Being the light in darkness

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This has been a tough week.

It has been a week in which I am forced to reaffirm my values as they were not reflected the result of the election. I accept the result of the election because that’s part of living in a democratic society. I have also been reminded of the paradox I have come to live with–that I can love people dearly (and love my country) while disagreeing with them about issues.

In this week of raw tension across our county and also my profession, I’ve experienced some moments of light:

First, Kate McKinnon’s cold open of Saturday Night Live that brilliantly closed her Hillary Clinton character while also paying tribute to Leonard Cohen who passed away this week. I have always felt a connection to that song (especially the Jeff Buckley cover,) and I was struck by how the juxtaposition of the song and the character captured the vulnerability and emotion of the week for many of us.

Second, Vincent Harding’s interview with Krista Tripett from 2011 titled ‘Is America Possible?’ has guided me in ways I had not anticipated. I have long been a fan of On Being, but Dr. Harding’s voice and guidance provided me comfort this week. He reminds us that a struggle in a long-term effort and moments of light and darkness.

Two passages from the interview especially touch me. The first is about storytelling.

MS. TIPPETT: This idea of storytelling and the importance of stories just for human beings in general, but in a moment like this in particular, comes up so much. And yet, I feel like we don’t — I don’t know if we don’t have the forms for it in this culture or if it’s happening under the surface and not being pointed at. I mean, you are doing this.

DR. HARDING: My own sense, Krista, is that there is something deeply built into us that needs story itself. That story is a source of nurture that we cannot become really true human beings for ourselves and for each other without story. And to find ways in which to tell it, to share it, to create it, to encourage younger people to create their own story.

For instance, in the work that we do with the Veterans of Hope, we also encourage the younger people to find the elders, to find the veterans, not the celebrities, not the TV stars, but those folks who nobody else knows have lived such magnificent lives. Find them, and then sit with them, and learn how to ask the right questions so that the opening can take place. I think that this country cannot become its best self until we find ways more effectively of institutionalizing that process of sharing the stories of the elders.

The second is about the signposts that we can all be–guides for others.

DR. HARDING: I met this young man in Eugene [Rivers]’s apartment, and this young man came up just to sit next to me because he wanted to talk in a more personal way. It turned out that he was one of the leaders of the drug-running folks at the time. But what he said to me was that he really felt that one of the reasons why he had gone in the way that he had gone — not trying in any way to excuse himself — was the fact that he, like many other young people, were operating in a situation where they felt it was just very, very dark all around them. And what they needed were, as he put it, some signposts, some lights that would, in other peoples’ lives, help them…

MS. TIPPETT: “Live human signposts,” you wrote.

DR. HARDING: Yes, yes. That would help them to see the possibilities for themselves. I’ve always felt that one of the things that we do badly in our educational process, especially working with so-called marginalized young people, is that we educate them to figure out how quickly they can get out of the darkness and get into some much more pleasant situation when what is needed again and again are more and more people like Gene who will stand in that darkness, who will not run away from those deeply hurt communities, and will open up possibilities that other people can’t see in any other way except seeing it through human beings who care about them. And if we teach young people to run away from the darkness rather than to open up the light in the darkness, to be the candles, the signposts, then we are doing great harm to them and the communities that they have come out of.

Which brings me to the last moment which is an apology offered by Robert Ivy, FAIA, CEO, and Russ Davidson, FAIA, 2016 National President of the American Institute of Architects after a public statement issued the day after the election which said, “The AIA and its 89,000 members are committed to working with President-elect Trump to address the issues our country faces, particularly strengthening the nation’s aging infrastructure.” My reaction was raw. I felt that the AIA by issuing a statement so quickly after the election results embraced a campaign that openly spoke of hate, racism, misogyny, and distrust of immigrants and brushed aside all of the work on equity, diversity, and inclusion in architecture this year. For me, the statement was a short-term conciliatory message that while intended to show unity, came at the expense of many who have felt marginalized in the architecture profession. (Don’t get me started about environmental policies.)

However, I can also reconcile that Americans vote on many issues—some I agree with and some that I do not. Many were able to look past some issues to focus on ones that they felt were more important. Dignity and respect, as I have learned from Candi Castleberry Singleton, is “about making the world a better place for ALL to live—with ALL of our differences,” not just ones we agree with.

As I wrote to colleagues in an e-mail:

Where do we go from here?

My values are still the same last week [then] as this week [now]:

  • I believe that our work in the built environment changes people’s lives, and I work to make that change positive.
  • I believe that there is strength in diversity and that my role in that is to listen, learn, advocate, and set a positive example for opportunity.
  • I believe that architects have a critical role in leading the movement to resolve climate change.
  • I believe that the AIA needs to change.
  • I believe that architecture will be a greater profession when it reflects the society it serves, and if it only serves part of society, it will cease to be relevant.

I believe that [we] will make a difference in the AIA and in the profession. If nothing, I am more resolved of this today than last week. I refuse to quit the work we have completed to date; its importance is critical.

How can we make this a teaching moment?

This apology is the first step forward in what will be a long (and I have to believe) productive conversation about what the AIA stands for and how we advocate in the 21st century.

A post-election message from AIA’s CEO and 2016 President from AIA Content Team on Vimeo.

This post is part of Bob Borson’s #ArchiTalks series—a monthly challenge encouraging architects to write about a single topic. This month’s topic is “Then and Now.” Please see links below to check out the views of others:


Written by

Emily is an Architect, Mother of 2, and Somerville, MA resident.

2 thoughts on “Being the light in darkness

  1. Emily,

    Thank you for this blog and thanks for sharing the AIA video. I had not seen that apology and was happy to see Bob and Russ take responsibility for their blunder. Just like in the general election, I hope architects see the AIA’s blunder as an opportunity to inject themselves rather than flee. It is easy to say, “we are moving to Canada,” or “that is why I am leaving the AIA.” But it is hard for people to be advocates and leaders. By sharing your thoughts you are doing your part. Thank You. -Steve Ramos

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