AIA|DC President's Letter to Membership

Dear Fellow Members of the AIA|DC,

This is my second Letter to the Membership, and it is as much a vehicle for personal reflection as it is a Statement from your Chapter’s President. I am intentionally blending the personal with the professional because I believe our individual experiences inform everything we think and do. That basic concept is the foundation of my message to you.

In my first letter from early February, I outlined our Board’s Vision for the year and the ideas of “Just Ask”, and “Make Connections”. I described our goal to create a framework by which our Chapter would forge connections with like-minded organizations to solve problems that are common to us all. We decided to focus our attention on Climate Action and Resilience because it is an existential threat and it aligns with AIA National’s move toward environmental stewardship. I wrote about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) and we have made plans in advancement of that agenda. We believe that with multiple points-of-view and a diversity of opinion, we all prosper. We have greatly diversified our Board – adding more women and people of color to the table, but there is still a way to go.

I wrote about the importance of asking for help and offering to help. I closed by asking for your help and was pleased by the response.

Through February and early March, we started making connections and we were in the beginning stages of planning a conference with an allied association. We were also taking baby steps in a long, slow march toward Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

We updated our Strategic Plan and created Mission, Vision, and Values Statements. We wanted the statements to be simple, clear, and unequivocal.

Mission
We empower our members, profession, and community to advance the value of architecture and design in Washington DC.

Vision:
Washington DC will lead the nation in creating a more resilient future.

Values:

  • Design matters
  • Equity matters
  • Climate action matters

As architects we are agents of change

Then, in mid-March, we experienced change that was beyond our control. The coronavirus and COVID-19 swept across the world and we became isolated and remote, the antithesis of our vision for the year. For those first few weeks of quarantine, we all shifted into survival mode. We focused on the survival of ourselves and our families first, then our projects, our jobs, and our firms; and as Board Members we also focused on our Chapter’s survival.

The landscape changed and to survive, we had to adapt. Our Chapter responded by offering new virtual programming for our professional members and even our children. We started monthly Town Halls with members of the Board to discuss problems and solutions we all experienced as we went remote. Just as we were starting to consider how to re-enter the workplace, the landscape changed again.

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of the police and vigilantes, and the subsequent reaction to these events demanded our attention. We are now compelled to clarify our positions:

We stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and all those who oppose police brutality.

We oppose racism in all its forms.

We support the right to peacefully protest.

But those words are not enough. We also need to focus attention on ourselves and our profession, because, despite our best intentions, we are not free of guilt. The past three weeks have changed the landscape like an earthquake, it has been a seismic shift to our consciousness.

We see the world in a whole new way.

This is when introspection needs to begin. We each must examine ourselves first, and how our experiences, and our way of seeing the world, affects everything we think and do. When I said, “We see the world in a whole new way”, I realized that many frustrated and angry voices will want to shout, “The world has always been this way, you just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see it for what it is!”

Yes. Those voices are right. It has always been this way and we need to acknowledge a fundamental problem with empathy and understanding. When I said, “We see the world in a whole new way”, I unconsciously meant those of us who have had basically the same life experiences as I have – growing up as a white American; a white, male, American. I need to acknowledge that when I said, “We”, I assumed that included everyone, but it really didn’t. That was part of my personal reflection and it jarred me into understanding that I have more to learn. For the sake of clarity, I’ll be direct, I am talking to you, my white colleagues, and especially my white, male colleagues. We want to do the right the thing. We have good intentions; it is time to make good on those intentions.

This seismic shift in consciousness has forced me to confront what many of our colleagues have been saying for decades - racism still exists. It is alive and well, and we are complicit in its continued existence because too many of us have not opened our eyes to the depths of the problem. “The world has always been this way” and that is the world that we accepted as normal. While many of us are aware of inequities surrounding our profession, too few of us are working on ways to combat those problems, we have only taken baby steps in that direction.

Many of us know the quote from Whitney Young’s Keynote Address at the 1968 AIA Convention in Portland, Oregon. His speech was a direct admonishment to the profession for being blind to those inequities. He said:

…you are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock. You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.

This was 52 years ago. We have made improvements. EDI is a genuine topic of conversation and a step in the right direction. We are not silent, but has anything really changed? After this seismic shift in our collective consciousness, and our conscience, we cannot take baby steps any longer – we need to take giant leaps forward. We do not just need to adapt to the new landscape (the landscape that always existed) we need to acknowledge it for what it is. We need to do more than adapt, we need to evolve. It is a matter of survival.

We need to evolve within ourselves, within our firms, within our chapter, within our profession, and within society. To do that, we need to listen. We need to ask for help and ask how we can help.

Then, we need to act. Because words are only worth the action that results. We also need to understand that Change will not happen overnight, or in a few weeks or months. It will take years. We need to commit to a sustained focus on these issues until the work is done.

As President of the Chapter, I had a different vision for 2020. Our priority is still Climate Action and Resilience, but I speak for myself when I say I did not think of Climate Action and Resilience in terms of Social Justice. I have so much more to learn, but I recognize that there is no truly resilient future without equity and justice. We are addressing resilience when we focus our attention on racism in all its forms both within society and in our profession.

Now is the time to get to work. I am once again asking for your help. Let’s amplify the voices who’ve been saying for so long that “The world has always been this way”. Let’s help them shed light on the issues and problems we all face and be willing to see what is revealed in that light - and take action to address it.

The purpose of today’s Town Hall is to begin the dialogue, to hear from you, and to generate ideas. We are problem solvers by nature – we know how to analyze and identify problems. We are uniquely qualified to coordinate and unite disparate groups of people around a common vision. As Architects – WE ARE AGENTS OF CHANGE. But for this change to happen, we need to be willing to get uncomfortable, because barriers exist within ourselves and our organizations that we may not want to confront. We need to think about our own world views; our own experiences. How do they affect our thoughts and actions? Let’s try to see through the eyes of those who say, “The world has always been this way.” With those questions in mind, let’s engage, let’s listen, and if we truly want to be agents of change, then let’s be willing to evolve.

Thank you.

Robert L. Holzbach, AIA
President, AIA|DC

 


Links to relevant information referenced in this letter:

https://www.aia.org/resources/6246433-guides-for-equitable-practice

https://www.50yearsafterwhitneyyoung.org/introduction-aia-and-whitney-young

https://www.aia.org/resources/12416-examining-the-state-of-diversity

https://generalassemb.ly/blog/diversity-inclusion-equity-differences-in-meaning/

https://www.aialosangeles.org/news/press-releases/aiala-publishes-edi-best-practices/

https://noma.net/