“Toward a New GSD”—A Letter from Dean Sarah M. Whiting

Dear GSD community,

Four days ago, I received an ardent and thoughtful message from the GSD’s African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD, laying out 13 directions for change in response to the structural racism that has directly impacted this country’s Black population. This message coincided with communications across the faculty, also asking ourselves how we might change. I am writing you today with the beginning of a response, a response that we must all usher forward in unison. GSD students, faculty, staff, and alumni share one humanity, and the only human response to this moment is to recognize that changes need to be enacted that are real and targeted. Black Lives Matter at the GSD, and I am committed to taking the steps necessary to make sure that this becomes a lived reality for everyone at our school.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962. This was his powerful conclusion to a call for the writers of his generation to “remake America into what we say we want it to be.”

Today, almost sixty years later, Baldwin’s call to action is ever more urgent. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black Americans, have led to a powerful wave of protests and a shared call to overturn injustices that ripple through every facet of our country and that have been borne disproportionately by the African American community.

In that same piece, Baldwin writes that “…we will never remake those cities…we will never establish human communities – until we stare our ghastly failure in the face.” We as designers, architects, urban planners and designers, and landscape architects, have contributed to that ghastly failure. We have failed by contributing to policies and designs that have concretized structural racism in our cities; compromised definitions of “public” in our public spaces, places, and buildings; and technologies that have increased, even inadvertently, environmental and economic inequities across the globe. As a school, we have also failed to meaningfully increase our numbers of Black students, faculty, and staff.

On behalf of the GSD community, I apologize that we have not served our Black community members better, historically and at present. I resolve that the school will make progress, not just with words, but with actions. I propose that we work together as a community, including our faculty, students, staff, and alumni, to enact real change, beginning with the following six measures:

  • Establish for all departments and programs across the school a shared agenda, to be reviewed annually, for instilling anti-racist practices in their hiring, their visitors, their communication, and their curricula, and create a permanent page on the school’s website that includes our shared values as well as resources that advocate for racial understanding.
  • Create specific programming for new student orientation and training for new faculty and staff to educate all members of our community on the specific racial context of the United States, as well as of the immediate Boston area, and how to better engage in race-related discussions and actions inside and outside the classroom. These topics will also be included within the introductory core curriculum of every program.
  • Establish a GSD Gift Fund in support of anti-racism. This fund, already in the process of being created, addresses a number of demands shared in the statement from the African American Student Union (AASU) and AfricaGSD to the GSD’s administration. The school is committed to supporting initiatives aimed at combating racism, and plans to initiate this fund immediately, as a part of many actions that we will take to acknowledge that design pedagogy has a cultural obligation to address injustice and discrimination. It is our hope to engage our alumni and friends with a strong call to action that addresses the immediate needs of the GSD’s Black community, and leverages this moment in time to create systemic change.
  • Identify and commit to new ways of recruiting and retaining students of color writ large, with specific efforts to recruit and retain Black students, faculty, and staff, including but not limited to expanding our numbers of Black speakers and visitors to our classes; establishing close relationships to the HBCUs; strengthening our outreach to Black communities in the Boston area; expanding Design Discovery and Design Discovery Young Adult; expanding our Community Service Fellowships; and proactively cultivating a strong network of Black professionals, alumni, and students.
  • Expand faculty bias training beyond search committees to include bias issues related to grading and awards. We will also introduce a graduation prize for a student who has engaged with issues of equity in a sustained way throughout their years at the GSD, and an annual prize for a faculty member who has engaged in such issues and through their work have made a demonstrable impact.
  • Review these measures annually to ensure that we are indeed remaking the school into what we want it to be.

For the GSD to stop “staring our ghastly failures in the face,” we must lead by example. We must lead by design. We must lead by conscience.

Yours kindly,