Don’t ever dim your light — Any time you move in space to create change, the spotlight will start to find you, do not run away from it as it’s there to help you shine light on the things that need to change.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawnasia Black.
Shawnasia Black is the Lead Interior Designer at Urban Architectural Initiative, which specializes in developing supportive and affordable housing in New York City, as well as the Founder/Principal Designer of Asia B. Designs, LLC which is a studio focused on residential design. She is currently Equity Council Co-Chair for the International Interior Design Association (NY Chapter), and serves as a member of the FIT Interior Design Advisory Board. Through these positions, she aims to bring more inclusion to the architecture and design industry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Much like my career path into the interior design world, my journey into JEDI work (Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) came from someone else seeing my potential. Jennifer Graham, FIIDA, LEED AP, Senior Project Manager, Principal, Perkins&Will, reached out to me and asked if I would like to be co-chair for International Interior Design Association’s New York Chapter’s (IIDA NY) Equity Council. I had no idea what the role meant or would entail, but I’ve never known Jennifer to steer me in the wrong direction when it comes to “doing the work.” The more I learned about Equity Council and JEDI, I came to realize our impact on the architecture and design industry, and then I knew that I was on the right path in life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting story that has happened to me since joining Equity Council has been moments like this article. Being asked to step into the spotlight in a way that I had never thought of before. For example, I was asked to help facilitate one of Equity Council’s lunchtime series in collaboration with Racial Equity Partners. The discussion, titled “Hair Love & Law,” examined race and culture in America and the different ways people experience bias, preventing us from bringing our full self into most spaces. The premise was to have a dialogue around the “perceptions about what is deemed appropriate in the American workplace; which, as we all know, is rooted in whiteness. Striving to meet historical physical standards established to ensure a “culture fit,” they continue to pose barriers for those among us whose natural physical traits (hair, skin color, body type, etc.) are not white. When my name was mentioned to help facilitate the discussion, I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to do it. However, as a Black woman with locs, it turns out I was the perfect person to help lead this discussion; it was one our most powerful conversations to date.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
At the moment, nothing comes to mind, but if I’m honest, JEDI work is “messy,” so I fully anticipate making mistakes along the way. In order to get to equality, it involves having the hard, but necessary conversations. However, the issue here is that having these honest conversations often means one is speaking from one’s own lens. That said, I expect that I will say something wrong and/or unknowingly offensive to someone else. But that’s the beauty of this “messy” work. During those times of offensive moments, one should welcome correction/constructive criticism as I think it’s truly in those moments that one learns the most.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Equity Council was founded in 2020 to foster engagement and accountability toward meaningful change in the architecture and design industry. Our mission is to create a more just and equitable design industry by focusing on four key pillars in the workplace: cultures of inclusion, increased racial diversity, education, and communication. Equity Council seeks to bridge that gap with the Design Industry Pledge, an agreement that outlines actionable goals. It includes an Assessment tool for signers to measure their progress annually. We provide educational tools and resources to use as a starting point for firms and organizations to engage in JEDI practices (Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) within their workplace. Ultimately, Equity Council is striving to become the DEI resource for the design industry.
As it stands, our biggest impact has been providing a safe space within the design industry to have difficult conversations, such as microaggressions, colorism, etc. We’ve heard many times from our workshop attendees that “no one else in the architecture and design industry is having these kinds of conversations.”
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Equity Council has had the pleasure of working two AMAZING consultants who have spearheaded bi-monthly workshops centered around important conversations that wouldn’t necessarily be happening otherwise. Racial Equity Partners has led our Lunchtime Series, which are bi-monthly, midday conversations around topics I’ve previously mentioned. Co-Creating Inclusion has led our “Living with The Pledge” workshop series in which they provide tools to assess one’s organizations’ commitment to racial equity. During these workshops, the attendees are also introduced to the four pillars of the Equity Council’s Design Industry Pledge and discuss how one’s firm might think about implementing one/all of the pillars into the workplace. I do not think Equity Council would have made such an impact as it has without these leaders in the equity sector.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Education: I have been a big advocate in reaching out to and educating young BIPOC students about the architecture and design industry. I truly believe that had I known about the interior design industry, my path to this career would’ve been a straighter pathway. Educating younger BIPOC generations about the creative careers they could have in the A&D industry, will hopefully one day lead to me feeling less alienated when walking into industry event spaces.
- Advocacy: Sadly, the architecture and design industry is not only lacking in racial diversity, but has various roles that make up the industry that often get overlooked. We’re not all architects and interior designers, there are product designers, furniture designers, manufacturers and sales reps that make up the beauty of this industry.
- Challenge the Status Quo: I want to challenge more of my industry counterparts to speak up and call people out when something doesn’t look or feel right. And I am placing a lot more pressure on the white men who make up a large majority of the design industry. BIPOC people cannot always be the ones speaking up; it’s got to be a collective effort to truly spark change.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define “leadership” in a two-part system. I believe there are many ways one can be an effective leader. The two-part system of leadership that I adhere to is based on action and active listening. These two tactics involve listening to understand before taking action. I found that in doing JEDI work with Equity Council, sometimes I must have a “get’er done” spirit in which I must roll up my sleeves and jump into help. For example, with helping facilitate the discussion on Black hair. And there are sometimes where the biggest action I can take is just being a listening ear and providing a safe space for our committee members and workshop attendees to talk freely about topics that are not easy to discuss.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
As I’ve stated a few times, JEDI work is messy and draining but so worth it when we start to make small increments of change. Along the way, I’ve developed a few mantras/guidelines for myself as a way of checking in and giving myself grace for doing this work that can be very heavy at times. Below are my top five:
- Be Kind to yourself — As I stated before, JEDI work is messy, no one has it all figured out yet.
- Rest is also a radical act — Not only is JEDI work messy, but it is also draining. One must remember to rest so they can continue to fight another day.
- Be the change you want to see — I must be a part of the change I wish to see, in order for it to come to fruition.
- You cannot do this work alone — The concept of “white supremacy” and all that it encompasses was not created by one person, so it will take a collective effort to dismantle it.
- Don’t ever dim your light — Any time you move in space to create change, the spotlight will start to find you, do not run away from it as it’s there to help you shine light on the things that need to change.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement would be called “Listen to Black Women.” As a Black woman, someone deemed by society as a “double minority,” I feel like I’m always fighting for causes that benefit a lot more groups than just myself. I feel like when Black women are listened to, truly listened to, everybody wins in the end. Of course that could be my own bias of not always being listened to.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My Jamaican grandfather used to say, “When men on Earth have done their best, angels in heaven cannot do any better.” I didn’t fully understand the saying as a child, but as an adult I’ve come to understand the saying to mean that as human beings we can only do so much. So, when I’ve truly given something my all but I start to put myself down for not meeting an unrealistic expectation, which is most often placed on me by myself, I just repeat this saying. And it brings me back down to earth and reminds me that I’m not only human with limited capabilities, but I’m also one person and the change that I’m trying to make requires a community.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a.k.a AOC), hey girl hey! As a native Bronx girl myself, I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with AOC as I think she is simply amazing. I love her drive and commitment to shaking up the status quo in Congress. But I know she must be exhausted because of the opposition she faces. I’d love to chit chat with her to see how she keeps going. Other than the want to make necessary changes in Congress, what else keeps her going?
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow Equity Council on Instagram @equitycouncil_ or visit or our website at https://iidany.org/action/equity/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Shawnasia Black of Equity Council Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.