Amid a nationwide reckoning over systemic racism, a well-known Madison architectural designer is leaving his firm after reflecting on the racial disparities in the industry.
Michael Ford, known as the "Hip-Hop Architect" who has run local camps to introduce black and brown children to the field, submitted his resignation to SmithGroup Monday, hoping to commit more of his time to diversifying the architectural industry, especially within the leadership structure.
“The death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many before them provided an opportunity for all of us to question how our morals and values are practiced in our daily lives, including our work as designers and architects,” Ford wrote in his resignation letter, which he provided to the Cap Times. “My assessment of my own convictions cannot allow me to continue to pour so much energy into the practice of architecture knowing the systems in this profession, and more specifically this firm, mirror that of our nation.”
In an interview, Ford expanded on the experience of the past few weeks as protests took place nationally over the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis. In that time, he’s been active on social media calling for architectural firms, including SmithGroup, to make public statements and reflect on their role in systemic racism.
“Less than 3% of architects are African American,” Ford said. “There are people who are in firms who are silent about this, because you don’t have the safe space just yet to have these conversations. Most of the time you are one of few people who look like you in your office.”
He publicly asked designers to not join firms that have designed prisons or jails, and once he found out SmithGroup was working on masterplanning services for “civic buildings” for a county in Wisconsin that included youth and adult holding facilities, he decided he had “to be a man of my word,” he said.
The firm sent a statement saying it was involved in a civic center campus, but the work does not include designing any holding facilities and is instead focused on expanding social services, though their assessment of existing facilities includes a public safety facility.
On May 31, SmithGroup Tweeted a statement in support of #DesignABetterFuture.
“We denounce the continual dehumanization and compromised safety of communities of color who have been disproportionately targeted because of their physical appearance,” the statement reads. “We stand in solidarity with those who live with this trauma as a daily circumstance by identifying and calling out the unjust systems that perpetuate harm.”
In a statement provided to the Cap Times, managing partner Troy Thompson said the firm “regret(s) that Michael Ford has chosen to leave SmithGroup.”
"He definitely had an impact on our firm in his time with us,” Thompson said. “We admire and respect him as an advocate for change and we look forward to his continued success as a leading voice for action and awareness in the design profession."
Once he leaves, Ford said he wants to spend more time on his nonprofit organization, the Urban Arts Collective, and community work to diversify the architectural field. That includes “scaling up” the work to expose black and brown youth to architecture in a relevant way — using hip-hop as a connection — and consulting with firms around the country to turn statements and plans to diversify leadership into action.
“I could bury my head here at SmithGroup and help make change for one firm or I can step out and scale up and work with multiple firms across the country who all have diversity, equity and inclusion goals,” he said. “How can I help firms make action items to obtain those goals?”
Ford’s Hip-Hop Architecture Camp held at the Madison Public Library won a national award in 2017 in the “race and social equity” category of the Urban Libraries Council awards. He and his partners have also hosted camps elsewhere around the country.
He also hopes to make it a better world for his son, born in December, before he reaches an age at which some young black boys, like Tamir Rice, have been killed.
“My major goal is making our community and ultimately our country a little better than what it was when he was born,” Ford said. “That’s my ultimate commitment is making spaces and places better for my young guy before he’s no longer seen as cute and he’s seen as an assumed threat.”
Update: The story has been updated to include a statement from SmithGroup clarifying their ongoing work with a county on a civic campus does not include designing any holding facilities, though an assessment of current space includes a public safety facility.