Bringing Equity into Focus, HKS Honors Black History Month 2022

Each year in February, we celebrate Black History Month by recognizing and honoring Black Americans who have influenced our country’s history and paved the way for future generations to succeed. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) defines an annual theme for the month, and the 2022 theme, “Black Health and Wellness,” is especially relevant and one that’s personal to me as a designer. Architects should take great pride and responsibility in our ability to impact health and well-being through the buildings we create, the communities we impact, and the end-users who interact with our facilities. We have the power to create places that address and potentially resolve systemic inequities that continue to exist in Black communities today.

Though our industry historically has low numbers of Black architects, we are making progress in being a more diverse and equitable field, and we all play a part in that — whether through recruitment efforts, mentoring opportunities, community outreach, and more. And it’s more important than ever before; with a more diverse population racially, culturally, and socioeconomically within the U.S., the teams designing buildings in diverse communities should make efforts to reflect those environments. If our teams can better reflect the populations for which we design, we can ensure more inclusive, equitable and successful projects for all stakeholders.

After all, our role is not to design for people, it’s to design with people.

HKS is fortunate to have a growing number of Black leaders within our firm who bring their expertise and visions to life each day while paving the way for future team members to join our firm and the industry at large. We’ve asked a few of them to share their thoughts on this year’s Black History Month theme, their role within our industry, and how they contribute in their communities.

From left to right: Shantee Blain, Selwyn Crawford, Chandler Funderburg, Tyrone Loper

What is your cultural background and how do you connect with it?

Shantee Blain — Office Director and Project Architect; Washington, D.C.

All four of my grandparents come from mixed lineage and they and my parents all identified or identify as Black, as do I. I consider myself a native of the DMV (District, Maryland and Virginia) area. My parents relocated here from Southern Virginia shortly after they married, and my siblings and I were born and raised here.

Selwyn Crawford – Editor; Dallas

I hail from the Deep South (Florida), as do both of my parents (Georgia), and I strongly identify with the Southern Black experience – and for me, that is not a negative.

Chandler Funderburg (Davis) – Engineer; Fort Worth

My mom is Black and white, and my father is Nigerian, but I grew up with my mom’s side of the family, all of whom are white—just like the majority of my peers in grade school. It took me a long time to make sense of who I was and find a real sense of authentic identity, but it also allowed me to develop the skill of adaptation, patience with people, and a widened perspective of the world.

Tyrone Loper – Senior Project Architect; Detroit

My father, Otis Loper, was born just under a century ago in rural Mississippi. My grandfather, Marshal Loper, was a sharecropper born in the late nineteenth century. It is believed that my great grandfather was born in bondage in rural Mississippi. This would place me three generations post chattel slavery. My parents moved north during the second great migration and settled in a Detroit Slum called Black Bottom. The City of Detroit razed Black Bottom and my parents settled into one of the many neighborhoods open to Negros after European immigrants settled into Post-War suburban Detroit.

How does the theme “Black Health and Wellness” resonate with you as important in the year 2022?

Blain: Black Health and Wellness, and specifically Black mental health, is often overlooked — not just from a global standpoint, but also within the Black community. Often, mental health isn’t talked about until it’s too late, but there’s been more conversation about it recently during the pandemic and due to the Black Lives Matter movement. Working from home during the pandemic was beneficial because it took away the need to be “on” all the time at work, but it was also easy to get sucked into the distress of the news. I plan to find a better balance by taking the time to process and reflect. 

Crawford: To me, Black Health and Wellness goes back to the days of slavery and how from then until this very day, Black people have constantly prepared themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually, for the unique challenges that they face. In other words, “Black Health and Wellness” is not just a 2022 thing or a COVID-19 pandemic thing, it’s a generational way-of-life thing.

Funderburg: Black Health was and still is so often neglected, and it’s important not only to address and improve barriers to our physical health, but also to allow ourselves to care for our mental health and well-being. In the Black community, at times, we get caught up trying to prove ourselves and our worth through work and striving, but we often don’t put enough emphasis on taking the space to give our mind and body the care and rest they need to live a fulfilling and long life. I’d like to see that change.

Loper: The Association for the Study of African American Life and History 2022 theme “Black Health and Wellness” is timely in this pandemic. SARS-COV-2 exploits comorbidities or underlying health conditions and as such magnified the poor nutrition, lack of access to medical care, fresh air and safe spaces for Black men, women and children

“Black Health and Wellness” is not just a 2022 thing or a COVID-19 pandemic thing, it’s a generational way-of-life thing.

Tell us about a project or initiative you have contributed to that you are particularly proud of.

Blain: I’m proud of how diverse the D.C. office has become in recent years. I started with HKS when the office opened about 17 years ago and we had few people of color and no women in leadership positions. We’ve dedicated ourselves to bringing on and promoting diverse talent as the office has grown. We reach out to students — including those at HBCUs like my alma mater Florida A&M and local schools like Howard University — to offer guidance and make connections for hiring staff and interns. Personally, I make a point to maintain mentoring relationships with young people I meet through those initiatives and through more informal connections. It’s a huge deal when you have people who look like you in your desired field or workplace.

Crawford: Since I joined HKS in June 2018, I have been directly involved in the hiring of four full-time employees. Of those four, three (75 percent) have been people of color. If we continue on a similar path to seeking diversity in all areas, it can only serve to elevate our firm.

Funderburg: I was incredibly grateful to be a part of the work done by the HKS J.E.D.I Council and Champions this past year. I’ve seen so many people channel their time and energy into making HKS an even better place to work for everyone and I can’t wait to see what impacts continue to be made for HKS and for the young talent that we hope to see in our seats one day.

Loper: In 2011, I encouraged HKS Detroit leadership to start recruitment and I led the first interview team at my alma mater, The University of Detroit Mercy, hoping to identify more Black American talent. In 2018, I successfully secured HKS sponsorship of the inaugural Hip Hop Architecture Camp offered through the Museum of Contemporary Art – Detroit (MOCAD). There, a group of Detroit youth got to craft imaginary space from their unique perspective using the Hip Hop genre as inspiration for expression. For most of these young people, this camp was their introduction to creating architecture and interacting with architects.

How would you encourage peers and colleagues in the architecture, design and construction industries to provide support for Black people in the workforce — not just during Black History month, but always?

Blain:  Encourage younger staff to reach out to you and have frank conversations with them. Advocate for them to get experiences you may not have gotten when you were just starting out.  I’m genuinely interested and invested in the professional growth of our office and believe we succeed together when given opportunities to pursue what we are most passionate about. Also, expanding your network and circle is important. Over the last few years in our more virtual work environment, it’s made a huge difference to me to make more connections with people outside of D.C and the East region.

Crawford: First, don’t just talk about it, be about it. Second, along with your complaints, bring viable solutions to fix what you’re complaining about; and lastly, advocate on behalf of someone other than yourself, particularly your fellow Black colleagues whose work efforts might seemingly be overlooked.

Funderburg: Widen your circle. The best way to learn how to support someone is to get to know them. If you make an intentional effort to understand someone’s needs, motivations and background, it’ll be easier to know what you can do to support them.  But most importantly, help make space for people to be themselves, whether you understand every aspect of who they are or not.

Loper: I would encourage my peers to participate in one of the many initiatives that companies like HKS have launched, such as our HBCU Engagement Team. Recently, the Detroit chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) sponsored a career fair and encouraged young professionals to participate. I know firsthand the power of such exposure. During high school, I participated in the inaugural Boy Scouts of America Explorers Group, sponsored by a large architecture firm. I knew that a career in architecture was a real possibility for me because the director of the group was a Black American architect.