A’21: José Andrés on values-based leadership

World Central Kitchen COVID relief

World Central Kitchen volunteers and staff distribute meals in Baltimore during COVID-19 pandemic relief efforts.

In a keynote conversation, chef and humanitarian José Andrés shares what he’s learned about the power of purpose-driven achievement, while three architects consider pandemic lessons and what they mean for the future of the profession.  

When it comes to applying professional skills in service to community, there is no better example than José Andrés.

With his empire of 30-plus restaurants, culinary awards, and best-selling cookbooks, Andrés has achieved professional success most only dream of. But it’s his humanitarian work that makes him a true leader.

Inspired by his work in Haiti after a devastating earthquake, Andrés founded World Central Kitchen in 2010. With its mission to “use the power of food to nourish communities and strengthen economies in times of crisis and beyond,” World Central Kitchen has served more than 50 million fresh meals in the aftermath of natural disasters all over the world. Day to day, the organization supports food security and economic growth by installing clean cook stoves, providing chef training and food safety education, and supporting local farms, fisheries, and small food businesses through grants and networking opportunities.

But the organization is best known for disaster relief. Building on experiences in Haiti and in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, World Central Kitchen’s response in Puerto Rico following 2017’s Hurricane Maria set a new model for rapid response. It’s a model Andrés has implemented many times during the COVID-19 pandemic in U.S. cities and, now, COVID-devastated India.

One of the keys? Adaptation.

“What happens with life and emergencies? Nothing goes as planned,” Andrés explained. “So if you don’t teach your people to embrace complexity, and don’t train for adaptability, when one thing doesn’t go as planned, everybody freezes. Adapting to the situation, embracing complexity in the moment will always win the day.”

One of the fundamentals of embracing complexity is the simple recognition that “some very big problems have very simple solutions.” It was that understanding that propelled Andrés’ effective relief work in Puerto Rico – in sharp contrast to the scene in the local arena designated as the headquarters for government agencies, which was characterized by “3000 people looking busy while people in the streets across Puerto Rico were in desperate need of food, water, and simple things.”

Giving voice to the voiceless

By the time Andrés was moved by Haiti’s earthquake devastation in 2010, he’d already established an influential career, as well as experience in food philanthropy through his work with DC Central Kitchen. But it wasn’t enough. “I’m not going to be a spectator watching from the comfort of my home,” Andrés recalled. “I’m going to go and learn in real time the same things I learned in DC feeding the homeless.”

One of the things he learned in Haiti in 2010, and again in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew, is the value of local resources – and local input. Following an approach he’s since replicated around the globe, Andrés set up networks immediately to facilitate movement of local food and produce, buying supplies in farmers markets “to keep money in the location and get farmers back up and running.” One of those local food staples was a type of black bean similar to a kind Andrés knew from northern Spain. Encouraged by this fortunate coincidence, Andrés applied his experience and set about making a bean dish he knew well. Using a solar kitchen, Andrés and his team were feeding 300-400 people per day. The only problem? That’s not how Haitians eat beans. Andrés eventually learned through an interpreter that the grateful residents were more accustomed to beans with a consistency “between soup and puree.” Lacking a blender, an undaunted Andrés responded, “Let’s make it happen” – and went about doing just that with a mortar and pestle. “We were able to feed everyone; they were happy, they were thankful,” Andrés recounted. “The big lesson: we must listen to the people. They don’t want our pity. They want our respect.”

To learn the true needs of struggling communities, there’s no substitute for “boots on the ground.”

“Why every time we talk about ending hunger, do we never invite hungry people to the conference? Why when we talk about ending homelessness, do we never invite homeless people and ask them what kind of home they want to live in or what type of neighborhood?” Andrés asked. “That’s why it’s important that I go to those places. Because if I don’t, I’m a failure and a fake. I can’t be talking about hunger when I didn’t experience hunger. But the closest I can be is next to the people who went through that hardship in the middle of a hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or snowstorm. That doesn’t make me the rightful speaker for those people who are voiceless. But it at least gives me proximity and closeness to speak with a certain level of knowledge of what they need and put my voice at their service. I will put my empathy at the service of their needs.”

Architects’ perspective: “Reflections on a Year in Crisis” panel discussion

The community-based, empathy-centered approach certainly resonates with panelists for “Reflections on a Year in Crisis: Leveraging Vision & Core Values to Emerge Stronger.” In this panel discussion, moderator Mel Price, AIA (Principal - Work Program Architects), Nathaniel Clark, AIA (Managing Partner - Chasm Architecture), and Venesa Alicea-Chuqui, AIA, NOMA (Founding Principal - NYVARCH Architecture) drilled down on how the past extraordinary year changed the way architects view their duty to use their inherent creative abilities to effect positive change.

Alicea-Chuqui noted how the pandemic and social justice protests “have shown injustices in the built environment and [revealed] there are places where we can put ourselves.”

“The concept of citizen architect is really important now,” she continued. The “three rungs” of design, public financing, and public policy “could create a different profession in a few years,” Alicea-Chuqui predicts. But “active listening” is essential. “Part of the conversation is how to listen to the needs of the community. How do we serve as a facilitator and leader in helping them take ownership for what the solutions could be? How do we center people in the design process and keep their lived experience front and center?”

Leveraging partnerships

The panelists all agreed one of the most effective ways architects can practice community-based design is through public-private partnerships that ensure architects have a seat at the table from the very beginning of a project. Clark shared how The P3 Group, Inc., which he co-founded in 2017, unites architecture, construction, engineering, and project management on one side with legal guidance, funding options, and engagement with municipal councils on the other, to facilitate civic projects.

“There is a huge need in smaller communities that haven’t had a new fire station, or their water plant is so outdated that they’re having major issues,” Clark said. “We approach municipalities who really don’t understand how to execute deals, and help them complete projects.” Establishing a strong pipeline of such projects not only benefits the communities, but it’s also helped Chasm’s bottom line. “It’s the one thing that’s really allowed us to float four years later during a pandemic,” Clark stated, “Real success lies when you’re not tethered to the history of how architecture operates.”

For Price, more engagement in project financing is also an important lesson learned. She cited a recent project in which her firm adjusted their fee in exchange for equity in the building. “Architects are really learning that we have to get involved in the financial side,” she noted. “There are tax benefits in what we do that can be transferred to clients.” Whether it’s pursuing a stake in the project, tax incentives, or development grants, Price aims to implement financial know-how in service of design / develop projects for affordable housing– “putting our money where our design mouth is and investing in our community.”

Growing influence

As challenging as the pandemic has been, the past year has brought new levels of coordination between architects and local communities – coordination that could lead to positive change. Alicea-Chuqui described her experiences with “Design Advocates,” a platform launched by small firms in New York City last summer to provide research, services, and advocacy for local small businesses struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. Through Design Advocates, architects advised on adaptations like outdoor seating for restaurants. “We’ve made these connections out of necessity,” she said, and the mission now is to “translate that into ideas cities can take forward.”

In Norfolk, Virginia, Price’s firm undertook similar work, helping local businesses create signage and navigate the process for outdoor dining and re-opening guidelines. “What I learned is once you form those relationships, you’re in it,” Price commented. “We have to stay with those small businesses all the way through. So we’re still driving door to door, calling when economic development grants come out. It’s that persistent partnership with small businesses that’s been really rewarding and helped me rethink the role of architects in the city.”

In Clark’s firm, the pandemic has been a learning experience, as Chasm has “brought the entire staff into the marketing realm to show them how we win and finance deals, and negotiate contracts.” By involving the firm’s architects in the entire spectrum of its operations, Clark aims to demonstrate how being “as creative on the operational side as you are when you’re designing a project” is integral to both community service and the firm’s success.

Adapting firm culture

That’s just one of the ways it’s been a pivotal year for firm culture. All three panelists indicated their firms adapted to the pandemic with an elevated focus on work-life balance or – in a meaningful shift underlined by Alicea-Chuqui – “life-work balance.” From greater emphasis on mental health to flexible work arrangements to insisting employees take vacation time and unplug, these leaders outlined a number of adjustments their firms are implementing to maintain morale and ensure employees are successful. “Mental health isn’t something we talk about a lot in architecture, but the burn-out rate is serious within firms,”Alicea-Chuqui noted. “The idea that we need to be in our best mental space to be the most productive is really important.”

Next steps

There is much to be done and – with greater recognition of the role the built environment plays in health, equity, and well-being – a unique opportunity to achieve meaningful change. “Historically, communities that emerge out of pandemics and other crises tend to emerge with a renewed sense of purpose, and to take risks again that align with their vison,” Price commented.

From chefs to architects, it’s up to everyone to do our part, Andrés says. “The talent we have – in brains, in heart, in our two hands – can be a talent that we can use for the service of the few. But there’s nothing more beautiful than when we put our talents, which we all have, at the service of the many.”

Image credits

World Central Kitchen COVID relief

Getty Images

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