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Yale School of Architecture alumni send letter to administration demanding transformative action

Time to Make a Change

Yale School of Architecture alumni send letter to administration demanding transformative action

The Review Pit at the Paul Rudolph-designed Art and Architecture Building at Yale University. (Seth Tisue/Wikimedia Commons)

This morning, a group of seven alumni and one current student from the Yale School of Architecture (YSoA) submitted an open letter to the school’s administration calling out its “deafening” silence during a time when sustained demonstrations against racism, social injustice, and police brutality are playing out daily out across the country and beyond. The protests, the largest of their kind in generations, are in part a response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

“What is the YSoA doing to actively support a more diverse academic community to fight racism in all its forms moving forward?” reads the letter. “How will the YSoA dismantle institutional racism and rebuild itself to promote an inclusive vision of architectural education and amplify BIPOC voices that remain profoundly underrepresented?”

In recent weeks, the heads of major architecture schools and departments have publicly spoken out via statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, acknowledging past and present issues of inequality and underrepresentation at their own institutions—and within the profession of architecture at large—while pledging to make impactful changes. Some of these statements have not been without pushback.

To be clear, Deborah Berke, dean of YSoA, did send a letter to current students, faculty, and staff—but not alumni—on June 2, expressing her “grief and anger” over the death of George Floyd, and welcoming the “candid thoughts and proposals” from the YSoA community. “Institutions are not neutral, and I recognize our institutional imperative to direct power toward change, including expanding our curriculum and increasing faculty diversity. The work is ongoing,” wrote Berke.

The idea to send the YSoA an open letter from alumni was first conceived by Ian Svilokos (M.Arch I. ’14) before Berke’s initial statement was sent to non-alumni. He explained to AN:

As events have been building over the past few weeks, we’ve all made an effort to contribute to the BIPOC community. Posting, sharing, talking, educating, learning, signing, donating, marching, protesting. I think the architectural community can do more. I heard about a group called Design As Protest, and that they were trying to get some support. So I was filling out a form of theirs when I got to a question that made me realize I could do more: ‘At what capacity can you contribute to the fight against police brutality? What skills, connections, resources, etc are you able and willing to leverage?’ I have a significant connection—Yale and its alumni. So I should use that. The School hadn’t released a statement to the public, or to the alumni, at that point so I thought I would write them a letter and maybe get a few people to support me. I couldn’t have fathomed it would grow to the extent it has, but I think the amount of support it has gained is a testament to the importance of the BLM movement.”

After holding a virtual forum attended by alumni and current students to discuss his brewing need to speak out directly to the school, Svilokos was joined by six fellow (all women) alumni—Amanda Bridges, Amrita Raja, Dima Srouji, Lexi Tsien, Brittany Utting, and Sheena Zhang— and one current student, Lilly Agutu, to formally draft a letter that would be sent to the YSoA.

In a statement shared with AN, Tsien (M.Arch I 13), described the process as being wholly collaborative: “Interesting how we got both sides. ‘This place has been oppressing our people for centuries’ and ‘use the word request not demand.’ How to represent outrage but show willingness to work with the administration? We talked about our tone all the time but in the end knew concrete demands would get us to a town hall faster than shaming anyone.”

In addition to the eight authors and key signatories of the letter—all of whom have graduated from YSoA within the last decade with the exception of Agutu, who is currently the only Black woman student at YSoA—over 600 and counting alumni, including current and former faculty, have co-signed the letter as of this writing. The letter itself was drafted after 100 alumni virtually came together in conversation on June 7 to “reckon with our past and envision a progressive future for the school.” Current students also provided invaluable input in the letter’s creation.

Agutu, who was involved with the drafting of the letter from the beginning, said that she didn’t fully know ”what it was about” at first after being passed along a message about the initial, alumni-hosted Zoom forum. “After I joined, after hearing people speak, I realized it has been this vicious circle,” she said of the cycle of institutional racism embedded at the school. “It was such a great forum and I learned so much and was inspired to get involved with writing the letter,” she added. ”It’s really time to make a change.”  

The letter reads in full:

To the Yale School of Architecture Faculty and Administration:

Four hundred years of systemic violence and racism against Black communities have been drawn into sharp relief in the past two weeks centering around the Black Lives Matter movement. This time of global action and urgency is an opportunity to lead change, and yet the Yale School of Architecture’s public silence has been deafening.

We, the Alumni, want to know: what is the YSoA doing to actively support a more diverse academic community to fight racism in all its forms moving forward? How will the YSoA dismantle institutional racism and rebuild itself to promote an inclusive vision of architectural education and amplify BIPOC voices that remain profoundly underrepresented?

The YSoA must commit to engage its community and allocate its resources to affect systemic change with humility, transparency, and specificity. The following demands represent the collective voice of more than one hundred YSoA Alumni who met on Sunday, June 7th, and the many alumni who have co-signed, to reckon with our past and envision a progressive future for the school:

  1. Publicly acknowledge the pain, wrongdoings and injustices that the School has inflicted on past BIPOC students and its New Haven community. The work the School commits to doing, or is currently undertaking, is not enough to erase the scars of the past. Acknowledging the grievances of current and former members of our community is a crucial step to reconciling our past and our future.
  2. Support and amplify BIPOC. BIPOC communities are vastly underrepresented at the YSoA. No individual should be isolated in the burden of representing an entire race, nor should any student complete their education without identifiable role models on faculty. To break a culture of white male supremacy, the school must commit to amplifying the voices of a diverse community. The school must headline BIPOC practitioners at school-sponsored events and actively recruit and support BIPOC students and faculty.
  3. Enable equitable access to education. The barriers to enter and succeed in an architectural career are immense — tuition, debt, labor, time, and resources. Many students work to care for themselves and their families. The school must recognize these challenges by not only fostering a supportive community but by committing to lower the cost of an architectural education.
  4. Build a team to support Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity. The YSoA must establish an empowered EID team to be a voice and advocate for any marginalized group or individual, and meaningfully shift the culture of the school. This team must include representatives from faculty, administration, and students. All faculty should be required to complete diversity and unconscious bias training and be held accountable.
  5. Decolonize the pedagogy and curriculum. Anti-Black biases must be dismantled. The Global South and non-Western cultures must be included explicitly in the curriculum across all courses and without exception. Diversity should not simply be optional in the education of an architect, but central to its core vision.
  6. Engage the local community beyond the Building Project. Alerts from YPD Chief Ronnell Higgins continue to perpetuate the narrow “town and gown” lens through which students experience New Haven. Systemic failures in the city, like access to public transportation and fair and equal housing, are architectural and urban problems that deserve the School’s attention. The YSoA must recruit, empower, and mentor local BIPOC youth to be active agents in shaping the built environment.
  7. Engage alumni beyond their pocketbooks. Many alumni do not have the means to give financial donations which seem to be the principal form of alumni engagement. Donation options must not be limited to eponymous funds of white men but to initiatives that promote an inclusive vision of the discipline. Requiring monetary contributions as a prerequisite to having a voice on how funding is spent only further cements a system of inequality. Beyond donations, BIPOC and all alumni can contribute meaningfully to the school through other avenues like teaching, mentorship, juries, and EID initiatives.

We acknowledge that we as alumni have benefitted from an institution and a profession that has been complicit with a culture of racism, exclusivity, and inequality, but we are committed to the YSoA’s future and its ambition for a plurality of voices. We urge you to address the issues outlined above with haste and transparency. We ask to be a part of meaningful and positive changes to the school’s statement of purpose, curriculum, culture, and community.

Several hours after the letter was submitted to the school, Berke issued a response to alumni. It too is published here in full:

Dear Yale School of Architecture alumni,

Like so many around this country and the world, I am filled with grief and anger over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. To the Black and African-American members of our community I recognize your pain, I am with you in solidarity, and I understand that our institution must do more to support you.

By now many of you have signed or seen an open letter written by your fellow alumni demanding changes at the Yale School of Architecture to address past injustices and structural racism. I value each of you and believe that alumni constitute an important part of our community, now and into the future. If you experienced racism or oppression at the school, please know that I am here to listen, to learn, and to work toward real change.

I, along with the faculty and staff, will take time to fully understand what is being asked of this institution and what changes we must make to address past injustices as well as to ensure an inclusive and just future, both for the School and the profession. From our conversations thus far, I recognize the need to reconsider how we have defined the “canon” of architectural knowledge, broadening its limits to encompass a wider range of works, and identifying the embedded biases that have protected its boundaries that are in such need of dismantling. To do so, we need a more diverse faculty with perspectives that challenge us. Similarly, I realize that we must admit, matriculate, and support more students from diverse backgrounds, particularly the future generations of African-American architects, still woefully underrepresented within our profession. Our approach to architecture must include sustained dialogue with the community, not only as part of the building project but throughout the curriculum. We need to commit to equity, diversity, and inclusion, both in institutional infrastructure and support and in training.

I hope to speak with many of you over the coming days. Please send me your thoughts and ideas; this is the most important work for my tenure as dean and I’ll need your help.

I also include with this email a message I sent out to students, faculty, and staff at the School on June 2 so that you can see what conversations have already begun and how much work we still have to do. I regret not sending it to alumni immediately; I should have invited you into these discussions earlier.

Despite the anger and disappointment I can feel in the letter, I also see it as evidence that alumni care deeply about this institution and its future. I am thankful for your guidance and your care.

Svilokos told AN that he and Tsien have been in touch with alumni from Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the Harvard Graduate School of Design to discuss important issues and potentially form a larger group of alumni united under a single cause. “None of us know what the next steps are,” he said.