Perkins and Will on DesignBiz With Cindy Allen

A staggered lighting installation at the University of Virginia’s Human Resources Department by Perkins and Will symbolizes diversity. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

Black History Month just wrapped up and Women’s History Month is here, so it’s fitting that diversity and equity were two big topics of conversation during last week’s DesignBiz episodes, where Editor in Chief Cindy Allen (@thecindygram) hosted three rising stars at Perkins and Will: Amina Helstern, senior interior project designer, Chicago; Ariana Hallenbeck (@aritaughtyou_), designer III, Dallas; and Mike Johnson II (@mikejohnson_ii), senior associate, Washington, D.C.

During the DesignBiz chat, Helstern talked about how the pandemic has given her a chance to take on projects that fall outside of her usual scope. “I’ve been working on everything from urban design frameworks to affordable housing projects in Chicago,” she said. “We’ve been looking at ways to affect people and communities—looking at equity and living design. It’s a heartwarming way to impact your local community.”

One recent example is Soul City, an urban planning framework based in Chicago’s Austin community. Part of Chicago’s INVEST South/West initiative, which focuses on equitable development on the south and west sides of the city, Helstern and team proposed three ways to revitalize several sites in the initiative’s 10 “Priority” neighborhoods. When market research revealed that this area was a food desert, for example, the team drafted up a design for a grocery store and pharmacy.

For its urban planning framework Soul City, Perkins and Will proposed a grocery store and pharmacy for Chicago’s Austin community. Image courtesy of Perkins and Will.

Helstern added that the city has money set aside as part of INVEST South/West and has begun issuing requests for proposals. “The development doesn’t have to follow our framework exactly,” she explained. “But it’s an idea of what the redevelopment could be.”

Hallenbeck serves as Diversity Co-Champion on the Dallas studio’s Diversity Committee and has helped coordinate events like G.R.A.C.E. (moderated conversations on Gender, Religion, Age, Culture, and Ethnicity) and the studio’s Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and PRIDE Month celebrations. She’s also on the studio’s Outreach Committee, whose mission is to promote architecture among all backgrounds and races by bringing educational programs to schools in disadvantaged communities.

“Understanding all of the barriers to access that populations have… that’s my drive,” said Hallenbeck, who is a first-generation American from a culturally diverse background. “Especially for students. What zip code your school is in shouldn’t determine what your future looks like.”

Johnson shared a similar perspective, recalling his childhood in Washington, D.C., and the joy he found in art. “My mom was a single mom raising three boys,” he said. “One of the ways to escape the city was to escape into the comic book world.”

Now the Immediate Past President of the IIDA mid-Atlantic Chapter, Johnson still serves on the board as an advisor for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. His passion for diversity extends into his design work, one recent example being his Welcome Center for the Human Resources Department at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, which featured a symbolic lighting installation that represented campus diversity. And his upcoming Communications, Humanities, and Arts Building features a debossed façade that subtly references an MLK epigram.

As Hallenbeck shared with Allen, “Designers are stewards of society. We should really help people however we can.” Before signing off, she added, “You can inspire people. You don’t have to be 10 or 15 years into your career to do that. If you can inspire even one person, then that’s enough.”

DesignBiz airs twice weekly at 6 p.m. ET.

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