December 15, 2020

Beyond “Welcoming and Inclusive:” Designing Anti-racist Experiences

Advising Leaders, Designing Experiences

By Kate Ganim, Sofia Melian-Morse, and Kelly Sanford

Being “welcoming and inclusive” is no longer sufficient: the process for designing the higher-ed experience must evolve to be anti-racist. In a recent project with a Hispanic-Serving Institution we helped develop the user experience for a new building for the sciences. While we are not Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion experts, given the historic lack of diversity in STEM and the new building’s emphasis on inclusion we knew our approach had to result in an anti-racist space. To get there, we acknowledged our own lack of lived experience with racism and engaged the students we were designing for to understand what “welcoming and inclusive” meant to underrepresented communities on campus.

In our first stakeholder workshop conducted over Zoom, we asked about anti-racist design as part of a series of visioning questions. After the workshop, a participant reached out expressing frustration and distress with our approach: while they were excited to see the question included, we collected the responses on virtual post-its without discussing them, which made that question feel unimportant. This participant was one of the only people of color in the session, which made it difficult to open up about racial issues during the session.

Grateful for this feedback, we paused to reflect on her point of view, drafted a quick apology, and thanked her for speaking up. We provided a few options for how to move forward, and ultimately adapted by adding a panel on anti-racism. We also engaged the topic more deeply in subsequent workshops, and created safe spaces for underrepresented voices to speak up by holding special sessions for these groups.

Recognizing a gap in our knowledge of anti-racist design and architecture, we sought to further educate ourselves, starting with a few simple questions:

  • What does an anti-racist building look like? What about an anti-racist building in higher education?
  • What tools and strategies can be used to create an architecture that is “anti-racist?” How might we categorize these strategies?
  • What literature is there about racial equity and inclusion as it relates to architecture?

Our goal with this article is not to make the case for anti-racist design – there are others who are better positioned to elaborate and educate in this area (develop your own practice of seeking out marginalized voices and thought leaders!). We will share that as a result of this research, we arrived at an understanding that the fields of architecture and higher education perpetuate not “neutral” environments, but instead environments reinforcing white culture and histories.

We recognize that spaces designed by predominantly white architects for predominantly white clients cannot result in neutral environments. We acknowledge that culture and identity are the lens through which we experience space, and “colorblind” approaches often perpetuate an [oppressive] status quo.

Showing up to our antiracism panel with a baseline understanding of the history and context of antiracism in architecture helped to demonstrate our investment in this topic to our frustrated workshop participant and push the conversation further. We did not become experts, but did our best not to further the burden of representation by relying on our black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) participants to teach us the basics.

Shifting our Approach

As user researchers and conversation designers, we have continued to reflect on how to shift conventional practices towards anti-racist practices. We hope that the following table will encourage others to do the same.

Conventional Practice                         Anti-racist Practice
Who is at the table? Open-ended  invitation to a general group (e.g., students)                                     Targeted sessions for underrepresented groups in addition to general sessions – ideally with compensation for participants (gift card, dinner, etc.)
How to prepare? Develop questions and activities, focus on participants’ insights and experience                                                                                        Do your research. Have a baseline understanding of the context. Focus on participants’ insights and experience within that context 
How to facilitate? Understand experience without discussing the role of identity  Acknowledge that identity informs our experience of space. Try to understand that impact
How to document? Separate responses and feedback based on role (e.g., staff, faculty, student)  Separate responses and feedback based on role and identity
How to apply? Give equal weight to all participants’ insights Elevate underrepresented perspectives – it will benefit the broader community

This shift in our approach benefitted the project in a number of ways.

Most importantly, it provided us with deeper insights that helped us connect the building’s vision of inclusion more authentically to its physical space. We increased buy-in from underrepresented communities on campus since we were able to provide engagements specifically for them, and co-create the ideal UX with them. We built trust with the client by having a thoughtful, caring response to criticism, particularly around such a sensitive issue. Overall, bringing the topic of anti-racism into the conversation increased awareness as well as community excitement for the new building.

Learning about engaging underrepresented communities will be an ongoing process, and we will build upon this new baseline understanding in our future projects. Our major takeaways from this experience that we will carry forward are to:

  1. Center underrepresented communities in the process. Understand that underrepresented communities might face additional barriers to participation. Meet them where they are and elevate their perspectives.
  2. Listen deeply and humbly, and adapt. Show gratitude for the critical voices – they can be your best teachers. Be flexible and willing to change your plans.
  3. Do your own research. The onus is on you to educate yourself about these issues. By relying on underrepresented communities to educate you through conversation, you are furthering the burden of representation. Show up with a baseline understanding. Learn from others who are already doing this work.
  4. Create safe spaces for underrepresented voices to speak up. This might mean holding separate sessions for these communities, or otherwise making sure minority participants are the majority in a given session or interview. Tailor those sessions to that group or identity.

We are excited to see this discourse spreading through the field of architecture and planning, and we are committed to our advocacy for equity, inclusion, and anti-racism in higher education. Our hope is that in the future, these conversations will become more common and more comfortable so that we can accelerate progress towards a diverse, equitable, and inclusive future.

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