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, Rosa Sheng, FAIA, SmithGroup principal and co-founder of AIA San Francisco's Equity by Design committee, discusses how she brings her JEDI 2.0 agenda into her everyday practice as an architect.

Rosa Sheng
Scott R. Kline Rosa Sheng

Last year, our whole way of life had been decimated. People might say, “Oh, we’re going to go back to normal, the way things were,” but we need to accept that we can’t because of the climate crisis. If we go back to that way of life, we will essentially shorten our lifespan.

The reality is scary but it demands that we change, especially in our industry, one of the biggest contributors of carbon emissions. With COVID-19, the inequities, and everything else that we’re facing, we at AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design (EQxD) committee had a mini-identity crisis. The priorities had changed. While we still focus on [achieving representation] in the profession, a host of other issues are threatening our life, our existence. We needed to expand the conversation, which is how the JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) agenda came about.

Wanda Lau AIA San Francisco's Equity by Design founding chair Rosa Sheng, FAIA (center), introduces the Intersectionality and Intercultural Intelligence breakout session at the 2018 AIASF EQxD Symposium.

The JEDI Agenda
One goal is that people begin to decouple JEDI from race and ethnicity. While [representation] is an important outcome, it is not the driver. The driver is holistically improving the human condition by addressing those that are hurting the most. In The Sum of Us (One World, 2021), author Heather McGee discusses the hidden costs of racism. By being complicit or not recognizing that we need to change things, we hurt ourselves—and our environment and our potential economic outcomes—in the long run.

Architects need to be adept in talking about environmental and social injustices, health inequity. We can’t be experts at everything, but having awareness and a minimum core competency about how they relate to our profession is important to remaining relevant.

We have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. If I’m not uncomfortable, I’m not addressing what needs to be addressed. I’m talking about a long-term uncomfortable. It’s a balance of addressing the doom and gloom while still valuing and enjoying life. [At the same time,] what can I do with the good that I have to effect change so that what I experience is accessible to other people?

Step one is to be brave. Come to a reckoning of where you are in terms of racism and environmental and social awareness. Try to learn one new thing a week about just and equitable practices. You’ll be amazed how it builds over a year.

Saying “I have my plate full here” doesn’t help with global attitudes and acts of violence and oppression. Violence and oppression anywhere are going to perpetuate violence and oppression anywhere you might be. The world wars are an example.

The driver is holistically improving the human condition by addressing those that are hurting the most.

Practicing What You Preach in Architecture
The 2021 Living Future conference, at which I spoke in April, was a good place to launch version 2.0 of what we talked about in the 2020 EQxD JEDI Agenda workshops—that social justice, environmental justice, and health equity are an ecosystem. We focused the messaging on the clear histories of how environmental impact has disproportionately affected people of color because of policies and practices that have been in place. We learned from 2020 that we can’t think of these issues as silos—we have to make the connections between them.

Solving this requires an intersectional approach—we can’t only focus on societal racism. It’s not just about attitudes or the hate expressed between individuals or groups, but examining what is baked into our laws, policies, practices, institutions—and even in architecture through building codes.

For example, binary gender restrooms exclude transgender populations—although not intentionally. The building codes do not say “no transgender,” but the mindset they frame is that gender is binary. It excludes transgender people by minimizing.

The Higher Ed studio I lead at SmithGroup is starting to solve these problems. At California State University, Chico, we installed our first multistall all-gender restrooms. There’s zero sightlines vertically and a tighter interlock between stall partitions. The ADA stall has a gap, but all the other stalls go to the floor; you can’t see feet.

[Moving forward,] our designs will have some form of all-gender stalls. We’re trying to get institutions to adopt an alternating floor scheme where everyone can choose. For example, all-gender bathrooms on floors two and three, and binary on one and four; or whatever makes sense based on the building program. But every floor still has a single-occupancy, all-gender restroom.

Stanford University hosts a first-generation, low-income (FLI) student conference every year to help students seek allyship. We were able to share with them our [design and planning] process, where we help people envision the future.

And we recognized that the language of architecture—archispeak—isn’t accessible to the general public. It’s a secret language by architects, for architects. The antidote is spatial equity and evaluating and improving architectural literacy. Even our drawings could be more accessible and user friendly in a digital environment, where we can’t necessarily be there to explain everything. We’re using more video walkthroughs and infographic diagrams.

And we’re flipping the script. [We tell] the FLI students that you are the experts in your community. You have community cultural capital. Their lived experience can be a way for them to build architectural spatial literacy. They can photograph spaces and express how they make them feel. I was greatly inspired by the work of [Portland, Ore.–based consultant] Amara Pérez, who talks about that experience of the griot and being the expert by documenting your environment.

We’re modifying the design process to be more accessible. We have made design justice a priority within our JEDI goals. Not only does that serve the public, but it also attracts talent by connecting passion with purpose. People want to do this type of work.

Implementing Lean in Design
I was hired to be SmithGroup’s director of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, where I get to share thought leadership and new theories. My dual role as the San Francisco office's higher ed studio leader allows me to put the theory into practice.

We’ve adopted many subtheories. We’ve participated in Lean workshops related to trust-building and high-performing teams. [Business author] Patrick Lencioni has a model of the five dysfunctions related to why teams fail: the lack of trust; conflict aversion and avoidance; lack of commitment or confusion of commitment; avoidance of accountability; and lack of results.

On the inverse, how do you create high function? You have to undo or come up with a different way to mitigate those dysfunctions. You have to build a foundation of trust. It’s not simply, “I trust you’re going to do the work,” but it is “I respect you as a person, I respect the work that you do, and I can have a healthy conflict with you. I know that we could go out for coffee or dinner after.”

You can disagree with your family, but you’re still family. Cultivating that foundation of trust is hard work. When you have that foundation, you can have healthy conflict. I constantly try to connect the dots between what’s happening in society at large and what’s happening in the design profession.

Having a team kickoff with training is the future of successful projects. In the past, historical structures hindered people from speaking up. The hierarchy led to transactional relationships—“I pay the bills, so you’re going to listen to me.” An architect or engineer might have a good idea, but because of the hierarchy, they were afraid to speak their mind, which ultimately hinders innovation, creativity, and problem-solving.

Cultivating that foundation of trust is hard work. When you have that foundation, you can have healthy conflict.

We were trained on Lean principles out of necessity. Everyone was stressed out. Everybody recognized that things could be better. It’s helped us build empathy and understand where people are coming from.

My role has evolved into one of change agent. It’s aspirational, there’s a lot of risk-taking, but it’s also based on a deep understanding of the construction industry. The design, procurement, and construction processes have gotten better over time, but we still have room for improvement.

How do we aggregate the collective strengths of each team member and then minimize the collective weaknesses throughout a project? To get through bumps in the road—such as a budget or schedule challenge—teams must say, “We’re all going to get out of the car and push together.” Instead of one person saying, “Well I’m going to sit in the car and steer—you guys get out and push.” If people have an attitude of, “It’s somebody else’s problem,” things start to fall apart.

What we have learned is that the future is uncertain and unpredictable. However, we have also been blessed with the knowledge that we are brave and resilient, and we can come together to support each other in co-creating a better future.

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.