25 Mar 2021 • Insights
‘Black designers are here, have been here and are not going anywhere’
The Nexus is a podcast that elevates Black voices in design. We speak to its founders about the show’s driving mission and what they’ve learned since starting it.
Students in the Master of Architecture programme at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Tara Oluwafemi and Caleb Negash are the founders of The Nexus, a podcast which explores design, identity and practice through conversations with Black designers, writers and educators. It was launched in June 2020, just a few months after the US murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd propelled the Black Lives Matter movement and conversation surrounding civil rights issues into a global arena. ‘The timing of our release, just as uprisings against police brutality and racial injustice began to flare up, was completely coincidental,’ says Negash. ‘But we’re so glad things worked out that way.'
Now eight episodes in, The Nexus has called upon guests such as Aisha Densmore-Bey, De Nichols, Amir Hall and Marisa Parham, discussing everything from how design can be used to dismantle white supremacist logics and paths to reparations for Black communities in Chicago to the role of ethics in design practices and more. The podcast is part of the larger African American Design Nexus (AADN) at Harvard, which was born out of the biannual Black in Design Conference held by the GSD’s African American Student Union. It’s a platform aimed at elevating the work of Black designers by ‘showcasing their craft, exploring different geographies of design practice and inspiring change within design institutions’.
Oluwafemi sees architecture as the ‘perfect field for anyone who is obsessed with knowing everything about everything’. She believes that it’s a practice encompassing all scales of design, and that the work requires an astute awareness of social, political and environmental issues. Likewise, Negash’s experience has enmeshed him in the history and theory of the discipline, ‘especially as it intersects with histories of colonialism and racialization’. Together, they hope the conversations sparked on The Nexus will help in creating a more equitable future for architecture and design.
The Nexus was launched with an interview with multi-disciplinary creative Aisha Densmore-Bey. Was the release a direct response to the intensification of the Black Lives Matter movement across the US and globally, or had it been in the works beforehand?
TARA OLUWAFEMI: I became involved with the African American Design Nexus through a library guide I was compiling as an employee of the Frances Loeb Library Special Collections. The library guide focuses on various forms of media that exist at the intersection of race and design. It was accompanied by an exhibition of these works at the Frances Loeb Library hosted by the African American Design Nexus. After the exhibition, we wanted to ensure that this list would continue growing. At the same time, there was already conversation about starting the podcast and discussions on what it should be centered around. We decided that a great way to continue to grow this list would be to invite designers and educators to The Nexus to discuss works that are at the intersection of design and race. This has remained the premise of the show and we are excited by how it evolves depending on how each guest interprets that theme.
CALEB NEGASH: I started working for the African American Design Nexus in early 2019, researching and writing profiles on Black designers and places. Later that year our team started conceptualizing a number of projects that could extend beyond the reach of the AADN website, and the podcast was one of those. We wanted to create a platform for conversations between Black designers, writers, and educators, but it took some time for us to settle on a format. Once Tara joined the team and began working on the library guide, it seemed like books and media about race and design would be the perfect way to structure the podcast, and we started lining up guests and topics at the beginning of 2020.
The podcast explores ‘the intersection of design, identity, and practice through conversations with Black designers, writers and educators’. What have you learned from these discussions?
TO: Honestly, I could write pages and pages of all of the things I have learned. Through the podcast, I have been exposed to so many new designers and practitioners. Guests come on referencing books, articles, works of art, songs, movies and so much more that they have found essential to their practice – I am constantly keeping a list and trying to absorb it all. Each guest has such a wealth of knowledge and they have all taken such different approaches to design. What I have found to be the greatest takeaway from our guests is the different ways in which they express their identities and resist the very white male-dominated field of architecture through their work. They have taught me that resistance and protest can take many different shapes and forms.
Resistance and protest can take many different shapes and forms
It plays into the larger mission of the African American Design Nexus and the Black in Design conference, to honour the work of African American designers and provide a platform. Do you believe that this mission has taken a more defined shape in the past year?
TO: This is a conversation that we are constantly having at the African American Design Nexus. We are a small team and there is so much left for us to archive and share through our platform. It’s difficult to define what the shape and scope of this work is, because it is so vast. Each new guest and project we feature on our platform leads us down another path of inquiry. As a result, work has become an expansive web. Our main mission is always at the forefront and there are many different ways that we approach it based on the different media we are creating and distributing.
CN: I think the events of this year have certainly reinforced the importance of the work we’re doing, and we’ve been really grateful for the increased attention and resources that AADN has received. At the same time, I’m wary of the possibility that this current moment of reckoning around race and equity could very well be just that – a moment which a lot of people will lose interest in and move on from after a while. We’re very much dedicated to this mission for the long term and are energized by the work of scholars and professionals that have come before us.
A widely shared 2019 survey by the American Institute of Graphic Arts found that only 3 per cent of designers in the US are Black. It’s a devastating statistic, especially when seen in combination with the greater racial inequity in the industry. As students – part of a new architecture and design generation – what would you consider true progress? And, with your work, what message do you hope to share with the industry?
TO: True progress in the design industry extends beyond the field to issues of equity and equality as it relates to social, political and environmental issues. The disparities in the field of design stem from the same capitalist, patriarchal and colonialist issues that are entrenched in our current existence. Until these larger systems are dismantled, the field of design will continue to suffer. There are ways that we as designers can exercise inclusive practices and we have to actively work to shift these systems of power in whatever ways we can.
There are ways that we as designers can exercise inclusive practices and we have to actively work to shift these systems of power in whatever ways we can
Through my work, I hope to share an image of a future where Black people, and particularly Black women, feel liberated. I want to design spaces where we feel safe, happy and free. I create spaces that connect with the versions of the world that I wish I could inhabit.
CN: I would echo everything Tara said. I also hope that one thing people can take away from the work we’re doing is that Black designers are here, have been here and are not going anywhere. The people we’ve had on our show are all working on such groundbreaking projects and thinking through really expansive and industry-shifting ideas that, if taken seriously and given the backing that they deserve, will shape a better future not only for underrepresented minorities in the field, but for the industry as a whole.
Cover image: Day Labor Station was a design and advocacy campaign by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Public Architecture, led by designer, urbanist and spatial justice advocate Liz Ogbu. The project, which sought to address 'critical issues of space, dignity, and community' through a conceptual adaptable shelter, was a collaboration with day labourers across the US. It is one of the featured works on AADN's platform. Render: © Liz Ogbu