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Owusu v Macintosh: presidential contender defends stance on ‘racist and sexist’ RIBA

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RIBA presidential candidate Elsie Owusu has hit back at social housing pioneer Kate Macintosh after she dismissed claims of institutional racism at Portland Place

Following a letter to the AJ by former councillor Macintosh, in which she refutes allegations that the RIBA is ’racist and sexist’, Owusu has written a candid response explaining why the institute still has major problems with both discrimination and a lack of transparency.

Kate Macintosh MBE, former RIBA vice-president public affairs

Elsie Owusu described the RIBA in an attack in the national press, December 2015, as being thoroughly “racist and sexist”. She was then just five months into her first term as an RIBA Councillor and yet was aggrieved at failing to defeat another, very experienced woman to take over the key role of chair of Practice Committee. She repeated these accusations on April 22 on national television adding that of anti-Semitism. If RIBA is so steeped in prejudice, it is odd that there have in recent years been two Jewish presidents, one of Indian parentage and three women.

As a result of these damaging statements in the national press, the RIBA was obliged to appoint a QC and expert in the field to conduct an independent investigation into her claims that ‘the banter, discrimination and treating black people worse than other staff goes through architecture like a stick of rock. It’s absolutely disgraceful and it starts at the top with RIBA.’

In the event Elsie refused to give any testimony and the investigation closed without coming to any conclusion.

Although when I was first elected to Council in 1972, there were only two other women on council and I became just the second woman to serve as a vice-president, the accusations Elsie levelled at the RIBA are not ones that I recognise. There are many other criticisms I would and did make of the institute’s management, but not these.

When I took a report to council in 1980, which resulted in the RIBA setting up its own monitoring group, the Women’s Architects Group (WAG), which I chaired, there was only one member of council who spoke against. At that time women comprised 6.1 per cent of the profession. At the last count women are now around 24 per cent of the profession, so things have improved but we still have a way to go.

The WAG group later morphed into the Diversity Group to cover the eradication of any discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Though I was one of those who voted her on to council, based on her record of launching into damaging public accusations of the institute, at a time when she had only slight experience of the RIBA (which considerably discomforted the then woman president, Jane Duncan early in her term of office), I question whether Elsie has the measured judgment and objectivity needed to lead our profession in these troubled times when consensus and team-working are needed to face a climate hostile to professional values.

Elsie Owusu OBE, RIBA Council member, vice-chair of London School of Architecture and principal of Elsie Owusu Architects

Stephen Lawrence would now have been 43 years old, but for his tragic murder 25 years ago. As a mid-career architect, he may have struggled to raise a family on £40,000 – much less than his lawyer and doctor friends. Statistics show that 55 per cent of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students drop out between Part 1 and Part 2 and the attrition rate by Part 3 is 90 per cent or higher. After racking up huge loans, BAME students, like many others, face debt, disappointment and unemployment. A hostile environment indeed for grandchildren of the Windrush Generation.

While the Metropolitan Police – against whom the Lawrences battled – is modernising, guided by its splendid chief Cressida Dick, the 185-year-old RIBA appears resistant to change. Numbers and anecdotal evidence indicate institutional (ie unthinking) racism, sexism and homophobia thrive in the construction industry and at the RIBA.

The routine use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), gagging clauses and pay-offs to settle complaints of discrimination and harassment permeates UK corporate culture. The RIBA is no exception. This exacerbates the situation, tending to shelter offenders instead of calling them out and changing the embedded ‘Weinstein-like’ culture.

Kate Macintosh, in her letter, writes with pseudo-academic authority when condemning my candidacy. A former supporter, she perhaps has an understandable impulse to protect ‘her’ RIBA.

Yet, as an example, only in the last couple of days I was copied into emails where I feel I was caricatured as some kind of Black Gangsta-style Archi-Gran.  

However baffling and (almost) comic these 66 Portland Place ‘noises off’ may seem, they mask a worrying reality and lack of regard for the plight of many BAME members at the top of our profession.

After I informed the RIBA of my concerns about statistics proving institutionalised discrimination and poor governance, a fellow RIBA trustee sent me a letter which I felt was threatening and which was reported to the police by my MP Karen Buck.

I was subsequently told by several RIBA Council members to apologise for ‘spooking’ the writer now that his missive was on the police record. These, and many other serious complaints of discrimination have been dismissed as ‘in breach of the Data Protection Act’ and gagging clauses are firmly put in place. Does this smack of Met Police tactics in the Bad Old Days, pre-Lawrence?

In my optimistic view, the RIBA has enormous potential as an agent for change with the power to promote excellent architecture, urbanism and environmental justice, globally. However, it must first modernise to become transparent, inclusive, accountable and open to members of all cultures.

As the RIBA nears its 200th anniversary, I am confident that most architects look forward to a 21st-century RIBA leading an architectural profession, befitting Stephen Lawrence and the many talented young people from all family backgrounds. As Lenny Henry said in his recent tribute to Stephen Lawrence, we must be optimistic – ‘Out of poison, medicine comes.’

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • anonymous

    Elsie Owusu needs to listen to Candace Owens.

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  • Gordon  Gibb

    Elsie Owusu appears to mention confirmed activity undertaken by the RIBA in the statement,

    "The routine use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), gagging clauses and pay-offs to settle complaints of discrimination and harassment... The RIBA is no exception."

    This is followed by a slightly less worrying comment relating to RIBA Council in respect of which Elsie says,

    "... gagging clauses are firmly put in place."

    If these statements are absolutely correct, I think the profession and the members of this body should be put in a position to know about them.

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  • Surely as a black woman, Elsie Owusu is better placed than Kate Macintosh to speak of her inter-sectional experiences of the RIBA. For Macintosh to publicly invalidate Owusu as she is bidding to be the next RIBA president ironically supports the institutional discrimination that Owusu describes. My understanding as a RIBA member is that the body is suppose to represent all its members, and not all our voices and experiences of the RIBA are the same. In order to improve for all, all our voices must be heard. Otherwise, who gets to decide what is valid and deserves to be heard, and what is dismissed as "poor judgement"?

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  • Yes Owusu! Speak for the people! The architectural profession is filled with racism. From employers discriminating to clients not getting back to architects once they realise they are black. It is a very hostile environment. Kate Macintosh can not speak for what she has not experienced and she can not silence someone else's experiences. In doing so she is enacting the exact problem Owusu is trying to address!

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