Karitikeya Sonker, project architect and member of the JEDI Committee, reflects on the firmwide commitment to incorporating the lens of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion to all the Amenta Emma committee agendas.
This is an attempt – an attempt of understanding. This is also a CALL.
My brainstorming ideas for a blog post on our firm’s incorporation of the concept of JEDI within all its committees began with the notion of “A JEDI environment is an environment which…. [fill in the blank]”. However, I fell into the temptation of looking at the task from a different perspective. This, after much deliberation, was not surprising. After all, sometimes it is just simpler to learn the hard way than an easier one. Many people experience and/or witness situations involving injustice, inequity, marginalization, and exclusion. These may not be daily learning experiences, but it is safe to say that all of us have, at least once in our lifetime gone through something which activates in us an understanding of difference that is both hard and soft to grasp. And to be fair, this experience presents itself irrespective of our positions, colors, or faith.
But what is this learning experience? For me, it is perhaps being made aware of the key ingredients for (in)Justice, (in)Equity, (non)Diversity, and (un)Inclusion. As the subtext of the JEDI movement goes – the idea in nutshell is to dissolve the boundaries that can be classified as opaque, confined, or inefficient. Someone once said, “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.” Through the 10 bi-weekly JEDI meetings I have attended so far, I have come to understand JEDI as a multi-dimensional concept that can go beyond enabling changes in oneself to changes in relationships, and eventually in the workplace.
Imagination (and our Committees)
There is no doubt that our view of the kind and quality of architecture we want to build will continue to evolve and inspire newer descriptive goals. We often hear something synonymous with “technical advancement” from our Design Committee or Sustainability Committee or our Documentation Team. I feel this is how we are manifesting our efforts for creating a future where providing joyful resilience is key across all boards.
While we continually build a workplace that propagates sustainable and well-documented design, we must also do the same for JEDI so that it does not go out of style. Because while we have come across each of these words – Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in one capacity or another; most of us have struggled with their meanings for a much longer time. To put it simply, if we cannot have one unifying definition of what each of the words means, both individually and when placed next to each other – it is fitting to say that we may have come short on something.
Urban Activist Jane Jacobs, in one of her early essays, writes that “downtown is for people,” further noting that the most interesting urban spaces are “those in which several currents of life come together”, which add an indispensable quality of noise and excitement. Her writings have stressed the value of great diversity – people mingling – and the ability to contribute gifts and perspectives. It is interesting how we are trying to transpose these age-old writings into values of the workplace and realizing the principles of “micro” over macro, convincing ourselves in smaller steps that if we look after the former, the latter will take care of itself.
Manifestation (and its Difficulties)
The nature of this topic is such that it is so easy to see when something goes wrong around us. It may be difficult to solve or even comprehend within our systems, but it is easy to see. The point is that we must discuss, comprehend, and then conceive practices that envision a future that embodies JEDI. It is only when we go through such steps, we can conclude whether they are even enough for self-growth. If we someday hope to truly understand any of these words in practice, we might as well find out that not one of these words is sufficient without the other.
A potential problem for us, in all these concepts might be that they work best in metaphors. They will exist “beautifully” until we do something – because often, in the beginning, we will not be able to do anything about it. Everyone will agree that it is to open a discussion, a talk, conversation, and share experiences but clearly, the productivity will lie in taking the next steps. This is where the difficulties will come up because when the veil beyond the talks is pulled back, and when the next steps are supposed to be taken – an operational definition of difficult choices will present itself. Borrowing any word from JEDI is the first step. It may or may not be hard but separating it from the realm of the metaphors so that “my” understanding overlaps with “yours” in some way or the other is going to be hard. This is where we must gain clarity and self-awareness that the entire movement may be nothing but making difficult choices. These choices will produce both wins and losses, and in some cases, we may even project consequential trade-offs in terms of personal thinking. But hopefully, we may someday experience the same degree of being in the same place.
This process will most probably lie outside our forces of design tools. There is only so much that we know about people. Words like improvisation, imagination, and intuition can sound awkward in the choices wrapped in the sweetness of communication but it is important to get a sense of perspective so that we all are aware of each other’s core values for the vision we would be creating. By now, it may feel like a mountain to climb, and it probably is – but mountains are there to be climbed, right? All it takes is an act of imagination at which we are fairly good. In the end, this process of truly imagining the ingredients of JEDI might become synonymous with imagining the topography of a city, a garden, or a mountain. It just lies one step beyond the beginning of imagination.
In short, just like the causes that lead to the JEDI movement present themselves in a multi-faceted manner, we will have to assume that the solutions will probably comprise of thousand cuts rather than one silver bullet.
Perhaps this is where we can call for each committee’s action. We can be experimental and come out of our silos to discuss smaller steps. In any case, meaning is subjective but meaningful conversation is not. We can start with something as small as identifying any of the words in “JEDI” and writing down what it means – and if you feel that you have solved this, what better way than to discuss your views through various mediums! (The world needs to know.)
Every committee’s action is a step towards progress – a provocation – a call to action and might also offer us a perspective rooted in a sense of belonging. It is okay to present notes of dissonance with threads of commonalities. The idea of JEDI is to be inclusive but not necessarily homogenous. We should keep in mind that this project is going to begin with a lot of questions, and not many answers.
(AIA CT 2020 JEDI Pledge) The Amenta Emma JEDI initiative is led by a six person team who meet weekly to propose and implement strategies to increase diversity through recruiting and hiring practices, community outreach, expanding consultant team relationships, staff education and improvements to office culture.