One Question Series: Part 4, Being a Bystander

What happens when you ask the same question to five designers with five different backgrounds? You get five very different answers that will put you in someone else’s shoes. From firm principals to emerging professionals, we’re diving in to better understand—and share—others’ personal perspectives. This is the fourth installment of the monthly series—“One Question”—produced by our Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) Committee. 

In partnership with the Colorado Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, we invite you to see through the lenses of five different practitioners to learn how their unique backgrounds shape experiences in the firm and their approaches to design.

Recall a moment when you witnessed unjust behavior. How did you act then and how might you act differently today?

Wells Squier, AIA
AIA Colorado President
Principal, Anderson Hallas Architects

“I only recall a few instances early in my career of witnessing unjust behavior. Since then, I have been fortunate with regard to the character and integrity of those whom I work with most closely and feel the injustices witnessed years ago were actions of long-standing stereotypes throughout the history of our profession that we are actively working to break down today. These examples relate mostly to internal corporate power struggles but also perceptions of gender bias.

In retrospect, it is frustrating that there was not the awareness that there is today with regard to J.E.D.I. initiatives, and that those in the positions with the power to implement positive change did not recognize or prioritize this need. I have learned to express my concerns about this realization much more strongly, but at the time it wasn’t something that was as clearly in focus as it is today (at least for me personally as someone just starting my own career following graduation). Fortunately, my more recent professional experiences have included much greater diversity and equality. This, along with our collective introspection as a profession as it relates to justice within the workplace, has heightened my (and hopefully our collective) awareness, where I am now significantly more conditioned to consciously look for any instances of inequity or inappropriateness, not just within the workplace but also as it relates to prospective clients or broader team members with whom we may collaborate.”

Patricia Joseph, AIA, NOMA
Project Designer at Cuningham
President-Elect of NOMA Colorado
Lecturer, CU Denver College of Architecture & Planning

“If you were to ask me this question when I started my career in Architecture I wouldn’t be able to jump into conversation about a specific experience. At that time, I had enough emotional intelligence to be uncomfortable or upset, but not enough to identify the injustice itself. Fast forward to today and I can pinpoint several injustices that I have experienced, and I can recall the various ways I had to address them. Understanding what unjust behavior is and being able to identify it can feel similar to subconscious bias. However hard it may be to see, it is very real for the receiving person.

Most recently, the leadership within NOMA Colorado have heard far too many stories of unjust behavior from our emerging professionals and recent graduates. In response to these reports we have been able to engage in raw, straightforward communication with those responsible to address the behaviors directly. While we are addressing the unjust behavior, we are also thinking ahead, thinking about prevention. NOMA Colorado truly cares about making our organizations a safe and empowering place for our local professionals. We will not ignore the stories we hear from our members. We’re standing our ground and will not promote firms that disregard injustices within their communities.

We all have come a long way in terms of witnessing injustices and being able to do something about it. However, there is more work to be done, the era of complacency is gone, and we all have the responsibility to react appropriately. It’s 2022, if “you see something, you say something”.”

Sarah Broughton, FAIA
AIA Colorado President-Elect
Principal, Rowland+Broughton

“My circle of influence has been crystallizing and I continue to understand my voice and advocate within our profession for a better tomorrow. As a firm leader, along with my partners, we are laser focused on running an equitable firm based on just practices. We are a proponent of the Equal Pay For Equal Work Act mandating visibility with pay and opportunities. Our firm lists salaries with all job postings and provides strategic and equitable compensation amongst the team positions. Equal pay for equal work is paramount and is our backbone, creating balance and equity. We internally and externally post all promotional opportunities available within the firm and the transparency has resulted in talented yet unexpected team members rising to the top. I am vocal about our policies with other leaders and have witnessed their organizations making a change to be a more just workplace.

Valuing our work with clients is a just behavior we continue to defend. Over the last nineteen years, we have been asked multiple times in RFPs and interviews to perform services for reduced fees or for free. This is unjust and when agreed to erodes the equity for our team and our profession. Agreeing to undervalue our work results in unsustainable internal work demands to make up for the unbilled time.

Recently, we were asked to participate in a RFP for an exciting project we had been following for months. Part of the request included presenting design ideas at the interview. This is old behavior that must change. In our response of regret, we took advantage of the opportunity to educate the client about why it is an unjust policy and a disservice to the profession to ask for free work. We used our voice to speak up and make change. Our response gave a message to our team and to our client that together we can shape a different future.

Professional and personally, I try to always recognize and correct my own biases or unjust behavior. Our workplace has evolved, and my behavior also has. For example, I used to rely on nearby teammates to help with unexpected requests. This action does not give equal opportunity to the entire team and I am now purposeful about reaching out to someone I don’t “see” often and engage them to work together. I encourage the entire team to acknowledge and respect each others’ skills and strive to give equal opportunities to members at every level. I hope to foster a culture of openness and opportunity, where there is no room for unjust actions.”

Kari Lawson, Assoc. AIA
AIA Colorado Associate Director
Designer, TreanorHL

“Injustice may be seen in all aspects of our society, and it is ingrained in our attitudes toward diversity and inclusion. These intersections form the fabric of our work/life dynamic, while in the background is a culture that fosters complicity in sustaining the status quo. As a BIPOC living and working in the United States, I’ve witnessed injustice in various forms, involving philosophy and/or overt prejudice. The safest approach was often to endure it or leave, but dealing with these difficulties in real time necessitates personal honesty and accountability, gained by experience.

Microaggressions are an interwoven part of our society. Unfortunately, implicit bias and stereotypes are commonplace when speaking from a position of comfort. “You’re articulate for a black person,” “You’re the exception because xyz,” or even a comment about my hair texture are examples of slights in conversations. This type of comfort makes it convenient to invalidate and refuse to acknowledge experiences. The emotional labor frequently falls on the marginalized group, so through introspection, I’ve learnt to pick my battles. There is an unsettling feeling of self-doubt when unpacking those comments. Is it because of my age/race/gender or is it because I’m not excelling at my tasks? How do I react in a way that doesn’t play into stereotypes? Changing people’s mind is not a sustainable objective but continuing a genuine narrative about accountability can be.

It’s ordinary to witness abuse of authority. It’s especially disheartening when there’s a sense of comfort in maintaining oblique narratives that establish a false sense of impartiality. In the year 2020, it became unacceptable to remain silent in the face of rampant police brutality. After 2020, many organizations recognized the value of forming a diversity committee and addressing injustice. In some cases, rather than encouraging actual progress, there was a diminishing value placed on authentic experiences, which undermined those initiatives. It’s promoting a “not all cops” mindset and refusing to support or engage with Black Lives Matter. From Emmett Teal to George Floyd, there has always been time for dialogue, but today there are true consequences for not participating in the effort to change.

There is no escape from the spectrum of racism; so, I emphasize the value of seeking places where differences are embraced and appreciated. I want to be associated with those who have the ability and desire to stand publicly against injustice. I recognize that my identity politics puts me on the front lines of navigating these events, but with every experience comes growth for the future.”

Victor Gonzalez, Assoc. AIA, NOMA
AIA Colorado J.E.D.I. Committee Member + Editorial Representative
Davis Partnership Architects

“One of the unfortunate experiences I have witnessed was when some fellow students were hosting an exhibition on anti-racist spaces. Two professors who were not attached to the project caught my attention as they purposefully went into the exhibit space with an agenda. Their agenda was not to “debate” the content, but rather try to “disprove” the student’s methodology and overall work.

It was clear that the professors showed up to the exhibit without taking any time to read through the content and reflect upon the work that was displayed. Instead, they immediately jumped to the students and demanded they explain their work. It was obvious that these professors did not want to take the time to actually think through or try to understand the exhibition. The professors would jump in and out of the conversation, playing devil’s advocate.

Reflecting on this situation, I’m disappointed that I did not intervene and start asking the professors questions about the exhibit itself. I believe doing so would not only have helped them start thinking about the work, but also probably help them realize that their approach towards the students was not correct. Looking at this incident from an even bigger picture it is clear that there was an unconscious bias towards the students of color as they were approached by two white professors. Since then, I have lived with the regret of not doing anything and often think of the result had I intervened. I learned from this experience and now I abide by the motto: “doing something is better than doing nothing”.”

We invite you to read or revisit previous questions in this series:

Question #1: “Describe how your career has been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places, or experiences.”

Question #2: “How can we as a profession break down barriers for minorities in architecture?”

Question #3: “Tell us about a time when you were not able to bring your full identity into your work.”

We’d like to extend our sincere gratitude to our One Question participants for their vulnerability and humility. Next month is our live panel discussion reflecting on this project at the AIA Colorado Practice + Design Conference, November 2-4, 2022, in Keystone.

About the Author

AIA Colorado

AIA Colorado—the Colorado Chapter of the American Institute of Architects—is the voice of the architecture profession in Colorado. 

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