From a breathing exercise to center the body and mind to a dialectic of empathy within design, the Black in Design Conference offered a breadth of content across scales: body, building, neighborhood, city, region and globe. While speaking about the regional scale, Brent Leggs (historic preservationist and LF ’11), Craig Wilkins (architect and lecturer at Taubman College) and Euneika Rogers-Sipp (founder of Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprise for Families and current Loeb) exposed the audience to a wide array of projects and significant African American historical narratives.
Brent Leggs commented how wonderful it was to be part of a community that “gets the value of preservation,” and described his involvement with the historic preservation of the Rosenwald Schools, Booker T Washington’s vision for the construction of schools to serve African American children living in rural parts of the South. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is now helping to preserve close to 5000 schools by raising funding for their maintenance and reuse. Additionally, through a multisensory experience of oral histories, the National Trust is helping these designated “national treasures” come alive for present and future generations. Underscoring his work as “preserving culture, not buildings,” Leggs also made clear the efforts of African Americans before him, such as the National Association of Colored Women, who have strived to “reconstruct a new identity within Black America.”
A notable figure who has written on hip-hop and architecture, theorist and architect Craig Wilkins has thereby brought strains of African-American identity to the fore. His introductory remarks tugged at everyone’s hearts: “Several times today, I’ve been brought to tears; the belief that people of color are important and design can make a difference.” The audience gave a standing ovation to honor Wilkins’ words, and it was evident that others had likewise felt emotion to the point of tears that day. “Perhaps we are too comfortable,” Wilkins went on, “and what we need is a critical form of social engagement.” While displaying activist architecture projects in Minneapolis and Detroit, he bestowed lyrical wisdom. “The problems of the poor are not because they are poor, but because they are treated poorly.”
Euneika Rogers-Sipp began working to address the vulnerability of rural populations in the Blackbelt region of the US South after seeing the loss of locally-owned and lived-in spaces. She began her activist career elsewhere, but after she had expressed sorrow about the conditions of her community one too many times, her grandmother observed, “Everything we taught you about doing right, you’re doing somewhere else.” This was a sufficient wake-up call for her to come back and invest directly in her community.
Soon after, Rogers-Sipp founded the Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprise for Families and began working with agricultural landowners to diversify and expand their market reach, obtain access to renewable technologies and enrich the regional cultural heritage. One example is the community of Gee’s Bend–nationally known for its richly textured quilts–with which she has been working to articulate a vision for the future.
In the conversation that followed, the panelists drew attention to how designers could address social concerns. Designers marginalize themselves, it was emphasized, if the focus is purely on aesthetics, and sometimes the best design is no design at all. When the conversation turned to the displacement of people, the speakers shared the objective for designers to not buy into laissez-faire capitalism. Wilkins said, “Resources didn’t just leave from low-income communities, they were stolen. It’s not the way capital moves, it’s the way we let it move.” And this point brought the audience back to Toni Griffin’s manifesto for a just city, and to imagine how designers can respond to this call.