Can We Talk About Equity?

Two heavy hitters from our PGDG Cohort 2017 discuss real initiatives to build Inclusivity toward Equity

By SOPHIA LEE with additional content from Locus Partners

Exploring Equity

We like juicy topics. To continue our summer blog theme of equity and its many subtexts, we brought some heavy hitters into the conversation: Anne Papageorge and Rebecca Johnson. Locus Partners sat down to learn from these two members of PGDG Cohort 2017 about the institutional initiatives each of them are involved with to advance equity in the design fields. Anne is the Vice President of Facilities and Real Estate Services at University of Pennsylvania and Rebecca is Executive Director at AIA Philadelphia and the Center for Architecture and Design.


Equity is a BROAD TOPIC. To talk about equity in the design professions and our urban communities means we are really discussing inclusivity of various minority groups—or lack thereof. For example, Rebecca pointed out how hard it is to have a conversation about racial equity in architecture when there isn’t a single person of color present in the room! Anne mentioned Impolite Conversations, a book by Cora Daniels and John L. Jackson Jr. that describes how difficult it can be to be honest and open when we try to talk about difficult topics.

So who is talking about Equity?

Rebecca is working with AIA Philadelphia’s Board of Directors to host a series of Town Hall meetings with members and the broader design and construction community to discuss values—to explore, “What do architects stand for?” Upcoming Town Halls will address the topics of “Equitable Neighborhoods” and “Diversity in the Profession,” the results of which will help develop direction for AIA Philadelphia’s Strategic Plan. Our discussion focused on the diversity angle: it’s time to address the pipeline..

Rebecca was excited to share that AIA Philadelphia has been hard at work mapping an architectural curriculum for the Common Core (CCSS). To broaden the demographic diversity in the design professions, we must broaden the base of applicants for college. Educating a broad base—including people who aren’t represented in the profession today—at a younger age, from elementary through high schools, will broaden the demographic of those entering the field. So for four weeks in four schools during spring 2018, they will pilot an Architecture in Education program with 3rd through 6th grade students. The coursework will be interactive and feature game-style modules to keep kids interested and engaged. We’ll ask Rebecca to report back!

Anne and her team, along with Penn Medicine, have been involved with the ACE Mentor Program, which connects high school students with industry professionals in architecture, construction, or engineering. Sponsoring two groups for the last three years, UPenn has also introduced the students to operations and maintenance, demonstrating a fuller picture of how a building comes into being, and then its lifecycle considerations.

Beyond the design disciplines alone, Anne attests that Inclusion is at the forefront of UPenn’s goals to improve the institution. Penn President, Dr. Amy Gutmann, has committed to PennCOMPACT2020, a university-wide initiative to push forward Inclusion, Innovation, and Impact. It takes many forms, including increasing access for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds with financial aid, especially students who are first-generation college students. Anne says that measuring progress and demonstrating the positive outcomes has enabled this effort to be sustained.

Equity: it’s hard to be the little guy (or gal!)

AIA Philadelphia Town Halls will also address firm health and prosperity. Rebecca attests that many architecture professionals have been breaking out of bigger offices to set up their own practice. This affords a degree of flexibility and work-life balance that is not available in the traditional firm. The work culture and lack of diversity in many traditional firms may squeeze many (especially women) out to pursue work in related fields, or to apply their skills to seemingly unrelated work pursuits. Anne points out that the needs of larger projects are beyond the capabilities of smaller businesses.

One question PGDG tries to address is how it can support small design businesses and community development organizations to help them grow.

Danielle and Sylvia chimed in from their perspective as owners of Locus Partners, which is a small, WBE certified business. There is a lot of movement for local business, municipal, and institutional procurement initiatives to remedy the representation of small or minority-owned businesses on contracts. For example, Rebuild Philadelphia will work with Project Users to invest upwards of $500M in Philadelphia’s parks, rec centers, and playgrounds. Rebuild will include contract requirements, from design through construction, to compel inclusion.

Moreover, there are several relatively new programs geared to small and diverse businesses and non-profit organizations to assist them in accessing financial, networking, and educational resources. In Philadelphia, the Sustainable Business Network, Chamber of Commerce, and the Arts and Business Council offer such resources. The Enterprise Center helps to grow minority-owned firms through capital, business education, and opportunities. PIDC offers workshops and capital access to small and diverse business owners. A national initiative, the federal SBA mentor-protégé program offers a model especially relevant to design professions. By connecting a small business “protégé” with a larger “mentor” firm, they each benefit from the association. The mentor may compete for a job set aside for small business. In exchange, they support the small business in fulfilling the bulk of the contract. That’s a good example of competitive inclusion that benefits all.

Thanks, Sophia!

We would like to thank Sophia Lee for her leadership in the PGDG Blog from its inception. Sophia was instrumental in launching the Philly Girls Do Good Blog, introducing us to bloggers and new audience, organizing conversations with PGDG members, and writing for the blog. Sophia will be shifting her time and energies to other personal and professional pursuits. In her words, she is "getting more involved in the leadership of the women's cycling community in Philly through Women Bike PHL, an incredible organization that teaches women to race bikes and build a community to change the statistic of USA Cycling (USAC) membership consisting of 83% men. [She] will be co-coaching the first year of WBPHL Development Cyclocross racing team this fall, which will be quite a big time commitment." —Best of luck, Sophia! We hope you'll come to our next panel convo and keep asking the great questions!