It’s been over a year since the global pandemic hit the U.S. and changed all of our lives. For most, it was a jarring experience that would destroy every sense of “normalcy.” The pandemic has changed life as we know it in this country and around the world in ways that we have not processed yet, and perhaps will not fully understand for years to come. But through the chaos, tragedy, and fear, some opportunities for community and change have arisen.
I remember sitting in my New York City apartment in the first days after the shelter-in-place order was announced. Our office had shifted to working from home a few days earlier, and the city was at a ghostly standstill that none of us had ever seen. I would stare out the window and not see a single car or person on the street. It was eerie, especially with the occasional ambulance blaring its way up First Avenue. With every passing day, the frequency of sirens increased. I kept thinking I should have listened to my immigrant parents and studied medicine instead of architecture. At least I could have been working in the hospitals up the street, trying to save lives instead of struggling to keep a small firm afloat in the solitude of my apartment.
In late March, I was invited to an online meeting for small architecture firm owners by a friend of a friend, who had also founded a small practice in New York. I didn’t know anyone else on the call, but they welcomed me into what was seemingly an informal therapy group, as we were all worried about what was going to happen to our projects and our firms, whether we qualified for PPP loans, etc. This was a real cohort of peers, all of whom were in the same leaky boat as me, and there was a feeling of camaraderie, not competition. I came to architecture as a second career, and I have often found that there is an underlying sense of competitiveness among architects and designers, driven by capitalism—and ego. I felt this acutely when I was first starting out and there were few resources or people willing to provide guidance on fee structures or contracts. This opaque and competitive experience was the antithesis of what the practice of architecture should be: collaborative and socially conscious.
The weekly small practice calls became a fixture in my schedule and something I looked forward to, a place where we found solace in each other while sharing information and ideas. By April, we were brainstorming about how we could put our collective skills towards helping those who had been hardest hit by the pandemic through pro bono design services. It was apparent that a whole slew of design problems related to occupying space were going to emerge once people got their footing. We began reaching out to local social services organizations, nonprofits, and small restaurants and businesses located in the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest by Covid, namely Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
Later that month, Design Advocates was formed by seven of us from the original call group, and all of the other small practices from our weekly calls joined as volunteers. Word spread about what we were doing and more designers and architects came forth to volunteer. We later partnered with the Van Alen Institute, Urban Design Forum, AIANY, and NYCxDesign on various programs and initiatives. Our volunteer network and the request for services from clients continues to grow in a way none of us could have imagined over the course of a little more than a year. And, most important, we have become a collective of practitioners who share values on how the design process should occur (collaboratively, among ourselves, as well as with clients) and where our efforts should be focused (on those who do not have access to design services).
I immediately signed up and spread the word among the few BIPOC design colleagues I knew. I wondered: How many people would show up? And would I finally find a significant band of BIPOC designers that I could stand with?
As Design Advocates picked up, I found a renewed energy and strength for my team and our work in solving problems related to Covid, while also hoping to contribute to a more equitable built-environment. Meanwhile, BIPOC communities were being ravaged by the pandemic, and BIPOC bodies continue to be terrorized and often taken by police force. The murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sean Monterrosa—the list goes on and on—continued to tell us that non-white people in this country should rightly fear those in power. In early June, the Design As Protest (DAP) Collective hosted a National Call with the following invitation: “In solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and in defense of Black Life, we invite Black design professionals, designers of color, and co-conspirators for a national webinar on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 at 12:00 pm CST.” I immediately signed up and spread the word among the few BIPOC design colleagues I knew. I wondered: How many people would show up? And would I finally find a significant band of BIPOC designers that I could stand with?
Having grown up in the South and being a POC+woman in the field of architecture, I have experienced my share of discrimination. Most of the time I just took it and moved on. There is a mentality ingrained in us, still in my generation, that we should not rock the boat and try to get as far as we can while keeping mostly under the radar. I’ve always struggled with this. It was definitely one of the reasons I launched my own practice. I realized I could create a space where I could try to protect myself and others from those experiences. So when I joined the DAP National Call and heard from Bryan C. Lee, De Nichols and Michael Ford that it was maxed out on participants, I was thrilled. I recognized a few people on the call, but there were so many more new faces. Since that day back in June, it often feels like I’ve found another community that I’ve been searching for in my design life. But even beyond that, I have found strength, solace and safety in this amazing group of people, who have all been able to make their way through a training that works directly against us.
DAP’s Design Justice Demands are the focus of our work in DAP Collective. This work involves everything from creating databases about historical BIPOC neighborhood displacement, to direct action campaigns of Tactical Protest sign installations, to writing Voter Justice Guides in an effort to help educate voters on what just urban planning policy should look like, to challenging design education methods and curricula. All of this is directly related to design, architecture, and policy, and the systems that are created as a result. The environments that we live in are the direct result of a system that was created to oppress Indigenous and Black people, and eventually all POC. The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd brought that to light for many people who never had to consider or understand it prior to last year. As a result, our collective work in DAP has gained momentum and we are pushing forward with our campaigns, keeping in mind that we’re in this for the long term and that we need to take care of each other in the process. The work is not easy or comfortable, and it takes a toll on all of us, regardless of age, experience, education, and background. It seems there is some movement toward change, but there is a long way to go. We will need help along the way—and I hope others can find ways to support our leadership and work.
So while the last year has brought tragedy and uncertainty, there are also glimpses of hope. When we’re pushed to unfamiliar or threatening places, we find ourselves seeking out those with whom we identify to help get us through and beyond these situations. I certainly feel fortunate to have been able to find this in multiple places this past year, and I’ve embraced these communities into my life for the long haul. I am resolved to see the change that we can collectively create in our industry, and beyond. This is the work, and I hope many more will join us as we forge forward and work to create a different, diverse, and dynamic sense of normalcy.
Featured image: Tactical Protest initiative in New Orleans, organized by Bryan C. Lee. Photo by Lee.