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Architecture students and alumni call for action against racism in department

By Reedah Hayder

Over 130 architectural science students, alumni and faculty members have endorsed an open letter titled “Anti-Racism Call,” which demands “actionable change” in Ryerson’s Department of Architectural Science (DAS). 

The letter, published Sept. 15, called out Ryerson’s architecture program for “promoting the inherent disregard of marginalized communities and [playing] an active role in furthering urban damage.” 

Marwa Al-Saqqar, a student in her co-op year of architectural science, said she thinks the anti-racism call is an opportunity for DAS to listen to their students. 

“The department itself is very faculty-centred, [which is] predominately white men,” she said.

“Students have such a hard time going beyond [the department’s] perspectives; their experiences and values are not coming from an inclusive lens,” said Al-Saqqar.

Brooke Pearson, a third-year architectural science student, said architecture plays a role in “segregation and redlining,” which increases urban damage. 

She added that redlining—a practice of dividing up a city—is a process of architectural construction that would systematically deny marginalized and vulnerable communities from accessing various services by government agencies, such as loans and insurance. 

Pearson said she thinks that due to a lack of diversity in the faculty, many professors don’t have the lived experience to cover issues facing Black, Indigenous and racialized people. 

She added that oftentimes she thinks professors “water-down the curriculum, making it more Eurocentric and American-centred.”

Tapenga Peart, a second-year architectural science student, said Eurocentrism within the curriculum impacts students in serious, long-lasting ways. 

“If it’s not [fixed]…then within the community we grow as designers not knowing the full implications of our design. We further the damage in the city.”

“Marginalized students like me…come into this program feeling so unacknowledged because of the way the curriculum is set up”

Al-Saqqar said she thinks marginalized students like her feel like they don’t belong and “come into this program feeling so unacknowledged because of the way the curriculum is set up.” 

“In some of our courses, I have had a professor poke fun at and make fun of LGBTQ+ communities and express transphobic opinions,” she said. She thinks the lack of public response from DAS reflects how white fragility is holding back our larger society and major institutions from bringing racism into the discussion.

Pearson said architecture affects the whole community and everything around it. It isn’t just about the design and artistic features.

Cheryl Atkinson, an associate professor at DAS, said that a lot of the time schools teach “architecture as an artistic profession rather than a social one.” 

Atkinson added that architecture is often a white, male-dominated profession and DAS is working to change that. 

“Of course there is an issue of diversity amongst the faculty,” she said.  “The larger proportion of the faculty are post-50 age, which is the makeup of what the architecture profession was 20 to 30 years ago.” 

She also mentioned that there was a complaint from students about an instructor’s language in a studio discussion early this September. 

The instructor was in charge of a studio project in which students were to build an arts centre for a community known as Little Jamaica—the stretch of Eglinton Avenue West, from Winona to Dufferin Street, with a large Caribbean community and distinct cultural history. 

Atkinson said the studio project is to create a centre for the arts for the African diaspora, to serve the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and the local community of Little Jamaica and Oakwood Vaughn. The centre will showcase performance and visual arts, while also providing training and related services for Black youth.

Treya Vyas, a third-year architectural science student, said the instructor wanted students to make the design more Eurocentric because he felt “Black people don’t make up the majority of the community.”

“[The instructor] thought the building shouldn’t specifically address a single racial group and that a community centre should integrate all local people, and that if it was specifically for the Black community it would be then a regional destination,” said Atkinson.

“Schools teach architecture as an artistic profession rather than a social one”

Atkinson said the department had a complaint from a group of students in this studio section and it was relayed to Human Resources who felt it was best to take the instructor out of the studio while they investigated.

She added that she hasn’t received any prior equity complaints from students. 

When reached for a comment on the case, Ryerson University stated that all human resource issues involving individual employees are addressed as confidential matters.  

The Eyeopener reached out to the instructor of that incident, but he did not respond in time for publication.

The Anti-Racism Call campaign has created an Instagram page, where they are collecting students’ stories of how they “have been affected by injustices within Ryerson DAS and the entire [architecture, engineering and construction] community.”

According to its website, the stories will soon be published anonymously.

In an email statement to students, DAS said it “is engaging in a process to reflect…and acknowledge the role that education, as well as practice, have had in perpetuating racial injustice within the field of architectural science.” 

DAS also wrote that a task force of students and faculty is in the works, which will initiate discussion forums to examine what barriers exist.

Further, the curriculum is currently being reviewed to better represent diverse perspectives and consider “student recruitment strategies for disadvantaged groups,” the statement read.

Atkinson said the department is looking to expand its outreach programs and planning to include countries such as India, South America, Mexico, Brazil and China for the DAS exchange program.

Atkinson said DAS is also revising the course “The Human World” and reintroducing it next year as “Theories of Urbanism,” which looks at architecture planning through “the lens of equity and inclusion.”

1 Comment

  1. Cythia

    Immigrating to Canada is a big mistake for many non-Canadians. The champagne liberal shares pamphlets with their own Eurocentric thinking, and the bigoted conservative denies that we exist. There’s no winning in Canada. Ask the Native Indians how they are treated to this day. Many affected persons do not speak out and they end up destroying themselves such as addictions, self-harm and mental breakdowns, while you see those condos, penthouses and gated communities?

    They’re not for us, or the Natives—It’s for them—those who subjugate us.

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