Black in Design Conference: Reflections from Two Women of Color

image: Black in Design

The Black in Design Conference is a biennial event that focuses on uncovering the complex dialogues related to the intersection of design and black identity. Hosted at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University by the African American Student Union (AASU), the conference highlighted the works of emerging and seasoned design professionals, activists, artists, and educators whose common goals challenge Eurocentric methods of design, education, and engagement to create spaces and places for all people. The 2017 conference, entitled “Designing Resistance, Building Coalitions,” specifically focused on design as a social justice and activism tool that promotes equity and equality in spaces around the country that oppress or erase black and brown presence. For more information, visit the Black in Design website to watch the entire conference, and for the 2019 conference announcement.

Two attendees of the 2017 Black in Design Conference share their reflections on the event – Left: Ujijji Davis, ASLA; Right: Diana Fernandez, ASLA, PLA

Ujijji Davis, ASLA – Site Designer at SmithGroupJJR

Inspiring. Empowering. Liberating. There are so many words to describe the Black in Design Conference at Harvard University, yet they still seem ill-suited to accurately describe the experience, quality, and resonance of the event. Over the course of three days, I engaged with over 200 other designers and community leaders of color, as they discussed the intersections of design and social justice, and our commitments to uplifting neighborhoods across the country. We heard from seasoned veterans and new voices, both sharing paralleling examples and experiences on their journeys in challenging Eurocentric design standards, design culture, and design aesthetic—all through the lens of what it means to be black and brown in the United States.

The conference was unforgivingly honest. It exposed the limitations and the barriers in designing spaces that reflect black culture, black identity, even black trauma in the United States. It exposed the slow-moving processes of providing black communities with healthy environments, and seats at the table in large-scale urban gentrification. Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, discussed her triumph in New Orleans in exposing a community that was built on a toxic landfill, and her fight to relocate the families and revise the zoning legislation that codifies such development. Antoinette Carroll spoke on her work in St. Louis to promote human-centered design through engagement tools and graphic design in order to harness productive dialogue in the face of new urban development. These two women presented their design backgrounds as a tool for civic change and community advocacy that resulted in life-changing gains for groups that were previously marginalized.

Photo courtesy Harvard Graduate School of Design. Photographer: Zara Tzanev

The conference was incredibly uplifting. It highlighted the opportunities for black people to visualize their own futures and their own communities, outside of the existing structure. Mario Gooden and Mabel O. Wilson discussed their academic work at Columbia University that revolves around Afro-centric visualization, connecting black identities across the Diaspora. K. Wyking Garrett described his work in Seattle in anchoring African and African-American-owned businesses and cultural institutions through landownership, community development, and economic development. Michelle Joan Wilkinson discussed her work as a curator for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and her goals to expand the collections to highlight the contributions of Black Americans in architecture and design. These speakers professed the importance of curating a future that visualizes safe and culturally reflective spaces for black and brown people, that in turn reflects an equal and just society.

While Black in Design had many topics to dissect and devour, one thing was very obvious. Over the course of three days, the students of AASU did what any design firm struggles to do: find promising and passionate talent of color and bring them together for provocative exchange and learning. As design firms and national organizations continue to tackle their “diversity” shortages, I realized that the Black in Design Conference laid out an important key in solving the myth that there aren’t of lot of designers of color to hire. Through the conference, the AASU was able to create a safe space to discuss the intersections of design, race, racism, and identity as a way to empower black and brown students and professionals to continue moving forward in the realm of design. And in that vessel, they were able to attract over 200 black and brown designers ready and able to execute great design, contribute to thought leadership, and initiate change.

Photo courtesy Harvard Graduate School of Design. Photographer: Zara Tzanev

Diana Fernandez, ASLA, PLA – Associate at Sasaki

When I first moved to Boston in 2015, I was in desperate search of community and identity within the design profession. Fortunately, I happened to have made the move just as Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design announced their first Black in Design Conference, a conference which sought to simultaneously recognize the contributions of African descendants to the design fields and to broaden the definition of what it means to be a designer of color. The conference altered my perspective on the design profession, positioning designers of color as powerful leaders in creating better design outcomes for communities of color.

The conference experience fueled my volunteer efforts with ASLA’s Diversity Summit and re-energized Sasaki’s diversity efforts as an inclusive firm where diversity is essential to design excellence. The experience of the event also led me down personal design explorations in which I tested theories of practice from the lenses of diversity, inclusion, and equity. I am intrigued by the notion that space can be constructed differently across cultures, hence providing a framework in which design is not the universal, immutable, naturally occurring entity we have been led to believe through our design education. Perhaps societal ideals are not utopias, but rather heterotopias, where difference and diversity are epitomized in spatial and societal constructs, thus proving that heterogeneity in design practice is essential in envisioning and creating just and equitable futures.

This theory on design was affirmed during the second Black in Design Conference this past October. Building upon the Black in Design Conference in 2015, the 2017 conference focused on framing the discussions across different forms of design, to unearth the agency designers have to envision more radical and equitable futures. The conference aimed to reveal the boundless capacity and power of a network of black and brown designers that was intended to grow through the 2017 Black in Design Conference: Designing Resistance, Building Coalitions. The three-day conference created an immersive experience tailored to black and brown culture. From spoken word performances and Afro-yoga to panel discussions on virtual reality and structural racism, the conference provided a myriad of opportunities to connect, be moved, and create relationships furthering the cause of creating equitable futures.

Photo courtesy Harvard Graduate School of Design. Photographer: Zara Tzanev

As a Caribbean Latina, and woman of color, my experience at the 2017 conference provided me with immense inspiration, a sense of urgency, and desire to expose the thought leadership and immersive experience I witnessed with an audience outside the walls of an Ivy League institution. Many designers of color go entire careers without the opportunity to be in a room of hundreds of talented people of color who are carrying the torches of their respective communities to bring about equitable change. I was in a room of innovators and change makers who all believed in the agency behind the work we do in our respective fields.

Landscape architecture, a field often left in the shadows in the discussion of equity and justice, was brilliantly positioned by Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, and Walter Hood, ASLA. Both landscape architects provided the audience at the conference with concrete and grounded examples of the impact and influence landscape architecture has on communities of color and our ability to see public spaces reflect our values and ideals. Walter Hood moved the audience with his thoughtful work at the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, where the physical form and manifestation of public space is expressive of trauma of slavery. In Diane Jones Allen’ work in New Orleans, she showcased the power landscape architecture has in fighting for environmental justice in communities of color.

Of all the lectures and events, I was most profoundly touched by the last keynote, delivered by DeRay Mckesson, a young civil rights activist. In his presentation, he married activism and design ideology to provide a vision for the future where designers play an active role in resisting, envisioning, and creating a just and equitable world. To quote Mckesson, “We have never lived in a just world…and if we can’t imagine a just world, then we can’t fight for it.” His words made it clear that as designers, we pose the incredible ability to envision and create spaces that materialize the vision of what a just world could be.

The conference not only re-energized me but provided me with an expanded network of individuals of color shaping the design industry. The conference made it clear that as landscape architects we have incredible power and influence in ensuring our public realm is representative of people of all backgrounds, and not rooted in Eurocentric and Anglo ideals which no longer present relevance to our increasingly diverse constituents. The time is now to question and explore our design identity as a profession and re-evaluate the values systems in place to envision and create a just and equitable world for all.

by Diana Fernandez, ASLA, PLA, Associate at Sasaki and Ujijji Davis, ASLA, Site Designer at SmithGroupJJR

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