When Planning Conferences, Start with Diversity

By Daniel Rodriguez, Associate ASLA

Landscape architects, urban planners, and architects can build solidarity with the social and environmental justice movements by creating conferences that use diversity, equity, and inclusion as a guiding framework. This is what we did with the 2019 ASLA Florida Chapter Conference in Orlando, Florida, where I was given the privilege to lead a diverse team of ASLA Florida volunteers as the 2019 conference chair.

As a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora residing in Orlando, I focused the conference team on the role landscape architects can play in moving forward social and environmental justice. ASLA members and allied professionals were invited on Common Ground (the theme of the conference) to discuss these issues. With the support of the ASLA Florida Chapter executive committee, we partnered with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and women leaders in landscape architecture who could guide us through the hard conversations.

During his keynote speech at Common Ground, Walter Hood, ASLA, a landscape designer, artist, and founder of Hood Design Studio, said, “some words are hard to hear.” But it was the words of these diverse leaders that increased member attendance by 25 percent and vendor participation by 27 percent in comparison with previous state conferences. These gains in attendance and engagement are evidence that national planning and design organization need to commit to a diversity, equity, and inclusion framework.

I have highlighted three commitments that you can adopt in your conference planning process:

Commit to Creating a Platform for Diverse Voices

BIPOC designers are not a monolith. We cannot check a box for diversity and assume diversity, equity, and inclusion has been achieved. Including the voices of Latinx, women, and Black landscape architects and educators was a conscious choice that we understood would enrich the conversation.

However, the four days we had for the conference was not enough. When we talk about inclusion and diversity, we cannot add one or two people of color to a panel and think we have accomplished our goal. This is why the majority of our keynote speakers needed to be people of color and women.

Meghan Venable-Thomas, Gina Ford, FASLA, Diane Jones Allen, FASLA, Kofi Boone, FASLA, Walter Hood, FASLA, Christina Hite, ASLA, Kimberly Garza, ASLA, Kona Gray, FASLA, and Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, represented different perspectives as keynote speakers. They nourished our hunger to learn about our roles in social and environmental justice, but their voices weren’t drowned out.

Commit to Making Our Leaders Accessible to BIPOC Students

Conferences often highlight gaps between us. But a conference planned around diversity, equity, and inclusion bridges those divisions, especially for BIPOC students. A big step is removing financial barriers for students by making conferences free for student members. We committed to making it free for all registered students to attend.

Just like the fight for curb cuts in 1972, which increased access to people with different abilities, we needed to fight for a conference culture that cuts through the invisible barriers that separate BIPOC students from accessing leadership.

To address those invisible barriers, we created a volunteer position within the conference committee for a mentor to train student volunteers ahead of the conference. Students were eager to volunteer even though the conference was free. With professional training and access to leadership within ASLA, the students saw the incentive to attend the conference and volunteer. The result was record student turnout.

Commit to Stewardship

When I was a student, perhaps the idea that most attracted me to ASLA was, by joining, I too could become a “steward of the land.” In my student chapter, we co-opted this title and called ourselves “stewards of the land in training” because we understood that as aspiring stewards, we had to facilitate the change we want to see.

Now, as an emerging professional, I believe conferences are an opportunity to practice stewardship in a contextual manner. The conference committee reached out to local Black artists — two painters and one poet. We hired them to interpret who we are through their art. Jamile B. Johnson and Genevieve DeMarco painted eight scenes depicting the Black experience in our parks and public spaces. Blu Bailey, the poet, gave the gift of words with a powerful recital for Walter Hood (see video above).

The threads that binds these commitments are leading by stepping aside, elevating marginalized voices, and empowering the future leaders of our profession. Planning conferences with diversity, equity, and inclusion will help us do just that.

Daniel Rodriguez, Associate ASLA, is a landscape designer with Destination by Design, a multi-disciplinary economic development firm based in Boone, North Carolina.

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