The convention this year, as is abundantly clear from the AIArchitect coverage, spoke elequantly and at length to the many facets of diversity. Although many people think of ethnicity and gender when they hear the words inclusiveness or diversity, there is another element that too many of us tend to overlook: the importance of good design for every one of us as defined by the convention theme: We the People. As Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller said pointedly: “I have discovered that architects find it difficult to build for the poor.”
But I already wrote enough about Fuller last week.
There were other theme speakers on each of the three days of the convention who pointed to the socio-economic chasm between architects and "the least among us." One of the most striking came in the second day's theme presentation. Derreck Kayongo, who escaped Uganda early in life and now works for CARE International, pointed out repeatedly that 3 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day. These are people for whom security means the basics of life itself: food, water, shelter, and avoiding marauders. People this close to the brink of existence will do anything for a loaf of bread, he said. And it is hard for Americans to relate. The vast majority of us, even those toward the bottom of our socio-economic pyramid, live in relative wealth. But relate we must or face the consequences of ignoring these powderkegs of abject human misery while terrorist groups are more than willing to reach out to them, matches in hand.
Andrew Young, too, pointed out during his Saturday theme presentation that Dr. Martin Luther King, for whom Young served as a senior aid, was mostly focused on bringing hope and opportunity to poor people. Racial equality may have been at the top of King's agenda, but it was still a subset of the larger fight against poverty, said Young. The former mayor of Atlanta also co-chaired the Atlanta Olympics Committee and marvelled that they raised $2.5 billion "for a two-week track meet" much more easily than raising money and interest for what Young considers his true life's work: "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick." Are our values twisted out of perspective through mean spiritedness? No. It's more of a blithe ignorance.
So, how does the profession bridge this chasm? In simple acts and profound. One example of a simple but meaningful act is the Shadow an Architect program, begun for the 2007 AIA convention in San Antonio and repeated this year in Boston. Volunteer AIA members, including 29 AIA Board members, met with secondary school students the Friday morning of May 15 and guided them through the day's convention program, which included attending the plenary session where they were welcomed by the 4,000 architects who packed the convention center Grand Ballroom that day. These are bright, interested young men and women who might not otherwise have heard this one very important message: Welcome, you belong.
Next week in AIArchitect we will look at another example of how architecture students, through the AIAS, are reaching out to help others through their Freedom by Design program.