A Statement from the Black Student Alliance at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation [BSA+GSAPP] to the Columbia GSAPP Dean, Faculty, and Administration

Please contact us at: onthefutilityoflistening@gmail.com 

We are indebted to the efforts of many institutions and organizations mobilizing towards radical transformation in the academy, particularly in the design fields among the so-called Ivy League. Please explore the resources and lend your support as you see fit to these calls, initiatives, and actions, many of which have been compiled: Here

Recognize the creative pursuits, joy, invention, imagination, and daring in the work of the following: 200 Black Creators

Please read the statement from
Black Faculty of Columbia GSAPP: Unlearning Whiteness

This statement bears witness to a profound and intolerable lack of vision, awareness and imagination from the administration of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, including its program in Real Estate Development at Columbia University. While calls have been made urging action, black members of this community have already recognized a deliberate and persistent commitment to willful ignorance in the ways the administration has historically and continues to operate. The actions and inactions of the GSAPP Dean, faculty, and administration leading up to this moment reveal the degree to which the school is steeped in protocols of obstruction, resistance to committed and conscious transformation, and overt anti-blackness. The glaring lack of forethought and inability to recognize how its own actions are complicit in regimes of racial construction that work diligently to mark black students as outsiders, while simultaneously exploiting our presence when deemed beneficial, are testaments to GSAPP’s disinterest in seeing black students. Declarations of the foundational significance of listening and providing spaces to hear voices are merely ruses, futile efforts by the administration to absolve itself and avoid confrontation with its own biases, assumptions, and blindnesses. The absence of the voices of black students, alumni and faculty from recent conversations that have taken place are testaments to this. Promises to look beyond itself by consulting “external diversity, equity, and inclusion experts”reinforces this. Our voices are not owed, however, it is indefensible that they have not been sought after. This ongoing aversion to critical self-assessment, to challenging its rhetoric, underlying ideology, and ethos from within, actively hinders efforts towards meaningful and sustainable transformation.

GSAPP has made it clear across its many disciplinary boundaries that it has little interest in the critical, creative, or scholarly work of black students unless it aligns with preconceived notions of blackness. Its comfort with rehearsing well-worn narratives that equate blackness only with narratives of dispossession, subjugation, or poverty render black bodies and black experiences flat, without nuance, ignoring and invisibilizing the full range of black creative production. Black students’ voices cannot be called to the fore, recognized as valuable, “amplified” or “uplifted” only when it is deemed necessary to speak to so-called black issues. This rhetoric and practice is constantly othering, nurturing a culture across the broader GSAPP student body that blackness is alien to its immediate interests. Amounting to paternalistic gestures that dehumanize and trivialize our presence, this desire to uplift recognizes our voices on narrowly circumscribed terms, if at all. Efforts and programming initiated by the Black Student Alliance at Columbia GSAPP have been directly slighted in this way. Arguments made spouting the need for “equality” in the distribution of resources among student groups reveals a severe lack of understanding, deliberate disregard, and outright contempt for the difference between equality and equity.
Retreating behind the bureaucratic inefficiencies of Columbia University at large, and ultimately reproducing them, has been strategically and intentionally deployed to evade visionary thinking. The administration must recognize that pedagogy is political and has a sociocultural obligation. Neutrality is a political stance, untenable and unsustainable. Recognition of this moment as a moment of “intense racial trauma” obscures the banal and mundane machinations that have and will continue to infiltrate the daily lives of black students at GSAPP, its modes of thinking, production, instruction, training, and administrative practices and policies when left unchecked, unchallenged or unaddressed. GSAPP cannot continue to boast a commitment to engaging the so-called “crucial issues of our time,” when its administration cannot articulate what those are. The institution’s rhetoric, and as such, its underlying ideology and ethos, require radical transformation and redefinition of what it values. GSAPP, as an institution, must recognize that the resurfacing of these “crucial issues” is not a trend that can be addressed with a single seminar or as a prompt for student projects. The issues black students and faculty face are in part purposeful and systematic slights to the black community, which must be addressed at the root of the institution. GSAPP must also contend with the historic anti-black and white supremacist underpinnings of the architectural, planning, preservation, and real-estate development professions, and its own complicity in creating and perpetuating anti-black environments beyond the university campus.

We implore the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, including the program in Real-Estate Development at Columbia University to consciously institutionalize ongoing efforts to thwart anti-black sentiment, acts, and ideology; recognizing that the academic experience and environment offered is compromised, diminished, and incomplete when the histories and experiences of black, indigenous and peoples of color are actively invisibilized. To these ends we demand the following:

1. Transparency,  Vision, and Imagination. There has not ever been a moment when bold plans and actions were not required from the Dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and her deputies. This moment only more forcefully reveals the dearth of such vision. In this moment, we urge the GSAPP administration, program directors, and faculty to align audacious and imaginative action with stated aspirations “to inspire and to foster an open and generous intellectual environment” by breaking down structural and endemic forms of anti-blackness and its less attended to conspirator, white supremacy, that permeate GSAPP’s curriculum, pedagogy, and administration. 

2. Curriculum and Pedagogy Decolonization. Restructure all courses at GSAPP to include the scholarship and creative production of black theorists, historians, philosophers, practitioners, professionals, and artists. Direct examination and confrontation with colonial, anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial practices around the world that exist in relation to modern built environments and their histories and theories, must be directly confronted and made available for scholarly and speculative analysis and evaluation. This includes the makeup of syllabi, guest lectures, guest critics, coursework, etc, but also transformation of how pre-existing texts and scholarship, often decontextualized, are taught. At a minimum, an introduction of at least 50% black, indigenous, and other under-represented minorities into the reading lists for every course at GSAPP. Professors should be prepared to teach these works and engage them without exception. This includes the establishment of an ongoing, legitimate curriculum committee that regularly assesses curriculum development across all GSAPP programs to ensure inventive and realistically representative curricula.
3. Support Sustained Access to and Development of Legitimate Scholarly and Professional Resources. Appraisal of the tools and resources made available to support academic and professional growth must be an immediate and ongoing endeavor. Remediation of the lack of black voices present in the scholarly and design materials available at Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library is essential to this. Further, to foster professional development, GSAPP must expand professional practice training to reflect the systemic and economic barriers to establishing professional practice faced by black, indigenous and peoples of color. Further, GSAPP must expand and qualify its commitments to sponsoring black student attendance at scholarly and professional conferences and symposia, particularly those led by black scholars, thinkers, practitioners, and makers. GSAPP must commit to sponsoring at least five black students to attend at least one conference per annum, which may include the annual conferences of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and the American Studies Association (ASA), as well as AfroTech, Black in Design, and NOMA, among others. Further, GSAPP must support and encourage the development of workshops, conferences, symposia, and panel discussions, among other public forums from within that foreground, interrogate, and engage the work of black historians, theorists, philosophers, practitioners, and makers. To these ends, black owned firms must be included in career services initiatives and workshops in all departments affiliated with GSAPP.

4. Reform Recruitment and Admissions Processes and Provide Continuing Support. Feeding the so-called pipeline to design and allied fields is unethical in the absence of legitimate protocols of support. Full tuition grants must be made available to black students and a sustained commitment must be made to foster a community that does not perpetuate academic alienation once recruited students arrive on campus. Rather than looking beyond GSAPP for support, we urge GSAPP to recognize its own institutional history, where concerted efforts were once made to recruit black students that had long lasting effects across GSAPPS’s professional and disciplinary spectrum. In addition, the composition, objectives, and articulation of what admissions committees value in selecting students to constitute the GSAPP “community” must be evaluated and reformed. When external “expert” support is sought in the name of so-called diversity and inclusion, we demand transparency of who those experts are and how their services have been retained.

5. Hire More Black Faculty, Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, Administration, and Staff. Support and require development of innovative and uncommon approaches to curriculum and pedagogy for all GSAPP studios and seminars. Minimize the invisible labor and undue burden carried by existing black, indigenous, and other underrepresented minority faculty. Review the research interests and geographies of all existing faculty regardless of racial categorization. Where there are inadequacies, the school is to hire black, indigenous or other underrepresented minority scholars and experts in these topics and geographies, particularly across Africa and the Caribbean. This simultaneously requires that all future non-black, indigenous or underrepresented minority hires at GSAPP demonstrate some proficiency in dealing with diverse classrooms and studios and how to critically engage issues of culture, society, difference, and politics. To this end, staffing for research assistants and teaching assistants has historically been non transparent and biased in favor of students with the capability for networking within the school’s largely white faculty body. Faculty must be equipped with the tools to recognize their own internal biases to allow for the promotion of black students internally to faculty or faculty adjacent roles.

6. Program Directors Must Outline Strategies for Confronting and Combating Anti-Black Racism. All GSAPP Program Directors must outline their strategies, in terms of curriculum and pedagogy, to actively eliminate anti-black racism and reckon with white supremacy in order to marshal their respective programs towards open recognition and interrogation of how race—a concept of human difference that establishes hierarchies of power and domination—has and continues to operate across the various disciplines represented at GSAPP, with the purpose of consciously combating its violence, reductionism, and antagonisms. Program Directors across GSAPP must be empowered to institute change and in turn held accountable to the student body by documenting critical, exploratory objectives, and ultimately, openly assess performance, failures, and successes.  
7. Include Black Guest Speakers and Critics in GSAPP Courses, Design Studio Reviews, and Lecture Series. The inclusion of at least 50% of speakers who are  black, indigenous and/or people of color in classes where guest lecturers are invited, at design studio reviews, and as part of its signature lecture series with a minimum 25% of whom are underrepresented minorities. Many of these invaluable voices can be directly culled from GSAPP alumni. These speakers are not to be tokenized, but should be regarded and included as part of an impactful, critical, and inventive series of conversations, debates, presentations, reviews and the like that a legitimate scholarly and creative academic environment is to provide.

8. Critically Engage and Exchange with Black Communities, Scholars, and Makers. Recognize, engage, and establish forms of exchange with black communities beyond GSAPP; foremost engaging, the surrounding context of Columbia University, including Harlem and the The Spitzer School of Architecture at City College, as well as HBCUs, the Caribbean, and the African continent for recruitment, participatory justice initiatives, along with scholarly and creative projects and programming.

9. Demonstrate and Provide Financial Accountability, Transparency, and Most Importantly Support. Provide for all students in regards to costs of printing, model materials, software, and hardware required to be competitive and successful in studio and other making courses. This effort removes barriers to the profession that disproportionately affect black people, and is a move towards equity across GSAPP.

10. Provide Training on Histories and Regimes of Anti-Black Racism and Strategies for its Confrontation and Eradication. GSAPP must deploy resources across the student population, faculty, and staff to provide frameworks and training that critically reckon with the specific racial context of America for domestic and international students, and that attend to global ideas of race and racial construction steeped in anti-blackness. Black and other underserved students bear the brunt of addressing systemic racism and class issues while students from vastly different backgrounds are able to avoid these taxing issues in the classroom and studio. Black students, who do not constitute a monolith, should not be burdened with this labor or exasperated by having to confront this ignorance. This means that adequate recourse, council, and support must be put in place and adequately responded to when black students are confronted by anti-black sentiment and deed by fellow GSAPP students, faculty, and/or staff. 

11. Proactively Cultivate a Strong Network of Black Professionals, Alumni and Students. Black students at GSAPP must have access to black alumni. Updated contact information must be maintained, indicating willingness to mentor and hire. Black alumni must be sought out as speakers, presenters, panelists, lecturers, and instructors, normalizing, rather than tokenizing, their presence across GSAPP.

12. Authorize BSA+GSAPP to Donate. Authorize BSA+GSAPP to donate unused allocated funds for spring programming that did not take place for donation to select black organizations outside of GSAPP. We call on other student groups who have remaining funds from Spring 2020 to join in if able. This should not affect the amount of money allocated to the respective student groups in Fall 2020.

This historic moment, at the confluence of a global pandemic and national revolt in the face of simultaneously casual and brutal extinguishment of black life, demands unhesitant, fearless vision, imagination, and recognition. Listening is futile when the full range of voices is merely not present and even more so in the absence of position and foresight. What this moment lays bare for those previously unaware or privileged with being unconscious of, are the thick entanglements of racial subordination, white supremacy and militarism wrought against black minds, bodies, spaces, lives. These entanglements do not lie beyond GSAPP. The academic environment, curriculum, pedagogy, and administration at GSAPP are complicit in them. Herein, we offer several ways forward, but this work is not ours, the onus is on you, Dean Amale Andraos, and the GSAPP faculty and administration to orchestrate good faith efforts towards ongoing, reflective, innovative, and radical transformation. This work is not daunting, but may be perceived so on your part as this work should have been always and already under way. As a school that champions “pushing the limits” with the aim of generating “a more equitable, sustainable, and creative future,” this moment should be furiously embraced for the opportunities it affords to fully mobilize these statements towards visionary planning and action. Fall programming and initiatives planned for the full academic year must reflect more informed thinking and invention. Continuing to avoid and ignore black voices across the GSAPP community and failing to enact bold reimagining and reenvisioning of how GSAPP educates and trains all students will only inspire sustained, magnificent ferment and future insurgence.

This statement was first made public Thursday, 25 June 2020. A version of which was sent to GSAPP Dean Amale Andraos, GSAPP Program Directors, and full-time faculty, as well as Columbia University President and Provost on Monday, 29 June at 12:05pm.