Reflecting on the First Year of Black Lives and Design Grants
November 10, 2021 | By Roger Smith, Lisa Cholmondeley
In the summer of 2020, the Gensler Research Institute established the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment, focused specifically on funding research dedicated to addressing systemic racism, unconscious bias, and social justice. The Center funded 15 projects beginning in the summer of 2020, and funded a new round of projects in April 2021. In this blog, Roger Smith and Lisa Cholmondeley, co-directors of the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment, reflect on the first year of Black Lives and Design grants.
In the midst of 2020 when our worlds were focused on an expanding pandemic and a public reckoning demanding social and racial justice, Gensler launched a five-part Strategies to Fight Racism with a clear moral imperative: as the world’s largest architecture and design firm, we cannot ignore the violence, inequality, and structural disenfranchisement suffered by whole segments of our global community. Research drives our work — it has always been the way we work through crucial issues, discover new opportunities, and innovate. As co-directors for the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment, our challenge was to turn the firm’s call-to-action into a long-term commitment that energizes and informs our individual offices and regions in a dynamic way.
Our colleagues enthusiastically answered this call with proposals that addressed a wide variety of urgent topics such as environmental justice, the nature of community partnership, and revitalizing our retail corridors in Black communities. The first two papers that we want to share from the center, Education and the BIPOC Experience and Black Voices in Healthcare, demonstrate the range of research we’re conducting.
The first project, Education and the BIPOC Experience, surveyed students from 18 (primarily public) high schools in New York City to learn how to improve feelings of safety and belonging for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students. We were able to connect with these students through our long-standing partnership with ACE Mentor Program. One key finding that the team found was that materials carry deep meaning to students, and the way architects design amplifies wealth disparity in a subconscious way. If we are to address inequalities that exist inside and outside the classroom, then empathy, consideration, and understanding must underpin educational design.
The research conducted for Black Voices in Healthcare seeks to improve the Black experience within healthcare systems and address the disparate health outcomes and opportunities for Black communities. The team found that generational history informs healthcare decisions and interactions today, and that the long history of systemic mistreatment by the healthcare system within Black communities must be understood and acknowledged. We must co-create with Black communities when designing healthcare for their needs. Partnering with local Black organizations and leaders ensures that we are best serving the health of Black communities.
Many of these initial grants funded through the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment are grounded by research on historical context and systemic racism that have ingrained these issues into our social fabric, and each project provides insights that can build a better future. Centering ideas of equity and inclusion into traditional areas of inquiry for the Gensler Research Institute (such as the workplace, retail, and cities) has been an important area of growth for the Institute.
A powerful effect of the Gensler Research Institute’s mission is that the topics engaged colleagues who have never collaborated with a research institute before. Moreover, another great experience for us has been the diversity of the research teams. We are a stronger institute, and a stronger firm, because of their contributions. We are operating on the principle that bringing about a more equitable society is a shared responsibility. We are able to support our colleagues who care about equity and social justice, while also ensuring that their projects purposefully engaged and represented the Black communities and the issues they wanted to explore.
As the first year for the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment comes to a close, we’re immensely proud of the targeted conversations and interventions the research teams have delivered. We’re galvanized by the opportunity to engage with issues that our firm, our clients, and our society is talking about. We’re energized by the diverse voices and potential alignments with our clients across many industries and sectors. We look forward to sharing their work with you, and to a new year of growth, learning, and action.
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