Editorial: Let’s Talk About Race

Sam Oboh, Camille Mitchell, Cheryll Case and Ossie Airewele spoke on the topic of Engaging Change at an online panel in late August.

Architects of African, Caribbean and Black descent represent less than two percent of licensed practitioners in North America. Black women architects represent less than 0.3 percent of the industry. “It’s no wonder why many of them feel there isn’t a spot for them at the table,” says Nigerian-Canadian architect Sam Oboh, a past president of the RAIC, who recently moderated an online discussion on anti-Black racism hosted by Quadrangle’s Emerging Leaders Network.

What does this bias look like? It can range from overtly aggressive threats—such as the nooses that appeared on several Toronto construction sites in June—to more subtle personal experiences. British architect Ossie Airewele, who recently moved to Toronto, says that there is often a moment of “shock” when collaborators first meet him in person, and realize that the person they’ve been corresponding with is Black. “What’s important to me is how they evaluate and react to that situation. Do they recognise that there is an unconscious bias at play; and can they move past this in order to collaborate as effectively with me—as a Black designer and architect—as they would with anyone else?”

Other forms of racism are embedded in the built environment. “Toronto itself is a highly segregated city,” says urban planner Cheryll Case, who was raised in the city’s largely Black northwest sector. “In every public school I went to, I could count on one hand the number of White kids.”

“Zoning bylaws and land lease values restrict spaces for the Black community to remote areas or limited transportation options,” adds architect Camille Mitchell. “Additionally, and unfortunately, we continue to live in a ‘police state’ where large gatherings of Black people are heavily scrutinized and deliberately dismantled.”

How can some of these systemic barriers be dismantled? Allies have a role to play for all emerging practitioners—and particularly Black, Indigenous and people of colour. “I’m from a generation where you are prepared for the world by being told you have to work twice as hard to move half as far,” says Airewele. Allyship entails people with power seeing the potential beyond someone’s skin colour and sharing their power.

The industry also needs organizations that support Black designers. “We need to build safe spaces where change can be made,” says Case. “Beyond our nine-to-five jobs, a lot of Black people have a second job fighting racism, building up institutional support to get things done. We need allies in those movements.”

In Canada, one such group is the recently formed Black Architects + Interior Designers Association (BAIDA). “BAIDA is currently preparing a portfolio review and a mentorship program with local design firms,” comments Mitchell, who was one of the group’s founders. “We are also looking to start a camp for Black youth to build the pipeline. Community support can simply include working within your realm of responsibility. You can offer space, suggest programs and promote the work of Black designers.”

Within planning and real estate development, the Black Planners and Urbanists Association is advancing various strategies, including supporting the Ontario Provincial Planning Institute in improving professional capacities. Another group, the Black-led Toronto Community Benefits Network, focuses on ensuring that the construction of major government-funded infrastructure provides construction training and jobs to Black residents and other members of racialized groups or marginalized gender identities.

“Firms may not be in a position to hire [Black designers], but can consult with these groups,” says Mitchell. Case adds that design firms should also consider seeking out Black-led teams among sub-consultants.

Within firms, the panellists say that it’s important to cultivate forums for people to identify and address race-related microaggressions, both within offices and on jobsites. “Everyone should pursue unconscious bias training,” says Mitchell. “It’s not the responsibility of the Black employee to raise these conversations. I would hope that open-minded firms would take it upon themselves to have the difficult conversations.”

Airewele says that larger organizations, such as the RAIC and provincial and territorial licensing authorities, ultimately have the most important role to play in addressing systemic racism and increasing the representation of Black, Indigenous and people of colour within the profession. “Institutions need to think more broadly about how they can contribute and support people of all ethnicities, particularly on these really sensitive issues,” he says. “They need to be funding and committing to studies, then monitoring and assessing against the methods they are putting in place to help change things.”

The panellists were clear that it is time for these discussions to happen more openly—and also for concrete action. “Just because you have a planning group that meets twice a month to discuss race issues, it doesn’t mean that the issues will be solved,” says Case.