Raphael Sperry, AIA, LEED AP, sees social justice as today’s civil rights—they both center on the human rights challenges affecting communities. As a senior consultant at Simon & Associates Inc., in San Francisco, and recipient of the 2007 AIA San Francisco Young Architects Award, Sperry combines architecture and social justice as interdependent pursuits. Sustainability is part of that relationship, and Sperry spearheads initiatives to combine green building with social consciousness.
My current volunteer work for Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) and my consulting work in the green-building industry capture my zeal for sustainability. Think of sustainability as a three-legged stool supported by economy, environment, and equity. With economy, architects must find a way to design the buildings that people need and can afford. In terms of the environment, our profession is responsible for the quality of the built environment and its massive impact on natural systems. Equity is the big missing piece with this metaphor. Real sustainability requires everyone to buy in and to benefit, particularly those historically underrepresented communities such as minorities and the poor.
My mother and father spoke strongly about their political beliefs as I grew up in New York City. They supported a nuclear freeze, criticized the United States government for supporting the Contras in Central America, and discussed human rights issues around the world. I shared their outspokenness as I moved to San Francisco after graduating from the Yale School of Architecture.
San Francisco offered a slower pace of life and easy access to hiking trails. Since I’ve been here, I protested the buildup to the Iraq war starting in 2003—detesting how our government used unrestrained violence in past wars to promote its interests. About the same time, ADPSR invited me to join their board, and later I became the organization’s president. ADPSR comprises design professionals advancing peace, sustainability, and social justice. It’s a nonprofit group, and it seeks alternatives to incarceration as the punishment for crime. We support people like civil rights litigator Michelle Alexander, who criticizes our penal system for its racial disparity among prisoners.
Our group launched the Prison Design Boycott in 2004. ADPSR calls for architects, designers, and planners to boycott bids for new jails and prisons. The campaign encourages the implementation of preventative crime measures which would involve architects in the construction of more-affordable housing and community centers. Unfortunately, the State of California hasn’t lessened its harsh approach for dealing with crime.
Still, I strive to bring sustainability and social justice together through my different kinds of work. Just as architects now realize how sustainability is connected to the built environment at a deep level that touches every project, I hope we might begin to realize that every decision about what to build has a big impact on the social equity in the communities where a project is located. —As told to Melody L. Harclerode, AIA