Firms 'are going to need to do more than hire Black designers', says NYC architect Emmanuel Oni

Emmanuel Oni has something to say: an unsolicited letter to the mainstream architecture and spatial design industries and academia. Oni is a first-generation Nigerian-American and Houstonian living in New York City. He is a spatial justice designer interested in using design as a catalyst for social change and is a Design Fellow at New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and Adjunct Professor at Parsons The New School for Design.

Dear colleagues,

For me, architecture is not about what I am making but who I am making it for. I recall graduating from architecture school and being asked multiple times why I chose to focus on community-based initiatives. A design career grounded in social justice does not align with the typical architectural trajectory. This alternative path, however, was actually a simple decision – especially since the conventional architecture path already trails tremendously in work-life balance and compensation. There are some deeply rooted issues within academia and in practice, such as studio hazing culture; the starchitect mentality and design egos; an underpaid, overworked and overstressed workforce that is poorly valued without even considering race. But let’s not talk about that . . .

If firms are now realizing the importance of Black voices, they are going to need to do more than hire Black designers

The Black Lives Matter sentiment echoes here. When we solve the issue of neglecting Black and Brown narratives, we can then climb our way out of the remaining social injustices that plague our profession and schools of thought. If firms are now realizing the importance of Black voices, they are going to need to do more than hire Black designers. They are not going to be able to simply satisfy representation quotas. You cannot diversity-train your way out of bias and the work needed towards cultural understanding or awareness. Instead, BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) designers should be hired also as consultants and not subjected to the arm of conventional architectural practice. I feel that substantial megafirm resources consulted from an intersectional perspective would offer design products that consider the dynamics of socioeconomic and racial disparity. Furthermore, in order to dismantle the years of white supremacy reflected in the built environment, firms will also need to reallocate design talent towards projects that benefit and empower marginalized neighbourhoods. Design firms should reach out to civic agencies and non-profits and not wait for the problem to come to them. I have the pleasure to say that I work with some of the brightest, most passionate team members at the Office of Neighborhood Safety. However, city agencies are relatively unequipped with the envisioning tools designers have and typically don’t equate design urgency with immediate social-distancing and COVID/policing challenges, even though these issues are of an overwhelming spatial nature and take place in underserved communities, respectfully.

The design profession has all too often overlooked its complicity in reproducing systems of oppression/spatial divide and neglected communities of colour in decision-making and design processes

For the megafirms wanting to surpass fulfilling the performative gestures of posting your newfound ‘wokeness’ on social media platforms, please consider your motives and your interest in working on inclusion and empowering Black voices. Not for trends, not for a moment, but for a movement. The design profession has all too often overlooked its complicity in reproducing systems of oppression/spatial divide and neglected communities of colour in decision-making and design processes. If it doesn’t seem worthwhile to commit 5 to 10 per cent of your practice or part of your marketing budget to community-based work to undo years of suppression, perhaps the issue is with the firm’s present business model and ethos.   

For the first time in a long time, we are in a scenario where the social capital yielded by community unrest supersedes the fiscal compensation that a firm would typically receive for design work. For years the spatial profession has followed fiscal capital over our own personal views/manifestos/oaths to create just and humane spaces. It's why we find ourselves in this position now, behind in the movement, lacking next steps and direction. Perhaps if I framed the ‘community work’ as a design competition or charrette there would be more interest? But I digress.

Spatial designers need to join the discussion about contributing to a more spatially just and equitable future

New York’s reputation and future as the model for a progressive multicultural capital is being threatened. With the nation’s most notorious jail complex, one of the most underserved public housing authorities, and the looming economic disparity and racial injustice that has continued to persist throughout the city for decades, spatial designers need to join the discussion about contributing to a more spatially just and equitable future. What does a world look like without police? A world without prisons or court systems, or dehumanizing spaces and surveillance methods that criminalize Black and Brown youth? What does it look like to invest in communities historically designed to systematically fail? These futures are already present through spatial justice organizations like BlackSpace, restorative justice architects like Deanna Van Buren or safety initiatives like the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, which champions participatory processes in historically under-resourced public housing developments. What is required is a push towards collective efficacy, space-keeping and constant building of community trust by city agencies. More importantly, a community will not understand a vision until they see it. As designers, we have the ability to visualize futures and challenge past and present exclusionary constructs. We can dismantle, demolish, and de-institutionalize oppressive spatial typologies and construct structures reflecting cultural identity, empowerment and inclusion.

Looking forward,

Femi’s son

instagram.com/_oni

This letter will appear in our upcoming issue, Frame 136. Read more Reporting From columns here.

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