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HOK big-hitter replaces Elsie Owusu as chair of RIBA diversity group

Femi oresanya
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HOK London principal Femi Oresanya has become the new chair of RIBA’s diversity group following the recent removal of Elsie Owusu from the role 

The architect will take over as interim head of the institute’s Architects for Change (AfC) group ’with immediate effect’ after Owusu, a one-time RIBA presidential candidate, was controversially ordered to leave last month.

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said that it was ’no longer possible’ for Owusu to lead the group after she had accused an unnamed RIBA staff member of bullying, racial and sexual harassment and discrimination – an accusation which investigations claimed were unfounded.

Announcing Oresanya as the new interim chair of the group, which supports the institute on equal opportunities, Derbyshire said: ’Femi will play a key role in leading the work of the RIBA’s expert member group, which advises the RIBA on equality, diversity and inclusion.

’During his 19-year career [at HOK London], he has led significant education and community initiatives, including a staff and architectural graduate mentoring programme, and a project for GCSE and A level students interested in pursuing a career in architecture.

’Femi was appointed as Interim chair of Architects for Change following an open invitation to the group’s current members, in accordance with the process for such RIBA groups.

’We expect to appoint a new permanent chair, to serve an initial two-year term, in September 2019.’

Owusu was ousted from her lead role on the group in October (RIBA boots out Elsie Owusu as chair of diversity group).

According to the RIBA, Owusu had refused to withdraw or apologise for allegations despite an independent review which ’fully exonerated’ the staff member and ’found no evidence in support of any of the allegations’. 

Owusu claimed two trustees, who were black, that she had invited to a meeting to select a new chair in March, were ‘ejected’ by the staff member and that the action was ‘discriminatory’.

But the RIBA argued that the women were asked to leave for data protection reasons and to protect the privacy of the candidates, whose personal data was under review.

Owusu insisted the women were not interviewed by the independent investigator, but the RIBA denies this, arguing that they chose not to take part in the investigation.

Owusu also accused the staff member of bullying, sexual harassment and said there was a campaign in place to remove her as AfC chair.

The architect’s removal from the panel was the latest in a series of incidents between the institute and the unsuccessful presidential candidate and trustee. 

In July the RIBA sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to Owusu in a bid to prevent her making ‘damaging public statements’ about the institute. The institute had previously reported her to the Charity Commission, the charity regulator, over potentially reputation-damaging statements made in the media in April.

In response to the news, Owusu said: ’It is 25 years since the death of Stephen Lawrence. At that time he only stood a 1 per cent chance of becoming an architect. If he was alive today he would still only have the same chance of becoming an architect. So the RIBA has a lot of work to do.’

Meanwhile Owusu has been asked by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to attend his Diversity Sounding Board group which will review the progress of the Supporting Diversity aims of the mayor’s Good Growth by Design programme. She said: ’I’m delighted to be leading this excellent initiative by Sadiq Khan. This holds real promise for the future of talented architects from London’s diverse communities.’

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