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Want to tackle representation? Here's what not to do

Beware of getting involved in initiatives that give the appearance of change without actually doing anything meaningful, says Dr Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City

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Working groups: tokenism or meaningful change?
Working groups: tokenism or meaningful change?

“T here is an expectation that women, people of colour or those from other minority groups will do the diversity work of the institution or planning process on top of the job that they were actually hired to do,” says Dr Leslie Kern, academic and author of Feminist City.

 

In her talk for Festival of Place: Gender Equal Cities, Kern tackles what not to do when tackling representation with four clear don’ts – tokenism, exploitation, symbolism as a substitute for change and symbolism as a form of displacement – now available on The Developer Podcast.

 

Kern warns about what can happen when well-meaning initiatives can backfire, especially when organisations tackle issues of representation without actually making meaningful change.

 

Listen to the podcast here, sponsored by IE School of Architecture and Design.

 

The Masters in Real Estate Development at IE School of Architecture and Design examines the various aspects of the development process and relates them to the broader context of the city. The Women Scholarships initiated by the IE Foundation encourage women to continue on their path toward excellence.

 

 

“Even well-meaning ideas, like having say women architects in a firm mentor other women architects, can end up being unsustainable and problematic because all of the labour associated with change is being loaded onto those who are already disadvantaged. And guess who isn’t doing that work?

 

Kern explains how tokenism can morph into exploitation, ’adding insult to injury’ when the difficult work of change becomes unpaid labour: “This work might include drafting equity policies for the organisation, training other staff in diversity or equity issues, participating in all hiring practices, recruiting diverse participants... sitting on endless committees and taskforces, and all of this without extra compensation and no acknowledgement of the emotional toll that this kinds of work takes.

 

Another problem is that the work “often goes nowhere”.

 

“Institutions want to show that these processes are happening, that reports are being written, and that policies are developed, but they don’t actually really want that fundamental deep-level of change, so that brick wall remains in place.

 

“The workers are creating the appearance that there’s a commitment to change, but at a more systemic or structural level, things are not being altered very much.

 

Kern describes how representation in urban space can also undermine change, when symbolism takes the place of meaningful action. “Symbolism as a substitute for change... is when a representational shift is used to disguise that little meaningful action, or ongoing harm, is happening.”

 

An example is a flag being flown at half mast or the removal of a statue - “[Tearing down statues] is a victory, but it can sometimes be pointed to as evidence that somehow real change is going that disguises inaction or real harm"

 

Kern uses the example of corporations using the Pride flag without making a social justice or political commitments, "pink washing" their past or present sins. Kern also points to the Canadian government flying flags at half mast for the victims of Canada’s residential school system while continuing to fight compensation for residential school survivors in court.

 

Finally, Kern turns to symbolism as a form of displacement in the context of gentrification. “In this case, symbolic representation in the urban landscape replaces the actual presence of communities who are displaced by gentrification.” Kern describes colourful murals and sculptures in Harlem juxtaposed with trendy brunch spots full of white people and shops such as American Apparel.

 

“So, sometimes good representation is part and parcel of injustice that is happening. It’s a little bit depressing,” Kern admits before turning to thoughts on how we can approach questions of representation in a more productive way.

 

When it comes to public space, Kern says we should embrace that the stories we tell about ourselves will change, and we need to take a more evolving, temporary look at, for examples, statues and avoid master narratives in the built environment, because we are going to get that wrong.

 

“Can we think of the urban environment as more playful, invite different groups to take over spaces, have things that are designed to last for less time, make it ever changing...”

 

“Institutional change has to become deeply embedded, not superficial. Representational shifts in the city have to reflect meaningful action. We can celebrate the symbolic wins, and use that energy to fuel deeper change.”

 

Listen to the podcast sponsored by IE School of Architecture and Design

 

The Masters in Real Estate Development at IE School of Architecture and Design examines the various aspects of the development process and relates them to the broader context of the city. The Women Scholarships initiated by the IE Foundation encourage women to continue on their path toward excellence.

 

 

 

If you love this content, you’ll love The Festival of Place. Join us in London on October 12. Tickets here

 

 

 

 

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