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MLK Day 2018: Reflections and Next Steps

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his entire life in the service of others—first as a minister, then as the central figure in the civil rights movement. Upon his assassination, the King family asked Americans to commit to volunteering as the best way to honor his legacy. Americans took the call to service to heart, and millions began volunteering on Martin Luther King Day, which was established as a federal holiday in 1986.

This year, Sasaki designers participated in a week of programming that integrated service to others and dialogue around social equity in America. Some highlights of the week included a discussion with Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker on the paper’s recent Spotlight reporting on race in Boston; a spoken word performance by Sasaki’s own Jhanéa Williams; and a volunteer effort that put the unique skillsets of our office to work—producing architectural plans and renderings for [G]Code House, a pilot program designed to help young-adult women of color explore computers and technology.

Today, we closed out the week with a celebration of all those in our office who have volunteered over the course of the year—a powerful reminder that one of the most immediate ways to change the world is for each of us to help when, where, and however we can.

Truly honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is to take small steps every day of the year towards a society more equitable for all.

The richness of this year’s celebrations was built upon the foundation laid last year. In 2017, we marked our firm’s inaugural in-office MLK Jr. Day celebration with a commitment to engaging fully with conversations around diversity, equity, and social justice. Sasaki leaders also announced their financial commitment to inspiring actionable impact to better our communities: earmarking funds to support any employee who wishes to give time to a cause.

To spur conversation, we also invited two respected local leaders with ties to urban planning, development, transportation, and business to share their personal and professional experiences advocating for a more equitable city of Boston—invaluable perspectives for our designers to consider as they work all over the world, with communities representing diversity on every dimension. We began 2017 asking ourselves: how can we work with all our diverse stakeholders to co-create opportunity and value shared by a broader cross-section of society?

One avenue for expanding our impact is through the re-invigoration of the Sasaki Foundation, a non-profit that carries on the legacy of our founder, Hideo Sasaki. Led by inaugural Executive Director, Alexandra Lee, the Foundation will double-down on convening all kinds of skillsets to tackle the greatest challenges of our times, ranging from equity and access to resiliency to mobility in cities. The opening of an incubator space on Sasaki’s campus will help support these efforts.

Truly honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is to take small steps every day of the year towards a society more equitable for all. This week, we are highlighting some of those small steps—be they giving back to the community through volunteering, celebrating the cultural contributions of communities of color, discussing the softened yet still-present race lines in our city and nation, or simply coming together for a shared meal.

It is our sincere hope that this time next year, when we reconvene for reflection, we will see significant progress in chipping away at the divide between where we are and where we should be—as design professionals, as humans, and as a society.

Please continue for more details and photos of this year’s events:

Globe Columnist Details Deep-Dive Exposé on Race in Boston

On Monday, Adrian Walker of the Boston Globe joined us for a discussion on “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality,” a series on race the paper published last month. As one of the lead reporters on the piece, and a long-time examiner of race in the city, Walker’s insight served as a welcome, if slightly startling, mirror for us as Bostonians. In his talk, he shared some of the most shocking statistics from the series: that the median net worth of African-American households in the city is $8, while white households hover around a quarter million dollars; and that the percentage of black representation in business and civic leadership has remained virtually unchanged since last measured in 1983.

Focusing on numbers like these, said Walker, was a core element of the project from the start:

“We wanted the report to be as data-driven as possible, as opposed to anecdotal. If you write stories about race, and say ‘somebody went to the emergency room at Mass General, somebody was rude or inappropriate to them, and they had a terrible experience,’ the immediate reaction is ‘well, that’s only one person, maybe that’s not typical, maybe you’re over-reacting.’ But when you ground a series in data, then it becomes a much different conversation.”

In face of such disparity, Walker remains an optimist. He offered inspiring thoughts on the importance of using your work to make a difference—which, for us, can mean more equitable planning practices, the design of neighborhoods, streets, and public spaces, or through planning more accessible campus environments that take into the consideration the experiences of all students.

“Groups like this have a huge role to play. I’ve always said that this isn’t something that’s going to get solved at the statehouse. It’s going to get solved at the ground floor, the grassroots level, it’s going to get solved by really smart, thoughtful people, having smart, thoughtful conversations, and asking themselves what they can do.

“I know these are questions you ask yourself when you do work in Dudley Square [renamed to Nubian Square in 2019], when you do work around the world: ‘How do we bring people together? How do we connect people? How do we begin to tear down some of these walls?’ And the extent to which you can do that, it’s going to make a huge difference in changing the city and solving these issues.”

Sasaki Volunteers at the Greater Boston Food Bank

On Monday, 33 Sasakians volunteered in two half-day shifts at the Greater Boston Food Bank. Dating back to 1974, the GBFB provides over 60 million pounds of food each year, feeding more than 142,000 people each month. The volunteers sorted and boxed goods for distribution to hunger relief agencies throughout the city. Below are photos from the day’s activities:

[G]Code House: Not Your Typical Tech Startup

A small team of volunteers spent MLK Jr. Day producing floor plans, renderings, and marketing materials for [G]Code House, a new tech start-up out of Dudley Square in Roxbury. This nascent program, however, isn’t interested in producing the next big tech trend—it’s interested in producing the people who will lead that trend.

[G]Code House is a proposed pilot program designed to help young-adult women of color who have an interest in computers and technology. The founders selected a Victorian-era home and carriage house in Roxbury’s historic Garrison & Trotter neighborhood for this program. The buildings, however, are in need of renovation. Sasaki has volunteered our services to help design renovation plans and renderings for the space.

View an in-depth post on this project here.

Spoken Word History and Performance by Architect/Poet

On Thursday, designer Jhanéa Williams performed two pieces of spoken word poetry for the office, which responded with a standing ovation. Williams has been performing professionally for 17 years, and is a fixture in Boston’s close-knit poetry community.

Bookended by two pieces of her original poetry, she shared a brief history on the oratory art form, as well as video of a few stand-out examples that demonstrate the varied and rich emotional quality for which the performance style is known.

Where is MLK? A Plannerly Look at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards across the Country

Also on Thursday, Co-Director of Strategies and Senior Associate Brad Barnett shared some takeaways from his research on streets named in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. around the nation. A native of Birmingham, Alabama—ground zero for many events central to the Civil Rights movement—Barnett was ensconced in the living history of social justice from a young age.

Now, he leverages his experience in urban planning and data visualization to shed light on the stories embedded deep within our cities. As with Walker’s comment on anecdotes too often filling in for accurate reporting, Barnett’s work uses data to illuminate the systemic-level trends that shape our experiences.

The specific impetus for this still underway research came from, of all places, from a well-known comedian’s joke:

“There’s a Chris Rock joke about MLK Boulevards often being the most dangerous part of a city, with the implication being the irony of the name of a person known for non-violence to describe places, as the stereotype goes, that are violent or at least economically depressed. I thought that irony was really interesting, and how much of that was stereotyping versus reality. If there was any truth to that joke, I also wondered how much of that was based on geographic factors at a macro-scale. One of the things about the Strategies Team, when we get an itch to answer a question, we tend to dig into it and find whatever data we can to offer some reasonably objective perspectives.”

Honoring the Year’s Volunteers

Today, we held a lunch to celebrate the remarkable number of volunteers who have taken our firm’s “Day of Service” policy to heart. Announced at last year’s MLK Day celebration, the policy is simple: each employee is encouraged to take one day of the year to volunteer for an organization of their choice. In exchange for their volunteer time, they are paid their normal wages. The goal of this policy is to help reduce the barriers between wanting to volunteer and actually doing it, and we are thrilled that it has been so successful.

Looking over the list of dozens of volunteers, perhaps what was most striking is that so many weren’t waiting for acknowledgement or office support for their service-minded actions. Many in our office have been regular volunteers at local organizations and events for years—and we sincerely hope that this list will continue to grow in the years to come.

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