Equity, diversity, and inclusion have been adopted into workplace culture and studio programming. But, justice — as a principle and directive — has catalyzed the effort for fundamental awareness and evident change within architecture. Why is justice a necessary design ethic? Virginia’s preeminent voices in equity, diversity, and inclusion weigh-in on why this question matters. As part of this series, educator, researcher, and member of AIA Virginia’s J.E.D.I. Committee, Kendall Nicholson, Assoc. AIA, talks about empathy and responsibility as the foundations of justice. “My hope,” he says, “is that architects and designers continue to develop their senses in the area of racial equity and advocate for the reallocation of resources based on history and systems.”

Kendall A. Nicholson, Ed.D, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, LEED GA
Kendall A. Nicholson, Ed.D, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, LEED GA, is the Director of Research and Information for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture

Why is justice a necessary design ethic?

What makes this question challenging is the fact that responsibility is depending on one’s worldview. How does your notion of responsibility change if you know that you can be the most responsible person in the world and still end up in jail? That being said, I think that’s why there are segregated pockets across identity groups like race. We have Black designers who make sure that Black users can be respected in a space they occupy.

Justice is about the process and the goals. It requires the design community to reevaluate and be radical about how we think about processes and goals. One main tenet that’s often missing in design culture, I’ll say, is the idea that people come first. In school, you learn that it’s about the object and the site, and you insert people in the end to make the rendering or model look realistic. But, a critical analysis of that process can help us set better goals.

What are your hopes for J.E.D.I., as it has been conceived as an ostensibly more inclusive acronym?

For undergraduate students and you’re applying to a school, and they say they’re about justice and equity, you tend to believe them. As a graduate student, you’re more aware of a school’s ability to implement EDI initiatives. Our broader understanding of J.E.D.I. is a conflation of these terms, but they really are individual lenses. As you then enter the profession, you might be aware of a firm’s J.E.D.I. intentions, but you are not necessarily in a position of power to hold them accountable. So, it’s a loosely defined set of responsibilities.

What are the challenges that might prevent forward progress in setting better goals?

The system of power is a big challenge. There are people in the world who need to reflect less on that process as it affects them personally, and they reinforce a system of power. But, the largest hurdle that I see is people’s differing definitions of justice and fairness. If you believe in a meritocracy, it makes no sense for someone to be given a privilege you’ve worked hard for.

We hear a lot about “leadership” and “equity” in the profession, and the responsibilities that those words represent. What do you think really prepares an architect to assume those responsibilities on the various pathways to licensure?

Preparing an architect for equitable practice means empathy, but I say that acknowledging that it’s a so-called feel-good term. If you can understand and apply empathy, you’re more likely to listen, to give space to others, to be slower to react, and to cultivate responses rather than offer reactions. When we talk about a racial and equitable lens, we talk about it as being personal. You don’t get to those lenses without developing your own personal worldview and understanding that worldview. It takes time. In a business setting, leaders want to figure out how to implement something efficiently to get the best outcome. But, change doesn’t happen after a webinar. The racial-equity lens in this case is weak. If it were strong, it would occur to them to say, “We’ve done A, B, and C, but we still haven’t moved the needle.”

What are some concepts that you think the next generation of architects will have to redefine or, in some cases, define for the first time?

The first thing to note is that there are competing parties in architecture based on identity. Race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. The future of equitable design will be based on this knowledge. The future of equitable design will be based on collaboration. If we think of things in a collaborative sense, then we’ll force ourselves to understand new perspectives or different perspectives. We’ll engage with community members in ways that give them equal footing. When I think about progress, there’s been more progress made in our ability to vocalize things. There has never been a time when so many Black and brown people have been able to be on the mainstage in architecture and to be unapologetic about it. If we think about history, we think about people who are unapologetic about their points of view. Now, everyone has a capacity to be vocal if they so choose and to push back on what they see as inappropriate.

There’s one other thing, too, which is an idea that building equitable communities, practices, and processes belongs to a certain group. That they’re solely the domain of people who have a specific business model. But, building equitable communities, practices, and processes can be a relative thing that is open to everyone, every firm, and every business model.

I talk sometimes about architects not as people who provide design services, but a collective of design servants for all communities, especially underserved communities. If we can find a shared language to articulate a shared mission, we can find a way forward.

About the author
William Richards is a writer and editorial consultant based in Washington, D.C. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Editor-in-Chief of Inform Magazine.