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Editorial: Acting on Equity

Mobilizer 2.0 was designed and built for an artistic intervention by Dana Prieto for the Beyond Extraction Counter-Conference and the People Before Profit rally held in response to PDAC 2020. The project was a collaboration between SHEEEP with Dana Prieto, Aemilius Milo Ramirez, Meech Boakye & the Beyond Extraction Collective. Photo from sheeep.ca

Equity, diversity and inclusion have come to the foreground as issues of central importance in the past months. Architectural organizations are beginning to respond to the calls for action. Canadian architecture schools, too, are grappling with questions around equity (see Voices of the Unheard and From the Ground Up).

Systemic racism, economic and social equity, and the need for greater diversity among architects often feel like topics best addressed by larger associations and firms. But small architecture practices have a role to play as well. Their work and decisions affect their employees, consultants, and the communities for whom they work. How can Canada’s small firms advocate for greater equity and inclusion—in their own practices and in the larger AED sector?

One equity measure that can be taken by firms of any size is assessing their pay structure in terms of economic equity. British Columbia firms HCMA, Khôra Architecture + Interiors, and Ratio have taken an extra step in this direction by becoming Living Wage certified. Living Wage Canada calculates hourly rates at which households can meet their basic needs—currently $20.68 per hour in Metro Vancouver.

Inclusion can also be part of a practice’s organizational structure. Quebec firm Pivot is set up as a co-operative business, meaning that all of its eight members are joint-owners and decision-makers for the practice.

The horizontal leadership and transparent finances of the co-op bring inclusion to the heart of the practice, according to architect Colleen Lashuk. “We have different kinds of people making decisions about the practice,” she says.

Architect Khalil Diop adds that the co-op has prioritized ethical choices and mental wellbeing from the start, a model that seems to have naturally attracted a racially mixed and gender-diverse group of founding members. “We are a different kind of beast,” he says, adding that the members actively discuss which clients to take on—for both paid work and unpaid initiatives.

“Contrary to many emerging practices, I’ve been saying ‘no’ to many things,” says architect Reza Nik, who runs SHEEEP, a Toronto-based studio that works through an equitability lens. He adds that many of his projects emerge after years of relationship-building with communities and collaborators. These projects include a series of small-scale “Mobilizers”—small pieces of mobile architecture that can temporarily occupy public spaces, making them more accessible to community members who may otherwise feel unsafe in those places.

Even on projects without an explicit equity agenda, architects can promote diversity through their consultant choices. Architect Heather Dubbeldam recently noticed how many of her sub-consultants had a poor representation of women on the teams they were presenting in response to RFPs. “I’ve asked them to increase the representation of women on their teams for the projects we are bidding on to at least 50 percent,” she says. “The women they are putting forward may not be the most experienced with the project type,” she adds. “But creating an opportunity to let them work under the tutelage of a more senior person will give them that experience—and help them to move up within their respective firms.”

Under-represented groups, such as women and BIPOC architects, have additional opportunities to lead by example. Architect Allison Gonsalves says that she and others at the firm she co-founded, StudioDOM, are making themselves available to mentor emerging practitioners of colour. “We believe that it is important to make POC students and recent immigrants aware of the processes and experiences that they may face in our profession,” she says.

The firm has also reached out to their city councillor to offer expertise on community planning matters, and approached a local area library to run an after-school architecture program. “We live in a community that is made up of mostly minority families. Educating kids about architecture gives them an equitable opportunity to be excited about a career in this field from an early age,” says Gonsalves.

“It’s not about the size of the firm, but about the substance of the effort and intention,” she adds. “Changing the course of our profession for the generations ahead relies on our dedication.”

Canadian Architect includes contributions from many places. The magazine is headquartered in Toronto, which for thousands of years has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, it is still home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island. We are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.

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