Minneapolis

Access to architecture & sustainability careers empowers Northside youth

STEAM summer camp powered by energy kits, role models

Empowering Women of Color

 

Urban Design Perspectives is a small woman of color-led architecture firm in Minneapolis that came into existence because of the determination and dreams of founding principal Alicia Belton and her associate Jessica Holmes.

Their mission is to “design wellness in the world” through architectural designs that promote economic growth, sustainability, and accessibility. UDP is committed to reinforcing their core values through the work they do and how they show up for their communities. One of the huge ways they integrate equity in their work is by hosting the Camp SEE Architecture program. Camp SEE, which received a Metro CERT Seed Grant in 2020, is a STEAM camp that educates middle school girls on climate change, passive design in architecture, carbon footprints, and emissions reduction.

Pictured here: Camp SEE students with Alicia in 2019.
 

 

Making lemons into lemonade during the pandemic

The scholars in the Camp SEE program are all part of North Minneapolis’ 21st Century Academy (21CA). 21CA is an after-school program that nurtures academic success, encourages individual expression through the arts, and creates a safe space for students of color to feel loved and empowered. Their work is rooted in the idea of breaking the glass ceiling—alleviating societal and systemic barriers for women and minorities in professional work settings.

alicia-beltonWe spoke with Alicia Belton to learn more about how the camp was run in the summer of 2020. Alicia and her team had to get very creative to get Camp SEE up and running during these unprecedented COVID times. In the past, the camp would be held only a few days out of one week in summer, where students would go on excursions and learn about architecture in a hands-on way. Of course with COVID, they couldn’t make the excursions and the group learning work out due to physical restrictions. Even so, Camp SEE persisted. Alicia shared that, “for us, the camp is a passion project,” and with CERTs Seed Grant funding and support from other partners, they did not let the virus stop them. She spoke from the heart when she told us, “This summer, we were making lemons into lemonade!”

The staff started working hard on “Energy Kits” which corresponded with different material for different weeks of the program. The kits included curriculum booklets, crafts and projects, information on sustainable design and development, as well as helpful resources that highlighted the work of BIPOC professionals in the field. The students worked on different projects each week, with the information guiding them even closer toward their role as “energy ambassadors” within their own community. Alicia wanted to make sure that the scholars in her program saw ways to make the world a better place, especially through the built environment. Last summer, the focus of the camp was specifically on climate change.

 

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Pictured here: A wide variety of energy kits were used in 2020 to provide hands-on learning experiences.

The built environment is responsible for nearly 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions. With Camp SEE, it’s important for us to make connections between climate change and the built environment. We’re glad to give exposure to these ideas and topics so these young girls have access and knowledge to follow career paths in this sector if they feel inspired.

Alicia Belton, Principal at Urban Design Perspectives

Architecture plays a key role in sustainability

“The built environment is responsible for nearly 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions,” Alicia shared. When many people think about sustainability, they target things like our agricultural industry, waste infrastructure, water management systems, all of which are extremely important. But a lot of people skip over the physical surroundings around them, the physical buildings that emit much higher CO2 levels constantly. In many big cities, most of the carbon output comes from highrises in downtown areas simply because they create high energy demands. About 30% of the time, the energy used to power their lights, run their water, and operate their climate control comes from energy produced by coal power plants. 

Incorporating energy efficiency and renewable energy use into these buildings is paramount for reducing overall carbon emissions and slowing climate change. One of the big ways to do this with currently existing buildings is to renovate and redesign with a more intentional use of space. This includes passive design, which takes advantage of the climate to heat and cool a space instead of relying on climate control. Another important thing to do is increasing the building’s envelope (insulation, air sealing, etc.) that keeps weather from inside and outside from mingling.

“With Camp SEE it’s important for us to make connections between climate change and the built environment,” Alicia continued. “We’re glad to give exposure to these ideas and topics so these young girls have access and knowledge to follow career paths in this sector if they feel inspired.” 

 

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Pictured here: Solar-powered home kits help students learn about architecture and clean energy.

Breaking down barriers

In architecture, Black professionals constitute about 2% of the overall field. To put this in perspective, there are about 117,000 people with careers in architecture, and only about 2,300 of them are Black. There is gross underrepresentation of BIPOC people within the field and Alicia described many systemic “pinch points” that exist and contribute to unequal access to architectural careers. Each pinch point describes a general obstacle or barrier that weeds out people within the field, especially black women. 

  1. The first pinch point is awareness and exposure to the profession. Many Black students grow up without being shown all the different things they can become. Oftentimes, young black students have their dreams shot down by society, and it’s hard to envision becoming something when no one in that field looks like you. This is something Alicia highlighted in our interview, and what really influenced her to continue working with young students of color through Camp SEE Architecture. She finds value in the students seeing someone like them in a professional career that makes a difference and shows they can be whatever they want to be. 
     
  2. Another huge pinch point in architecture is actually getting into architecture school and going through a six-year program. Many Black students do not have access to the financial aid you need to succeed and graduate without a ton of debt. It is also important to gain experience in positions like internships, apprenticeships, and other unpaid experiences that propel you into your career later in life. These are not easily attainable. It is also important to underline systemic education issues that keep Black people out of certain career paths, not just architecture. There is a big gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color graduating in Minnesota. The number of Black graduates is lower and it takes them longer, on average, to graduate than white students due to unequal access to education, under-resourced facilities, and underrepresentation within their own schools and dream careers, among many other societal issues.
     
  3. The last main pinch point is becoming licensed, which required at least 3 years of documented experience in specific categories. This delays the pipeline of students to career paths and increases gatekeeping and the filtering out of Black voices in architecture. 

Alicia is committed to breaking down these barriers and promoting early education in architecture. This will give young girls of color the tools they need to be sustainable designers and to recognize architecture as an attainable path for them. Alicia hopes these students within the 21st Century Academy program that participated in Camp SEE last summer took away a sense of responsibility to understand their energy impacts. She also hopes the students were empowered to think about and pursue careers that have possibly been hidden away from them in the past.

You had this devastating thing happen, and how do you envision things like businesses, food shops, and internships returning to Black communities? It was important for the students to be able to envision what a strong community of color looked like to them in the wake of a lot of devastation.

Alicia Belton, Principal at Urban Design Perspectives

Reenvisioning a vibrant and successful community

The topic of last summer’s camp was on climate change, but Urban Design Perspectives also found it important to think about their own communities after the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020. Many communities had a lot of rebuilding to do after the uprising, and it makes a strong impact on young students to see burning buildings and gas-teared people in their own neighborhoods. Alicia and the team created an activity of soil turning to encourage students to have a positive mindset about the events that occurred. They underlined that the turning of soil represents new birth from the old and represented the connection between soil and food and other resources important for growth. This shows the connection between the burning of buildings in Minneapolis and the ability for new growth to emerge out of the ashes

Alicia said, “You had this devastating thing happen, and how do you envision things like businesses, food shops, and internships returning to Black communities? It was important for the students to be able to envision what a strong community of color looked like to them in the wake of a lot of devastation.” The students were asked to think about what a Black Wall Street consisted of and how they could get to that point in their lifetimes. 

Alicia and everyone over at Urban Design Perspectives are challenging stereotypes and shattering the glass ceiling that has kept women of color away from careers they have always been capable of. They hope to continue reaching youth in our community and guiding young scholars to career paths that feel right for them, as well as informing them of their energy impacts and opening their eyes to being intentional about our own carbon footprints and energy usage.

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