I Could Have Been Ahmaud Arbery

Andrew Sargeant presenting his VR research, “The Aesthetic of Proof,” at a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) symposium. / Andrew Sargeant

By Andrew Sargeant, ASLA

Two days before I saw the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, I headed out for a quick walk to the local gas station mini-mart. I realized I forgot my mask and returned home to grab it. On my way home, I was greeted with yet another reminder that, as a black man, my movements are constantly policed by everyone.

I was approximately 100 feet from my front door when a pick-up truck with two Latino men approached me. The driver asked me if I was lost. I responded, “No, I’m not lost. Are you lost?” He said “No, I live in the neighborhood. Do you live around here?” At this point, telegraphing my annoyance, I replied “Yeah, man, I live right there,” pointing at my house. “I’m going home because I forgot my mask.” Having successfully checked in with total strangers, I continued home.

Later that day, I mentioned the encounter to my roommate, who is also a black man. Although my retelling was dispassionate, he responded with concern. My roommate wanted us to tell our neighbors because he feared for our safety. He wanted to leverage our social capital for community protection. He wanted what everyone wants — for us to feel safe in our own home. I shrugged off his concern. To my thinking, we lived in Latinx neighborhood and had a great relationship with our immediate neighbors. We were good.

Two days later, I saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered, chased down and shot by two armed white residents of his neighborhood while out for a jog. The video shook my soul. Arbery and I were about the same age, the same skin color, and enjoyed the same activity. Since the pandemic started, my roommate and I started jogging around our neighborhood at least 3 times a week, usually by ourselves. I just turned 27 years old. Arbery will never have that opportunity because his check in with total strangers didn’t go as well as mine did.

I share this story in hopes that this will be the last time I have to recall these events. I share this story knowing it won’t be.

As landscape architects, we understand that our imagination gives shape to the future. Our creative power manifests in the world and creates change. This same imagination is necessary for the liberation of people, and our role in that liberation.

With the increased global awareness of violent over-policing of black people by officers of the law and citizens governed by unwritten social laws, we are all being pulled into an essential and complicated discourse around race. The people demonstrating in cities across the world are taking us to task. Now is the opportunity to create a new and more just world that has never existed outside our imagination.

We know creating this new world will be hard work. I believe that most of us want to do this work. Yet I recognize there is and always has been opposition from people who benefit from the systemic discrimination against black people or from those who have the privilege to believe that the status quo is not deeply unjust. Even amid the din of protesters taking to the streets demanding justice, I hear the hushed complaints of people wanting to return to the world as it was or at least how we pretended it was. For me, the stakes are high. I have no recourse but to act because my survival depends on it.

In recent years, ASLA and the Landscape Architecture Foundation made a concerted effort to transform our discipline by making diversity a priority. However, firms have made little progress in diversifying their staff or creating cultures where diversity hiring isn’t seen as a forced obligation.

Black, Latinx, and Asian people working in majority white firms still must subscribe to and endure the predilections of white culture even when designing for diverse users. The compulsory need to change our speech, dress, hair and appearance in order to not disrupt the status quo, amounts to a suppression of our being for 40+ hours a week.

If we are to design a new, more just world, we need to start by designing a new, more just workplace. We need to do the hard work of examining our own bias and recognizing that our colleagues are not truly comfortable, yet are expected to endure the trauma of racism outside of the workplace and racial bias while at work. The first step is to have landscape architecture firms write an informed public statement against racism for the world to see.

Furthermore, I implore you to help create lasting change. No matter what your race, if you are unhappy with your firm’s response to current events or their hiring practice, let them know. Or quit. Choose to work elsewhere and share your perspective with other colleagues and perhaps the world. We must no longer be complicit in helping to advance institutional bias or apathy.

If you are a student and you want a more diverse faculty and student body, petition your school to make lasting change. Consider transferring to a university that has a more diverse curriculum, more diverse perspectives, and more diverse faculty. Surrender your education to professors and institutions who share your values.

We must change the narrative about investing in black landscape architects and other minority designers as “helping them.” Investment in diverse people and communities is investing in the future of the profession. I don’t want “help.”

I want you to recognize that our ideas have the potential to be as influential as our contributions to other aspects of culture. I want you to understand that the culture of our firms, the culture of our educational systems, and the culture of our profession is missing critical perspectives that are essential in building a better future.

Students interview each other about experiences in their community during a Studio Los Angeles workshop. / The Urban Studio
Students working collaboratively on site plan sketches as part of a Studio D.C. workshop. / The Urban Studio
Students examine foliage and learn about horticulture during a field trip as part of Studio Los Angeles. / The Urban Studio

White culture has become normative in our work and education. Without a deep and open-minded discussion of that problem, our work will grow stagnant, our imagination will be ill-suited to shape a better future, our creative power will die. We have no recourse but to act. Our survival depends on it.

Andrew Sargeant, ASLA, is a landscape designer and pioneer of design technology in the field of landscape architecture. He is the vice president of The Urban Studio, a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Olmsted Scholar Fellow, and a part of the ASLA’s Digital Technology PPN Leadership.

The Urban Studio: Expanding how students of color are educated and engaged around design. Our mission is “to advance design thinking for equitable + sustainable urbanism.” Please visit theurbanstudio.org and donate.

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7 thoughts on “I Could Have Been Ahmaud Arbery

  1. Barbara 06/10/2020 / 7:08 am

    I agree Andrew! Discrimination has gone on too long and I will be 76 soon! Unfortunately, we too as Jewish people have felt it as well, and it is relentless

    • Kevin S Holden 06/10/2020 / 12:00 pm

      It never seems to occur to the vocal minorities that my “White Privilege” entitles me to be an object of a racism whose incessant vitriol targets and blames those who look like me for all the woes and failures-to-thrive that anyone who happens to be a minority might experience. I wonder what it’s like to feel entitled to constantly lay blame for one’s problems at the feet of others.

      • Stephanie Sheffield 06/11/2020 / 9:31 am

        Not sure, Mr Holden, if you’ve ever heard the expression “tiny violins.” I’d like to hear all the experiences you’ve had that compare to those detailed in this blog. When was the last time someone chased you in your neighborhood and shot you because you were white? I guess being murdered could be called a “woe,” but that seems to diminish it a bit. It isn’t easy to “thrive” when you either don’t have access to healthcare, or you have skepticism about the motives of a profession that famously experimented on your grandparents or great grandparents without their consent. But maybe you don’t know anything about that.

      • Andrew Sargeant 06/11/2020 / 11:59 am

        If you’d like to continue the conversation, feel free to reach out.

  2. Robert Carter 06/17/2020 / 5:19 pm

    Mr. Holden, Johnson, et al.
    I know that you’ve lived your entire life in the fulfilled expectation that people should and will listen to you. I know that living with privilege builds up a learned entitlement that, when it’s diminished in any way in order to make room for others, can feel like a loss, like suffering.

    On closer examination, it feels like a vague threat and prompts subconscious thoughts like “what if there’s not enough for me?”. I know that men of your generation were not taught or expected to develop emotional intelligence, either to examine their own complex emotions or to genuinely empathize with other people. I know that when you go to Harvard, you feel that you have received the best education in the world.

    Perhaps it feels like a validation for every opinion you develop thereafter. And I know that for centuries our entire reality in this country (and many others) has operated to reinforce and validate everything about you.

    The issue that is now coming to a head is that consensus reality has been unequal for centuries, and continues to be. You are educated men. It is not the job of anyone to offer you evidence or enlightenment, when so many books, so many dissertations, articles, etc. (pick your medium) have been published on this and related topics by scholars and experts far better informed that you or I. You are adults. You are fully capable of finding and analyzing sources, absorbing new information, and evolving your beliefs and opinions. There’s no time like the present to exercise mental plasticity!

    The truth is that, regardless of your personal views, the majority understand that these are real issues that require attention before we can move forward as a society. While our country may have “moved on” from colonization and slavery and all the lethal, unjust policies enacted over the past few hundred years, the “moving on” never involved proper acknowledgement, restitution, or healing.

    If we look past our own white noses, the unresolved inequities are just below the thin veneer of “normalcy” that we white people think holds everything together. It is actually very easy to see. Most of us see it clearly. The fact that you do not is an embarrassment.

    With all due respect, your opinions and the voice in which you espouse them here is in very poor taste. These sentiments are short-sighted, outdated, and harmful in ways you don’t seem to grasp. These comments you have made are beneath you, the organizations, and the profession you represent.

  3. Cecilia 06/17/2020 / 10:49 pm

    “We know creating this new world will be hard work. I believe that most of us want to do this work. Yet I recognize there is and always has been opposition from people who benefit from the systemic discrimination against black people or from those who have the privilege to believe that the status quo is not deeply unjust. Even amid the din of protesters taking to the streets demanding justice, I hear the hushed complaints of people wanting to return to the world as it was or at least how we pretended it was. For me, the stakes are high. I have no recourse but to act because my survival depends on it.”

    Andrew, thank you for sharing about your experiences and advocating for the much needed change in our field and in our society.

  4. Marcha Johnson 06/24/2020 / 10:16 am

    For many white people, but especially those with few peer interactions with black professionals, professors and students, the recent surge of videos documenting the Black Lives Matter movement with participants of every age group and ethnic identity, in communities around the world has been baffling and uncomfortable.

    Being defensive, angry, afraid, denying guilt about small but frequent racial assumptions which perpetuate racism – these are symptoms of what a recent book calls “White Fragility” when confronting racial stress.

    Mr. Holden’s comments would resonate with those who have been privileged in some ways but greatly disadvantaged in some other ways, such as recognizing unfair allocation of resources, and appreciating the importance and benefits of many voices and viewpoints in moving the country toward a more just place.

    We can ALL (even those who don’t yet realize it) benefit from this moment, as “diversity” hopefully shifts from something unusual / noteworthy to the norm. The creativity, ideas, strengths, and varied perspectives of more landscape architects who are people of color will strengthen the profession addressing the huge environmental challenges of this era.

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