February 2017

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Social Change and Equality with Carol Shapiro, BWAF


March 19-20, the Museum will host Built By Women: DC (BxW DC), a competition designed to recognize, document, and celebrate women in the built environment field, particularly here in Washington, D.C. Carol Shapiro, the executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), works to change the culture for women in built environment professions by researching, documenting, and educating the public about their work. Through BWAF, Shapiro helped design BxW both in New York City in 2014, and now in Washington, D.C. The Museum spoke with Shapiro about BxW, her work in creating social change, and the future of equality in the built environment professions.

National Building Museum Online: What drew you to the important work done at BWAF?

Carol Shapiro: I do have a personal connection to the concept of gender inequality—I was the only woman in my field working on jail and prison reform in the 1970s. Overall, I am drawn to the mission in terms of gender issues, and I really had no idea women were dropping out of the profession that rapidly. I had no idea that the places where we live, work, and play are influenced by women in design, engineering, and construction. It is not just about gender, however. Women are a major building block in the built environment professions, but are very rarely noted, so documentation is necessary. We are also not creating enough role models for young girls and women in built environment professions, and this too needs to change.

NBM Online: BxW looks to inspire students into pursuing careers in STE(A)M. If you could say one thing to a student thinking about entering a profession in the built environment, what would it be?

CS: My advice is for everyone, men included, and regardless of profession: you have to take risks. You have to follow your passion. And you have to stay true to yourself.

NBM Online: BxW has made strides in representing women professionals in the built environments of both New York City and D.C. What do you envision for the future of BxW, both nationally and internationally?

CS: My hope for BxW is to have it live online. This would provide an opportunity for a wide range of students to do their own BxW research. It will also let different communities utilize their differences in more nuanced BxW competitions and research. This is actually a request that came from the field, so we know that it will do well. I like the crowd-sourcing methodology—it brings us closer to the diverse nature of communities. We still wants to continue the professional and geographic groupings, but having an online platform can also make it more affordable and available.

In terms of BWAF as a whole, we are continuing to put women in history books, as well as documenting women who have done amazing things. We work to change the culture through education on many platforms, and also continue collaborating with the "Large Industry Leaders Roundtable", where we work with large organizations on retaining and supporting women. BWAF and BxW also give women an opportunity to apply for and win awards that they might now normally have access.

NBM Online: BWAF’s main mission, which includes “documenting women’s work, educating the public and transforming industry practice,” is at the heart of BxW. In the end, what is your hope for women in built environment professions?

CS: That they are supported, retained, and promoted—and recognition is key to making this happen. I am not an engineer or an architect, but in my experience in this global world, we need to engage men in the conversation, and bring women to that table to make this recognition possible.

NBM Online: Your work began not specifically in the built environment, but with a career building organizations such has La Bodega de la Familia and Family Justice, Inc. Your more recent launch of The Shapiro Justice Initiative works along those lines, and looks at using art as a stimulus for social justice reform. Do you feel the built environment fits into an initiative such as this?

CS: My interest in creating social change started at 16. I’m a change-maker, someone who challenges the status quo. The lessons I learned in my earlier work translate easily to BWAF. As more of a built environment outsider, I have a perspective not specifically based in the technology, but in how you frame social change, which is what BWAF is all about.

In my previous work and at BWAF, I believe using creativity is important in creating social change. There are also parallels between The Shapiro Justice Initiative and our work at BWAF. My approach for creating change is often non-didactic and is also very visual, and this helps promote conversation and action. The work at BWAF often relies on imagery and documentation, just as my work at organizations like La Bodega and Shapiro Justice Initiative. It’s all about a different way of storytelling, and that is what BWAF is doing; we’re promoting stories of large groups and individuals. I even designed a class at Columbia University titled “Rethinking Criminal Justice,” to think about different and innovative ways of creating change.

I am also a trained hypnotist—when I worked in the Prince George’s County Jail, I used this technique to relax inmates and drug users. Through this experience, I realized that we are all using a combination of visual, kinetic, and auditory experiences for learning, and that using these to weave issues together can help create change as well.

NBM Online: Equity by Design (EQxD), a committee from AIA San Francisco, is creating a new survey this year pertaining to equity in the design fields, similar to “The Missing 32% Project” in 2014. What are your aspirations for the answer to this survey? How has the field changed since you’ve entered the profession? Will there ever be a time of equal representation of women in the built environment?

CS: Their work is very influential in what BWAF does. They have helped the industry realize that data is a tool, and they use that data to inform the field—you can’t escape it.

There is a very significant difference in how the field has changed since I entered two years ago. But even though the conversation is changing, but there is still a long way to go. It is not just about what the field is doing wrong, but making the process easier and equal for women and men. Success in this endeavor also goes beyond just representation, but it includes documentation, and women in leadership positions. 
In the end, I am an eternal optimist. I want women to be able to present the best versions of themselves through the built environment professions.

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