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Equity Work Mentoring

Stories from the Field: Karen Seong’s Interview with Pathways to Equity

If we want to repair past harms, we need new skills for practicing equity-centered architecture

Tell us about your approach to work recently

I started teaching 10 years ago, transitioning into a second career after leaving a corporate architecture firm. I am at a relatively young architecture school, and an important validation for our program is getting our students hired by architecture firms. For the past decade, I understood my role to be helping students acquire the skills and expectations of the profession so that they receive job offers upon graduating. I was perpetuating the mold into which students were asked to conform.

Our school is unique in that it has a large and very diverse online population, even prior to the pandemic, and this has been a huge eye opener for me personally. The students who are earning their degrees fully online have different obstacles than some of our onsite students. Some factors that lead to the online path include working full time, parenting young children, unable to relocate to attend college. Getting to know the online students helped me switch from dictating – forming the curriculum based on what I think the students need to know to get jobs – and reorienting towards the students’ realities.

For a long time, we measured online student work against onsite student work. A large majority of online students usually have less time to devote to their design projects because they have other responsibilities. In comparing onsite and online student projects, we did not rethink what we mean by “a good project.” If we are serious about meaningful diversity in the profession, we need to acknowledge that “a good project” usually leads to conformity.

How might we help students acquire professional skills without conforming to mainstream professional culture? How could we encourage students to value their stories, their personal contributions, their lived experiences, and their first-hand knowledge of their own communities? How do we make space in the academia for students to bring their own realities? Instead of measuring student work against outdated criteria that silences individual stories and dictates conformity, we need to rethink our expectations and redefine what we value as good. We need to expand the definition of a “good” project to include pluralistic and varied perspectives, to value lived experiences, and to incorporate them into design projects.

How does your past affect your present approach to this work?

I came to the US when I was 19. I grew up mostly in South Korea but also lived in Malaysia for 3 years. Who we call “people of color” here in the US were the majority in both Korea and in Malaysia. Upon arrival to the US, I became a minority. We are told that in order to succeed in this country you have to assimilate, keep your head down, and work hard. I have many of those traits; not speaking too much, not touting my identity, not causing trouble. I internalized the message by suppressing my identity and keeping the focus on the work. During the 90’s controversy around Affirmative Action when I was attending college, it was taboo to harp on one’s minority identity.

The implicit message that I was subconsciously sending to my students was, ‘let your portfolio do the work, veil who you are and lead with your work.’ In this profession, it’s about assimilating to mainstream dialogue and norms. You train and mold yourself in the way you talk, think, dress, accessorize. There’s a stereotype of architects wearing black, wearing thick framed glasses, and spending their vacations visiting buildings. I fit that mold myself! This culture is born out of a passion for architecture, but it can also lead to homogeneity.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that I started questioning. A beloved and inspiring educator I know has the incredible work ethic that we often associate with immigrant families. Recently, I learned that they had internalized the same lessons that I had – to keep the focus only on our work and never on our identities. I had to confront this person whom I really admire and respect – something I would have never done in the past. I felt very vulnerable, but it was received well because we had trust in each other. It still feels very uncomfortable for me to call attention to who I am, because of the belief ingrained over several decades that doing so will be seen as asking for unearned special treatment.

I was a reference for a recent graduate who is trying to land a job. The interviewers had a hard time evaluating the candidate who happens to be Black. They noted the quality of work in the portfolio, but the rapport during the interview fell outside of what was expected. They wondered, “Can we put this candidate in front of clients? Can they be externally facing and represent the firm well?” This particular firm, in fact, had made a commitment to hire more Black architects. But their hiring criteria remained unchanged which resulted in hires of Black architects who already have “polish,” who come from a specific socio-economic background, or have learned to code-switch to assimilate to the mainstream.

Among people of my generation we use the word “polish” to refer to one’s readiness for the profession. Entry level applicants with “polish” interview well because the interviewer can imagine them interacting with clients and maintaining professionalism – they can speak in the same code. Since 2020, I get a pit in my stomach when I hear “polish.” I now see it as shorthand for the gate-keeping aspect of our profession. The gate-keeping is real. In the US, it takes about 13 years to get licensed. If you’re not from an upper middle-class with a supportive family, it’s hard to make it through all the years of schooling, training, and sitting for exams. Polish is easier to achieve if you are shielded from financial strain and family trauma that drain your energy.

What changes are we really expecting to see if we keep screening job applicants for “polish”? If we limit the applicant pool to a homogeneous socioeconomic class who happen to have a different skin color? As we send students off into the job market, we’ve been trying to help students get polished. But we will not change the system if we maintain the status quo. When we look for polish in job applicants, we are trying to meet the needs of corporate clients, big developers, and other well-resourced clients. We need new job qualifications and hiring criteria for practicing equity-centered architecture.

We have the opportunity to expand our architectural practice. By accepting, with humility, that our contributions need not always be a photogenic building, we can claim different ways to offer our services. Perhaps our work product could be a design curriculum that engages youth, or facilitating community dialogue to demolish buildings with hurtful memories, or creating social infrastructure that is lacking in a community.

How has your approach shifted since Pathways to Equity? How have you been growing in your equity learning journey?

I had not really understood redlining until 2018 when I read the book The Color of Law. My jaw fell when I understood what had happened in this country. During the 7 years I spent as an architecture student in the US, I did not learn about redlining. For some of our students redlining is, and has been, their reality. I want to uplift these students’ lived experiences of systemic issues like redlining. They should be invited to think of their lived experiences as relevant and professionally valuable. They will bring something that no one else in the room can. If we want to be inclusive and repair past harms, we need to change both the hiring process and the design process.

Before the Pathways to Equity course, I was impatient with people I recognized as my former self – people who hadn’t started the journey to unlearn and relearn. I remember thinking, “I have no time for you.” The course helped me to adopt a different mindset, one that recognizes that each of us are doing equity work at our own pace. The knowledge of systemic inequity is so uncomfortable. In the presentations on the history of systemic inequity, so many moments were shocking and troubling. That discomfort was hard to sit with. The facilitator, Shalini Agrawal, is a meditative and calm person. It was really helpful to process with her the discomfort of our privilege. The patience that I now try to have for others, I also give myself on Shalini’s advice.

When absorbing and processing uncomfortable knowledge, I tend to compartmentalize. It is too emotionally draining otherwise as it attacks the beliefs and moral codes I thought I was living by. I gave up my Korean citizenship to become a US citizen when I started a family. But now looking back, I realize that I knew so little about this country. It brings despair, but I’m also determined to not let cynicism win. For my two teenage kids who were born here, I am trying hard to model for them how to find purpose.

When I’m digesting uncomfortable information like redlining, it’s important for me to find small next-step actions and like-minded collaborators. As an educator, I want to make sure that our students learn this troubling history. I worked with Julia Grinkrug, an alumna of this course, to present the history of redlining to our students. They were triggered, dejected, checked out, but now the discomfort is in our collective body, and we can reference it and work with it. I’m so grateful for the camaraderie among my colleagues with equity minded values.

We are trying to make changes in our curriculum and in our culture, but it has been hard especially during the pandemic. Some of us are impatient and some of us fear change. Inertia, limited budget, lack of institutional support means that change will take a long time. I will keep looking for small actionable steps and collaborators to keep the cynicism at bay. With what I have available to me, I can make small ripples that I hope will, over time, create larger ones.

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