Revisiting Closed Doors: Tackling Equity Fatigue

How equity fatigue is anesthetising a global awakening that has the potential to reshape a generation.

Minneapolis, 2020. The world awakened to a horrible reality all too familiar to a community plagued by injustice. As a global conversation on race, inequity and the systemic effects of colonialism ensued, leadership in the architecture and design community were challenged to address their own contributions to the disparities evident in our industry. Almost two years into the conversations occurring behind executive doors of design studios, the results are in and the response to this critical moment is redefining what it means to lead or be left behind.

As leaders engage to account for the disparities present within their organizations, the realization that, for all our industry’s focus on human engagement in our work, leadership in our studios reflects the inequity present in society. Still, our industry remains uniquely positioned to impact pressing systemic issues now under the microscope of public opinion. What is not easily discerned however, is whether our leaders have the fortitude to push through a sense of equity fatigue, subverting conversations, and the urgency to address inequities in our practices.

Whether this thickening fog of fatigue will permanently obscure our view of the human needs at the heart of equity remains unclear. However, as a strategist working with companies to craft meaningful equity engagement for built environments, what is becoming clear is that while some things have changed, many others have not, and both situations warrant closer analysis.

Photo by Laura Davidson on Unsplash

What has changed?

Our new norms have matured over the past 24 months. The rigor of forging a path forward amidst a global awakening has inspired responses from our design industry that are worth examining, as they signal a shift that will have consequences for those at the helm of design practices now and in the future.

Design leadership, for its part, has responded positively to the awakening by providing time and space to acknowledge how racism and colonial systems have impacted their associations and corporate cultures. Many have released statements of support, posted on social feeds and joined pledges such as The Interior Design Pledge for a Positive Impact instituted by the ASID, IIDA and IDC. Others have donated dollars to design schools for the first time to support underrepresented students or equity-seeking organizations doing the “boots on the ground” work in design such as BAIDA (Black Architects & Interior Designers Association Canada). All these are good signs for impacting change.

The unprecedented acknowledgment, after years of inactivity, has led to open dialogue and curated sessions to share perspectives to inform and foster understanding. Practices have sought training to address a new lexicon of buzzwords such as “unconscious bias,” “micro-aggressions,” BIPOC and “allyship” — again, all very good signs in support of change.

As an industry, our new awareness has even provoked a thoughtful analysis of how Euro-centric thinking has defined our industry’s measure of “Good” as it relates to aesthetics, academia, design processes and the very profession itself.  This broadened perspective over the last 24 months has enabled our leaders to confront the limitations of homogeneity and white supremist views once unquestioned in our industry.

This is what change looks and feels like, no?

 What has stayed the same?

The question is: is it enough? Is just being aware sufficient as focus shifts back to previous norms of privilege? Individualism is now quickly displacing the warm sentiments of solidarity espoused in the early months of the awakening. Once-empathetic smiles now strain to conceal gritted teeth at the perceived deference to equity-seeking groups. “Haven’t we done enough? In any case, we all face struggles in the industry, no?”

While conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion continue behind the doors of principals at the helm of design practices, the dulling drone of ruminating sentiments of “let’s move on” are becoming increasingly audible. “It may be time to write another letter or make another donation and get back to work. It’s easy and effective?” No.

To be fair, we as an industry must understand the sentiment, being careful not to politicize, polarize or punish members of our community.  For many leaders the equity discussion is irrelevant. The adage of “Just work hard people!” is shouted inwardly, yet muted outwardly for fear of being perceived as (insert your own adjective here).

According to global consulting firm BCG, we must understand that “despite a genuine desire to improve workplace inclusion, it can be difficult for a majority group to recognize and understand experiences of diverse groups.” Many of our industry leaders did not sign up to fix what ails society: they started businesses to manage projects, people and profits. It is as simple as that.  Many of design leaders are not equipped, nor do they have the experience or energy to effectively meet the moment. We all have the power to choose, and it is a choice.

We must also accept the underlying advantages of slow progress to the economy of inequity. There are still real economic benefits to colonial racism, favouritism and nepotism: business as usual, for some, is still good business. For others, dabbling in diversity is a favourable approach to safely maintaining internal systems without external scrutiny.

Truthfully, we are an industry that has been trained to meet the minimums, whether for code compliance or “not over-delivering” to maximize profits. However, should our leaders choose to lead or not, as a community of practitioners we cannot rely on formulas to deliver change. We must commit to the work of introspection that uncovers root causes of how inequity serves the business of design.

What every leader should know

You are fallible. At leadership tables around the world people sit with the same insecurities, entrenched beliefs and learned behaviours that connect us to this human experiment. Each of us carries the weight of our lived experiences, biases and misconceptions that contribute to the discord in our communities on various levels. This too is a part of our human experience.

Design leaders today must grapple with the personal perspectives they bring to the table on issues of equity. This is necessary to challenge current conventions that reinforce the mindsets of their organizations. Companies tend to take on the disposition of their leaders. Hence, to do the work of establishing equity effectively leaders must first work on themselves or run the risk of co-signing inauthentic actions and solutions that signal a lack of real commitment to addressing core issues. Leaders must also stop asking committees of employees to address equity issues. Instead, they must invest time and resources to engage. It must be understood, especially for equity-seeking employees, that they may experience a double portion of trauma when they are made responsible for addressing issues they did not create, while still managing the impact of those issues in their owns lives. Leaders: help shoulder the burden, engage experts, and preserve your people.

Design leaders who fail to understand that equity strategies equate to business strategies will suffer the slow death of obsolescence. As an industry we must innovate to maintain relevance as LOI’s (Leaders of Industry). To be blunt, there are no more professional streetlamp lighters. Addressing issues related to equity equates to sector growth, new ideas and improved talent engagement that supports healthy businesses. Leaders choosing to dabble in the equity conversation without authenticity will find themselves and their companies falling behind. The world is raising new benchmarks and lagging entities will not be able to keep up.

Design leaders must recognize that business-as-usual will not be a viable approach going forward. Expectations in our modern world are changing, and leaders today are measured by authenticity, approachability and their emotional intelligence. The choice to authentically address issues of equity requires personal touches that will inevitably expose a leader’s true intent. Therefore take heed: engage meaningfully on the issues or risk losing any meaningful credibility.

The past 24 months has seen our world experience great upheaval. Pandemic, war, unrest and the “The Great Reset” has helped to bring what is important in our lived experiences into greater focus. What has become even more apparent is that sound, steady leadership is paramount to meeting the needs of our moment to make change real. To allow light to be cast on past mistakes for the sake of a brighter more inclusive future for all.  Leadership in design is uniquely positioned to impact change on a broad spectrum. After all, design is central to every aspect of life.

In this moment we cannot afford to wait to be led. As an industry we must lead and sustain the momentum of change, even if it is not expedient or convenient. It is still true that actions speak louder than words. To my leaders, the future is now: act or step aside and let the mantle pass to the willing.

Ian Rolston is a creative soul, thought leader, design professional and speaker, inspired by connecting humanity to what matters most. His insights, studio workshops and project collaborations focus clients on leading with one’s sense of humanity to inform the design process. Having worked for the world’s top brands and companies, Rolston founded Decanthropy, a design equity consultancy, helping executive teams shift thinking and transform ROI to reimagine new possibilities for the spaces we live in.