By Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C and member of the AIA Colorado Member Voice Committee 

beth-mosenthal-2017As the architectural profession strives to become more equitable, diverse and inclusive (aka “EDI”), it’s inevitable that the means and methodologies that have been successful in implementing equity in architecture-adjacent professions will be investigated and, if deemed relevant, adopted.

One concept utilized in urban planning and other architecture-adjacent professions that require a high level of community engagement is “intersectionality.”

In the spirit of continuing to advance AIA Colorado’s discussions on EDI practices, here is a primer on the definitions and potential applications of intersectionality. Please note I’ve included links for further reading and encourage the architectural community to reflect upon how the lens of intersectionality might be implemented within the structure of each unique practice and professional culture.

So, what is intersectionality?

A relatively “new” (approximately 30 year old) concept, intersectionality is poignantly described in a YW Boston blog post as:

“a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages, taking into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face…”

“In other words, intersectional theory asserts that people are often disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: their race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity markers. Intersectionality recognizes that identity markers (e.g. “female” and “black”) do not exist independently of each other, and that each informs the others, often creating a complex convergence of oppression. For instance, a black man and a white woman make $0.74 and $0.78 to a white man’s dollar, respectively. Black women, faced with multiple forms of oppression, only make $0.64. Understanding intersectionality is essential to combatting the interwoven prejudices people face in their daily lives.”

The term first surfaced in law professor and social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” The actual theory of intersectionality, however, emerged as early as the 1970’s during the feminist movement, when different feminist theories and types of oppression emerged ((for further reading, I recommend visiting the actual blog post.)

How might this theory build on current efforts to make architecture a more equitable practice?

In a recent interview I conducted with Oakland-based designer, spatial activist, planner and award-winning educator Prescott Reavis, he shared with me how intersectionality relates to the architectural profession.

“The topic itself [intersectionality] is something we have always been dealing with and talking about – how does each person’s history, legacy, and culture play into shaping how they relate with other people and in different situations? 

Intersectionality is a term most people don’t know. The word has been around for 30 years. In the context of history, 30 years within a language is still an infant. If you move the term into the architectural profession, it’s even less likely that people will know about it, as architecture historically is not predominantly focused on the broad ranges of culture. If you look at race and gender in our profession – we’ve been battling intersectionality for almost 100 years.

 [Many architects are] familiar with the realities of intersectionality; having experienced [bias] at the firms and professional capacities we’ve worked in. Providing a term helps center things for people; it forces us to ask and understand, what does it actually mean?  Intersectionality is understanding someone’s make-up, inclusive of race, class, gender, sexuality–it’s our lived experiences that we are not always able to talk about in the workplace.”

By working through the lens of intersectionality, architects have the potential to reinforce a more equitable professional practice, both in their client and community engagement. The opportunity for professionals to identify and aim to minimize bias in the workplace helps cultivate and celebrate a more diverse and inclusive profession.

How can each of us begin to change the profession?

In a recent article penned by A.L. Hu for Architect Magazine, Hu states, “A profession that truly recognizes the intersectional nature of oppression and takes measures to mitigate inequality is one that can conceivably—and finally—level the playing field.”

Hu encourages architects to “recognize their role and responsibility in reconstructing the profession anew. Hu suggests that architects begin by answering the following questions:

  1. What stereotypes about power do I believe when it comes to men, women and other genders?
  2. Have I made assumptions about someone’s work ethic, personality or politics based on what I perceived to be their age, gender, race or class?
  3. Do I listen to students, reports, consultants and clients with the intent to understand, or to critique?
  4. What would a conversation about inclusion beyond binaries—man/woman, supervisor/worker, professor/student—look like?”

From a project standpoint, creating client and community engagement processes that combine intersectionality theory (listening and engaging all user groups and communities impacted by a project in an unbiased, inclusionary fashion) with intercultural intelligence (a process and mindset geared towards bridging cultural divides) we might help the architecture community eliminate bias.

Reavis explained how architects might utilize urban planning strategies to achieve a more holistic approach to the design process:

“The main reason why I went back to school to study urban planning was to understand how we can create more inclusive planning processes where we center history, culture and the residents’ knowledge at the forefront. I wanted to understand, ‘how does it work? How do you engage communities in their own spaces? in a way that I could explain to young people and have them understand why planning is such an important process. Important not only professionally, but in how your community is shaped, who is shaping it, and how even as a youth you need to be part of the process.”

It’s only at this point, when we reach an integration of culture, viewpoints, race, sexuality, class, etc., that we can start to look at the full picture, define the problem and come to a solution that recognizes the real issues.”

As architects, our work often requires broad engagement and consensus across communities, municipalities and disciplines. The process of eliminating bias in how stakeholders are identified, engaged and supported through thoughtful design solutions should be seen as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Educating ourselves and our clients on intersectionality might lead to more inclusive design in the long-run.