“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.” —Langston Hughes
As the February 2018 Black History Month ends, I thought it a good idea to look back and remind everyone why the Black Landscape Architects Network (BLAN) was begun as a social network. I should also state that the views expressed in this historical recording are my personal views and do not represent the Black Landscape Architects Network body.
BACKGROUND: During the summer 2010 Perry Howard (FASLA), Karen Phillips (FASLA) and Glenn LaRue Smith (ASLA) discussed the idea of organizing a meeting of black landscape architects to coincide with the National ASLA Convention in Washington, DC. Smith, a Washington, DC resident and at the time Chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Morgan State University-Baltimore, volunteered to organize the meeting and solicited the support of other black landscape architects. This would turn out to be the first such meeting held since the late 1980’s when there was an active American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Committee of Black Landscape Architects. The meeting planned drew close to 30-black landscape architecture students and professional, which was historic. Although the meeting was conceived as a black landscape architects only event to provide an honest airing of concerns and ideas, there were white professionals and academics in attendance. The dialogue was open and free-flowing.
The theme of the event, “The Next Generation: discussing mentorship and future collaborations,” was chosen to focus on ways that the ‘seasoned generation’ of professionals could assist current black students studying landscape architecture and those who are young professionals beginning their careers.
THE EVENT: Because of Howard University’s close proximity to the Washington, DC Convention Center, site of the ASLA Convention, and its status as one of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), the meeting was held at the Architecture School. Bradford Grant, Director of the School of Architecture and Design-Howard University, opened the meeting by welcoming the attendees to the School and Howard University. Glenn Smith set the stage for the meeting by outlining the goals, which included: development of an electronic network for black landscape architects to share issues of common concern; development of a database of all black landscape architects to better network at all levels; discussion of mentorship potentials; an open discussion of other issues presented by those in attendance; and a discussion of next steps. Smith pointed out that the meeting was independent of any professional or academic organization.
DISCUSSION HIGHLIGHTS: The meeting began with introductions from all the participants. Glenn Smith outlined his experience as the first black student to graduate from the BLA program at Mississippi State University in 1974, highlighting that the first black landscape architect he met was Karen Phillips in 1991. It was in 1991 when Perry Howard, Karen Phillips, Charles Fountain, Ph.D. (deceased), and other black landscape architects were featured in a Landscape Architecture Magazine panel discussion. Smith pointed out that this ‘visibility gap’ was why he believed this new networking site was important.
Karen Phillips followed these comments with a similar story of being perhaps the first black to graduate with a BLA from the University of Georgia (followed by an MLA at Harvard GSD) and the years that separated her graduation and meeting another black landscape architect. She echoed the need to network with other black landscape architects and to assist in increasing the numbers of African Americans in the profession. Most importantly, she reminded all present that history is a great teacher and we should not forget the great work of Dreck Wilson and Stephen Carter, both present at the meeting, with the first Committee on Blacks in Landscape Architecture as an internal committee of ASLA. Phillips encouraged the group to continue and grow so that black landscape architects could contribute more to communities of color around the country.
Elizabeth Kennedy, EKLA studio – Brooklyn, NY, served as the discussion facilitator for the meeting. She began by posing a question to the young students present from Florida A & M University (FAMU) regarding what they expected from the profession and how they felt they could contribute in new and innovative ways. The meeting took off from this point and remained in session for over three hours with lively discussion from black landscape architecture students and professionals as well as architects and other interested non-landscape architects.
THE BLACK LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS NETWORK (BLAN): Beginning in March 2011 the core group of black landscape architects from the 2010 Howard University meeting, including Kofi Boone, Associate Professor of LA at North Carolina State, CL Bohannon, Associate Professor of LA at Virginia Tech-Blacksburg, continued to meet and discuss how the group should move forward. In the interim, Smith began to develop a database of black landscape architects and sent out a Survey Monkey survey to ascertain where black landscape architects had been educated, their area of practice, and other key demographic information. There were 47-respondents to this survey. It was decided that creating another organization like ASLA or National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) was not a key goal of the group.
Given this decision, Smith established a LinkedIn Social Network presence, which continues into 2018. 2012 was the first year that the BLAN operated and currently there are 90 members of the BLAN, inclusive of 16 international members from Africa. The purpose of the BLAN is as follows:
Black Landscape Architecture professionals and students from around the world networking to promote opportunity, highlight accomplishments and mentor students.
The BLAN was established as an ‘invitation only’ platform to provide a free and open platform for idea sharing as well as key discussions specifically relevant to landscape architects of African heritage. As you can imagine, this caused some degree of angst within certain circles, professionally and academically. And many black landscape architects did not want to be associated with the group for personal reasons. However, it must be stated that the inception of the BLAN has had no subversive motives. Not unlike other social networks around the world it is merely a means of communication within a ‘very small’ subset of landscape architects in the United States and Internationally.
For this reason, I believe it is perfectly valid to have a closed network that benefits this very small subset of students and professionals. In addition to BLAN, Kofi Boone worked in unison during the inception of the BLAN to establish a Facebook platform specifically geared to black landscape architecture students in 2012 (an open membership platform)
LOOKING FORWARD: After almost six years in existence, we must look forward to the future of BLAN. With this in mind we will send out a Survey to gain insight into the memberships views on future direction and initiatives. The platform is open and any member can upload News, Events and Ideas at any time. We can all also begin Dialogues on key issues to black communities locally and globally. We can highlight our Work in any area of the profession and share experiences. We can network internationally to become more globally involved within the black diaspora. I will begin this process by sending out a Call for Ideas in late March 2018. Your participation makes us stronger and helps the younger generation of black landscape architects.
I look forward to a more energized and interactive 2018 and beyond!