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News > DP JADE > JADE: Fighting Inequality in Architectural Education

JADE: Fighting Inequality in Architectural Education

27 Sep 2022
Written by Rob Fleming
Seven Philadelphia Area Design Schools and seven Philadelphia area non-profits comprise JADE-PHL.
Seven Philadelphia Area Design Schools and seven Philadelphia area non-profits comprise JADE-PHL.

There is widespread agreement at schools of architecture that more needs to be done to address the long standing and devastating effects of social inequity in architecture education. Scores of talented students never graduate from accredited architecture schools and the profession of architecture. Furthermore, students of color who can navigate through school find themselves once again facing the same challenges at work. There is little doubt that efforts have been made to address the situation. However, they often take the form of grandiose letters of commitment to “do better”, defensive pronouncements at heated meetings with students, or one-off DEI events with little follow up. Even more robust moves such as recruiting more students and faculty of color are prone to failure because the root causes of the problem have not been systemically addressed. As a result, students and faculty of color often find themselves in existential crises as they attempt to survive the gamut of microaggressions, indifference, outward hostility and marginalization. This is not an abstract matter. Real people are struggling in real time. This reality requires deep levels of empathy, not just affective empathy which allows us to feel the pain of another, but cognitive empathy which allows us to assume the perspective of another person. It is the context that led to the creation of the Justice Alliance in Design Education (JADE-PHL).

JADE-PHL comprises seven Philadelphia Area Design Schools and seven Philadelphia area non-profits and industry associations. The alliance was formed in 2019, prior to the George Floyd killing, to address long standing issues of social inequity in architecture schools. Founded by AIA board members Tya Winn and Rob Fleming with strong support from the Philadelphia AIA, PhilaNOMA, The Center for Architecture and Design, and ACE Mentors, JADE-PHL is built to change systems and cultures in our schools that have denied or penalized people of color for generations. To date, over one-hundred academics, leaders and practitioners have attended at least one JADE-PHL meeting, with a core group of twenty-five consistent members who attend twice monthly meetings. Strong and consistent participation from area architecture schools has meant that the guiding principles, goals, and activities that were co-created, and agreed upon, have the potential to have real impact in the schools. An ambitious and permanent tactical plan was co-created and financially supported by all schools in the alliance.

This support has led to the launch of city-wide programming to catalyze the cultural and structural changes needed in our schools. As a result of all the support, JADE-PHL hosted a live studio based “Learn-in” in the Fall of 2021, delivered and developed by Dark Matter University. (Dark Matter University was founded to work inside and outside of existing systems to challenge, inform, and reshape our present world toward a better future.) The event garnered over five-hundred participants from the six schools. The second event, the first Annual JADE-PHL Symposium signifies the culmination of two years of hard work to develop the first ever city-wide design studio. Before discussing that initiative, it is critical to look at some of the co-created key principles that underscore JADE-PHL.



Social equity has been addressed in design schools, but often as a reactive measure to brewing discontent, a significant transgression, or perhaps the absence of BIPOC candidates for new faculty positions. School administrators are often placed in the stressful position of being on the defensive, promising to be more sympathetic and do better. Reactive measures are better than nothing, but the positive effects are typically short lived, and often perceived as hollow or inadequate responses to issues that are systemic in nature. In contrast, JADE-PHL is a proactive initiative that started prior to the George Floyd killing. It continues to provide programming regardless of well-meaning, but inconsistent, efforts by administrators and faculty in design schools.



Second, JADE-PHL is a multicultural initiative. Rather than People of Color shouldering the burden of advocating for social equity, JADE-PHL reflects an important shift in that White leaders are actively and consistently working to partner with BIPOC leaders in efforts to change the system. Of course, this is by no means a panacea. But an argument can, and should be made that conditions for students of color in primarily white design schools will never change unless White leaders serve as partners, and allies, to People of Color in the quest for social equity.



Third, a socially equitable learning environment benefits the entire architectural community. White students get to witness, and participate, in a process of creating a socially equitable school. This increases the likelihood that they will become active allies to BIPOC students. White faculty and White administrators set the tone for the levels of cultural competency in the schools. Now that some administrators have stepped up to provide consistent leadership in JADE-PHL, conditions for authentic and meaningful change at these schools is more likely.


In May of 2022, the first annual JADE-PHL symposium was held. At the event, local community members shared their frustrations about the lack of a comprehensive reciprocity in broader initiatives. The pain and frustration that local communities experience while working with architecture studios was conveyed. It was evident that a sense of reciprocity is missing, and that many studios end up being transactional rather than transformative. There is often a short-term emphasis on issues of race, quickly followed by a reversion to focus on aesthetic expression and design resolution. Part of this problem is structural, with semesters being short, and the ever-present demand for product over process in schools. However, issues are also cultural since faculty and students engage communities with implicit biases.

We also heard from prominent professors of color (Maria Villalobos Hernandez from IIT, Rashida Ng from Penn and Craig Wilkins from Michigan) who have developed authentic community engagement studios. Some key takeaways from their panel session included an emphasis on process over product. For example, the need for balanced work effort across the entire semester, instead of in frenzied all-nighters; the need to host uncomfortable, but critical conversations with the students on race; and the need for architects to consider their primary motivations as the advocacy for health, safety, and welfare over aesthetics. In short, proactive, and on-going DEI work in design schools can, and should, play a critical role in shaping the curriculum. JADE-PHL is in a unique and strategic position to address this call to action.

The signature initiative of JADE-PHL is the creation of a city-wide design studio, dubbed Studio Jawn. It will launch in the Spring of 2023, with opportunities for all seven design schools to participate in a new community engagement model. Innovations will include opportunities for communities to request university participation in their plans, and financial support for community members and leaders. It will also embed a range of process-oriented tools to help students build their empathic capabilities to address their own biases proactively and become a self-aware leader. Eventually, only after demonstrated success, Philadelphia can be marketed as a destination city for design students interested in learning in an intentional city-wide community of students, professors, staff, and administrators with a new goal of an intentional and imperfect community seeking to do better.

Ultimately, JADE-PHL is relatively new and has a lot to accomplish. There are also a host of other forms of bigotry and hatred that would benefit from similar efforts such as sexism, anti-Semitism, and LBTQ hate. Despite this, there are some examples of real impact. The authors of the Edmund Bacon Competition engaged the JADE-PHL team to help reconsider the fundamental approach to community-based competitions. Stewardson Competition leaders engaged with JADE-PHL to think more deeply about the inherent nature of the competition, which favors and rewards more privileged students. Perhaps most importantly, JADE-PHL is focused on forming a holistic approach embodied in a kindergarten through practice pathway to architecture. The figure above emerged from working with Michael Spain, from the Architecture + Design Education Program which is part of the Center for Architecture and Design. It reflects the goal of working across the continuum of design education to open more pathways for students of color to enter architecture schools and the profession.

Rob Fleming, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, LFA is the Director of Online Innovation at UPenn Weitzman School of Design and is a co-founder of JADE.

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