“Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”
Against the backdrop of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Steven Lewis grew up watching his father lead a Black-led architecture firm in New York City—something almost unheard of back then.
Even now, less than 8% of registered architects identify as a minority while 40% of Americans identify as such. Through his father’s work, Steven gained a rare perspective on why urban planning projects designed by those from similar backgrounds as the people they’re built for create stronger communities. He also saw how encouraging diversity at work and beyond is better for business and our collective futures.
Today, Steven is an award-winning architect who carries on his father’s legacy as a principal at ZGF Architects, past president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), and the former Urban Design Director for the City of Detroit. He also advocates for greater diversity, equity, and empathy not only in architecture and urban planning but within every industry.
“Without understanding, which leads to empathy and compassion at the level of the individual,” says Steven, “anything that an organization tries to build will be unstable.”
Inclusive Urban Planning Works for Everyone
Since starting his own minority-led firm in 1983, Steven has mirrored his father’s career by spearheading countless projects designed for often-ignored demographics. “I had this awakening and awareness at a young age,” Steven remembers. “I carried with me my James Brown philosophy that I’m Black and I’m proud! There’s a certain joy in acknowledging our culture.”
Unfortunately, cultural pride doesn’t prevent historically neglected communities from getting the short end of the stick when it comes to adequate urban planning. Residents are used to developers with ulterior motives and big talk about how their vision will revitalize their neighborhood.
But once construction ends, residents are usually left with an irreversibly changed community that overwhelmingly benefits outsider interests. This further hurts the already struggling area and creates deeper distrust of future development.
“It’s like Charlie Brown and the football,” Steven says alluding to the classic Peanuts comic strip where Lucy continually tricks Charlie Brown into trusting her. “Lucy can only pull the ball away from Charlie Brown so many times before he gets up and punches her in the face,” he laughs.
It’s an understandable divide, but one that Steven says can be bridged by the inclusion of more minority architects, developers, and urban planners. The truth is that even well-intentioned non-minorities can’t fully grasp the struggles of these community members.
“We’re able to have conversations that not everyone could have,” says Steven. With a similar cultural background—including their shared struggles—he offers clarity and empathy in a way that only others from the same community can grasp. Finally, they can believe that this initiative isn’t just for “them.” It’s for “us” too.
Revitalizing Communities For All Citizens
One success story comes from Detroit, Michigan—a majority Black city known for its economic struggles. In 2016, Steven began a position under Mayor Mike Duggan as Central Detroit’s Urban Design Director to transform the city back into a thriving metropolis not only for newcomers but for longtime residents as well. “The amenities would be for all Detroiters,” he says.
They were also boosted by Quicken Loans co-founder Dan Gilbert who had begun pumping billions into the urban renewal of Downtown Detroit. This investment would ultimately turn once-abandoned buildings into what’s now a bustling core of prime office and living spaces.
Still, even with a veteran advocate for minority voices like Steven on-board, locals were apprehensive. Knowing this, Steven and his team strategized for more than inclusive construction and community-building. They had to prove to residents that this initiative wasn’t just talk. They’d see the results they were promised, and they’d see them soon.
For example, the full development along the iconic Detroit Riverfront was ultimately a 30-year plan. A less empathetic team might have told residents to wait and trust their vision—a phrase likely uttered countless times with dismal results.
Instead, Steven’s team broke up the 30-year plan into shorter initiatives that could be completed within three years. That way, they could prove to the public that promises were kept on a consistent basis.
With this strategy, they’ve unveiled and built an increasingly vibrant and community-centered downtown filled with new bike lanes, improved parks and walkways, refurbished public squares, and more. “Culture in high visibility areas like Downtown Detroit demonstrates the rhetoric,” Steven says. “When you demonstrate it, it becomes believable.”
Steven knows that—especially in these neighborhoods—words mean very little. To make a truly positive impact, every promise must be backed up with honesty, action, and actualization.
Go Beyond Diversity Training. Eat Up!
Greater diversity in the workplace allows for more voices to be equally heard not only in urban planning and architecture, but within every industry. However, it’s on all of us—no matter our backgrounds—to support equality in business.
As a longtime advocate for workplace equality, Steven has seen positive strides forward in the corporate world, but there is still a long way to go.
“Many businesses follow a script about how they build diversity within their organization,” he says. He notes initiatives like unconscious bias training, leadership pathways, or outreach to recruit more people of color. It’s a great first step, “but what’s missing in large part goes back to human interaction,” says Steven.
He asks leaders to engage in genuine conversations with employees about their culture and background. “Be courageous and be willing to peel back those layers,” Steven says. “A true sense of empathy can help resolve the barriers that have prevented people of color from entering corporate spaces.”
And if you’re unsure about how to start these conversations, take a tasty lesson from Steven’s own leadership playbook—eat! “We had a very international practice,” he says. “We’d do these potlucks, and there’s no better way to get introduced to a culture than through food! There’s no better way to broker difference than over a table.”
A love for food is integral to every culture. By sharing in this joy together, it’s easy to open up and ask questions filled with curiosity, understanding, and commonality.
“If enough direct action happens in a concentrated enough time frame, then we’ll present a tipping point,” says Steven. “Public policies, practices, and ultimately social interaction and acceptance will flood through and enable us to claim a new chapter in who we are.”
The conversation with Steven Lewis continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast! You can also watch me chat with Steven on YouTube. Learn about his work in architecture, insights on diversity in the workplace, thoughts on social justice, and more!
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