original photo: Lorie Shaull
George Floyd wasn't the first or last Black person to be killed by the hands of police or vigilantes, but his documented murder helped spark a rise in discourse on systemic racism. In this 15-part series, members of the design community share how their conversations and view of and place in the profession have changed in a year that also saw an increase in attacks—many fatal—against people of color as well as the lives of millions more gone due to COVID-19.

Esther Choi
courtesy Esther Choi Esther Choi

Esther Choi is a multidisciplinary artist behind Office Hours, an initiative to provide connection, knowledge sharing, and professional advice from creatives in design and architecture who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

In the past year, I have observed that BIPOC folks in my orbit generally feel more comfortable about naming and describing their experiences with white supremacy, racism, and discrimination, while demonstrating varying intensities of self-awareness and education on these issues. The one benefit of social media is that advocacy campaigns have increased the general public’s basic literacy about the systemic problems directed at marginalized communities. However, this hasn’t necessarily amounted to a nuanced understanding of how individual actors and actions can contribute to these oppressions, or how these oppressions are intertwined on a societal level. We still have a long way to go.

Last year, several anti-bias and anti-racist facilitators told me that decolonizing my own conditioning involves decentering whiteness and heteropatriarchal biases in my speech, thoughts, and actions. Decentering whiteness includes being able to speak openly about injustices that take place in the company of non-BIPOC folx who may feel uncomfortable because of how they may be implicated in these dynamics or because of the privileges they hold.

While I cannot speak unilaterally for the communities I engage with and serve, I can say that I try on an ongoing basis to decenter whiteness by being open to difficult and honest conversations, holding myself and others accountable to the harm that we may engender, asserting boundaries when appropriate to do so, engaging in nonviolent communication strategies, and creating more supportive spaces in which radical experiments in sociability can take place. Courage is a muscle: The more you practice radical honesty and integrity, the stronger that impulse becomes.

Leveraging My Agency
In my teaching and practice as an artist and architectural historian, I have become more interested in what can be done when operating within and outside the margins. I take this notion from New Historicism, which I look to in my scholarship. I am also educating myself on how I can more effectively decolonize my own training and thinking to not replicate harmful dynamics.

When I received a tenure-track position at a predominantly white institution in 2008, I felt tremendous pressure—as a tokenized “diversity hire” and one of the only women of color on faculty—to play the model minority. With age and maturity, I’ve become clearer about the responsibility I have to support initiatives in alignment with my values, to advocate on behalf of others, and to use the platforms and resources I can access to help level the playing field.

I try to think about what a projective immanent critique from the vantage of intersectional justice could imply for both theory and practice—that is, how one might interrogate critically with structural systems, relationships, and ideologies not on negational terms, but in ways that can birth experiences that are collective, creative, resourceful, and thriving. We spend a lot of time focusing on pitfalls and problems but seldom wield these insights to inform how new conditions of possibility can be created to effect alternative outcomes.

Office Hours past programming
courtesy Esther Choi Office Hours past programming

What I Did
In July 2020, I began Office Hours, a social practice art initiative that facilitates conversations between emerging and notable architects and creative practitioners who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The project stemmed from the constant stream of requests that I—along with many other BIPOC educators and practitioners in architecture and design—received from young practitioners in search of mentorship and advice.

As an artist who is also trained as an architectural historian, I previously created participatory projects that operate at the interstice of art, pedagogy, and socially engaged practice, such as Le Corbuffet, an artist book that takes the form of a subversive cookbook; and New Schools: Experiments in Art and Pedagogy, a year-long pedagogical experiment at Princeton University. As a result, the framework of Office Hours came together quickly and organically with the support of amazing design practitioners who offer free sessions on professional topics for BIPOC students and emerging practitioners worldwide.

Our participants are asked to abide by community agreements, such as turning on cameras in session and arriving accountable to a group dynamic. The intent of these agreements is to amplify the power of witnessing difference without separation; to counter impulses of singularity, extraction, and competition, which are central to white supremacy; and to emphasize how our own emancipation is intrinsically connected to the liberation of others.

With the fiscal sponsorship of The Architectural League of New York, the support that Office Hours has received from individuals, companies, and industry partners has been central to keeping this project afloat. In the past year, Office Hours has featured 29 design practitioners of color with sessions that have been attended by more than 2,000 BIPOC designers in 13 countries. We are in search of more sustainable funding to enable the fair compensation of labor, to continue our programming after this year, and to increase the project’s scale to serve more people. I’m hopeful that this year will mark a turning point, given the overwhelmingly positive response we’ve received from attendees and the need for more artist-run and activist-aligned cultural infrastructures in the design fields.

The more you practice radical honesty and integrity, the stronger that impulse becomes.

Finding a Role in Advocacy and Activism
The design community is not a monolith: There are numerous stakeholders and actors with access to varying amounts of privilege and resources. Participation cannot be homogenous and unilateral; for some, it may involve taking more space, while for others, it may require taking less. Active listening is also a form of political participation.

That said, the design industry is a culture that promotes the values of singularity, competition, aspiration, and consumption; it is not a culture of giving and generosity. Companies, in particular, need to demonstrate their values by investing in building up the cultural infrastructure to create real and lasting impact without focusing on the social capital that can be accrued.

The creation of equity-based cultural infrastructure is not a process that should be led by white people, either. We need to actually trust people of color—and especially folx who do not come from generational wealth and who identify as women, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color—to lead.

A number of not-for-profit, equity-based initiatives exist in the architecture and design fields such as Design As Protest, Sweet Water Foundation, Dark Matter University. Like Office Hours, the labor in advocacy and equity-based intervention is often undercompensated. Giving to these organizations and using your position to advocate for their work are important acts if real, substantive change is to occur.

The incredible documentary filmmaker Lee Mun Wah has said, “The secret to changing the world is a mirror and a dream of a better world.” We can each contribute to systems of domination in varying ways—through our words, our actions, or the lack thereof. A fundamental act of participation involves holding up this mirror.

As told to Wanda Lau via email. The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

This article has been updated since first publication.