Designing Equity Part I: What’s next in community engagement?

Working session involving small groups of diverse participants image: Kofi Boone
Working session involving small groups of diverse participants
image: Kofi Boone

Rapid change in diverse communities across the nation has prompted many to take stock of the roles designers and planners have played and could play in this period.  Academically and professionally, many of us were drawn to our fields because of a shared passion for the power of design (and design thinking) to make positive transformations in the environments around us. However, with increasing diversity, we are often challenged with the need to better understand and more effectively work with people very different from ourselves.  And concurrent with this has been the demand by diverse communities for designers and planners to acknowledge and address the inequitable gaps between different communities based on racial, class, and gender disparities. For decades, designers and planners have worked with communities to address these issues. But in the current social, political, and economic climate, what are best practices in community engaged design?

Designing Equity was a recent forum facilitated by Toni L. Griffin to tackle this and many other issues. Convened jointly by The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Surdna Foundation, over 100 participants including architects, landscape architects, urban planners, community leaders, and funding agencies from across the country met for a day-long workshop in Washington, DC. The workshop combined case study presentations, large group discussions, and small-group activities all created to stimulate dialogue and bubble up unique opportunities moving forward.

Community engaged design in context

After opening remarks from the conveners, the workshop led off with a provocative session called “Community engaged design in context.” The session featured dynamic presentations from Dr. Assata-Nicole Richards of the Sankofa Research Institute as well as Dr. Ted Jojola and Michaela Paulette Shirley of the Indigenous Design & Planning Institute. Dr. Richards, a national leader in framing how race, class, and gender impact systemic inequality in community development, laid out the many structural barriers preventing more holistic community engagement. In the interests of framing measurable outcomes to demonstrate positive impacts to funders and governments, Dr. Richards asserted that process receives short shrift and limits outside designers and planners in their abilities to address deeply seated inequality.

Designing Equity was hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC image: Kofi Boone
Designing Equity was hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in Washington, DC
image: Kofi Boone

In her view, rushing to outcomes can actually perpetuate inequality by not building community capacity to take on what may be perceived as intractable issues facing communities including structural and historical policies, housing, transportation, and access to property ownership, jobs, and health care. She challenged the brevity and surficial qualities of interactions between designers, planners, and communities, and suggested that professionals concerned in the built environment were guilty of “biographical simplification” of those different from ourselves.

As an alternative, Dr. Richards challenged all of us to focus more on the idea of disruption as being a key to establishing processes and outcomes. She pushed the group to consider process more than outcomes and to see how structural inequality impacts community values and behaviors. Through a commitment to process and the time and resources needed to uncover the intrinsic values shaping community processes, designers, planners, and others can create opportunities for empowering relationships and networks and not just the physical infrastructure of communities.

Dr. Jojola and Ms. Shirley’s presentations immediately communicated the power of cultural worldviews in framing community issues and opportunities. Recalling their local culture they used a story about “Bear and Coyote” where at every turn, Coyote was able to frame his interaction with Bear such that he had the advantage in every time. Bear followed the rules of engagement as given and still came up short each time. They used this allegory to reflect the inherent inequality in access to information and resources in typical relationships between designers, planners, and the communities they serve.

An opening panel facilitated by Toni L. Griffin framed principles of equity image: Kofi Boone
An opening panel facilitated by Toni L. Griffin framed principles of equity
image: Kofi Boone

They both spoke from the perspective of Native American peoples and emphasized their cultural practice of thinking across seven (7) generations as a precedent for a culturally-grounded framework for community design and planning. Accounting for the needs of the people and the Earth over time and not just thinking about the immediate impacts of decisions, from their perspectives, honors the traditions employed in community planning and design that predate European colonization and reflect “Indigenous” instead of “Minority” attitudes.

In one of the most memorable moments of the day, Ms. Shirley asserted that a key principle in indigenous planning is helping people see that “our communities are beautiful already,” and if as a point of departure in design and planning efforts all are attuned to existing assets first, the subsequent process can flow in an enabling manner. Her statement on beauty would recur throughout the day with several championing the role of designers and planners as those who can help communities reconnect with their own beauty, and through that connection foster hope.

By Kofi Boone, ASLA, Environmental Justice PPN Officer (Allied Organizations Liaison)

To read Part II, click here.

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