Architects commit to a future of equity and respect

A'18 Commitment Wall

Architects and designers committed to combatting discrimination and making the profession more equitable at the AIA Conference on architecture 2018.

At A’18 and beyond, architects raise their voices, share stories, and pledge to better the profession.

Scattered across New York City for the AIA Conference on Architecture in June, architects sported teal buttons that simply read, "I commit."

Workplace values and behavior are under scrutiny due to recent harassment claims in the profession and the #MeToo movement. Committing to a more inclusive and respectful field is exactly what AIA members are asking their peers to do—for permanent change.

Harassment, as a form of discrimination, comes into direct conflict with AIA values, and more significantly, the mission of being an architect. “As architects, fundamentally, we want the world to be a better place,” says AIA Board of Directors member and advocate for equity in architecture Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA. “We recognize that behavior that is unacceptable or inappropriate distracts us from the bigger vision of making the built environment something truly incredible.”

Building on years of work to support equity, diversity, and inclusion in architecture, leaders from across the Institute banded together to bring negative workplace behaviors to light and seek solutions at A’18.

A “commitment wall,” took center stage in the newly-renovated Crystal Palace at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Writing on "I commit to..." cards and posting them to the wall, conference attendees described how they would personally contribute to combating poor behavior and lifting up disenfranchised groups—both inside the profession and outside of it.

“The commitment wall created a conversation starter,” says Lora Teagarden, AIA, 2018 vice chair of the Young Architects Forum. “We wanted to continue to open eyes and broaden understanding.” Along with fellow leaders from emerging professional committees, the Strategic Council, and Board of Directors, Teagarden has been working to address harassment in the profession since early this year.

"We wanted to continue to open eyes and broaden understanding." - Lora Teagarden, AIA

Common themes emerged as the wall filled with cards. Education and awareness, mentorship, and supporting diverse leadership came up repeatedly. Most prevalently, however, architects committed to listening and sharing stories.

Realizing the importance of listening and sharing, AIA leaders gathered with conference attendees and experts in a forum to openly discuss harassment and discrimination in architecture. Panelists included Grandstaff-Rice, Amy L. Bess, a shareholder at Vedder Price specializing in labor and employment law, and human resources expert Shirley Davis, who is developing free anti-harassment trainings for AIA members to be launched on AIAU this year.

Together, they listened and responded to anonymous stories submitted by architects and design professionals, offering insight on the offenses and courses of action. After reading a few aloud, participants were moved to talk about their own experiences and seek advice. "The process of collecting stories and giving them to people to sit with—it allowed them to ask harder questions,” says Teagarden. “It gave them a safe space to bring their own stories.”

Architects in attendance gave highly personal accounts of discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment they endured on the job. Some relayed instances of retaliation for rebuffing unwanted advances, while others described lost opportunities due to age, gender, or rank within a company.

Many sought to understand roles and responsibilities for preventing and addressing such damaging behaviors. The panelists were adamant that standards need to be set at the highest level of a firm. “The employer is responsible for creating an environment that is safe and secure for all employees,” said Bess during the session.  “As a leader of the organization, keep your eyes and ears open. Harassment is a pretty high bar. Where it starts is a low level, with something that seems benign. It’s important to jump on that and rectify.”

At the forum and the commitment wall it became clear that both individual and collective action are required. Demonstrating the power of many, participants in a Voices of Plurality gathering at the convention center rallied in support of equity and fair treatment in the profession.

Architects leading this conversation for AIA see the responsibility to overcome issues of discrimination as a shared one—it's on everyone to work together. Grandstaff-Rice believes that each person in a firm, not just its leaders, should be observant and willing to speak up when they see something wrong. “You need to have those conversations and check-ins with your colleagues. Ask ‘Is everything okay?,” she said. To foster more supportive working environments, AIA has also teamed up with the University of Minnesota to develop guides for equitable practice. The first chapters, set to release this fall, will cover topics related to cultural competence, implicit bias, pay equity, and workplace culture.

"AIA is saying that this is a commitment that supersedes just the day to day, that this is critical to the viability of our profession going forward." -Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA

Collective action needs to extend beyond the walls of firm, and AIA made strides to this end at the A’18 Annual Meeting, too. An overwhelming majority of delegates passed a resolution to amend the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct to require equitable treatment in architecture. According to Grandstaff-Rice, the Institute is taking the right step at the right time. “AIA is saying that this is a commitment that supersedes just the day to day, that this is critical to the viability of our profession going forward. It’s a conversation that’s been happening for years, but rightly so, we have everyone’s attention,” she says, adding that she hopes this will set a precedent for other building and construction industries. In the coming months, the National Ethics Council and the Equity and Future of Architecture committee will craft model language to be voted upon at the September 2018 AIA Board of Directors meeting.

An update to the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is a strong step forward, but adhering to proposed changes will require architects to take matters of workplace conduct to heart long-term. “A code of ethics always has to be a dynamic document. It reflects not just practices that are well understood by members, but it aspires for the profession to become even better with every change that we make,” says Grandstaff-Rice.

Strides made at A’18 to combat long-standing issues of discrimination are just the beginning of what Teagarden and Grandstaff-Rice hope will be a massive shift. "We’re turning a big ship, but most of the conversations have been positive,” Teagarden says. “It’s really great to see the commitment and the awareness that has come out of this.”

But while overcoming discrimination in any profession requires large-scale effort and awareness, architects are making sure that the experiences and feelings of those affected are not minimized. “We’re being confronted with stories we don’t necessarily want to hear, but are important to be told,” says Grandstaff-Rice. “Allowing space for this to come to light and acknowledge it allows us to move forward and ensure that it will not be repeated.”

AIA is committed to helping overcome issues of inequity and discrimination. Architects stand together to build a model profession that welcomes everyone to safe, healthy, and equitable workplaces. For more information and updates visit our Harassment Resources page.

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Image credits

A'18 Commitment Wall

Todd Winters

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