Here, Mark Gardner, AIA, a New York–based principal of Jacklitsch / Gardner Architects and assistant professor at The New School's Parsons School of Design, reflects on how his recent experiences and conversations regarding race and inclusion seem unchanged from those he had as a student 35 years ago.
When it comes to issues of race, the conversation becomes difficult. It shouldn’t be. My wife, who is white, and I often wonder how is it that people live in two different worlds? It’s like, “You don’t see that? It’s right there.” I felt a lot of that last summer and in the early fall.
In the last year, people have come up to me saying, “We need to make sure that we have diversity—can you help?” At first, I would say, “No, you do your work. I’m doing my work.” But at some point I thought, well, people need help. So how can I help? I’m going to do my part and their part. I’ve probably said yes too many times.
I started talking with my Black colleagues about the backlash that was coming—my fear that the window would close and people would say, “Well, we’re tired. We’re done with that now. We’re all good.”
That happened way too soon. The discussion continues in some circles and flares up when an incident happens, such as an instance of police brutality or violence in the AAPI community. It must be the age we live in and social media. It’s this quick “We have to do something about this.” “OK, did you do something?” “I posted about it. I’m outraged.” That’s when the work is supposed to start.
Change in Practice
Some companies followed through. They reached out to historically black colleges and universities, offered scholarships, or said, “We’re going to hire more black employees.” It’s a start.
But then I see a board of trustees who all look alike. There might be a call to “diversify your board,” and maybe things happen at that level, but the real concern is about the movement in between. When a company says, “We need to hire more [diverse candidates],” that usually means at an entry level. What about the middle management? What about the people being groomed for leadership?
A colleague recently told me that the last five or six people to be advanced to studio directors at her firm were white men. She was like, “Where are the women? Are no women qualified? Not one? What are we doing in our organization?” Part of it is because people in leadership feel comfortable mentoring people who look like them, are like them, or have their backgrounds.
I want to be hopeful. I want to give the good story, but I’m not seeing it. Scholarships, mentoring, a role in the office—that’s fine. That’s building for the future. But when does that start to trail off?
Change in the Academy
We often talk about recruiting underrepresented minorities to the institution. But then the institution itself doesn’t change—yet it has to change to retain those students. They may be coming from a different cultural background, need additional help, or need to feel a sense of acceptance. They want to see others like them that are in key roles—professors, directors, chairs, deans, assistant deans, the provost, the president. If they see that, then they may think, “OK, this is a welcoming place.”
This happened at The New School, in Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments. Four years ago, a student said, “I see these faces that look like mine, but I don’t know anybody’s name.” And I get it. I see people who I think are faculty walking outside and I want to say, “Hey, what school are you at? I’m Mark, who are you?” But it’s a New York street.
One faculty member started a social space for Black faculty, which has been emboldened now that we have a Black president, Dwight McBride, and a new provost who is Black, Renée White. There has been a need to help bolster and support one another.
The Black students in SCE also got together and formed Obsidian. The organization has done great work. They had a celebration for Black graduates where Emory Douglas, the graphic designer for the Black Panthers, spoke. The students put together a Black critique of their work from the past year. They needed that support and to celebrate their work especially as it was culturally focused.
I still remember, when I was a student, introducing my project site as located in a Black neighborhood, and my reviewer saying, “That complicates things, Mark. How about we say this isn’t a Black neighborhood? Let’s pretend this is a neighborhood in the city, and people live here because people need a lot of the same things.” Essentially, it was All Lives Matter.
I thought of neighborhoods where the trash gets picked up every day, the schools are immaculate, and people complain when they don’t have fresh arugula at the grocery store. And then I thought of neighborhoods where you have to eat McDonald’s, you can’t get to a grocery store, and the lettuce is wilted. These aren’t the same things.
Thinking about it now makes me angry. I’m 53 this year. The same conversations are still going on. They haven’t changed because the environments are the same. The professors have been taught something of the world and they’re trying to put that on everyone.
I’m always contacted by students in other programs in the university because they’ve heard about me as a Black faculty. They say, for example, “I’m trying to research the history of weaving and Black hair, and my professors, who are all white, say, ‘That sounds interesting—don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Then I feel bad and say, “Try reading this, try looking at this, and let me see if I can find somebody who could have a conversation with you.” I have become a counselor to a lot of Black students, and I’m doing extra work that I’m not compensated for. At least my dean recognizes that; he knows that students want somebody who understands where they’re coming from.
Given everything that’s happened, many students are emotionally distressed. They want somebody to acknowledge and support what they’re studying, instead of trying to redirect them. I get it: If somebody said to me, “I want to do a project on Japanese culture,” I’d say, “I am not the person you should be speaking to—but let’s find someone who can have a conversation with you.”
Then we have professors who say, “I can teach anything. We can all have a conversation about Blackness. I’m down with that; I can talk with them.” But you really can’t because you haven’t lived it. You might know the art or the culture, but you might not be seeing it through the Black gaze. And if you’ve studied it and know about it, why would you work to exclude the center of the subject?
On Intentions and Indifference
Sometimes I think people do not understand the problem deep enough to [step in]. I hate to think the other way, that people do know what the problem is and they simply don’t care. Not thinking the latter is hard on days when I say, “Look, I’m telling you how it is out here.” And they say, “I’m just one person. What can I do about that?”
You can be a voice for change. And the more voices there are, then the more likely change will happen.
People will speak up when it’s a matter of self-preservation, but when it comes to issues of race, it becomes, “I don’t want to wade into that kind of thing.” It’s weird. These are your fellow citizens. Don’t you look around the room and feel something is strange?
At events, my wife and I will sometimes count how many other Black people are in the room. We’re in these amazing [diverse] neighborhoods, and then I look at the board and think, “Where are all the Black people at? Where are the Hispanic people? Where are the people of color here? What is going on?”
When the whole room, board, or organization is a team of men, and people can see it, I wonder why doesn’t anybody question it?
People want change to be easy. Like, “Oh, this can happen and I don’t need to give up anything.” It’s more like, “No, what are you willing to sacrifice and give up?” I don’t know exactly what that will mean, but I know these conversations and the outcomes aren’t going to be easy. So you have to prepare yourself. That’s why people either ignore the issues or step away from them.
I feel like a downer. To be an architect is to be the hopeful optimist. Part of me is still a hopeful optimist. But many of the same things keep happening, and I find myself angry and tired of these conversations—these same conversations for 35 years.
When can I not have this conversation anymore? When can we all just get to be—and not because we ignored the issue, but because we’ve [done something about] it? And then we all get to be.
It’s going to take a long time. There’s always going to be resistance. But I was born into the fight, and all I know is how to keep fighting.
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.
This article has been updated since first publication.