"I wanted to be sure we were all coming from the same place as far as definitions of things like racial equity and an understanding of the demographic breakdown of our students."
At Bridgewater State University a great deal of attention is paid to improving racial justice and equity. Now that practice is extending to the construction and renovation of buildings on campus.
“We usually don’t think about this, but buildings in the United States were designed by and built for white men,” said Karen Jason, vice president of operations. “And architectural schools have trained us to build this way.”
What if there was an alternative?
Asking that question led Ms. Jason and her colleagues to consider methods to make buildings, and even the process of planning and constructing them, more equitable. Fortunately, they also had an excellent test case in the Burnell Hall renovation project, which is now underway.
Guided by the go-to book on the subject, From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux and Lynn Pasquerella, a new era of facilities planning and construction at BSU was launched.
The book suggests four key questions that administrators should consider when planning:
- In what ways could this practice, program or policy disadvantage minoritized students?
- Who, by race and ethnicity, is most likely to benefit?
- How did the architects take racial equity into account?
- Who, by race and ethnicity, might not meet criteria that determine who qualifies to benefit?
The first step was asking the team responsible for the Burnell renovation to undergo training through the Division of Student Success and Diversity at BSU.
“I wanted to be sure we were all coming from the same place as far as definitions of things like racial equity and an understanding of the demographic breakdown of our students,” Ms. Jason said.
As planning for the new Burnell Hall began, focus groups were held with students from the Lewis and Gaines Center for Inclusion and Equity, Martin Richard Institute for Social Justice, Residence Hall Association, GLBTA Pride Center and various colleges from across campus. Present for these meetings were Capital Planning personnel, the architectural firm of Miller Dyer Spears Architects, and representatives from the commonwealth’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance.
The questions asked of the students centered on matters such as: What spaces are most welcoming on campus? What spaces are least welcoming? What characteristics of a building help you feel safe and provide a sense of belonging? What are your most preferred spaces on campus? There were also questions specifically about the design and renovation of Burnell Hall.
“We had groups of 25 students who really provided some great input,” Ms. Jason said.
When it came time to put the designer and construction management out to bid, it contained language highlighting the importance of racial justice and equity to the BSU community, explained the critical nature of the university’s equity-related goals for minoritized students and articulated the expectation that the project’s workforce reflect the demographics of BSU’s student body.
So impressed by this approach, administrators at the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance invited BSU to present these ideas to them and their colleagues.
Being equity-minded is relatively new to the construction industry, and Ms. Jason is intent on making sure BSU is on the cutting edge of this growing movement.
“It’s been exciting; whether it’s going to be groundbreaking and transformational, I don’t know,” she said. “But we’re going to stick with it and listen to students’ voices, voices that haven’t been heard, and we plan to elevate those voices.”