Reflections on the Visibility Project
Based on the results of the Visibility Project, we met with Dean Berke and the Associate Deans on July 21st and made the following 9 recommendations:
- Issue a statement of solidarity from the administration for this project.
- Ask all faculty to engage with and reflect on this study.
- Make sensitivity training mandatory for faculty members.
- Work with EiD & NOMAS to diversify the curriculum.
- Provide more support and resources to international students, especially those who don’t use English as their primary language.
- Implement better systems of resource distribution, such as a fair and transparent process for teaching fellowships and graduation awards.
- Address the problematic faculty behavior identified in the survey.
- Establish a timeline for increasing BIPOC faculty to 50% in the core studio sequence.
- Provide sustained financial support for student groups dedicated to equality and social justice.
The narrative of the Visibility Project will be interpreted in many different ways. Here we feature reflections from all members of our community: students, faculty and staff.
Submit A Reflection
I didn’t think too much about race before I moved to America. My family immigrated to Canada in 1999, and for a long time, I didn’t understand that a Chinese immigrant’s experience was different. Because I grew up in Vancouver, a city with a robust and integrated Chinese community, I didn’t feel othered. When I did my Bachelor’s at the University of Waterloo, the student body celebrated each others’ cultures. We planned dinners for Chinese New Year and Ramadan, and everyone was invited. While Canada is now rightfully reckoning with its racism, growing up, it was always just below my radar. In part, I think, because it wasn’t so deeply systemic.
I tell my friends back home that living in America is intense. Working with this material certainly is. Over the past month, I revisited my own experiences from the last five years and have come to understand them in the context of the collective Asian and Asian-American malaise. I cried many times during this process. I cried after reading an emotional testimonial. I cried after crunching the Feldman data. I cried for myself. I cried for my friends. Though anger, disappointment and sadness were recurring emotions, the dominant feeling I have now is pride. I am so proud of my achievements. I am so proud of and humbled by the achievements of my friends, as many of them faced steeper climbs.
I am incredibly grateful for all the generosity, love, support and time from my friends and fellow organizers. Without their passion and commitment, this project would not exist. I am grateful for the counsel from past professors that guided my approach. I am grateful for everyone who completed and shared the survey. I am grateful for attending Yale, where I learned the skills to lead this project in the first place.
Something that is unequivocally clear from this research is that at YSoA, the design work of white males is perceived to be better and more deserving to be published or awarded. This fact is not surprising, and fits with the architectural narrative we are taught. My favorite response from the survey came from a white male student: "Had an elderly professor tell me as a first year - 'you seem to know what you are doing' on the BP house project. Had no idea what I was doing, was a floundering first year first semester student. Project was a borderline disaster." This quote makes clear that, in fact, bias affects everyone’s education.
White male students, you operate in a bubble. I know this because in whatever teaching capacity I’ve had, I’ve also coddled you. It is an urge that has to be actively resisted because you, and men who look like you, are the precedent. While students of color are given less attention and harsher critiques, you are robbed of the rigour that an architectural education is supposed to provide. You should be suspicious when critics read into mistakes in your drawings, or brainstorm interpretations of your project for you during reviews. You should engage with this kind of work because your own development—personal, professional, and academic—is also at stake.
Precedent is a powerful force in architecture. We study prior buildings, we read prior ideas, and we send architecture students to Rome to re-record the “cradle of civilization” ad nauseam. Precedent has been used to justify one of the most bizarre ideas I’ve repeatedly encountered in my education: “there is nothing truly original in architecture.” I now understand this phrase as a sedative—given to students so they feel content living within the canon.
I hope architecture students feel empowered to set their own precedent, and dare to explore outside of what we now understand is a curated worldview. To illustrate this point, I will bring up the precedent of Seaside—a master-planned community in Florida and the premiere example of New Urbanism. Because Seaside, though beautiful and pleasant and important, is also the set for The Truman Show.
It has not been a cathartic experience working on this project. We were in the absurd position of soliciting and curating people’s pain, and presenting it in a way that we hoped would make others actually pay attention. To paint the ‘full’ picture, whatever that might mean, should we highlight the most egregious examples, or the most subtle? I worried that some accounts would be dismissed as sensationalized. I worried about not being able to represent the voices that were simply not in the school in the first place. Mostly I worried that people would become bored of the repetitive, commonplace nature of the pain.
The responses, if nothing else, have confirmed the flat, persistent feeling I had throughout the year that something was very wrong. Whether there was something wrong with me, or with what I was seeing around me, I was of two minds. When my international classmates were slighted, I bristled. As a native speaker used to navigating a Western educational context, however, I could not comfort myself that I was not understood— I simply did not understand architecture. What struck me in reading the responses, however, was not the diversity of those gathered at the school, but the uniformity of experience to be had here. There was a remarkable flatness with which almost every student, favored and unfavored alike, admitted that the culture at YSoA is insular, and exclusionary. It is this insularity— the commitment to only a few powerful voices, the desire to mythologize the profession and this body of knowledge— that throttles communication.
I remember the shock of recognition when a classmate said she felt “muted” during a group project. I remember another classmate’s tears after an inter-studio pinup in which my work— no more rigorous than hers, but simply better defended, intellectualized— was used to critique hers, and both the pleasure and shame that I felt. Her tears were not of hurt, but indignation and bitterness. As the two critics strove to outperform, and perform for, each other, she learned only humiliation. I wondered, if I were her, would I keep trying?
Hearing my peers describe their greatest moments of isolation, and sitting alone with my own frustration, I feel denied of the education and the experience that I was … promised? Was there ever a promise?And if so, is it not mutual—the pact between student and teacher? I think of all the moments I didn’t work as hard as I should have, the times when I took critique too personally instead of as opportunities to grow, the times I suspected I misunderstood but was too exhausted to ask for clarity, the times I excused myself because no one would notice anyway. All the times I’ve disappointed myself. Have I done the best I can? Have I fulfilled my end of the bargain? Do I need to, in order to point out that our mentors, educators, and this system have not fulfilled theirs? ‘I didn’t try hard enough; I’ll do better next time.’ When I make excuses for myself, am I also making excuses for them?
I remember how I opted out of the class of a professor, one whose behavior is an open secret and whose name came up time and again in the responses. I’ve often regretted the decision since, because it would have taught me certain foundational skills I needed as someone new to architecture. I intend to take this class. But why are some of us asked to choose between our dignity, or at least our principle, and our education? Shouldn’t that kind of sacrifice come at least a little later?
When I consider my next two years here, and the life I hope to make for myself in this field, the same flatness of feeling returns. Tomorrow, nothing yet will have changed. It will all be the same, only I will be stiller. I wonder how I can keep the mindset of a beginner: to be humble, to remember that everyone has something to teach me.
As students, we have a commitment to engage with each other’s ideas, especially when professors and critics don’t. How do we emulate the best that our mentors have to offer without becoming them? How can we challenge each other, not as competitors, but as those who truly want to understand each other’s work? At the end of the day, the people in your class, and not the critics, are your people.
I am not hopeful. I know those members of the community who are inclined to ignore the survey, still will, and those inclined to help, still do not know how. For students and faculty alike, it is much more difficult to have an open conversation with your colleagues than it is to write a reflection to publish online. This document is a witness.
The truth is that the project is strongest because of the qualitative data that was collected. As an organizer, it was hard to read through all of it. The data showed that students of color are the ones that have stories to tell. Because the system is designed for them, white students don't have such anecdotes.
My hope is that my white peers and professors read through this data and come to the realization that simply because these microaggressions, biases and comments are not occurring to them, it does not mean that it is not happening to anyone else. Ultimately, I hope that people acknowledge that even the smallest of things truly hurt us—mistaking us with the only other brown person in the room, not being willing to get to know us because we don't look familiar to you, choosing to address only the white person in a group or choosing to educate with a curriculum that only ever mentions white architects—we notice these things and they hurt us. They hurt more than you can imagine.
Senior Executive Assistant to the Dean
I am grateful for the time, vulnerability, transparency and thoughtfulness that went into the Visibility Project. When drafting this reflection, my mind continued to go back to this quote from poet Mary Oliver, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” I think it has been far too easy to be a member of the staff but not a member of the community and abdicate responsibility for paying attention. Using your words as a blueprint, I can identify short term and long term ways to shift my engagement with you. I look forward to working on these great and important goals together.
Senior Administrative Assistant
It is the responsibility of every generation to help the older generations understand how we can and do better. You all clearly care deeply for your colleagues and fellow students as well as for a better future for our School and for the profession. I am not an architect and I did not go to Yale, but through my experience as a gay man I appreciate what is expressed here as honest, sincere and truly important. I am grateful for the chance to stand together with you. Thank you.
Mark Foster Gage
The YSoA Visibility Project’s data illuminates inequalities in our school that need to be immediately addressed. We have a lot of data available, but there is something so impactful about seeing this compiled visually and hearing the student voices directly. I, as a former YSoA student, current faculty member, and just as a human have—as 2020 has revealed to many of us—not done nearly enough to remedy these issues despite thinking I was progressive and engaged. The knee-jerk reaction to such data is to become defensive and point out areas when one has worked towards equality in their own classes and writings—as this is hard material to digest. However, I think the Visibility Project’s work is important, and, along with other research we have done as a school, should help prompt in us as a faculty the humility required to make significant changes in the way we move forward as a more inclusive YSoA community.
I am appreciative of the time and effort that has been put into identifying and presenting the information. There is a lot to think about. The content reflects experiences I have had, witnessed, and participated in. I feel both embarrassed and motivated. My generation is notoriously cynical and apathetic. Seeing people who I admire act admirably is somewhat of a new and continuing revolution for me. I have primarily my students to thank for being the living examples. For that I am grateful beyond what I can express in words. To that end I can offer to learn from and support you, try to teach and share what I know of the world, and use our classes as a point of departure for expansive and equitable thinking and experimentation.
Violette de La Selle
I am very impressed with this effort and initiative. It confirmed more than a few "invisible" intuitions, and resonated with several of my own experiences as a student. Quantified and described, these lessons will be useful and unavoidable for the entire community, especially the faculty, and certainly for me: thank you.
This coordinated work to produce a powerful site proves to me that the student community is the most valuable part of the school.
Director of Communications
YSoA is a tight-knit community, and we must ensure that all members of this community feel equally welcome, with equal opportunities to be recognized for their hard work.
I seem to have long gotten into the habit of believing this: for an international student from China, it’s natural to always have to work harder to be on the same level as your peers. And if you want to be treated with the same respect (or without assumptions), you simply have to put in extra effort to make yourself sound local, act local and look local - if you can, maybe even cool or intellectual. These always seemed like natural rules that didn’t need questioning, until I was confronted by the questions in the survey.
There’s no denying that the environment pushes us to conform to such rules - every single testimony that came through the Visibility Project survey was a reason why we had conformed. Reading through them has stirred up so many emotions that I thought I’d long forgotten and let go, but I was suddenly reminded of the anger, disappointment and sadness I’ve felt, either as a recipient or a witness of the aggression.
I have developed a thick skin for prejudice, unfair treatment and aggression, but working on the Visibility Project has empowered and motivated me to feel that instead of conforming, I can now start confronting.
It’s easy to claim that we care, especially when all the political jingles about equality have become empty slogans that everyone can say without thinking or feeling. What’s difficult to do is to genuinely reflect - to confront our assumptions and established beliefs, to open up our mind and accept the uncomfortable realizations, and to admit that we had done something wrong, and had hurt someone. Reflecting always seems to be the biggest obstacle that stops a person from doing better. And perhaps this brings up the most important thing about the Visibility Project: before we say that we’re good enough, we need to read the data and the individual stories posted on this website. They’re loaded with emotions, contemplations and confrontations. They ask us why people haven’t yet done better. They also ask us why we, as people who claim to care, haven’t done more to make the system work better.
At the end of the day, many pessimistic (or realistic) people will tell us that people will always be who they are: the sympathetic ones will always listen; the problematic ones will never change. And that could be true. I’ve certainly found myself in a situation where I witness an unfair treatment in the school but know that there’s nothing I can do to change the aggressor. Still, there’s always something to do: speak up. If not to challenge the aggressor, I can at least show some respect, support and acknowledgement to my peers. As reading some testimonies on this website made me realize, the silence of the crowd can bring as much harm as the aggression itself.
But there are a lot of different ways to care, too. We don’t all have to become fighters. We can also become devoted listeners, and listening matters as much as protesting. We can always open our hearts up a little bit more, to make more space for the stories to be told, for the emotions to be shared. The system needs an outlet for the voices of the silenced to come out. And that’s exactly how we make ourselves visible. The voices made the Visibility Project.
The Visibility Project highlights that which many of us marginalized folx already know—that there are a million different ways people are forced to the edges, dislodged, erased, and told that there is no place for them at the center of things even as they are invited to occupy space.
I thought deeply about this over the past month as I combed through each statement, digesting stories so similar to or worse than mine. And with each personal account consumed, I felt as though my body was expanding, becoming more unruly and soft and squishy. The complete opposite of that thin austerity I have always associated with Modern Architecture—that hard, rigid, and exacting geometry devoted to Whiteness and purity, anemic and devoid of the messiness and malleability of real life. In this state of full embodiment, I thought about how much architecture is afflicted by an impoverished imagination, that fecund soil requisite for empathy to take root. How is it that we can be so lacking in imagination when its cultivation is precisely the promise of a design education?
This full body of mine feels torn in two. One half is contracted by the desire to escape existence along the fringe, especially when those at the center can’t or choose not to see what lies at the edges—namely, our pains and our glories in equal measure. But the other half feels expansive in its freedom from what Paulo Freire describes as the “pedagogy of the oppressed.” In faculty’s and peers’ easy dismissal of my work and lens, they have inadvertently liberated me from the colonial relation of having to engage with select ‘great minds’. Ultimately, I recognize that the solution is not for those of us at the margins to remain so, but for everyone else to likewise de-center themselves, allow alternate modes of teaching, learning, and healing to emerge from the shadows where they have been flourishing—against all odds—for generations.
I feel full of hope and a real sense of possibility for the repair work that lies ahead. And I hope readers likewise feel encouraged to grow and expand beyond the all too convenient and comfortable confines of non-participation.
All of this rings true and presents a disappointing, but all too familiar, picture of our School and many other institutions, businesses and communities in the world today. If I had to summarize what the data and quotations are telling us it’s that while Yale and the School have claimed, proudly, to be fully coeducated and international, and have made progress at least statistically, that claim has not yet been backed up by a full commitment to undertake the dramatic transformation of values, pedagogy, environment and interpersonal interaction between students, faculty and staff that the presence of a more diverse community demands and should actually inspire. In the case of the senior faculty and administration at Yale that diversity is still not trickling up – although to be fair, the senior faculty and administration at YSoA has promoted outstanding women - but even more dramatically, in the case of African American representation at all levels, the cupboard is still largely bare.
After thirty-five years at the School, I take this as both a personal and an institutional failure. I am particularly struck by the evidence and comments about how little the social and educational environment has changed for women and students from other cultures. In the sixties and seventies, when I was in school, we thought, naively as it turns out, that we were part of a significant generational change which would replace the boot-camp, old boys club, and corporate cultures of schools of architecture, and eventually the profession as well, with something more open, inclusive and empathetic – and also just plain better and smarter in terms of what architects hoped to accomplish. And so, it is with considerable sadness, and now mounting anger and frustration, that I see the sincere recapitulation of so many of the concerns that have been voiced over the last five decades at least, and have not yet been adequately addressed.
The best face that one can put on it is to describe the situation as a missed opportunity that is still out there, but with time growing short and patience fraying (as with the climate crisis and other intersectional and urgent matters). Among other things, all of us need to commit to a more sensitive and profound understanding of the diverse cultures now represented and under-represented at the School; to commit to actually materializing and advancing our values in curriculum, daily practices and the public face of the School (the Feldman Prize statistics were shocking, but not really surprising); and to understand that Yale is no island, but part of a diverse and troubled local community, a region that is among the most unequal on the face of the earth, and a global situation that seems almost everywhere to be retreating from the values that are so passionately articulated in the Visibility Project.
I am super proud of my fellow classmates for initiating this project and I’m grateful for being part of this process. Aside from learning from the data presented on the website, it’s important for us to keep in mind that the numbers and short paragraphs only offer a snapshot of what needs to be recognized and addressed—what's presented here only draws a general picture but it does not tell the individual stories of negligence, rejection, and silence, as well as what comes before and after these struggles. There is also a shared dismissal of opinion which is the underlying reason for the negative experiences, and I believe this is what this project is really about: to listen and learn, to resurface the conversations that should have received more attention, and to give the opportunities that should have been given to everybody in the first place.
The Visibility Project has done such important work to expose the complexities, diversity, and layers of racialized experiences of students at YSOA; Black students who stand out because of their scarcity in, and often feeling isolated from, the larger student body; LatinX students who are blurred into whiteness, erasing the rich complexities of histories, cultures and experiences; Asian and Asian-American students, who are unseen when a white body is in proximity, or blurred indistinguishably into each other. The gaze in each of these instances is that of whiteness, self-convinced of the veracity of its authority and centrality in the culture and discourse of architecture. So sure of itself, it has become blind, not just to its own provincial racism, but to the richness and agencies of anything, or anyone, outside itself. It is way past time for institutions like YSOA to cast our gaze onto ourselves. The Visibility Project makes that clear.
This is an extremely useful study, which I hope will inform how faculty plan their courses and consider their interactions with students. A nice takeaway is to see how a majority of students feel supported by each other.
I’m disappointed to see that many students don’t feel that faculty are approachable—my hope personally is to always be welcoming, and I love hearing feedback, learning more about students through casual conversations, or being seen as a resource for advice; I’m sure this is also true for many of our faculty members.
Peter de Bretteville
This material suggests that there are issues that we can and must immediately address with policy changes and directives some of which are already underway. More personally, in addition to my anxiety about issues of gender and race, my other discomfort is that data is such an abstraction and I am interested in a dynamic, direct, lively and personal exchange. So what might that mean? A Town Hall meeting has been suggested. In an effort to make it more personal and enabling I would suggest that we have regular and on-going smaller group discussions. I think that our students are so exceptional and value them all equally which I hope is conveyed in how I teach and address everyone. It would be very informative for me and perhaps for others to understand how my role as well as the role of other faculty is perceived and how it plays out relative to all of the issues you raise. Lessons from such exchanges could also be collected to serve as guidelines for additional changes within the school. They might also give us reciprocal insights making us all more effective in achieving our goals.
As a critic looking ahead at teaching next year I do think that finding ways to teach architecture that emphasizes process (the who and the how) as much as the final product is something to consider. Not necessarily because it will show us how to make the world right again, but because it will show us where we - as architects, critics, teachers, students, citizens - go wrong. It won’t be easy and we are bound to trip and stumble. But maybe then we can begin learning.
Director of Exhibitions
I am grateful for the work and care that has gone into crafting this survey and collecting the responses. I hope that this can become an ongoing and even more inclusive and robust lens for assaying our core principles and how we are not yet meeting our shared aspirations.
I am also hopeful that once it is up and running again, the North Gallery can continue to be a platform for students to have a voice to begin and sustain important dialogs.
The Visibility Team
Design & Dev