Anti-Black Racism in the Construction Industry, starting thoughts

The pandemic has brought forward the moral imperative to address systemic issues of inequality in society and in the workplace.

In the weeks since the murder of George Floyd, the architecture and construction industry has seen an awakening to the individual and collective complacency in systemic racism against Black people and other people of color. Many marketing professionals have stepped up and communicated stances against systemic racism and discrimination. Human Resources professionals have acknowledged areas they need to improve and identified training needs. These actions are not enough and need plans and concrete commitments attached to them.

White people need to learn and unlearn to better inform their commitment to equity, inclusion and belonging. This learning will not happen overnight, but we cannot wait until we are fully educated to initiate and sustain change. Although for many people who have not been aware or who have had the privilege of being able to not engage this is new, for those impacted by systemic, interpersonal, intentional and unintentional, exclusion this has been happening for centuries. Areas to focus on are humility, empathy, and accountability.

Humility

Humility to recognize that being complacent is complicit, and commitment requires increased self awareness of what you do and do not know, and how this impacts the outcomes of your leadership and contributions to anti-Black racism, anti-racism and anti-exclusion.

Being frozen with “I don’t know what to do” is not an excuse to do nothing. Silence is a privilege and is complacency. Have the humility to learn, to unlearn and to act. You will make mistakes, but it’s better to make mistakes while dismantling systemic barriers than to continue supporting them. And, with any change initiative you need measures and milestones to ensure you’re on track. These will help you course correct.

As an important note, you also need the humility to recognize that the world and your industry does not have time for you to learn everything. There are knowledgeable people who want to share their expertise with you and support you in this journey. Hire them. It’s not the job of your underrepresented staff to educate you – on top of their full-time jobs and dealing with emotional tax – and you cannot expect them to. At the start of the pandemic many diversity and inclusion professionals were laid off for cost-savings. Now there is a plethora of new roles in this area and practitioners are being discerning about which companies they align with. The right practitioners are educated in this field and will be able to see what opportunities are “box-checking” and which have substance and opportunity to them.

Empathy

Empathy cannot be understated. More than ever we need to connect with our colleagues as human beings and not just as co-workers. We need to recognize that people are experiencing this period differently, offer support and respect boundaries. If you have been following the right conversations you will have learned that for many Black people and people of color the weight of recent events has been amplified by the recognition that many White people haven’t simply been ignoring racism, but that they didn’t even know it was still prevalent in their circles and in their workplace, or that they have played a role in perpetuating it.

There is a real risk that the disconnection provoked by remote-working will be amplified by the disconnect in peoples’ willingness or ability to engage with anti-Black racism and anti-exclusion appropriately. Empathy has always been integral to leadership. Communicate you are there to support. Communicate additional options for support, as trust may not be established. And, if you’re a business owner or leader, invest in the support needed to help colleagues who need it. Offer temporary measures that provide people with what they need now and begin constructing processes and ways that will become more permanent and inform a more equitable culture.

Not seeing race, gender or other differences dishonors the diversity that exists in our world.

Accountability

At the organizational level there is no accountability for commitments to anti-Black racism or anti-exclusion. We are talking about organizational and systemic change that needs to happen now. It cannot take forty years of gradual progress from token commitments or marketing gestures.

Make commitments and ensure there is accountability attached to them. These accountabilities cannot be delegated; they must start at the senior, executive level, connected to remuneration, and influencing every aspect of your firm. The construction industry is a white, male, straight dominated profession. We’ve made progress on gender equality, but not enough and not fast enough. It is still an exclusionary industry that does not honour or invite diversity.

I have worked with and connected with hundreds of architects over the years and I can pinpoint only a few who would suggest the barriers to equity are not immense, systemic and between professions (e.g. engineers and contractors), not only in architecture. With clear measures and accountabilities this will be looked at as a “nice-to-do”.

For those who are doing token gestures of support, remember that in the end the markets for clients and talent will hold you accountable. As the economy recovers from the impact of COVID 19, let’s ensure the funding that goes into infrastructure is also going into dismantling the infrastructure of oppression, racism and exclusion inherent in the construction industry. This is a moral and business imperative and a continuing societal movement, not a social media trend.