Fall 2015

Addressing Racial Divides in American Cities

At CED, understanding racism and racial politics, and learning how to effectively work with communities affected by racial conflict, is an essential part of our curriculum and the environmental designer’s toolkit.

The issues surrounding racial conflict are in high relief, in the wake of killings of African American people in cities across the country. These tragic episodes of violence sparked the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and had a profound impact on the Berkeley campus last year. Students increasingly asked each other, and their professors, whether their institution was willing to address the difficult questions of pervasive racism, discrimination, and violence in American cities and its ramifications for the campus environment. Heated classroom discussions, protests about curriculum, and demands for change touched virtually every academic unit on campus. At the same time, a UC system-wide Campus Climate Study, asking about the attitudes and behaviors of faculty, staff, and students as they relate to mutual respect and regard for individual histories, needs and abilities, revealed that while most students felt respected on campus, a disproportionate share of underrepresented minority students felt disrespected by their peers and/or were sometimes uncomfortable in class or on campus.

In the College of Environmental Design, despite the fact that many faculty and students are deeply committed to racial justice, some students of color voiced similar complaints as students across the university system. Leaders of CED Students of Color (CED-SOC) told me that they suffered from micro-aggressions related to race in the classroom, while white students recounted witnessing such incidents. Concerned students felt that issues of race were not adequately addressed in the curriculum, and that many faculty were unprepared to lead difficult, sometimes tense class discussions about race and its role in environmental design history, theory, and practice. In particular, they called for more training to help them understand racism and racial politics, and instruction on strategies to help environmental designers work effectively with diverse communities. Particularly for African American students, their unhappiness with the status quo was not only intellectual, but visceral: issues of racial justice routinely confronted them in ways that were often painful and upsetting.

CED immediately responded, in four ways.

1. We organized a panel and open discussion on Ferguson, MO., racial violence, and the role of environmental design, in which students and faculty participated. Students in attendance were also able to voice their concerns around lack of curricular content related to diversity, and to help devise ways to address perceived deficits.

2. CED’s Diversity Platforms Committee, whose members include faculty, staff, students, and alumni, released a Request for Proposals in early October calling for students and faculty to propose courses, speakers, workshops, symposia, and other activities to put a spotlight on diversity issues and also create spaces for informal discussion.

3. We redesigned our Start Up orientation program for new students, including not only an Interactive Theater Program that raises issues of identity and student life, but also a workshop on Identity and Community, to allow students to get to know one another in small groups, learn about each other’s backgrounds, and begin to have frank conversations about difference that can lead to trust, mutual understanding, and freer expression. We are also continually expanding CED’s student advising services, wellness programs, and psychological counselling services.

4. This academic year we will be conducting workshops for faculty, to help them create safe spaces for students to explore challenging issues of race and how as environmental designers they can contribute to racial justice and peace.

There remains much more to be done, including for example the recruitment of more faculty, staff, and students of color, especially African Americans, and a rethinking of our curriculum to insure that issues around race and diversity are squarely addressed.

Among its peer institutions, CED prepares the most diverse stream of environmental design professionals in the country, not only in terms of race and ethnicity but also other aspects of difference such as socioeconomic status (a full quarter of CED’s undergraduates have family incomes below $20,000, and almost half receive Pell Grants). This is a responsibility we embrace—and to which we are committed.