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BLM: An Open Discussion on Two Diverse Perspectives

Michigan ASLA DEI Committee

By Stephanie Onwenu, Associate ASLA, and Kyle Verseman, ASLA

Stephanie and Kyle are co-chairs of the recently formed Michigan Chapter ASLA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee. What follows is a summary of how this new committee came to be, their formula for moving forward and their hopes and aspirations for what is to come.

WE ALL SAW IT…

While we were still processing the news about Ahmaud Arbery, then came Breonna Taylor, then George Floyd, and countless other victims.

Whether on TV or social media, we all watched in agony as George Floyd was pinned to the ground, struggling to breathe with the officer’s knee on his neck, as others stood and watched. It felt like the world suddenly stopped, and time had no meaning.

As the Society began to go public with statements about Black Lives Matter, our chapter Executive Committee struggled with a response. The things we were saying, writing, discussing, did not matter. It was not enough. We had to do more than make a statement. As landscape architects, we are uniquely equipped with the ability to affect change on a scale larger than most and our profession can play a critical role in reversing these trends.

From there, we decided to take action.

What do the words Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mean to you?

SO: As a Black womxn designer and emerging professional in the field of landscape architecture, the terms justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion have been a part of my vocabulary as early as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories of the terms go way back to my primary school days when learning about historic public figures. From then to now, I wear these words on my sleeves and speak actively of them.

KV: As a white male, the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the events of 2020, has opened my eyes to the responsibility I must carry forward. What action am I taking to promote and provide for equal opportunities for all? What am I doing to better my fellow humans' experience here on earth? How can I use my privilege to truly create a more diverse and equal world? I used to think that believing in diversity, equity and inclusion was enough. I no longer think that. And it is my responsibility to actively engage daily and do something about it.

The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee aims to encourage, promote, and celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion in our chapter and profession. The committee focuses on initiatives aimed at recruitment, retention, mentorship, training, outreach, events, and community discussions for our students, members, and communities, inclusive of race, gender, class, ethnicity, culture, age, ability, and sexual orientation.

To date, our committee has fourteen volunteer members. We have hosted two educational webinars for our members that pertain to DEI focused topics as they relate to our profession. Our first webinar “Design Justice and Community Engagement – A Designer’s Role in Landscape Architecture” was presented by Charles Cross, ASLA, Director of Landscape Architecture at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center and Alexa Bush, East Region Urban Design Director with the City of Detroit. The second webinar topic, “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Design Arts: Turning Conversation into Action” was presented by Damon Leverett, AIA, NCARB, NOMA, Senior Lecturer and Adjunct Instructor at the University of Arizona. We continue to explore topics and speakers that will help to forward the conversation within our design community and intend to explore partnerships with other chapters and organizations related to DEI lecture topics moving forward.

From your perspective, what has been the most impactful action that the committee has taken to date?

SO: I would say our efforts toward providing scholarships, grants, and aid for students from historically underserved demographics, who are pursuing a career in landscape architecture to further their educational endeavors. We have been working on this in several ways starting with the creation of our Michigan ASLA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee and working on different tasks through our subcommittees. Another example is our push towards the incorporation and establishment of a new charitable foundation, the Michigan Chapter American Society of Landscape Architects Foundation. As of October 2020, our 501c3 has been formally incorporated and we hope to receive IRS approval in the first quarter of 2021. Special thanks to the Executive Committee of the Michigan ASLA in supporting the funding of our legal team to make this foundation a reality.

KV: There are many. I am still amazed at how far we have come in a few short months. If I had to pick one, I would say I am most proud of how quickly our call to action was answered by our membership. We have a strong group of committed members on our DEI Committee who are actively putting their energy into working to accomplish our goals.

It has been six months since we formed our DEI Committee. We have established five subcommittees - each with a focus on furthering our goals and objectives. We asked each of our committee members to join a minimum of one of our subcommittees which include:

  • Scholarship Subcommittee: focuses on the establishment of the 501c3, scholarship guidelines, scholarship candidate review and award recommendation.
  • Education Subcommittee: focuses on the development, scheduling and production of DEI focused webinars and events, and the maintenance and compilation of our DEI webpage content.
  • Fundraising Subcommittee: focuses on the development of fundraising initiatives, events, and donor outreach. We are developing our sales pitch to carry a consistent message as we reach out to potential donors.
  • Outreach and Partnerships Subcommittee: focuses on the exploration and outreach for potential partnerships that will benefit the DEI Committee and its mission. We are exploring potential partnerships with programs and organizations that we can support and grow together.
  • Communications Subcommittee: supports the efforts of the four committees through marketing and communications materials.


What has been something exciting that you have experienced during this journey?

SO: Personally, I find the unity and collaborative efforts in our work toward DEI the most exciting and rewarding experience. It is the connection between alike and unlike individuals coming together to support shared values and beliefs that ignites me. We are so much stronger, together in this fight toward equity for all.

What excites you the most about the future of DEI?

KV: I am excited that we are “putting our money where our mouth is.” We already have pledged donation dollars committed to our foundation and we have not even begun fundraising yet. I am hopeful that we will one day be funded so well that we will have enough money to award multiple student scholarships annually, as well as fund other DEI related initiatives to forward the mission of the foundation.

What advice would you share for chapters trying to get into the work of DEI?

SO: For those who are currently doing the work or just starting, a piece of advice I would give is to not lose focus of your purpose, and why you do what you do. At times, we feel defeated when things don’t go as planned, or when things don’t go our way, but my response to that is that we have our good days, and we have our bad ones, and that's alright.

KV: For those who don't know where to start, don't worry about being perfect, put out the call for volunteers and get going. Be willing to have uncomfortable conversations. It is amazing what can begin to happen when you get people in the room working toward a common goal. Commit to doing the work.

We have come a long way since May, yet we have just begun. We wouldn’t be where we are, with so many tangible results to date, if it weren’t for a team of dedicated individuals, who were committed to doing the work, sitting in difficult conversations, and bringing others along in support of our mission. This includes our DEI speakers who volunteered their time and expertise, committee members who worked with our legal team to get our foundation established, our donors who have committed financial resources, and our members who have volunteered their time and energy on subcommittees to forward the mission of the foundation.

We have not done it perfectly, but that was never the point. This is ongoing work that we should all be doing within our profession, communities and in our day to day lives. We need to be intentional in our actions, every day. Our challenge to anyone reading this is to pause, reflect and ask yourself: “What am I doing to create a more diverse, inclusive, equitable and just future for all?”

For more information, please feel free to contact Kyle Verseman, ASLA (KyleV@landscapeforms.com) or Stephanie Onwenu, Associate ASLA (stephanie.onwenu@gmail.com), or visit Michigan ASLA's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion webpage.

Stephanie Onwenu is a Detroit native and alumna of Michigan State University, where she recently graduated with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture and a Master of Environmental Design in May 2019. She was also the 2018-2019 past president of Michigan State University’s Student Chapter of the ASLA. Stephanie has been an active ASLA member serving on the national ASLA Emerging Professionals Committee (EPC) and Student Advisory Committee (SAC) over the years. She is a landscape and urban designer at SmithGroup in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Outside working hours, Stephanie sits on the Michigan ASLA Chapter Executive Committee as Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and is co-chair of the newly established Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.

Kyle Verseman is a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan where he lives with his wife and two sons. Upon graduating with a degree in landscape architecture from Michigan State University he spent over 20 years working in private practice as a designer and project manager most recently with SmithGroup in Ann Arbor. A licensed landscape architect, he currently works in business development for Landscape Forms. He is the Member at-Large for Michigan ASLA, and is co-chair for the newly formed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the Michigan ASLA.

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