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School of Architecture announces anti-racism efforts in response to Call to Action Letter written by students and alumni

The school plans to hire an Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and review all coursework

<p>The letter — which now has over 630 signatures from students, alumni and design professionals — was sent to the School of Architecture’s administration June 12.&nbsp;</p>

The letter — which now has over 630 signatures from students, alumni and design professionals — was sent to the School of Architecture’s administration June 12. 

In response to a letter written by students and alumni of the University’s School of Architecutre, Dean Ila Berman announced several anti-racist efforts that the school plans to take to improve inclusion and equity.

The letter was written by more than 30 students and alumni following Dean Berman’s message June 1 about nationwide protests concerning the death of George Floyd and police brutality. In her message, Berman said that she was “horrified and deeply saddened by the senseless killing” of Floyd and discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected African American and Latinx communities.

The Call to Action letter expresses concern that Berman’s statement did not address the “historic and ongoing role of the University and the A-School in ignoring abhorrent and pervasive white supremacy.” Its six demands call on the school’s administration to take specific anti-racist action, such as implementing an associate dean or associate director of inclusion and equity and improving resources for BIPOC students.

The letter’s authors go on to recognize the Architecture School’s Inclusion + Equity Committee, a group of students and faculty that was created in 2015 to develop the Inclusion + Equity Plan and work on other efforts related to creating a more diverse and inclusive community. Sheila Crane, associate professor and chair of the Architecture School’s Inclusion and Equity Committee, also released a statement in response to the nationwide protests, writing that there is real work to be done to dismantle the “systemic racism and entrenched white privilege” at the University and its Architecture school. Specifically, Crane cited the repeated defacement of a mural on Beta Bridge that said “PROTECT BLACK TRANS WOMEN” and the attempted egging of two Chinese students on Grounds. 

While the authors of the Call to Action letter acknowledge the committee’s work in their letter, they also call on the school’s administration to “actualize” those efforts throughout the school at large.

“Our University’s legacy can change if you decide to invest in a just and inclusive future,” the letter reads. “Being non-racist is simply not enough. We urge the A-School to accept the challenge of setting a precedent for an anti-racist design pedagogy. This is what the next 100 years should look like.”

Andrew Daley, a 2007 Architecture graduate and one of the letter’s authors, said that the group was inspired by a similar letter written by students at the Black Student Alliance at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. In their 12-point letter, the Columbia students responded to two messages — dated June 2 and June 18 — from the school’s administration, writing that these statements demonstrated “a profound and intolerable lack of vision, awareness and imagination.” 

While Columbia’s letter was written by a small group of students, Daley said that they chose to involve as many people as possible throughout their process of crafting their letter, which was sent to the School of Architecture’s administration June 12. It now has over 630 signatures from students, alumni and design professionals.

“The whole initiative is not singular — it’s not just one leader or one generation calling for change, and it’s not just one student group or one discipline either,” said Zazu Swistel, a 2019 Architecture graduate and coauthor of the Call to Action letter.

From June 22 to 26, the administration held a series of listening sessions open to students, faculty, staff and alumni. Community members voiced their experiences and concerns at the sessions, which Berman said was “extremely difficult for everyone.” Following the sessions, Berman released a second message and said that there has not been enough apology for or action against “the racism of the past or the present within our culture at U.Va. and at the A-School.”

Berman went on to address all six demands in the Call to Action letter. In addition to holding town hall meetings this coming year, Berman said that the School of Architecture plans to hire an associate dean for inclusion and equity, expand course offerings related to social justice and equity issues, improve the recruitment and retention of BIPOC students and faculty, publish annual progress reports — beginning with its July 2020 Report — and increase the availability of resources for current and future BIPOC students.

“We recognize that this is a historic moment for the school that demands bold and unwavering action and look forward to the involvement and commitment of our entire community in this process,” Berman wrote.

Both Daley and My-Anh Nguyen, a 2018 Architecture graduate and another of the letter’s authors, said that this announcement should be a first step for the School of Architecture and that they — and other alumni — are very interested in being a part of that process and “redefining the role of an alumni” in doing so. 

“We care about the school,” Nguyen said. “This is our legacy and we want to see it represented well ... We want to see all parts of that legacy examined and reconciled.”

In an email statement to The Cavalier Daily, Berman said the School of Architecture plans to engage alumni through its Young Alumni Council and Advisory Board, which she hopes to diversify and set up a racial equity task force that works in parallel with the Inclusion and Equity Committee. 

Both Nguyen and Swistel said that they would love to see similar efforts across all programs and majors as well as in the University at large and other schools.

“The work of dismantling white supremacy is a global effort,” Nguyen said. “It requires efforts from all disciplines because the betrayal against Black lives is in all disciplines … there are people and figures we need to call into question and everyone needs to be doing this work.”

While Berman said she couldn’t speak for other schools or the University as a whole, she said that as an academic institution, addressing the ways that ideological systems become embedded in curriculum — by reviewing coursework, as the School of Architecture plans to do — is critical. Additionally, Berman said that she’d like to see the University widen its Honor Code to include acts of hate speech within the community. 

Though the School of Architecture is the first of the University’s schools to come out with this type of plan, multiple efforts have been underway to implement similar demands University-wide since early June.

The Call to Action letter’s list of actions echo several of the Black Student Alliance’s “reiteration of historic, yet unmet demands” — such as expanding anti-racist course offerings and increasing the amount of Black undergraduate students and faculty — posted on Twitter June 1.

Another group of student activists recently sent a statement and list of demands to University President Jim Ryan’s recently-formed racial equity task force. The list has over 1,900 signatures from University community members and includes short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for University administration as well as both the Honor and the University Judiciary Committees.

The racial equity task force held a public session July 10 during which its members described their approach and answered questions. Wes Hester, deputy spokesperson and director of media relations for the University, said that the task force will provide its recommendations on “the best steps forward” in August.