Diversity Triptych: Charisma Acey, Walter Hood, and Mabel Wilson

Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning Charisma Acey, Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design Walter Hood, and Columbia University Professor of Architecture and CED's Howard A. Friedman Visiting Professor of Practice Mabel Wilson.

Spring 2018

Diversity in Environmental Design

Conversations with Charisma Acey, Walter Hood, and Mabel Wilson

How do we acknowledge and build diversity in CED? It is not a new question, but in an increasingly diverse society, where issues of race and gender inequalities pepper the headlines and our daily discourse, it is one that must be paramount.

CED is committed to attracting and supporting students with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. While a considerable number of efforts already exist, including Diversity Fellowships, the Technology Access Program for Pell Grant undergraduates, Diversity Student Support Fund fundraising, Graduate Admissions Ambassadors, and the Diversity Platforms Committee to name a few, we clearly need to do more.

“Diversity is not just about demographics or who gets fellowships,” explains CED Dean Jennifer Wolch. “It is about who gets faculty attention; whether there are faculty of color to mentor students of color; whether the fields as currently constituted pay attention to concerns of students of color or the kinds of careers they want to pursue; whether the subtleties of race and other critical aspects of identity are even perceived by white faculty; and whether faculty know how to initiate or guide conversations about these topics.”

In separate conversations with Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning Charisma Acey, Professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design Walter Hood, and Columbia University Professor of Architecture and CED’s Howard A. Friedman Visiting Professor of Practice Mabel Wilson, we explored issues of racial diversity in environmental design education from the perspectives of faculty of color.

Q – What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing students of color pursuing degrees in environmental design?


Mabel Wilson engages with the audience during her CED lecture, “Building Advocacy: Who Builds Your Architecture” (Photo: Jeffrey Allen)

Charisma Acey – Certainly the lack of diversity in the design disciplines is number one. We joke that people tend to stumble into the field of planning. Students I’ve spoken to, especially students of color, are excited when they discover that planning exists. They say, “Oh, there are people who actually make the decisions about where housing goes, where parks go, why communities are the way they are!”

But when they are exposed to it, are they seeing diverse students and faculty? Are the issues addressed issues that they care about? I’m not saying that every student of color is going to be focused on issues of equity and social justice, though many are drawn to the profession for that reason. How much are those issues even discussed in the curriculum?

Walter Hood – One of the biggest questions is, why should I be getting this degree? What does it have to do with me? Once you get past that abstract justification for the profession – I want to be an architect to make a building, I want to be a landscape architect to create a garden -students are left wanting as it relates to this question.

I know for a lot of people of color when they start out, it’s about prosperity. When I went to school it was just about getting a college degree. I chose engineering for its economic fruition. But I didn’t like it, I was looking for something that I had more of an affinity for. I think a lot of people of color don’t have that choice.

But more and more today students are looking for subject matter that resonates with them. A lot of students of color were attracted to LSU after the hurricane for instance. Students of color are more assertive now about what they want and are looking at the pedagogy whether that’s related to poverty, race, gender equality, rebuilding places where brown people live, or water quality. We could have a profound impact in those areas.

Mabel Wilson – There are structural questions, institutional questions, the content of the education, and expectation as well. Institutionally, the cost of education can be very difficult for students of color. Clearly, this impacts the number of students of color that pursue a degree in one of the built environment disciplines, so oftentimes they are still a very small minority.

Another issue is that salaries are also quite low in the field, especially if you want to work for an architect who is doing so-called cutting-edge work. So that limits for whom graduates can work because they have to pay back an enormous student debt.

Then there is the issue of the content of the education. Architecture stems from a European, now Euro-American, perspective. So learning about black spaces and cultural histories about black life often aren’t included in those larger surveys of architectural history. I think it’s less about inclusion, but rather asking the critical question, why was it excluded in the first place?

Q – Where do these issues originate? Why do they exist?

Charisma Acey – I’ve been Co-Chair of the Planners of Color Interest Group of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP), and diversity is a problem that exists across the country. It’s a pipeline issue. It begins with being exposed to environmental design and planning even before starting college, being aware that this is even a career possibility, being steered in that direction for a professional education or possibly, to enter academia to train the next generation of planners. This certainly impacts the other design professions as well.

Within the CED, the planning department tends to be labeled as more readily dealing with social issues, but that doesn’t mean that the faculty are necessarily focused on issues of social justice to the satisfaction of our students. Moreover, in terms of imparting a sense of belonging, inclusion and apparent diversity matter just as much as the substance of the curriculum.

Walter Hood – The issues originate with programs not having an ear to what’s going on in the world. Environmental design programs tend to operate within the context of the profession, we’re just talking to ourselves. And in talking to ourselves we’re not taking risks. As a public institution, we should be addressing the public, trying to understand how that transformation is happening around us.

In the 25 years since I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen interest in multiculturalism come and go. When whites became the minority in California that pushed the pedagogy to address diversity. You would think this cultural transformation would push environmental design pedagogy as well, but in Landscape Architecture we’ve allowed the environmental piece to gain more weight than the social and cultural piece. I think we can’t do that because when we do we’re not having a conversation with our public anymore. We’re back into the ivory tower.

Mabel Wilson – It’s the core of a set of critical disciplinary questions that I’ve been discussing with colleagues. For example, why is architecture 93% white? We might ask, why have the disciplinary origins in Europe of the art of building, a very particular way to build, now become universal as a way of talking about architecture? The discipline has roots in Renaissance Europe at exactly the moment at which colonization is happening. I think in a way the discipline of architecture is about sustaining a certain aesthetic idea of whiteness and a technological mode of managing other bodies.

Q – Why is a focus on diversity important? What impact will this have in the field of environmental design?


Walter Hood moderating the panel discussion, “Why Black Landscapes Matter” in the Wurster Hall Auditorium. (Photo: Jason Miller)

Charisma Acey – We live in a diverse society. If we expect our programs to respond to needs and be relevant going forward then we need to be ahead of the times – not just catching up but actually more progressive and innovative in our thinking. This is especially true in the design professions because we’re doing design in the public interest.

Walter Hood – If the person cares and they are good at what they do, then they are already addressing those social issues. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have more people of color in the profession. But in order to do that, we have to give them voice. In the pedagogical structure here, it is hard for kids to have voices, and I think it can be a very uncomfortable place to be.

Mabel Wilson – Because its what you have to do. I wouldn’t know how to do otherwise. Black folks always say you have to do 200% to get half as far and I think that’s true. And women know this as well.

We have to question the assumption of the universal in our discipline. For example, even though Adolf Loos operated in a particular moment, his values are understood to be universal. But no, in truth they are very specific. Loos’ privileged European whiteness is completely invisible so he now stands for a universal position that wasn’t at the moment. To chip away at that, to constantly raise the question of how we contextualize that, takes a lot of energy.

Other disciplines – literature, American studies, anthropology – have already done this work. They questioned their previous assumptions. I don’t know why the built environment field has taken so long to get there. Maybe because it’s pragmatic and about making a better world, looking forward. For all its well-meaning, we often don’t see where things have come from and where we are now.

Q – How well do faculty in the environmental design field appreciate the subtleties of race, identity, and racism, and the challenges that students encounter?

Charisma Acey – There is a great awareness and appreciation of issues of injustice, social inequality, and disparities related to interventions in the built environment. But I think there is a disconnect between what we talk about in our programs and classrooms, and what students encounter when they’re out in practice facing things like the politics of development and housing, and the interests of capital. Politics around the built environment is quite different than a focus on social justice.

So, in terms of the curriculum, how do we help students navigate those politics? How do we arm and equip all of our students with the tools and perspectives that put equity in the center of decision-making? One student group who was recently awarded a small grant from the College’s Diversity Platforms Committee (DPC) is working with the local nonprofit, Urban Habitat, to host a workshop involving all three disciplines at the college to examine real-world issues on equity and the built environment and what they as emerging professionals can do.

Walter Hood – When you are a minority, in any group setting, it’s really hard for the dominant group to relate to you because you’re marginal. You’re treated with kid gloves which marginalizes you even more. And I understand it. But it’s hard for faculty not to approach diversity in this conservative way because there is a lot to fear there. If I say something to this person that I really believe, they might take it wrong because they’re marginal already. I felt that myself. And so I’m very sensitive to other faculty members and their dilemma but I do think the issues we’re facing right now are not being dealt with as a whole. Race and identity are really hard subjects and a lot of people just don’t know how to deal with them.

Mabel Wilson – I think there is a range. There are some amazing faculty who have been working on these questions for decades, who have started community design work, and who challenge these questions which are not new. And I think you also have faculty who say, “This has nothing to do with architecture, these are social issues.” They don’t dismiss the validity, but it is operative outside the field.

Environmental design organizes space – where people live, work and how they get there. Those come with a set of assumptions from disciplines that are overwhelmingly white, and that’s an issue. It’s similar to what is being said about tech interfaces now: they operate a certain way because primarily white men are designing them and not thinking in other ways.

Q – Is having a more diverse faculty the answer or what else is needed?

Charisma Acey – Yes, it’s part of the answer, certainly. Many students will say, “You’re the first black woman faculty I’ve ever had,” and it means something to them (and to me!) just to be able to say that. Presence is important. It gives something to aspire to, to know it’s possible. And it’s important too for white students to see people of color in these positions imparting education, helping to train the next generation.

But it’s not just about presence. We have to ensure that the faculty we recruit are successful, and become tenured, part of the fabric of the university, and part of making change. It’s the same with our students, not only admitting students of color but also ensuring that they successfully complete the program and go on to meaningful careers.

Walter Hood – I don’t think having a more diverse faculty is the answer. You could have a diverse faculty and still architects talk to architects. There has to be a way that faculty through their research and pedagogy are helping to tackle society’s issues around environmental design.

I think the answer is leadership, in the departments and at the college level. It’s saying here is an issue and we need to double down on this issue. It’s not about throwing out design, but when students see a place that caters to them, it’s attractive. Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) has a conference every year, Black in Design, fully supported by the dean. There were very few faculty but it was filled with young black designers from all over the country.

Mabel Wilson – Faculty diversity certainly helps. It’s about getting people at the same table. It’s true for women in the field and it’s true for people of color. But you have to question the existing power structures because if those stay intact, then nothing changes. This isn’t just a question for faculty in environmental design or students. It’s a social question that we have to ask America and everybody has to do this work. Whiteness can’t remain invisible. Its modes of domination and how it renders itself invisible have to be made visible and understood.

Q – What questions are we not asking that we should be?

Charisma Acey

Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning Charisma Acey (Photo: David Schmitz)

Charisma Acey – We need to ask what we’re doing about faculty retention, promotion, and the quality of the experience, not just the numbers. We also need to look at classroom dynamics and the student experience. Think about the students that are recruited into a graduate program at Berkeley – the kind of confidence you have to have in order to speak up. If the instructor or the curriculum is not addressing issues that are important to students, that puts a lot of burden on students to bring those issues up themselves, especially if they feel isolated because they are the only student of color in the class.

Also, how well are we recognizing and addressing inequitable differences? One of my favorite poems by Langston Hughes goes, “That Justice is a blind goddess is a thing to which we black are wise: Her bandage hides two festering sores that once perhaps were eyes.” Treating people the same when they are different, not recognizing that people are situated differently, is actually unjust. You can’t have equality before you have equity. Those are the kind of issues that we have to address across the board – in our classroom, in our administration, in our hiring, in how we train, and in our curriculum.

Walter Hood – In environmental design, more and more we’re seeing academic content around the makers in the field. There is more visibility and that’s a good thing. For the profession to be relevant though, we have to deal with some of the harder issues facing society and these are around race and inequality. It’s going to take a while.

Mabel Wilson – We need a robust understanding of architecture, planning, preservation, architectural history and their relationship to power. I don’t think it is any surprise that that the expenditure of surplus capital by the billionaire elite is on real estate. That points to the role of the built environment in relationship to power. Buildings are the residue of development, what’s left over after developers make a profit. Developers forget that this building is going to last and people are going to live there.

I am typically an optimistic person. But if we don’t start having a larger conversation around how, particularly in America, the allocation of resources have allowed white lives to thrive and other lives to be diminished, then I don’t know where we go. We need to start to address those legacies of where the land originated for the building of America – through genocide, dispossession, and the mobilization of enslaved labor to build the wealth, farm, and domesticate the land – and stop papering over with the truth of exceptionalism.

Q – What progress is being made, or is progress being made, in the environmental design disciplines?

Charisma Acey – Definitely there is progress being made. In our own department, we have an equity strategic plan. DCRP was one of the first on campus to do this and now it’s a requirement across campus.

I’ve also seen, because of great advocacy, changes in our accreditation body. A couple years ago, more conservative views prevailing in the accrediting body advocated rolling back some of the diversity requirements in the curriculum, as well as efforts to recruit and retain students and faculty of color. But a great groundswell of activism across the country reversed that trend. Now our accrediting body has actually strengthened the requirements for diversity, equity, and inclusion in student recruitment and retention, faculty recruitment and retention, and in the curriculum. It takes fight, it takes diligence, it takes awareness. You can’t take your foot off the gas.

Walter Hood – I wouldn’t say ‘progress.’ Progress suggests that this thing is sustainable. I’d say there’s been leadership. It will be interesting to see how far it sustains itself. I think you can tell the success of a place when there is more than one. For example, I’ve gone to the GSD and there is a culture there – students of color number more than the fingers on my hands. Columbia’s urbanism program is also pretty diverse.

But this goes back to my earlier statement. I don’t see it as a big issue that there are not a lot of blacks in landscape architecture, because it’s already a marginal profession. The same thing exists with architecture. I would love that there was more representation, but if you look at the percentages – the U.S. is 13% African American – and you look at the percentage of people who go into architecture, there just aren’t enough of us to go around. The bigger issue is dealing with the problems that impact people’s lives.

Mabel Wilson – I’m reluctant to say ‘progress’ because of what is implied by that term historically. The notion of progress comes from a belief of advancement of civilization. So benchmarks, progress, development come from these very racially latent terms. We have to unpack that language and rework our lexicons of diversity and inclusion. Otherwise we’re just building on top of something that has already proven to be rickety. We within these fields have to look at the history of our own disciplines and our complicity, and have a kind of critical reckoning. But I’m optimistic because students are asking questions and they want to learn.

Q – Ideally, with more funding and support, what other programs or opportunities would you like to see enabled to support diversity?

Charisma Acey – It goes back to what I mentioned earlier about pipeline. I’d really like Berkeley to be at the forefront of recruiting people of color into the design professions. We have our summer institutes but they are quite costly. If we had more funding, we could subsidize more students from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in those programs. We’re competing fiercely with other schools that may have more resources to attract students. We’re doing everything we can to attract students but we need the pool to be bigger.

Also, we need better training for faculty to create inclusive, empowering, and productive spaces. There’s so much to unpack there though. Sometimes ‘safe’ means safe for a dominant viewpoint rather than safe for a minority viewpoint. I put myself in that boat too – there’s a lot more that we can be doing.

Walter Hood – I think we have to empower students earlier, not later. It goes back to the question of demarginalizing. The profession right now assumes the students are blank slates and through this pedagogy of making, one develops tools and skills. I think we have to be better at validating students earlier in the pedagogy, showing them that they have something to offer. That’s a very difficult thing for the college.

What I try to do is to acknowledge to students that they are a part of what I am presenting. That’s where the creativity comes in. We have to be able to talk about these things – gender, race, sexual orientation – with students and make them feel comfortable. It’s not easy. We have to be very careful but there needs to be a way we can feel unfettered to talk about these things.

The thing that we should be focused on as a college of environmental design is environmental design. We have a commitment and an obligation to the public to help society deal with growing environmental issues – sustainability, ecology, all of these things. But once we divorce the social and cultural impact, it all becomes abstract. We need to see the truth in what we do.

Mabel Wilson – There have to be more extensive scholarships made available. If I were graduating high school and looked at what architects make versus the amount of time and education required, I’d go into law. We’re asking students to mortgage their future earnings and then they’re graduating without job security. Architecture is an example of that. It’s very much tied to cycles of boom or bust.

There has to be an across-the-board multi-prong transformation of so many things: the content of what we teach, how we teach, who is teaching, who is sitting in the classroom, how they are funded. We need a structural readjustment to bring about transformation. It’s just harder and harder to get the funds to do that.