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.

Here, Lisa Servon, the Kevin and Erica Penn Presidential Professor and chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, shares how she, as a white person in a leadership position, is making short- and long-term changes to increase diversity and inclusion in the design disciplines.

Lisa Servon
Nina Subin Lisa Servon

When I first came to Penn for my job interview, I was taken aback by how white it was. The department and faculty were white, and there were very few students of color. The Ivy League doesn’t have a tradition of inclusivity—though it’s changing. Knowing that I would be taking on the role as chair, I thought, “That’s something I’m going to work on.” Much of my research and work focuses on poverty, social justice, and community development so I prioritize having a diverse group of professionals working in the field, and I know how important diversity is in the classroom. Conversations with faculty showed that they supported this.

This is my fifth year at Penn and my fourth year as chair. We have worked on student recruiting, faculty recruitment, and curriculum. Our department hired its first tenure-track Black faculty member, a Chinese faculty member, and a Latinx professor of practice. Its student makeup has changed—now, 15% to 20% are students of color.

But we have to do more than add people in. We have to change the culture and create an environment where people feel like they belong, where they feel the conversations are rich, and where their experience is valued.

Course Correction
As someone in a leadership position, I want to focus on things that will have a lasting impact beyond when I'm not chair anymore. For example, I helped raised a few million dollars that will go toward student scholarships and hiring faculty. We also received a major gift that renamed Penn’s School of Design as the Weitzman School of Design and funded scholarships, which meant that we could bring in more students of color and more low-income, first-generation college students. These endowed scholarships will be there long after I’m chair.

Like other institutions across the country, Penn is creating resources to be more accountable [to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion]. Our dean asked all department chairs to create DEI plans, and the school hired a director of justice and belonging, which created more of an institutional framework.

But a plan is worthless if it sits on the shelf. Somebody needs to make sure people are staying accountable to those plans and that the plans are updated. That takes leadership at higher levels. When somebody else becomes chair of our department, we have to make sure they take on the responsibility for making sure that we continue to [follow through on our plan].

[A] plan is worthless if it sits on the shelf.

After George Floyd’s murder, I saw more people looking inward and wondering, “What is the role I should be playing as a white person?” (since most of our faculty and students are still white). I saw this as a window of opportunity—and I don’t have faith that the window will stay as open as it is now. The faculty have been engaged in training with Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning. We learned how to make syllabi and courses more inclusive. In the fall, we’ll be having a retreat about how to make our core curriculum more inclusive and how to have meaningful conversations about race and justice in the classroom.

In the introductory course I teach on housing community and economic development, we talk about race and poverty. It’s hard for a student to speak up in class when they are the only one of something, however they identify. Last year, a white woman who was a first-generation college student from a low-income background talked about where her family shops to save money. That opened the door for a Black student to speak about his experience with his family’s financial situation.

We do a fair amount of applied work in low-income communities of color as part of the program. I’ve seen a student, who perhaps came from a similar neighborhood, share how to talk and listen to people and to value the experience of local residents. Other students were inclined to lean into their technical skills. We’re more likely to trust what we can measure, like census data, but these [qualitative] skills are just as important. A recent graduate told me that he struggled in group settings to get other students to respect and integrate the knowledge that he brought from his experiences into their work.

When you have a critical mass of a group—whether it’s women, students of color, or students who identify as non-binary—then the weight is not all on the one student. You see that there are Black students who grew up upper middle class, and white students who are lower income. When you stop making assumptions about people, the conversations and the experiences become richer.

Diversifying the faculty will help, but at the graduate program level, faculty members are specialized in their areas of expertise. A scholar of transportation is not going to be helpful with providing insight, readings, or resources to someone who does land use and environmental planning. People might think that because someone is Black, they should know all the Black authors on the planet.

After George Floyd’s murder, I saw more people looking inward and wondering, 'What is the role I should be playing as a white person?'

Practice and a Power Shift
The design community often focuses less on people than on the design or product. Design needs to be responsive to people and involve the end user, regardless of whether they are communities of color. A lot of design gives that short shrift. Changes could include diversifying design-critique panels; integrating community engagement modules into design; and asking yourself how you can understand a community that looks and feels different from the communities in which you’ve spent time—beyond how it looks or what [spending a day there] would tell you. It takes leadership in schools to build that into the curriculum.

Not everybody is going to be on board, but our students—and not just students of color—are demanding this of their professors and complaining when they don’t get it. Penn attracts students who want to make the world a better place. I don’t always like using the customer or client model when talking about education, but honestly, they’re the ones paying tuition. So we should be responsive here.

Sharing power is tough and people don’t like to do it—or they don’t know that they can do it or how to do it. In terms of institutional leadership, it involves bringing in junior people and helping them gain the leadership skills to take on these roles, to become chairs, and to run for governing board slots. It takes mentoring and recognizing that bias and discrimination are everywhere. Fewer faculty members of color get tenure, become full professors, and become chairs.

Sharing power is tough and people don’t like to do it—or they don’t know that they can do it or how to do it.

If you’re the only one—only woman or person of color, for example—then you may need to look outside for support. I’ve tried to connect our first tenure-track Black faculty member with senior Black faculty members outside of our department and school in case they need to be mentored through parts of the experience for which my faculty and I cannot provide support.

I want my experience and the work that we’ve done at Penn to benefit a larger group, and I want to be an advocate. I ran for the governing board of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and am on the organization’s anti-racism task force.

People of color are often expected to take on the responsibility of doing this work—but I feel acutely that this is my job as a white person. I will mess up sometimes, because we all have our blind spots, but my M.O. is to listen more than I talk, keep showing up, and apologize when I screw up. By putting myself in places where I can learn, I hope to make a difference. I am trying to bring that energy and perspective to other very white groups and push for change, especially in this moment because the receptivity may not last.

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