Earlier this summer, five UTSOA students participated in the 2020 Design Futures Student Leadership Forum, a leadership development initiative that builds capacity for future leaders to apply the power of community-engaged design to address systemic racism in the built environment. The five-day, interdisciplinary forum – hosted virtually this year by the University of Washington St. Louis Sam Fox School – brought student leaders from across the country together, alongside practitioner- and university-faculty, for interactive workshops, presentations and discussions about using design as a tool for social equity and positive change.
The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture has been involved with and has had students representing the school at the Design Futures Student Leadership Forum since its inception in 2013; and Assistant Director of Research Sarah Wu serves as one of the organization’s Advisory Board Members.
This year’s student attendees included: Franny Kyle (MLA, MSCRP), Amir Mirza (B.Arch, BSArchE), Temi Osanyintolu (B.Arch), Makayla Ponce (B.Arch), and Jorge Zapata (MSCRP, MSUD). We caught up with them following the five-day conference to learn more about what they discussed and learned, as well as what they hope to bring back to the school this year.
What was your favorite, or the most impactful workshop or part of the conference?
Franny Kyle: At the beginning of the weekend, we were asked a few questions that framed small group introduction. At the end of the weekend, we went through another series of questions, setting a vision for where we go next. One of the first was “Who are my people?” and two of the last were “What do we want? What are we building?” I think I have worked through these questions most days since the conference, and I love how grounding they are. They are reassuring and explorative at the same time, reinforcing a sense of solidarity and focus, community, and justice.
Amir Mirza: I enjoyed having “difficult” conversations with other designers and to be a part of a space that fosters the real types of questions that I care about. Being able to express the importance of consulting with the community and to understand my role as a facilitator of the community’s needs is something that I appreciated being able to explore within the forum. It was rewarding and a privilege in itself to attend the forum, being able to learn about racialized segregation in zoning in real estate, systemic oppression within the design field along with architectural education.
Temi Osanyintolu: The most impactful workshop for me was the “Advancing a Just Design Future” presentation on Day 2 of the conference. The purpose of the workshop was to analyze how power plays out in the design sector. We were asked to think of who matters and who is marginalized in different design scenarios. This presentation and the exercises we went through changed how I think about community-engaged design and the general role of architects. I was previously of the mindset that we, as designers, are trained to know what good design is and how it can be used to help others and thus we are able to create solutions to design problems with the knowledge that we possess. I thought community-engaged design was just about listening to a community and then going back to the drafting desk to turn those conversations into a design. However, I think this workshop marked the beginning of a change in that mindset. We, as designers, are more like tools to create great design, but the tool should be wielded by those with the intent, knowledge, and experience of living in a certain context, i.e. the community members. We should be giving voice to those who matter in design problems, and we should be amplifying those who are marginalized and who are often left out of the conversation. That is how we engage in equitable design.
Makayla Ponce: I would say my favorite part of the conference was getting to hear De Nichols’ Keynote. She presented “Sick and Tired: Reflections on Design, Illness, and the Fight for Racial Justice”, where she spoke on how racism and its harm towards the BIPOC community is not merely adjacent to and happening in the built environment, but is sustained by it. Her “Sick and Tired” framework (inspired by the work of Fannie Lou Hamer) evaluated how stressors in the built environment from the scale of the human body to the societal scale make BIPOC tangibly ill and exhausted. The scope of this harm is widespread and sobering, and she invited us to listen and learn about these issues. Then, she reintroduced her framework to look at healing and activism at these scales and to begin to imagine what they could look like. She was so open during her talk about the many obstacles she has faced, and despite them, she puts her energy towards supporting others and deconstructing oppressive systems. She is inspiring and a role-model of the kind of designer and advocate that I hope to become one day.
Jorge Zapata: Design Futures as a whole was a very impactful and comprehensive event for me as a student and future practitioner. One of the workshops, Creating Strong Foundations, led by Katryna Carter, Sophie Morley and Allie O’Neil, was very eye-opening to me. We talked about how everyone deserves access to good design, which I think is really important since the field of design has had for decades a connotation of exclusivity, luxury and has reinforced the invisible barriers that historically contributed to racial and social segregation. Working together with communities is something often mentioned in theory in our classrooms, but is it something that we are actually doing when we get out in the field or when we join that amazing design firm?
Kicking-off partnerships with communities and trying to break colonizing patters are actions that we need to take on in each project we engage, even if that’s not the main task that our job has entrusted to us. What can we do to not perpetuate these harmful behaviors? When we are designing a building, rethinking a place, or planning for a community, we have the agency to influence positive actions that lead to social change through our designs.
Tell us about one of your biggest insights, or overarching takeaways. Anything unexpected or that particularly stood out for you?
Franny Kyle: The notion of architecture and planning as a potential process for healing was a significant theme. I think the language demands that we, as future professionals, learn to practice with care. It also suggests that the good work takes time, empathy, and community. I also think that the idea of repair poses an opportunity to re-make and re-create imaginatively. I’ll take this theme with me into both my professional and personal lives.
Amir Mirza: One of the biggest overarching takeaways is that there is still a TON of work to be done. This is really only the tip of the iceberg. Another thing that stood out and really hit home for me was the effect that public policy and the built environment have on public health. Ethical urban planning, systems thinking, and redesign are all topics that have stuck with me after the forum.
Temi Osanyintolu: This conference amplified my want for equitable design to be at the forefront of my education and my work. There is so much power in design and I think helping those who aren’t getting the attention they deserve is where the brunt of our focus should be going. This conference opened my eyes to what equitable design looks like and how community-engaged design should be practiced. My biggest takeaway was that as a designer, I need to be working with communities to give them access to the resources, tools, and power they need to create improvement where they see fit, not where I see fit. And that’s an idea that I think is very at odds with how we are being taught to design within the school.
Makayla Ponce: My biggest insight was that even as a student, there is still a lot I can do. Going into the conference, I felt virtually powerless, like there are a lot of overhead systems and bureaucracy that I have to operate under until I get into a better position where I feel like my voice can be heard; but, I learned that isn’t the case at all. I saw so many other students with similar goals for social justice activism in design and beyond. Some of them will go on to start NOMAS orgs at their own schools, while others came to the conference with leadership and activism experience and shared their wisdom. It was very empowering, and it showed me that our voices together can bring the positive change we hope to see!
Jorge Zapata: It was very motivational to see how different practitioners and students from other institutions are addressing the topics of inequity and race in their professional and student lives. Sometimes it seems that not too many people are fighting for a change and that is why I think these kinds of gatherings are necessary to get strength and tools to move forward, not simply accept the status quo. I really appreciated how some of the presenters shared personal challenges that shaped their practice in the long-term. They were able to be brave and vulnerable sharing with us sensitive experiences that consolidated the way they understand design. Personally, I find it challenging to express my lived experience in my work, but when we are dealing with projects that affect the lives of other people it is important that we recognize our own positionality to be able to establish links with communities and build trust, which can be as important as the physical manifestation of a project.
How will you translate or bring back what you learned at the conference to your work and experience of UTSOA?
Franny Kyle: Among other things, the conference put a big spotlight on all of the things I don’t know, haven’t considered or haven’t looked into. There were so many resources shared and names mentioned about Design Justice work that it became even more clear to me just how much is out there. And it reinforced just how much is usually missing from architecture and planning curriculum. I hope to work with the other students and faculty from Design Futures as well as eager students and professors at UTSOA to create adequate space for these conversations to consider formally and informally here at UT.
Amir Mirza: I want to be the voice for those not at the table because I am fortunate enough to be there myself. I aim to engage with the communities that I design with/for as an equal and not an “expert.” Most of all, I want to help facilitate positive neighborhood change that isn’t harmful to people living in the neighborhood. I will be a more vocal part of UTSOA and steer my work towards a style based on building healthy and equitable projects and relationships.
Temi Osanyintolu: I plan to be as outspoken as possible. Although it’s out of my comfort zone, I want to be able to ask professors and lecturers what they are doing to practice equitable design. I want to be able to be critical of everyone’s design (especially my own) from an equitable design point of view. In order to shift the center of design conversation, I believe we have to actively push it there. To do that, we have to start asking the right questions when looking at what makes good design. I want to be praised for the way my design reacts to climate issues, how it addresses systematic racism, how it aims to undo the stigma of homelessness. We must revolutionize the way we look at, teach, and practice design and I think the first step toward that end is simply discussing it. So that’s where I’ll start. Come to UASC meetings! These are the conversations that we will be having for the next year, if not the foreseeable future. We plan to host events that center equitable and social justice design, so stay tuned! And of course, I am always open to having an informal conversation if anyone would like to. You can reach me through my Instagram, email, or just stop me in the hall. Very excited to see what these discussions will bring to our school!
Makayla Ponce: From the conference, I will bring a renewed energy for activism within UTSOA itself. Our school is one of the best in the nation, and our alumni are capable of great change through their designs. If we, as a school, make it a priority to educate our students about issues of racial equity, community-engagement, and humanistic design practices, we can better serve communities that are systemically underserved. We have a responsibility as designers to uplift those engaging with our designs, and to do so we must become aware how the system we operate within has been built to disempower these populations. I will get more involved in student initiatives that encourage the school to increase the curriculum that addresses these issues. Everyone deserves good design; our school can prepare us to better understand where our services are needed and how we can be responsible designers for our clients, the communities we affect with our work, and society at large.
Jorge Zapata: One of the things that motivated me to apply to our school in the first place was the variety of disciplines within one school. Starting my dual degree, I imagined landscape, architecture, planning, urban design, sustainable design, and interiors all working together, interchanging valuable information and promoting discussion. The reality of this in my opinion is very different, each discipline works very separately and we are brainstorming ideas on how to find common moments for all of us to participate and discuss, and therefore get the most from our time at the school. We started with a group of undergraduate and graduate students from different programs to get ideas about speakers that we as students would like to learn from and I think that is a wonderful first step. There’s still a lot of work to do to ensure diversity and interchange between our programs, and I’m excited to work with other students and professors to improve this aspect in my remaining time at UTSOA.