Michael Caton
Zeinab Shirani Michael Caton

Among my most prized possessions is a handwritten note that a studio mate left on my desk atop a stack of blue foam during my first year of architecture school: “Hey, Mike, here is some foam. Do what you need to do. You can pay me back when you have it.”

I was struggling mightily in that design studio and being pressed to produce more study models. I was also struggling to stay afloat, disoriented by the financial and cultural currents of architecture school. My margins were razor thin in an environment where iteration with costly materials was gospel. The note’s author and I were the only Black students in the studio, and among a jarringly minuscule Black population in the architecture program.

In this moment of national reckoning with racial inequity, that tiny, two-decade-old piece of paper exemplifies the virtues that organizations looking to lean in must possess: compassion, meaningful action, and, most important, the grace to see someone fully.

This is also a moment when societal empathy has stunningly reversed—swinging from the plausible deniability of institutional racism’s very existence to a stampede of well-meaning allies eager to solve challenges four centuries in the making. This shift is not universal, but that should not dampen anyone’s newfound social justice warrior spirit. Being on the right side of history is seldom comfortable nor overwhelmingly popular.

[The] tiny, two-decade-old piece of paper exemplifies the virtues that organizations looking to lean in must possess: compassion, meaningful action, and, most important, the grace to see someone fully.

Rooting out the systems that fortify institutional racism is multigenerational work. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. However, one area that every person and organization that believes in this work should urgently focus on is inclusivity infrastructure. They must establish foundational systems, checkpoints, metrics, and behaviors to undergird the iterative work of building more inclusive and equitable operations. Though the conversation is taking place nationally, this work must be hyperlocal. The steps toward progress will be vastly different across regions and sectors.

Nevertheless, at least two components will be universal to this work. The first is measurement: Across the operational spectrum, organizations must provide the opportunity for self-identification in data collection. Data must exist in order to evaluate progress and to investigate causation and correlation. Without data, accountability is unlikely. Without accountability, sustained commitment to the causes of inclusion is unlikely. Organizations must treat their inclusivity performance with the same rigor they treat any critical aspect of their business. The fact that this isn’t standard practice should be both profoundly sobering and a catalyst for action.

The second component is a culture of candor and trust. This warrants deep, unvarnished introspection on the part of organizations. Do employees of all backgrounds and identities truly feel safe, welcomed, celebrated, and cherished—in that order? Insofar as employees do not feel this way, organizations miss the critical perspective necessary to address vulnerable blind spots and, further, to capitalize on innovative possibilities.

As organizations publicly align themselves with calls for social justice, expecting employees—particularly employees of color—to call out profound internal challenges at the potential expense of their professional growth and mobility is wholly unreasonable. Demonstrating that candid feedback on sensitive issues is welcomed—and that dissenting voices are celebrated and cherished—is incumbent upon the organizations.

The path to the formation of specific solutions to combat organizational biases runs through organizational cultures of candor and trust—held accountable by data. Amid the sweeping awakening to the insidiousness of racial caste in America, organizational inaction is complicity in sustaining systems of inequity. I hope that we, as a discipline, can muster sufficient compassion and fortitude to take meaningful action—and summon the grace necessary to see the entirety of our professional community fully in pursuit of a genuinely inclusive future.

This article appeared in the August 2020 issue of ARCHITECT.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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