The Centre for Conscious Design

Interview With Kenyatta McLean, Co-Founder of BlackSpace

Kenyatta McLean leverages urban planning and economic development tools to increase access points for marginalized communities building their own neighborhoods. As an economic development practitioner, she developed strategy and engagement plans and programs for multiple neighborhood revitalization projects while working in New York City. Kenyatta is a 2020 Master in City Planning graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She researched concepts of space and power within equitable neighborhood development and historic preservation She believes all social change begins with empowerment. 

The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of an audio interview conducted with Kenyatta McLean, one of the co-founders of BlackSpace, on Wednesday, July 29th.

Kenyatta: My name is Kenyatta McLean. I guess the highlights of me are: I’m from Southern California, after college, I moved to New York City and started working for city government there for about five or six years. I’m an urban planner. I focus on community and economic development. And I just recently graduated from MIT with a master’s in city planning department this year.

I am also one of the cofounders of BlackSpace. BlackSpace – we’re a collective that brings together folks that are planners, architects, artists, designers, and we all come together under this umbrella term of ‘Black urbanist’. One of the big things that we created was our manifesto, which has really allowed us to directly state the way we believe work should be happening and the way that folks should be engaging with our fields.

A good number of us met each other at the 2015 Black in Design conference. And that conference was really amazing for a number of different reasons: like, its interdisciplinary nature of bringing together different types of folks that are interested in architecture and urban planning, and then also centering Blackness, which is something that the field [urbanism] doesn’t do. Emma, my co-founder, often talks about the way that that conference allowed us to think about the fact that the past, the present, and the future can exist in one space.

I think that, with all the energy that we got from that conference, folks wanted to continue it. And so a couple of us started to organize each other back in Brooklyn to start meeting with each other through these brunch groups. It was super liberating to come together and nurture and inspire, and think about designing Black futures in the built environment. We continued to build community with each other and decided that a part of continuing that community would be starting to do projects together.

Elizabeth: Can you point to how you have used the manifesto to connect with other people? Or a specific project that was directed with the manifesto?

Kenyatta: That was kind of our first project. We worked to start a project in Brownsville, Brooklyn around heritage conservation. We co-designed a playbook that talked about our year-long process with Black cultural producers and conservationists in Brownsville. Documenting our work style and our process over the 12 month Brownsville project, a part of that became what you see in the manifesto.

That was kind of more towards the beginning: that we were recognizing the values that we had talked about at our brunches and then how we wanted to put those in practice. 

That work [in Brownsville] focused around heritage conservation allowed us to meet, understand, and map different, important, historic heritage spaces for folks in Brownsville, and also meet a lot of the different Brownsville conservationists. The network of folks that are producing and preserving culture and figuring out how we could be helpful to their interests or needs. 

Elizabeth: To speak on these 14 Manifesto points: I really liked this “create circles, not lines.” And this idea of creating “less hierarchy and more dialogue,” and I think coupled with this “promote excellence, manifest the future and reckon with the past to build the future.” I kind of see those threads in your mention of the Black in Design conference. With the past, present, and future, in one room. Can you speak a little bit more about the Brownsville project and how you’re looking at the past, present, and future, as well as this idea of creating less hierarchy in your design practice?

Kenyatta: Yeah, so I mean, starting with ‘create circles, not lines’, like I think that that is just a really, really important principle to us. The way our manifesto works, we hope that it works for everyone. This is a way for us to reflect on how we work as a team. And then also, how do we work with other teams that we do projects with? Whether that’s at the neighborhood level or in a different kind of community space. 

So creating circles often means questioning, not so much questioning, but just leaning into creating space where power can be shared. And that really values the different expertise coming from folks. And so I think in Brownsville that particularly looked like us committing to try working to amplify community leaders and celebrating their local culture and spaces and building a community between that network of cultural producers. So we know everyone can be in their silos, working, but we also know that there’s power in people. Allowing ourselves to be kind tools or helpful in terms of building that community is a way to build a circle.

In terms of “reckon with the past to build the future,” that really came from our understanding and really wanting to communicate the importance of reflection, and really being able to think about the work we’re doing. I think often because of, (and this goes into another one of our principles which is: move at the speed of trust), time and this need for efficiency, and this need of executing a project on a certain timeline, we don’t build in, I won’t say ‘we’ – I think too many architectures, urban planners or designers do not build in time for reflection. That is something that is really important to us.

In Brownsville, we were able to create these reflection spaces within our process and then use those to allow us to really look at and realize our mistakes, highlight any of our successes, plan our next steps, and really start to question and think about, okay, was that okay? Why did we do this way? Was this like our traditional training? And is that actually helpful? And what should we be learning? The past is obviously bound to us as we’re living in our present, and we have to be okay with highlighting and questioning and moving with it and communicating with it.

I think that with “manifest the future and promote excellence,” I mean, manifesting a future is very important for Black people, because, for a lot of us, we haven’t been able to make those spaces for ourselves. I think so much is focused on surviving the present. Or sometimes everyone is more comfortable and interested in talking about what we survived in the past that we’re not given the space that we deserve to talk about what our future looks like. And so we continue to make space for ourselves to do that. 

We want to make sure that the future is something that we’re talking about, for ourselves and with the communities that we work in. That’s really important for us because it’s something that often gets skipped. We often talk about Black survival in the present or Black survival during the past, but not so much about how we will thrive or are going to thrive in the future and promote excellence. There is just recognizing that Black communities and Black people deserve excellence. We always make sure that we’re doing that, and we do that through a process of testing and refinement and implementation that allows us to get feedback from folks and further build-out, whatever we are doing. 

Elizabeth: Following this thread of what you think the architectural profession in practice could do better. The architectural practice is kind of rooted in, in projects, as opposed to long term commitment, right? We kind of enter into the mind-frame that we have this project and we go through the steps and once we finish it, we’re kind of done and we don’t have to return to it. How does this idea of manifesting the future and promoting excellence play into the need for long term commitment from architects and their projects?

Kenyatta: It’s still going back to creating circles and not lines, right? Because think about projects where, you know, as executors of projects, whether it be architects, urban planners, etc. there’s a power dynamic there, and the reason why folks want to execute a project is to connect with a community or connect with the community only to do a project. 

I think that this connects to this idea of fostering personal communal evolution. We know that relationships are important. That’s something that, for BlackSpace, has continued to be important for us. Because many of us are, you know, sitting in spaces where we’re the one or one of the two Black people on our team or organization. 

That is a lonely kind of place to be in. And so, creating a community with each other was extremely valuable for us. Really thinking about how we can grow as a group and not thinking so much about just the individual, but also our collective value. Getting back to your question, focusing on the communal aspect of why you’re doing the project, and thinking about planning with people instead of planning for people. 

I mean also I’ll say I’m a planner. I think the joke between some planners and architects is that we care about people and architects care about buildings. 

Elizabeth: It’s certainly a question of how the built environment promotes equity or promotes inequality. But I think that within the profession, there’s also a fair amount of work that needs to be done in terms of having more Black architects who are working with communities and in major offices. 

Kenyatta: It starts at the place of learning and how we train architects. If we open up a lot of our major architecture or planning school’s core syllabi, they often do not include Black practitioners or Indigenous practitioners. That means that we’re schooling folks in an idea of knowledge that says this field has not been impacted by Black people. And that’s a very strong statement to make. That’s not true. We know Indigenous communities have had such an impact on the way people are building or planning.

That’s why we talk about unlearning our traditional training because we recognize that it was quite biased and quite untrue. There have been great architects and planners, a small amount that we talk about in school. And then there are a lot that never see the light of day in our mainstream classrooms and that’s a problem. 

We then go into a world where many architects will talk about. It’s funny, I was just listening to a podcast by Mabel O. Wilson, who’s a professor at Columbia, and she was talking about architecture school and how, you know, it was not until she was in outside of her undergrad program that she was able to start to think about how culture and architecture could kind of live together in the studio, because the default often is whiteness. 

That makes it hard and difficult sometimes to put language to it. And so I think that that is just very telling of what the field is trying to focus on and who the field will then be able to impact and feed and what communities will be really impacted in a positive way and fed and watered in a way. Communities, unfortunately, have to deal with architects, planners that come to them without thinking about their existence. The community’s existence. 

How is your practice amplifying communities? Instead of changing or bettering or all the other terms that people use for what their projects are doing, instead: amplify things and people that are there, recognize things and people, or see that they are valuable.

Elizabeth: I’d like to draw on your experience a bit more as an urban planner and ask you what kind of what structures you see as structures that are working to combat racial inequity in the external environment and which structures are working to promote equity. An example: I was in New York recently, and I’m seeing more anti-homeless architecture, such as spikes on window ledges and fire hydrants. 

Kenyatta: So back to what I was saying around recognizing what is there: that’s recognizing people are in a place and then deciding to erase them. Deciding to erase people is a decision that many fields have made. Those are definitely in the bucket of things that are not helpful. So instead, recognizing and meeting folks where they are, that’s the kind of work that really allows things to flourish. And so I think it’s an important question to think about: where is this being done? 

We did a workshop, last fall now, at the 2019 Black in Design conference that was really focused around speculative future making and how to use Black rituals or cultural practices to bring solutions to some of these larger, maybe what’s deemed as ‘issues’ within communities. There’s a lot of different ways that communities have created that for themselves. 

Tenant associations, often their actions are, you know, they’re re-recognizing racial inequity and then doing something about it. Local organizers have always found ways to push to create a future for their constituencies and that is done by sharing tools with one another. In Brownsville, there are cultural producers and heritage conservationists that are doing that work. There’s a group called Power in the Pen, a writer’s circle. They meet in the Brownsville heritage house. Really dope: so many different artifacts and things, present Black history, and future are in one space. That’s social infrastructure, right, that they built with one another. They created a space for them to write, to water each other’s talents, and help one another and it allows them to promote their community. 

Our BlackSpace brunch gatherings are where we started building that social infrastructure for one another. We’re able to come together and talk about urbanism or question our traditional training, but we’re also able to create relationships and support systems for one another. And that’s been huge for us. When someone is – whether it’s they have a new project that they’re trying to figure out or they have a new position, you now have this community that supports That social infrastructure that has allowed us to build, manifest our own future. 

When we see people taking care of each other, whether it’s through physically designing things for one another, or designing, maybe intangible things for one another, that is where we see, racial equity being dealt with because people are actually looking at one another and caring about one another. 

Those kinds of social architectures are really pushing back against – I have Emma and some other folks’ voices in my head from BlackSpace: not always thinking about things as pushing back, but instead, just existing. And existing in a way that is actually equitable. 

Racial equity is different for different communities. It’s like, instead of working toward racial equity, it’s just existing. That’s where we have to challenge and think about how we see multiple identities and ask ‘how do we center multiple ideas and identities in the way that we learn about what architecture is or what planning is or infrastructure’?

And that’s where we want to continue to do our work. Through workshops and talks and other ways of really getting people to start to unpack and unlearn. Not only to serve ourselves, but also because at the end of the day, we’re very interested in a present and future where Black people, spaces, and culture matter and thrive. That looks like practitioners being able to meet communities where they are, communities meeting us where we are, and co-designing work that is going to continue to allow communities to thrive.


BlackSpace Website.

Brownsville heritage house.

Black in Design conference, 2019.

Cover photo from here.