. I doubt that this method will deliver much positive change.
I understand that a lot of these spaces for diversity and inclusion conservations are well-intentioned and last June they felt cathartic. But now discussions that focus solely on diversity feel like an excuse to not move things forward.
It is no longer enough to only extract our emotional reactions to traumatic experiences and to frame our value solely as diversity experts within the design and architecture industry. Instead, it is imperative that we expand the conversation and opportunities for PoC to discuss their work and practice. Sound Advice has expanded the conversation through the Sound Advice Awards, which used our platform to recognise the work of PoC in spatial practice, and through our upcoming publication Now You Know.
Discussions that focus solely on diversity feel like an excuse to not move things forward
In the aftermath of #Blackouttuesday, our scepticism of the spectacle and performative allyship from the architecture industry led to us producing Now You Know, a publication that brings together a collection of 50 reflections from architects and urbanists of colour addressing spatial inequality in the built environment industry.
It was motivated by a desire to see action, work and critical viewpoints published in a way that did justice to the practice of architects and urbanists of colour. They were commissioned not because they are people of colour but because they have important ideas that will contribute to the design of a more equitable built environment and required a platform where these ideas could be shared publicly.
We needed to produce Now You Know within our own "extra-institutional" space, safe in the knowledge that the established architectural media would fail to commission at the breadth and scale required to make a meaningful difference. We hope Now You Know will challenge and encourage others to step up and ask us about our ideas and contributions to spatial practice – because black and brown people are more than just the diversity champion in your institution, project or publication.
Sound Advice was invited to produce the second incident of Counter-Figures [a series of broadcasts organised by Central Saint Martins in collaboration with the Architecture Foundation] and produced an alternative architectural award that aimed to showcase and highlight the work of a much broader community of practice than a traditional architecture and design award would ever plan to do.
Black and brown people are more than just the diversity champion in your institution
We rewarded forms of practice that have traditionally been working on the margins of the industry or not even considered relevant. Sound Advice used the spectacle of an award ceremony as a tool to refocus the lens of the architecture industry to add value and visibility to new and hidden forms of spatial practice.
One award example was "The number one provocateur disrupting the rigged system Award". The award explored the role of institutional systems on the impact of our cities and how they seep into cultural concerns of the public.
It explored the notion that many British institutions are built on foundations of racism, inequality and injustice. These unequal systems persist and are actually encouraged to persist, and disrupting the infrastructure from within, to change the direction of its power and reach, is a valuable form of form practice.
The award was about celebrating these spatial practitioners who are insiders, often working in the shadows, quietly and diligently in cultural organisations or educational institutions. The build-up of their impact can be slow and unheralded but their influence over time is undeniable, as the power and impact they have is remarkable.
This award was judged and presented by Meneesha Kellay, the curator of festivals at the V&A Museum and was won by Dr. Kamna Patel, the associate professor at The Bartlett's planning unit who is UCL's first vice-dean for equality, diversity and inclusion.
Her work typifies the idea of using practice and work to make change. In this case, her role as a planner and educator in co-authoring The Bartlett's "Race: and Space curriculum, which provides tools for educators and learners to understand where and how race affects the built environment.
While not something traditionally news or award-worthy for architectural media and press. This work could have a significant impact on the built environment through its influence on a new generation of spatial practitioners. Probably a more useful endeavour than a diversity working group chaired by an "ally".
Sound Advice is not alone in this endeavour, we are part of a community of practice which includes amazing extra-institutional organisations such as Eyesore, Afterparti, Civic Square, Migrant Bureau and a Vibe Called Tech.
In addition, Jayden Ali's curated series Counter-Figures is the perfect example of what needs to be done. It has created a blueprint of how you celebrate and showcase the work of people of colour not for being people of colour but because of their immense contribution to improving the culture and spatial condition of society.
It is important that this work does not become the exclusive toil of people of colour
The work did the talking, through different expansive forms of practice, it explored the intersection of architecture through the choreography and performance of Dr Adesola Akinleye's movement direction and collaboration with Black Females in Architecture and Jayden Ali. The film foregrounds issues of identity by creating an artwork to engage with.
To me the film questions the role of a cultural institution, in this case, London's Royal Academy, and how its historically narrow lens of cultural focus has undervalued the role of black women in having a central role in positively shaping the city. By telling an alternative history it explored ideas of the ‘extra-institutional' nature of BFA and how they have developed new support networks and systems to ensure that black women are present in conversations going forward.
It is the work and ideas that the performance conveys which creates space for a more complex and challenging conversation. This is what is valuable to the culture and of spatial practice.
It is important that this work does not become the exclusive toil of people of colour. Institutions in architecture should play a critical role in stretching the culture into something more pluralistic. Imagine all the incredible work and ideas we are missing out on because of this narrow gaze.
Surely there is nothing more urgent than this?