I will never forget my first day attending design school. I remember spending hours that morning choosing my perfect outfit, memorizing my class schedule, and rehearsing my talking points on the recommended summer reading book, Good City Form. I desperately wanted to fit into my new surroundings, but in my heart I knew that this field of study was never intended for a person like me. As I rode the hour-long subway from Astoria, Queens to Greenwich Village, Manhattan, I began to further doubt my place within the masters program at Parsons School of Art and Design.
As a Black cis woman, I was sick and tired of white cis males dominating the urban design and architecture industry, who refused to acknowledge that our racial differences directly impact our in/ability to navigate the city. Prior to design school, I had spent my time focusing on politics, social justice, racial equity, and community organizing; and embarrassingly enough, had no idea how design could be leveraged beyond capitalism.
While in graduate school, I quickly learned that for most designers, it is far easier to falsely promote utilitarianism than to address the conflict associated with racial and ethnic differences. It is widely accepted that design is, and should be, a process—one that involves many diverse voices and points of view. Yet, the design community seems far more interested in attempting to create quick solutions to centuries-old problems, rather than establishing new processes for dismantling systemic racism. Even though the country is rapidly becoming majority Black and Brown, intersectionality in design strategy and implementation is still noticeably absent, and at the very least feels as if it has to be rationed or packaged in a way that is “comfortable” for the current white majority.
One false solution is assuming the sole practice of diversity and inclusion will save the design world. In 2014, Angela Davis gave a talk on the late Audre Lorde’s essay titled Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Davis spoke to this idea of the general public carrying the assumption that diversity has become a solution to ending racial injustice. Davis went on to say that sometimes diversity is limited to integrating marginalized people into a process, institution, or space that remains the same. Instead of challenging and transforming the structures of exploitation and oppression, diversity became a corporate model for inserting marginalized groups into the system, so they can reap small benefits from that exploitation. Essentially, she argued diversity is “difference that does not make a difference.” Diversity is a tool, but it is not the only tool or process through which equity can be achieved.
Due to the transactional nature of the design industry, racial justice is often treated as a client with a problem that can be solved through campaigns, as opposed to a complex, constantly changing organism that affects every aspect of society—from media to the built environment. This transactional relationship does not allow for folks who are most impacted by racial disparities to truly collaborate with designers, architects, developers, planners, government, etc., which ultimately limits the effectiveness of any solution. Structural racism can't be fixed with a fancy equity statement, an isolated print/commercial/billboard, or treated like any other product or narrative to be sold for mass consumption. It takes more than empathetic allies posting their favorite racial justice quote on social media. It requires true accomplices ready to work in collaboration with Black and Brown people.
In 1968, Henri Lefebvre published the book Le Droit à la ville (The Right to the City). Lefebvre saw the Right to the City as a demand that can only truly be formulated as a transformative right to urban life. In 2008, David Harvey published an essay titled Right to the City. In it, Harvey reintroduces Lefebvre’s original concept by discussing the struggle towards collective rights — both politically and ethically. Harvey stated the right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources; it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right, since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our environment and ourselves is one of the most precious, yet most neglected, of our human rights.
This brings me to the right to difference, which goes beyond inclusion, recognition, and the accommodations of difference into active participation in the co-production of the public. In essence, it is not enough to simply celebrate, theorize, or deconstruct difference. It must be a guiding factor within a society made up of multiple cultures. Like Harvey’s Right to the City essay, this right is not inherently given; it must be negotiated and co-produced perpetually. There can be no right to the city without the right to difference and vice versa. Both concepts rely on each other, but refer to different aspects of civic life.
We must not ignore or attempt to rid ourselves of difference due to its complex nature. For it is within this complexity that new creative tools can emerge and sustain the fight to end social inequality and injustice. It is important to note promoting difference within the public realm on multiple scales can break down the walls of oppression that segregate and divide our cities. What Black and Brown folks need most is a space to articulate their right to difference within the design process. This process of marginalized groups shaping their own environment is otherwise known as “self determination”—a concept that should play a larger role in the practice of design, considering its many manifestations within civic engagement and advocacy.
As designers, we are often praised for our design process, which almost always begins with research. Ironically, when it comes to studying the discipline of race and ethnicity, most white designers refuse to do their homework, thereby applying critical race theory to the design practice. As such, my call to action for every designer is to step outside their comfortable zone and do the WORK. The Portland Metro has plenty of case studies with creative tools for place-based participatory and self-determination projects.
I also encourage designers to research and support the following projects: the Pathways 1000 Project, a plan by Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, Inc. (PCRI) to raise and invest $300 million over the next 10 years to create 1,000 affordable homes for Blacks and others displaced or in danger of displacement from North and Northeast Portland; The Albina Vision, a long-term project that seeks to undo the harm of urban renewal through the redevelopment of the historic Black neighborhood, lower Albina (Rose Quarter); and PAALF People’s Plan, a visioning project that engaged more than 400 Black Portlanders to assert their right to actively shape the city they live in. This project resulted in a comprehensive list of 69 community-initiated projects.
Above all, I invite Portland designers to become more than just an ally, but rather to be active accomplices with the Black and Brown community in the shared struggle for liberation for all.
Davis, Angela. “Angela Davis on Audre Lorde.” Center for Black Literature in partnership with the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy. Edited by Troy Johnson. Compiled by You Tube. Medgar Evers College, March 22, 2014.
Davis, Joy Alise, “Right to Difference: Intercultural Modes of Producing a Democratic, Participatory and Inclusive Urban Space. Graduate Thesis, Master of Arts Theory of Urban Practice, Parsons New School of Design, 2014.
Harvey, David. “Right to the City.” New Left Review 53, 2008: 23–40.