Design as a Tool for Positive Change and Inclusivity
A grant from the GSD’s Racial Equity and Anti-Racism Fund enabled Sumayyah Súnmádé Raji MArch ’23 to orchestrate an exhibition highlighting the work and voices of creators who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color
Born and raised in Nigeria, Sumayyah Súnmádé Raji MArch ’23 began her academic journey at Morgan State University, one of the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Baltimore.
A turning point for Sumayyah during her first year at the GSD was a course called “Other(ed) Architecture: Coloniality, Subject, and Space” that examined non-Western points of view and addressed the theme of colonialism. She found solace in exploring topics that resonated with her personal experiences and cultural background.
In the fall of 2021, Sumayyah took on the role of co-president of AfricaGSD, a student organization that provides an informative platform for the discussion of African urbanism and architecture. Through discussions about racial equity and anti-racism initiatives, Sumayyah and her peers recognized the need for a sustainable approach to addressing racism at the GSD. “The atmosphere was incredibly overwhelming, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd. Student groups such as AfricaGSD and the African American Student Union played a vital role by publishing ‘The Notes on Credibility,’ a manifesto highlighting issues that the school needed to address in order to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for students of color.”
Reflecting on her experiences, Sumayyah realized that there was an opportunity to address the problem and create something both reflective and artful as a means of reflection. This realization led to the inception of Stories We Should Tell, an exhibition highlighting the work and voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) creators, shedding light on issues affecting the African continent and emphasizing the beauty there that is often overlooked. “Design should be a tool for positive change and inclusivity, and there is an urgent need to address the lack of diversity and representation in the field. Through the exhibition [of Stories We Should Tell] we were able to physically create a space and see the results of our work. It was a space where we could step back and appreciate the power of storytelling.”
The process of planning the first exhibition involved reaching out to artists, organizing workshops, and curating an immersive experience for the GSD community. Sumayyah and her co-curator, Dora Mugerwa MLA ’24, researched artists who aligned with the chosen theme of “space, body, spirituality.” To bring the project to light, Sumayyah (on behalf of the AfricaGSD leadership team) applied for and received a grant from the GSD’s Racial Equity and Anti-Racism (REA) Fund, which directly contributed to the success of the exhibition and the accompanying speaker series.
A speaker series, a visual art gallery, and workshops that provided a respite for students amid demanding coursework fostered a sense of community and shared experiences among students of all backgrounds. Additionally, the exhibition inspired discussions around “othered” perspectives and introduced students, faculty, and staff to new ways of thinking about design.
Sumayyah envisions a future where Stories We Should Tell continues to serve as a catalyst for transformative change and a space for collective storytelling at the GSD and beyond. Through ongoing collaboration, dialogue, and the shared power of stories, Sumayyah believes the project will continue to break down barriers, challenge conventional norms, and forge a more inclusive and equitable design landscape. The exhibition segment titled Stories That Take Me Home continued in September 2023 as part of the Black in Design Conference centered around “The Black Home.”
Sumayyah Súnmádé Raji is a Nigerian designer, researcher, and storyteller who is passionate about community design and craftsmanship in communities of color. She sees architecture as a tool to shift living landscapes and re-story the social and cultural narratives of growing cities. Through her work, she hopes to engage and promote awareness of traditional making techniques, spatial practices, and material agency. Sumayyah graduated from the Harvard GSD with an MArch and has a BS in architecture and environmental design from Morgan State University. Recently, she was a participant in the inaugural class of the Venice Biennale College Architettura.
For any questions on the REA Fund, please contact James Skypeck.