Blog Post

Building JEDI Connections: Living Future ’21

Equity starts with inclusion and listening. Done right, over time, it ends with joy.

kimberly lewis

Keynote speaker Kimberly Lewis said that increasing diversity and cultural competency in their staff, mission, and vision, will keep firms competitive.

Photo: Kimberly Lewis
The themes of Living Future ’21 were unmistakable: a strong call from leaders in the building professions for allyship around justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI).

A few important ways to do this stood out:

  • Centering Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) voices instead of the systemically centered white privilege in our firms, projects, and policy development
  • Developing long-haul relationships in projects
  • Valuing experiential knowledge to be as important as the profoundly privileged academic knowledge that is so often the standard in our industry

Many sessions seemed to point to asking: In what ways can we strive to co-create in a broader context to privilege BIPOC community members, colleagues, and leaders and center justice and equity?

A long-term commitment

The call to do the work and stay engaged isn’t a quick fix but a long-term commitment required at both the individual level, community, and industry scale.

As mentioned by keynote speaker Kimberly Lewis “We have 400+ year problems. This work is challenging for a reason. … Increasing diversity and cultural competency in your staff, mission, and vision, will keep you competitive!”


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A call to action

Lewis laid out three steps in her call to action:

  1. Declare JEDI as a top priority in addressing climate change
  2. Acknowledge foundational governance that lacks inclusivity and accountability
  3. Declare a united call to end structural racism within our organizations and across the sector and industry and purpose and intention in perpetuity as a guiding principle

One question to answer for ourselves is, “Are we creating access?” There are numerous changes needed in our industry in order to achieve equity, striving to build projects, communities, and systems that give the most underserved people tools, resources, and social supports needed to thrive.

Wednesday’s Confronting Power and Privilege session led by Erin Christensen Ishizaki, partner at Mithun; Vedette Gavin, principal and founder at Verge Impact Partners; and Kelly Worden, director, health research, U.S. Green Building Council, discussed the Salzburg Statement on Confronting Power and Privilege for Inclusive, Equitable and Healthy Communities and asked us to create and uncover “brave spaces.” How do we create spaces to have productive conversations that entail risk where we won’t always be safe nor protected? And how do we understand and acknowledge the limits of our own expertise and reframe what we even think of as expertise?

Gavin answered these questions, saying we need to

  • Speak our truth
  • Listen to others
  • Learn the truth about historical traumas and what people have been through before approaching our work

Evaluating our positionality and seeking to bring vulnerability in these spaces allows people the ability to be wrong or suggest something new. Brave spaces can be used to explore the role of power in our work, and to analyze and challenge privilege.

Defining equity

Equity is different from equality. When centering equity, we are seeking to provide everyone with the tools and resources needed to thrive, and equity looks different for everyone. Equity asks us to remove the fence; equality attempts to work around the fence by giving everyone the same equal resources.

By diversifying our teams and leadership, stakeholders, and community members, we invite (opening a seat at the table) and ASK them to dance (asking people to participate in the process). We are more able to illuminate the fences we may be missing because we (the privileged) can already see over them. Together, we can begin to challenge power and privilege by removing those fences—because through centering equity, people in their lived experiences know what they need.

Pursuing design justice

Additional tools to consider implementing to help inform JEDI practices in firms, projects, and community—discussed in the Embracing Equity & Inclusion in the Design of Community Buildings session—are critical race theory (CRT) and design justice trainings. Both are powerful ways to develop team bonding and bring a project team together through mindfully asking each other questions and keeping each other accountable.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a framework used to examine society as it relates to the categorization of race, law, and power. According to Amara H. Perez CRT trainings, the aim is to examine how a system of domination based on race is normalized, maintained, and reproduced in day-to-day practices, institutions, systems, structures, and culture (CRT Training, Amara H. Perez).

Trauma-informed Design (TiD) stems from Trauma-informed Care (TiC), which is a shift away from the perspective of judgment, asking, “What is wrong with you?” in providing services and instead asks, “What happened to you?” in order to provide the right support to that unique individual. TiD is about integrating the principles of TiC into design with the goal of creating physical spaces that promote safety, well-being, and healing. 

Projects such as the Portland Community College (PCC) Portland Workforce Training Center found that using TiD practices moved finding solutions to design challenges away from a judgment mindset toward TiC opportunities. In other words, by centering equity, we can provide what is needed rather than providing all the same tools and resources to address varying and diverse needs to thrive. This manifested as a shift in power, positioning under-represented communities with a louder voice than established neighborhood associations, and asking participants to share their multitudes of identities.

Bryan C. Lee, founder and design director at Colloqate, discussed the role of design justice in the PCC project, highlighting Cornel West stating, “Design justice is what love looks like in public spaces. … In order to design for a beloved community, we have to actually be in community with folks … so intently that it is not simply a transactional consideration. It is a deep and abiding care for people.”

What was powerful about Lee’s presentation was the call for design justice as “forward[ing] the radical anti-racist vision of racial, social, and cultural reparation through the process and outcomes of design.” Design justice also “seeks to challenge the privilege and power structures that use architecture and design as a tool of oppression.”  

Developing relationships

In the Enan ts'in Inna (Go Forward in a Good Way) session led by Joella Hogan, NNDFN Cultural Centre project manager, and Alanna Quock, principal, senior planner & designer, Regenerative Design, the emphasis was on long-term relational building needed between architects, planners, and clients for projects to be done in a good way.

Quock stated, “It’s a long-term relationship; it’s not just on a project-by-project basis, because you need to have that relational foundation to be able to support a project in a good way.” It’s essential to intentionally invest in relationships with First Nations in a similar way to ongoing relationships with other partners, such as lawyers. Through culturally appropriate procurement of community needs, which takes a long time, the project is well informed and co-created, which aligns with Bryan C. Lee’s call to action for utilizing design justice.

What to do next: look past pain toward joy

When we begin to analyze the power and privilege in our work, it is not hard to see the systemic racism that feeds challenges, including the fact that high-performing buildings are not often built in predominantly BIPOC communities.

At least one next step for any of us could be drafting a letter to leadership with a request that we commit to sustainability with an intersectional approach, centered in anti-racism, and commit to the continuum of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural organization.

A reminder from Tre Borden, principal, Tre Borden Co.: let’s not forget that art can be a bridge to soften hearts and open minds as well as reckon with the past. Therefore, equity work is not only hard, challenging, and unsettling. This work of equity and justice in the building industry can and should also be joyful, uplifting, and colorful.

By addressing our biggest environmental and social challenges through intersectionality, we will be able to get to the roots of the larger problems with design justice, social justice, climate justice. Relinquishing, or sharing in abundance, much of the power and privilege that many white folks hold, we can create more space for BIPOC voices, experiences, and knowledge.

In doing so, our projects, our communities, and our society will move towards being well informed, equitable, and sustainable.

Published May 3, 2021

Grimes, R. (2021, May 3). Building JEDI Connections: Living Future ’21. Retrieved from

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