AIA San Francisco

Since 2011, designers have gathered at what has become AIA San Francisco’s biennial Equity by Design (EQxD) symposium to ideate, share, and build upon strategies to make the architecture profession more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Due to travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the AIASF EQxD committee switched this year’s iteration to a virtual workshop series. It also decided to change the symposium’s focus.

The agendas of the three most recent symposia built upon the themes and findings from the committee’s landmark Equity in Architecture surveys. This year, the committee did not conduct a survey. “Given the events of 2020,” EQxD founding committee member Rosa Sheng, FAIA, tells ARCHITECT, “we are reshifting our focus and expanding the discourse to intersectional topics that affect us all.” (To recap, we are currently experiencing a pandemic, a global recession, the exacerbation of natural and human-made disasters by climate change, and burgeoning social unrest in response to police brutality and longstanding racism and injustices against people of color and African Americans, in particular.)

See our past coverage of AIASF EQxD’s 2018 Equity in Architecture Survey, 2016 Equity in Architecture Survey, and 2014 Equity in Architecture Survey.

The committee’s sixth symposium, EQxD 2020: Reflect, Restructure, Recalibrate, opened yesterday with an interactive presentation, kicking off a five-month-long series of virtual meetings and workshops that will “require an increased level of engagement and dialogue,” says Sheng, who is also a principal and the director of equity, diversity, and inclusion at SmithGroup. “The series is exploratory in the format beyond a traditional panel session. It requires attendees to roll up their sleeves and do the work as part of the collective learning that we all need to do to advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in the built environment.”

AIA San Francisco

In four monthly workshops, the symposium will explore the thesis that, regardless of intent, design perpetuates injustice. The first workshop, scheduled for Oct. 23, will examine society, the economy, and social mobility, tackling the question of how the profession can “better serve the communities impacted by our work,” EQxD research chair Annelise Pitts, AIA, explained.

The second workshop, on Nov. 20, will focus on health and inequities in the health care system. For example, said Ántonia Bowman, AIA, an Oakland, Calif.–based architect at ELS Architecture and Urban Design, many essential and gig workers have higher exposure risks to COVID-19 because they cannot work from home like middle- and upper-class professionals can. Poorer communities often lack basic access to medical care, while members of the LGBTQ+ community can be reluctant to seek medical care for fear of misunderstanding or discrimination by health care professionals. How can equal access to quality health care be provided to those who essentially “occupy a second-class status as part of their daily life in America?” Bowman asked.

On Dec. 11, the third workshop will look at the environment. Participants will discuss the impact of climate change and the creation of what EQxD co-chair Julia Mandell, AIA, noted have become “sacrificial zones”—land masses, often occupied by people of color, that are at risk of becoming uninhabitable due to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and severe drought. This workshop will also look at the lasting effects of redlining, or relegating Black, Hispanic, and Asian individuals and families to neighborhoods adjacent to industrial areas and freeways, thus depriving residents of essential clean air and water, said the associate design director of Wilson Associates, who is also based in Oakland.

The fourth workshop will take place Jan. 22, 2021, and will focus on practice and the role of architecture in the greater community. The spaces and buildings architects design “will mostly outlive us,” EQxD co-chair Lilian Asperin, AIA, said. “We have the responsibility to get it right.” This workshop will explore how to diversify the educational pipeline and improve the recruitment, retention, and promotion of designers of color.

See photographs from the 2018 AIA San Francisco Equity by Design symposium.

In the month leading up to each workshop, the symposium has assigned course materials, including articles, books, and online resources, to help the approximately 90 current participants (registration is still open) engage in discussion, deep listening, and “healthy disagreement,” Bowman says. Each workshop will be headed by a thought leader who is leading positive change in the respective topic area. Participants will then break out into small groups to identify specific areas needing attention and craft commitments to effecting change.

To simulate past forums’ high interactivity and prevalence of sticky notes covered with action items, aspirations, and career pressure and pain points, the event organizers have created a shared Mural, a crowdsourced, cloud-based whiteboard for registrants to suggest additional readings and discussion prompts.

Crowd-sourced Mural board
AIA San Francisco Crowd-sourced Mural board
Detail look at the Environment quadrant in the crowd-sourced Mural
AIA San Francisco Detail look at the Environment quadrant in the crowd-sourced Mural

A closing panel on Feb. 26 will synthesize the conversations and takeaways from the workshop series.

Sheng is hopeful that the virtual symposium will extend the energy and camaraderie of the past one-day events to the five months. She believes more people will be able to attend the event series than could attend the symposium in previous years because of the absence of travel and hotel expenses and a lower registration fee. The AIASF committee is offering assistance for those experiencing financial uncertainty.

The most obvious downside of the virtual format is the inability to meet and engage with fellow JEDI advocates and mentors in person, Sheng acknowledges: “We really miss the community of champions and supporters that we have built over time.”