Zena Howard, FAIA, principal and managing director at Perkins+Will, worked on the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, N.C., and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sadly, time has done little to heal all ills. Whitney Young could give this same speech today and his message is still as relevant as it was when he delivered it nearly 50 years ago.

Young speaks of architects’ complicity and reluctance to use our profession to contribute to the cause of civil rights. This is self-justified by what he describes as an “escape hatch in your historical ethical code or something that says after all, you are the designers and not the builders, your role is to give people what they want.”

I believe little progress has been made. The lack of diversity in the profession continues and contributes to a prevailing lack of understanding, or acknowledgment, of how the built environment perpetuates social injustice. Oftentimes our “escape hatch” today is to shirk this responsibility and blame others (developers, policy makers, etc.) while we continue to design buildings and environments that predominantly serve the elite or our own egos.

More needs to be done in our profession to define and celebrate great design as that which represents the values of the communities it serves and engages them in the design process—particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised or denied a voice in the design of their own communities.

Young’s speech is structured around our responsibility as employers, educators, and finally as human beings. The success of all of these roles depends on respectable, safe and affordable housing for everyone. Communities that have been repeatedly disrupted and displaced have historically been some of our most vulnerable populations and continue to be consistently denied the opportunity to grow, build, and flourish as they self-determine.

As architects, we have a responsibility to help stop systematic displacement that results in environments lacking multicultural and multigenerational communities, [such as the historical examples of] Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal and now rampant gentrification. As Young writes: “Why are they so insecure? Why do people want to live in these bland, sterile, antiseptic, gilded ghettos, giving sameness to each.” This responsibility begins by associating ourselves with clients, partners, projects, and initiatives that recognize the value of design that reflects economic and social diversity and design processes that include robust engagement of the community.

As Young states, “It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.” In my opinion, there are no current initiatives nor enough individual voices that reflect this required level of focus and commitment.