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Black Lives Matter momentum must be channelled into long-term change

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As the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps the globe, the systemic issues to be tackled require more than fleeting messages of support on social media says Sonia Waston OBE, CEO of the Stephen Lawrence Trust

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The AJ’s second race diversity survey of architecture, conducted in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, suggests racism within the profession has increased over the past two years. The results are extraordinarily timely: the international Black Lives Matter movement, along with the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on those of black and minority ethnic heritage, is topping news agendas worldwide. This is opening the eyes of many to changes that some of us have known were needed for as long as we can remember.

In architecture, whether you’ve just had your eyes opened or cared about this for a long time, it is vital that you channel today’s momentum. The systemic issues to be tackled require more than fleeting messages of support on social media. What’s needed is long-term, lasting change within architecture.

Racism, discrimination and under-representation cannot be fixed by short-term outrage. They are attitudes and behaviours we should all stand against every day, not just during times of heightened awareness but by making positive, permanent changes.

I am incredibly heartened by everyone who has recently been moved to support the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. Our clear objectives are to remove the artificial barriers which hold so many people back, particularly those of black and minority ethnic heritage. We do not believe that an accident of birth should affect your life chances and we challenge the situation every day through our high-impact and often underfunded work.

We have a particular focus on supporting those aged 13-30 into architecture careers, because Stephen, a black 18-year-old who was murdered in an unprovoked racist attack in 1993, aspired to become an architect. Many practices have generously done incredible work since the trust was founded in 1998.

With their help we have awarded bursaries to more than 150 students who might otherwise struggle to enter and complete the long journey of becoming an architect. Our Building Futures programme has supported over 250 young people in architecture careers and our Career Pathways Programme has supported more than 2,500 young people by proving advice, industry talks and work experience.

There is also a growing recognition within the built environment sector that to deliver places to live, work and play that work successfully for our diverse population, we need a diverse workforce of designers that understand their mix of needs. In other words, there is a compelling business case for diversity.

Yet too often the young people we work with still find themselves struggling within ‘systems’ stacked against them. Is a seat at the table really that difficult to offer? Do those who attended the best schools, and lead the most prestigious organisations really continue to not see the problem? Do they really believe that these issues can be addressed by booking onto another ‘unconscious bias’ course?

As the survey shows, there is much further to go. Until we demolish the sense of ‘otherness’ from our subconscious, charities like the Stephen Lawrence Charity Trust will have much more work to do – and we’ll continue to need your help.

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