Reflecting on the African American Experience at the Harvard GSD
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnepolis Police, the country erupted in protests and demonstrations. The fervor generated by that event reached the world of architecture education a couple of weeks later, when two groups at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD)—the African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD—posted a public statement, Notes on Credibility, calling for reforms at the school. Four days later, Dean Sarah M. Whiting posted a response, Towards a New GSD. Shortly after, I reached out to the groups, and they put me in touch with two of their members: Caleb Negash, a second-year student in the MArch program, and Andrew Mbuthia Ngure, a third-year student in the same program.
Negash, 27, did his undergraduate studies in architecture at Princeton. He worked in New York as a designer and later spent more than a year in Singapore teaching high-school-age students architecture, prior to applying to the GSD. The son of Ethiopian-born academics, Negash was born in California and moved to Atlanta at the age of 10. Ngure, 28, was born in Kenya and moved to the U.S. to attend community college in Baltimore. Prior to attending the GSD, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Architecture and Environmental Studies from Morgan State University. Earlier this summer, I spoke to the two of them on Zoom (Negash from Cambridge, Ngure from Baltimore) about Notes on Credibility, the experience of being a Black student at the GSD, and their plans for the future.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
CN: Caleb Negash
AMN: Andrew Mbuthia Ngure
Tell me the impetus for the Notes on Credibility demands, which were very specific.
This was sparked by the death of George Floyd and the protests that happened around the country at that time. There was an email that went out from our administration to the whole school, which was thoughtful and heartfelt, about mourning the loss, about how this is a time of social change, about how the GSD and designers have a responsibility to respond to injustice. But it lacked a lot of specificity. It never mentioned George Floyd by name. There wasn’t a mention of systemic racism. We understand that it came up quickly, but it seemed a bit vague and nonspecific for an “official” response.
We’re both members of the AASU and AfricaGSD. Group members were in WhatsApp chats, talking about how frustrated we were, so we decided to craft a response. Not so much to their first message, but more of a response to larger practices at the school and issues that we saw as a problem with our education.
It’s funny that you mentioned how specific the demands were, because we wanted to be direct, in terms of what we’re asking for, but not too prescriptive to the point of excluding too much. We were trying to strike a balance between specificity and a sort of openness, understanding that events on the ground were extremely fluid.
Tell me about those two groups you just mentioned.
The Africian American Student Union started at the GSD within the last 10 years. It’s a group for support and solidarity among Black students. We’re open to students of all races. But the focus of the group is Black designers and the issues that we face. Our main focus is organizing events for Black students at the school. A lot of them are targeted towards giving black students an outlet to express frustration, to relax and feel a little bit less of the pressure from our school, because we deal with a lot of ingrained racism in the discipline that manifests a lot of ways at school.
And then you layer Harvard over that, and that’s pretty intense.
It does get intense, and there’s so few of us. In a lot of ways, we try to find a way to carve out space for students to chill and decompress. In any given year we probably have about 20 participating members. One of the big things that AASU puts on is the Black in Design conference, which started in 2015.
AfricaGSD is for students who have an interest in Africa. I feel like we’re far too few to just restrict ourselves to people who come from Africa. So we’re open to everyone who has an interest. We’re dedicated to a more accurate representation of Africa. In the academy there is this subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—view of Africa as a primitive continent. We need to correct and expand that limited interpretation. As far as events, we focus on the different parts of Africa. We invite speakers. We’ve done movie nights, themed get-togethers. We’ve really emphasized community, bringing people together.
What were you trying to accomplish, in both the near- and long-term, with the demands?
I feel like our shared belief is a simple one. We all understand that, in trying to break down systemic and institutional racism, powerful institutions such as Harvard—which we’re a part of—must play a bigger role. This is our charge. We’ve worked hard to get where we are. And I feel like it’s our responsibility to question and challenge the institutions that we’re a part of, if they’ve been in any way complicit.
Education is obviously one of the best ways to challenge people’s ideas of self. To help them face and acknowledge history. For me, the most important demand involves the curriculum. We must change that. What we’re learning, the so-called “Canon of Architecture,” needs to grow exponentially. It needs to be heavily supplemented, because it is now all Eurocentric. That’s something that I feel very strongly about changing.
I would echo that. I would also add that a lot of the demands focus on representation. We want more Black students, Black faculty and administrators, Black speakers. But I think that representation is just a start. Those are shorter-term issues that we think will be relatively easy for the school to implement. Other issues—implementing anti-racist policies into the structure of the departments, examining how and whose history is taught, the way courses and the curriculum are organized—are more long term.
Dean Whiting responded within about a week. What was the group’s reaction to it? And what are your personal feelings about her response?
We were encouraged by the timeliness of her response. Sarah is new to the GSD, and we feel like a lot has been placed on her. I liked the response. It corrected some of the things that we had issues with in the first administrative email. It was specific to our set of demands. She listed six items that they were working on immediately that were tied to different demands. Right now we’re working on getting more specifics and working out a framework with the university on how to proceed, not just with the dean’s proposals, but with the entire list. Obviously there’s been roadblocks. This summer has been challenging for everybody.
This is such a fraught moment, but I think that we’re at an inflection point that some change can happen.
Movements dedicated to social justice and fighting racism have been happening forever, but in the last six or so years, maybe since the killing of Mike Brown or Eric Garner, it’s felt like there’s been a concentrated and renewed effort. There have been students in the past who have made our work possible at the GSD, certainly former members of AASU and AfricaGSD, who have laid the groundwork. Getting the Black in Design conference off the ground in 2015 was a huge milestone for Black students at the GSD and Black representation in architecture.
All those things are exciting. And yet we are where we are. We still have this frustration with the school, still don’t feel like things have moved fast enough. But it’s easy, perhaps too easy, to be pessimistic and think this could just be another moment where we get a lot of promises and nothing happens. This does feel like a different moment. Important institutions are responding and people are changing their language and the way they think about systemic racism.
I think we reached a critical mass, in terms of what everyone was able to tolerate. I feel like the pandemic just added on to all these frustrations. And then the murder of George Floyd, it was like, Enough! It became another one of one-too-many. And yet I’m optimistic. I think something lasting can come from this moment.
Let’s talk about the systemic issues surrounding architects of color. It’s a field that couldn’t be diverse, even if it wanted to, because of the demographics that are baked into it. There are fewer than a thousand licensed women architects of color in the whole country. Talk about that from your perspective.
Those numbers make it difficult to think about a way that you could quickly get diversity in our field. A lot of that has to do with the history of the discipline. There have always been a lot of barriers to entry—things like licensure, which emerged in the form that we have now, after the Civil War. Much of that had to do with the fear of skilled Black labor, after slavery, and the fact that there were going to be an influx of potential builders. And so suddenly licensure as we know it emerges, and they’re able to cut Black people, other minorities, and recent immigrants, out of the profession. The weight of that history is heavy, and it manifests in so many ways, especially in the required courses that we have.
Moving forward, I think that it mostly comes down to education. Both reforming education, at the graduate and undergraduate level, and providing arts and cultural education in the primary grades.
Andrew, how did you become aware of architecture as a possible profession?
When I was a kid, we had a model house in our home. I liked to play around with it. My mom and dad would tell me that an architect was the person responsible for that. In order to make a big house, you needed to make this smaller version, and that connection between the two was mind blowing. I was like, Whoa, that’s crazy. I have so much memory embedded in the house. It was a little thing that, even as a child, I was somehow drawn to.
How old were you when you had that insight?
Single digits, for sure. That was a surprisingly passionate interest, because as you grew up, depending on what you’re exposed to, your ideas for possible professions keep changing. But I feel like the architecture vision stuck. I was also good at physics and math, so it felt that I was getting the nourishment that I needed to get me to do architecture. I grew up in Kenya. I saw all my teachers were Black. I had a certain sense of ownership, a feeling like, Oh, yeah, I can do this. I somehow understood that it was possible.
Do you guys feel a special responsibility, because you’re at Harvard and presumably the future leaders of the profession? Or are you just worried about doing your work the best way you can?
We’re certainly aware of that. Because the Harvard GSD is a leader in a lot of ways, people are always going to be looking at what we’re doing. So, yes, there’s the privilege that comes with being a student here and at the extended networks we have access to. I feel a sense of responsibility to give back or to find a way to open up more doors for people who come after me. That’s definitely part of our thought in issuing Notes on Credibility, because we knew that people look to the GSD as a standard. And if the Black students at the GSD aren’t calling out racism, then, you know, who’s going to do it?
I feel like one of my personal responsibilities is to go out into the world and be an agent of change. That’s how I hold myself responsible. But I will say I don’t necessarily feel special. I’m just doing design the best way I can, trying to impact the world and make it a better place. But it’s not lost on me that I will have an association to Harvard, and that has a certain weight to it.
There’s a pressure on Black students and Black faculty and Black staff in all kinds of institutions, to be the voice of change, to be at the forefront of leadership on anti-racism. At the same time, it puts a lot of burden on Black people who are already feeling a lot of stress. I feel that a lot, and sometimes I do get frustrated and would like to be an individual who is just pursuing architecture and design because I have a passion for it. Perhaps one of the end goals of Notes on Credibility would be a world where that burden isn’t placed as heavily on Black students, where they can feel a bit more individual and have the same luxury that a white student gets to be an architecture student and not really have to be representing.
Cathleen McGuigan at Architectural Record interviewed three African American architects, and Mario Gooden had an interesting quote: “To be black and in architecture, you cannot be mediocre. To be visible you have to be excellent, and you have to be excellent at every second of every moment of the day. This is a very subtle but heavy burden that we and our black students are carrying every day.”
I love that quote. It’s accurate. The intense burden of Black excellence is a phrase that gets used a lot nowadays. We’re celebrating Black voices, but it can be that these places like Harvard are less forgiving to you as a Black student. You don’t have as much latitude to mess up. You’re either here because you’re excellent, or you’re the product of affirmative action. That sort of dichotomy doesn’t get placed on students of other races. So this idea that you have to be excellent at all times is certainly felt within a place like the GSD.
What are your immediate plans?
Right now I’m most concerned about making a really good thesis. After that, I do want to get licensed in the U.S., so I’m probably going to work here a little bit. From there, we’ll see what happens. My main ambition is to start a practice, but I feel like I’ve had to do a lot of future rethinking during the pandemic.
The future is a little murky for me. I’ll slog through this program and get a thesis out. I don’t know if licensure is exactly my goal, but I want to work for a while. And then I may go back to school. I’ve got an interest in history and theory, so I may end up coming back for a Ph.D. I’m a bit of a masochist.
Featured image of “the trays” at the Harvard GSD’s Gund Hall via ArchDaily.