UrbanPlan Newsletter: Glencliff High School Welcomes UrbanPlan
As part of the school’s annual Experiential Learning Day, 60 students ranging from sophomores to seniors participated in the in-school...
“In always striving to be our best selves in who we are and what we do, it is fundamental for our work and our employees to understand and reflect the diverse community and culture of the world we live in. This understanding will make us better at what we do, more competitive in the fields of architecture, interior design, and urban planning and more attractive to the talent we seek to recruit.”
Committing publicly to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is prevalent across organizations. However, studies and anecdotal evidence show that most DEI programs have little impact in addressing systemic disparities. Smith Gee Studio, UrbanPlan underwriter in 2022, is bucking this trend by providing sustained support from leadership, and connecting its DEI work to its mission, vision, and values. In conversation with one of ULI Nashville’s most committed supporters of UrbanPlan, Kara Babin Gee of Smith Gee Studios, it’s evident why the firm is successfully living its DEI goals.
Kara’s personal commitment to positive change drives her work in DEI. Her commitment began with the tornado outbreak that hit Nashville in 1998, which reshaped Nashville’s community landscapes and culture. Kara notes, “When the tornado hit, I learned about banding together and getting to know who your neighbors are. We all discovered that we wanted the same things – better schools, better neighborhoods.”
Kara recalls how she sought ways to contribute to a rebuilding process that would result in the change she and her neighbors sought. It was during this time that she and husband Hunter Gee joined forces. Kara and Hunter’s desire to “use what we know about design and open that up to more people” is reflected in Smith Gee Studio’s mission. SGS’s foundational tenets of “Collaboration, Design, and Community” describes the design firm’s portfolio which has been shaped by the belief that “collaboration integrates all aspects of design.”
In 2020, Kara and Hunter reflected personally, with their staff and firm, and as a part of the North Nashville community, on the murder of George Floyd. They reflected on the disparities his death revealed again in American life; considered on their firm’s recent move to Germantown and how to be part of the North Nashville community; they had conversations with their co-worker, Mona Hodge who was one of only seven African American women in the state to become a registered architect. Kara explains, “Mona, Hunter, and I had a long discussion one night about why and how this could be – I knew several minority women in Nashville working in architecture and design that apparently were not licensed or who had gotten into alternative fields. Part of what came out of that was the formation of a DEI Committee at the office, that made a point of supporting and actively encouraging the growth of the whole person in our office. Additionally, we had a goal of exposing more young people in our community to what architecture, design and planning are. We really wanted to reach out to kids in middle and high school and local colleges.”
In UrbanPlan, Smith Gee Studios found an opportunity to put their DEI goals to work in direct engagement with young people that can expand the diversity of the next generation of professional design and planning community. “UrbanPlan is a dead-on match to what I was trying to start at our offices,” Kara explains. “It fits hand in glove with our goals, saving us from having to create a new program of our own.”
Smith Gee Studio provided underwriting the first UrbanPlan high school workshop at Glencliff High School in October of 2022. Kara also served as a volunteer at the workshop, noting, “The biggest thing was that we didn’t necessarily get the kids who were big academic performers; many of our participants had various academic and behavioral challenges, but I saw firsthand how this program impacted their curiosity, negating previous problems they may have experienced in their learning environments, even though they had not been exposed to development and urban planning concepts before.”
Having seen the impact of UrbanPlan, Smith Gee Studio has agreed to sponsor UrbanPlan in 2023. As Kara reflected, “It was inspiring to many kids to see people that look like them working on the ideas that are part of the UrbanPlan curriculum. Young women approached me about what I did at our design firm and questioned other women about working in construction. Young boys saw Black developers who also worked in the public sector to implement change…Participation of a wide variety of professionals and public officials in UrbanPlan offers opportunities for young people to see themselves involved in their community in any number of ways. The program has ways for the kids to interact with adults in a meaningful way that will hopefully open their minds to countless opportunities to create the change they’d like to see in their own communities, and in the global community.”