Having worked in theatrical lighting, architectural lighting design, sales, and then back in design, I have been put on the spot as the only person of color in a space. The other person was not necessarily trying to do it, but they were speaking from their own place of comfort—that “these are the sayings we use” and “these are the jokes we tell.” Those moments feel isolating and without another person with a different perspective in the room, I have to choose whether I'm going to speak up or let it go and live to fight another day.
It took the intense, tragic events of 2020 for everyone to take a hard look at what we're accepting, the emotional cost of how we're working, and what we can do better. That was a hard pivot for me—I realized I was not doing enough. I said to my husband, "I'm not a doctor, a civil rights leader, or a politician. Most of the time, people don’t even understand what I do. How can I help people and protect our young boys? I can't stop Black men from being killed by police.” Those feelings of powerlessness combined with serious reflection made me realize that while I could not have saved any of the lives lost, I can make a difference in the lives of people of color with something I know well: lighting.
I co-founded Chromatic with Nick Albert, NOMA, to examine how the lighting community can question and confront the legacy of inequity, which trickles throughout societal decisions and systems, including infrastructure. Is lighting equitable or equally accessible? How does the quality of lighting differ between communities of color and predominantly white communities? How does the intersection of race and income line up with lighting? How can we activate underserved areas and encourage outside investment? How can we help communities take pride in their neighborhoods?
The best part of our practice is that a Black woman and a white man can sit down and have honest, in-depth conversations about things that make everyone uncomfortable. We can get uncomfortable. With grace, patience, and understanding, we say, "We're going to talk about race, gender, equity, inclusion, and accessibility because if we can't, then how are we going to engage our clients in these conversations?"
Addressing these ideas of equity and accessibility seems to be distinguishing us in the field. We're good at detailing and recognizing darkness and the quality of light—every lighting designer should be doing that. But what I don't hear the lighting design industry saying is, “How are we going beyond sustainability and tying it to the structural racism that is affecting communities of color?”
If the industry is saying it, I want to hear it. Until then, Chromatic can be that voice. We’re happy to step into that role and say, "We have a mission here beyond how many watts can we save.” We can look at how neighborhoods with a 30-foot-tall mast arm and huge LED fixtures sending light in all directions feel compared with neighborhoods with beautiful lantern lights and whose residents can still see stars. What implicit or unspoken biases led to these disparate conditions?
Equally important, our firm is exemplifying true allyship. It doesn't matter how many people of color say, "This is what we need, this is what we're asking for," if others can't understand or even acknowledge that racism exists.
Before the murder of George Floyd, you couldn't talk about race in the workplace because you would be labeled as someone who causes trouble or accused of playing the race card. Now, many companies are leaning into conversations about being Black in the world and more broadly about being a person of color, particularly with the surge in attacks against Asian and Pacific Islander communities. And I’m like, "OK, here we go.” This is the beginning. It’s going to be uncomfortable and we are not going to agree. But we have to speak from a place of personal truth, and we have to be open, not defensive. All this will take time to move through.
Chromatic is actively working on many high-end residential projects and some commercial projects. We are having conversations with our clients about Chromatic’s mission and how we are using our revenue to support our cause and our work. We began Light Privilege, a research project to study the intersection of light quality and racial and income demographics of different Los Angeles neighborhoods. To date, we have reviewed studies on how outdoor light quality, placement, and usage at night differ based on who needs the light. For example, one article covered how immigrant communities in the Rio Grande Valley can't get street lighting in their neighborhoods; others examine whether increasing nighttime light levels reduces crime rates. We hope to publish our original findings in the future.
I am also teaching students about the lighting profession. "Here's an industry you may not know about,” I tell them. “And it needs you because we're not incredibly diverse." We can cast an extremely wide net into the talent pool because lighting designers can achieve success through a variety of educational paths, unlike architects and engineers.
As our company continues to grow its network, we want to be able to say, "Hey, we're donating funds so that kids can go to architecture camp. Here's information in case you want to do that too." We are also donating our time to the Los Angeles Lighting Speakers Bureau so we can speak at career days. These are things we are doing right now.
My hope is that people in positions of power in the industry start asking, "How can we reach out more broadly? How can we design and plan spaces to become more accessible to more kinds of people?" These discussions would be a win. Recognition is a win.
Lighting is about more than physically seeing things. It’s about giving visibility from a contextual standpoint to different neighborhoods, businesses, and people. We want the spaces we create to be inclusive. Everyone deserves to have access to quality design, architecture, lighting, landscaping, engineering services, and comfort.
As told to Wanda Lau. An abridged version of this article was published in the October 2021 issue of ARCHITECT under the title "An Architectural Lighting Designer Confronts the Legacy of Inequity."