“Black. Black. Black.”
Clara James could barely contain her smile as she heard her mentor Jay Pitter utter those words inside a packed gallery space in downtown Toronto. James and Pitter were at Collision Gallery to celebrate the conclusion of the inaugural cohort of the Building Black Success Through Design (BBSD) mentorship program.
Held on March 26, the BBSD showcase event featured young Black talent in architecture and design. It also pointed to the systemic and institutional barriers, across generations, that spurred the creation of the mentorship program in the first place.
“I know that the people most impacted by poor design are people who don’t have access to design professions,” Pitter, the international urbanist and author, said in her remarks to the audience. “So, the work that is happening here tonight is radical and liberatory.”
Attended by BBSD participants, organizers, supporters from the Faculty, and community members, the showcase was a culmination of an initiative started over a year ago by James and her Black Students in Design (BSD) team members. It was a collective endeavour that required “a village,” as James put it, of advocates and advisors from within Daniels Faculty and beyond.
Daniels Faculty Dean Juan Du (left) with BBSD mentee Christine Pizzoferrato, whose final design submission was awarded the Impact Award. (Photo by Harry Choi)
“Having the BBSD showcase solidified everything that we’d been working towards at Daniels Faculty,” says James, a few days after the event. “It was really exciting and gratifying to see it come to fruition in the way that it did that night.”
Jalyne James (no relation to Clara James) was one of the high school students who participated in the 10-week mentorship program. It was the first program of its kind that he had ever participated in.
“I thought it would be good for my portfolio heading into university,” James said at the event. He had already been taking a couple of architecture classes in Cawthra Park Secondary School, one of the two regional art schools in the Peel District School Board.
James was initially unsure about how the program would unfold because of the pandemic but ended up finding the experience “extremely inspiring and rewarding” because of the connections he made, the design skills he acquired, and the new aspects of architecture that he learned. “As a Black LGBTQ youth, meeting all kinds of Black students and design professionals was incredibly enlightening and uplifting,” he said.
His mentor, Tamilore Ayeye, attested to the flexibility and enthusiasm that the mentees demonstrated over the course of a program that was conducted entirely online. “The past 10 weeks have been a really great learning experience for both the mentees and the mentors,” he said. “Seeing the mentees trying to find their way through the design and architecture world reminded me of when I first got into the field, and also taught me a lot about my own journey right now.”
An undergraduate student in the Architectural Studies program, Ayeye plans on continuing to support the BBSD program in the future and hopes to build something similar in his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, if the opportunity arises. “Clara and the BSD executive team have laid a solid template for me to start a program like the BBSD for youth back home,” he said.
Architectural Studies student Tamilore Ayeye (left) met his mentee Jalyne James in person for the first at the showcase. James was awarded the Creative Award for his final submission. (Photo by Harry Choi)
The mentors met their mentees on a regular basis, helping the high school youth develop and refine their design projects. The mentees also attended workshops and lectures, some of which were delivered by Daniels Faculty members Erica Allen-Kim and Reza Nik.
“Bringing together high school and undergraduate students, practitioners and professionals under one roof is the type of mentorship we need more of in architecture,” says Nik, who helped arrange the Collision Gallery space for the showcase. “BBSD is an important step toward expanding the role and the responsibility of the University to the wider fields, of playing a more proactive role in taking anti-racist thoughts and critiques into practice.”
Jalyne James and the rest of his cohort (seven in total) were all awarded individual prizes by a jury panel featuring Pitter, Kathryn Lawrence and Daniels Faculty sessional lecturer Otto Ojo. From drafting to creativity and community, the awards recognized specific skills among the mentees and highlighted unique attributes within each of the final submissions.
“The quality of their work, as high school students, really stuck out to me,” said Lawrence, an interior designer at Perkins+Will and founder of the Ubuntu Creative Arts Project based in Kingston, Jamaica. “It’s amazing that they were able to learn programs like SketchUp, look at sites, ideate spaces, plan, and everything else in the span of 10 weeks.”
Kathryn Lawrence (centre) with her colleagues from the design firm Perkins+Will. Lawrence was one of the three members of the jury panel that reviewed the BBSD showcase final submissions. (Photo by Harry Choi)
Aidan Cowling, part of the Daniels Faculty Outreach team and a key supporter of both the BSD and BBSD initiatives, reflected on the sense of community that Clara James and her peers inculcated in the school. Cowling had been at the gallery since the morning, helping put together the showcase. “Supporting the BBSD program reminded me that the communal aspect of building something together makes it so much stronger and fun,” he says. “The process of building something like this mentorship program for Black youth – the values, the ideas, inclusion – is as important as the final product itself.”
Clara James echoed this sentiment as she reflected on the showcase and her future plans. The days leading up to the event and the showcase itself had been a whirlwind of emotions for the Daniels Faculty alumna, who currently works as a studio assistant on campus. Seeing the mentees and their supporters experience the showcase more than made up for the exhaustion and nervousness she felt.
“Having everybody come up to me and say ‘thank you for this opportunity and for this experience’ really made my heart explode,” she says. “That’s the reason I do what I do.”
James hopes to continue building on this momentum. She would like the mentorship program to run year-round, in more post-secondary spaces across Canada. Eventually, her dream is to make BBSD a national program, one that she could actually work in, full-time.
These aspirations that James holds are guided by what Jay Pitter referred to as “servant leadership” in her remarks at the start of the event. James had personally invited her mentor to attend the showcase. This is the latter half of the speech that Pitter delivered:
What I want to underscore is that those of us who work in these professions are not afforded the luxury of simply building our careers. The work that we do is ancestral work. We are descended from people who’ve been displaced and devalued for five hundred years. So the work that we do as Black land-use professionals – it is not just about designing sleek spaces, it is not just about beauty – it is about redressing centuries of spatialized anti-Blackness. We are not afforded the privilege to simply earn an education or build our portfolios. We have to bring our communities, our families with us. Clara is a servant leader. She is our ancestors’ wildest dreams. And I couldn’t be more proud to introduce her to you this evening.
The BSD executive team, formed in 2020, started work on the BBSD mentorship program a year ago. Clara James (third from left, wearing a green top) is the founder and president of the group. (Photo by Harry Choi)
The BBSD showcase at Collision Gallery concluded on April 1. It will be placed as an installation at the Daniels Faculty Building at 1 Spadina Crescent at some point later this year.
The design awards and the recipients are as follows:
Writing Award: Chioma Obi
Drafting Award: Nityanand Baldeo
Creative Award: Jalyne James
Above and Beyond Award: Tee Alabi
Site Award: Kyle Clahar
Community Award: Audrina Stewart
Impact Award: Christine Pizzoferrato
Click here to learn more about Black Students in Design.
The March 26 showcase featured final submissions that the seven BBSD mentees developed in the span of 10 weeks. Project descriptions, photos and scale models were put on display in Collision Gallery by Clara James and a team of organizers. (Photos by Harry Choi)
Banner image: Members of the BSD executive team and BBSD participants pose for a group shot before the formal start of the showcase event. Clockwise from top-left: Vienna Holdip (BSD), Tee Alabi (mentee), Nityanand Baldeo (mentee), Kyle Clahar (mentee), Christine Pizzoferrato (mentee), Tamilore Ayeye (mentor), Jalyne James (mentee), Audrina Stewart (mentee), Tomi Bamigbade (BSD), Clara James (BSD), Renée Powell-Hines (BSD) and Rayah Flash (BSD). (Photo by Harry Choi)