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Let’s all "be more Rosa," says RIBA CEO to mark Black History Month

Hear from RIBA Chief Executive Dr Valerie Vaughan-Dick MBE as we celebrate the Black History Month 2023 theme, saluting our sisters.

02 October 2023

October marks Black History Month, and this year’s theme, saluting our sisters, is an occasion to showcase the exceptional achievements of Black women that have too often been overlooked or forgotten.

RIBA Chief Executive Dr Valerie Vaughan-Dick MBE

In my personal life, a Black woman who inspires me is Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who set an example for us all. In 1955, she did something that changed the course of history – she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus, breaking Alabama’s segregation laws.

Rosa was an ordinary woman who changed the world with her courage to say ‘no’. She chose to speak up in an environment where voices like hers were suppressed, and it was thought impossible for a Black woman to be heard and understood.

The values Rosa demonstrated are still as relevant as ever. She showed the often-difficult path to valuing difference – one of RIBA’s guiding values.

Valuing difference encompasses respecting others, having integrity, and celebrating the successes of our diverse and brilliant community. But most importantly, it means actively speaking out against racism and oppressive behaviour.

By speaking out, like so many Black British women have done and continue to do, we commit to doing and being better - we commit to excellence. A speak-up culture helps us unify, and support, respect and hear one another.

Rosa Parks at the Poor Peoples March at Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1968. (Credit: Unsplash)

To make a better future, we need to understand how the past affects the present. We can celebrate how far we have come and acknowledge that our work is not yet done. 

In the year that Yasmeen Lari was awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal 2023, Muyiwa Oki began his term as RIBA President, I am hopeful that there is the will and determination in the profession to foster a more diverse and inclusive architecture – but we have a lot more work to do. 

Recognising the problem is the first step towards cultural change. In architecture, the data speaks for itself. ARB’s monitoring shows that people who identify as Black or Black British, and women, are both underrepresented among architects compared to the British population at large.

And in the profession, there is both a gender and an ethnicity pay gap - the difference between the average earnings of men and women, and the difference between the average earnings of Black, Asian, and ethnic minority employees and white employees, respectively.

At the intersection are Black female architects, and the likely implications for Black women’s earnings are disheartening and need to change.

Knowledge is power – so I would encourage all practices to publish their gender and ethnicity pay gap data with the help of our gender pay gap guidance and ethnicity pay gap guidance. With this data, we can better develop targeted actions to improve gender and ethnicity representation and equity. 

If we are to create real and lasting change, we need greater diversity amongst people entering the profession, staying in the profession, and progressing to senior positions. At RIBA, we are making a concerted effort to lead by example and address inequity and underrepresentation, focusing on recruitment, retention and progression.

For example, to capture more diverse talent when recruiting, we are advertising jobs on a broader range of websites, emphasising flexible working and reasonable adjustments, and using more skills-based assessments to allow candidates to demonstrate their ability outside of the interview setting.  

It is only by facing our troubled history and imperfect present directly, that we can start to create and sustain a different future. By improving diversity and inclusion among those who create the built environment, we can better ensure that it serves the needs of everyone.  

We all have a responsibility to speak up when we see something that is wrong, and to uplift those whose voices are not being heard. This October, I encourage all our members, colleagues and volunteers to reflect on the past, and on our individual and collective power to make change.

Not just for Black History Month, but all year round – let's all be more Rosa.

Read more about how RIBA is celebrating Black History Month 2023.

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