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Black History Month 2021 – RIBA Director of Inclusion & Diversity, Marsha Ramroop reflects

In recognition of Black History Month, our Director of Inclusion & Diversity, Marsha Ramroop sets out how we're working with individuals from underrepresented groups with lived experience to share their stories, amplify their concerns and funnel, effectually, their needs so that we can effectively address them.

28 October 2021

Regardless of whether or not those of us from racialised groups see ourselves primarily through the prism of our skin colour, society does insist on labelling us this way. Indeed, as the following story (I promise it’s funny) about an accident I recently had in the gym demonstrates – race truly is a fallacy.

Pumped up at the early Sunday morning HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training, I'm told) class at the gym... music blaring, low lighting, it could be 8am or 7pm or midnight, you wouldn't know... We were in interval three on the treadmill. We'd been punished with a 15% incline and had brought it down to 8% and we were finally, sprinting at 0%, when I lost my footing, tripped, faceplanted and went whizzing backwards. And, in a truly comedic moment which wouldn't have been out of place in a 'Carry On...' film, my leggings came whizzing down too, exposing my (knicker-covered) behind. The trainer jumped in to the rescue, checking me over, and shielding my dignity as I burpeed up to recompose it... “I'm fine everyone, nothing to see here… (honest).” It was only later, in the changing room, I pulled off the leggings to survey the damage. Ooch! Wincing, I revealed very superficial friction burns on my shins. Very superficial. And, very demonstrative of the fallacy of race. Just the very top level of epidermis was gone, and so was my skin colour.

And yet, here we are, marking Black History Month, because the fallacy of race runs deeper than the reality.

That pervasive fallacy sees Black and Brown people vilified, subjugated, individually and systemically, and it is beholden upon us all to do something about it rather than just talk, or proclaim “how far we’ve come.”

So, alongside celebrating the inspiring ideas and achievements of Black, UK-based architects and students (take a look at our Instagram), I asked these contributors, what examples of great action around social justice do you want RIBA and the wider profession to adopt? What change can we embed?

To be upfront, it wasn’t a hugely fair question, because it’s not for people of colour with lived experience to solve; if it were only up to racialised groups to do so, the issues would be solved already. That said, I did get some useful insights:

  • students, in particular, would like safe spaces to share and highlight their experiences so they can be raised and tackled in Schools of Architecture and working environments
  • RIBA should create a culture of celebrating and highlighting Black and Brown talent all year round
  • RIBA should engage with more students from overseas
  • RIBA should hold practices more accountable for how they say they’re delivering Corporate Social Responsibility actions, rather than accepting “tick-box” examples
  • RIBA should ensure Schools of Architecture staff have EDI woven into their agendas, curricula and appraisals

Thanks to those who took the time to share their thoughts and concerns. In response to them, I am pleased to share some actions we at RIBA will be taking in the coming months.

The RIBA Communities of lived experience which launched for RIBA staff earlier this year will be opening up to membership in 2022. These are spaces for individuals from underrepresented groups with lived experience -to share stories, amplify concerns and funnel, effectually, needs through to me so that RIBA can work to address them. The groups are Origins – for race and religion; Generations – for younger and older people; RIBA LGBTQ+ – for LGBTQ+ people; Enable – for disability and neurodiversity; Socio-economic Diversity– for social mobility; and, Balance – for women and those with unpaid caring responsibilities. I hope that these will be the safe spaces people need to share their concerns and feel that they will be listened to.

I am keen that we also do more to celebrate and amplify the voices of underrepresented groups all year round in intersectional ways. Part of our work to improve visibility of these efforts will include on specific days like International Women’s Day, ensuring we include the celebration of Black and Brown women, and next June we’ll also be doing more to celebrate Black Pride – as we continue to demonstrate that we are supportive of everyone.

In terms of the other concerns raised and solutions suggested, I will continue to work with my colleagues in the International, Professional Standards and Education teams across RIBA, so that we can role model and reinforce with formal mechanisms the support Black and Brown people are looking for, but also to support schools, members and practices with their obligations too - in part through our Inclusion Charter, which RIBA Members can sign up to now.

I’d like to reiterate, this is a journey. I hope we can act at pace to provide the systemic change required, but as I always like to say too, we must all take responsibility for what we must do.

We are always listening, learning, and reflecting on how we can better support individuals from underrepresented groups. If you would like to share feedback or ideas, please email inclusion@riba.org.

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