“That’s part of why I have a practice—I don’t want to be beholden to that. I want to say my mind. ”

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Tonia Sing Chi (TSC): This is Tonia Sing Chi, and I’m here with Fauzia Khanani for Storytelling Spaces of Solidarity in the Asian Diaspora.

I would love it if you would tell me how your identity as Asian American has played a role in your experience growing up. What was your family home like? Did you grow up around other Asians or immigrant and refugee families?

Fauzia Khanani (FK): I think growing up in America—and I’m first generation. I wasn’t born in the US—I was born in Canada—but essentially first-generation Western world. My life was very compartmentalized. There was life outside of my house, and then there was life at home, and they were very different. I think a huge part of it was—I think the relationship between children and parents in Asian cultures is really different than in Western cultures on some level. Maybe not in every way, but there are some fundamental differences and I think that played out in probably me having to hide a lot of things that I was doing outside of my house, which I’m sure a lot of kids do. But I think when you’re in this kind of situation, it’s very extreme. It’s almost like you have two personalities.

For me, I also played a lot of sports which was not very common for women in my culture. So that was a really big difference too and my parents were divided on that because I was a woman not because they didn’t like sports. So that was a heavy influence. And then I think just the level of independent decision-making versus communal or elderly decision-making on your behalf was a really big part of my life too, until I kind of at some point rejected that, which was tumultuous, but worked through it with my family.

TSC: Were there other families that you identify as like yours? Or did you just feel completely different from people around you in your neighborhoods, in your schools?

FK: My parents were refugees and by the time I was in elementary school, they had gone from being refugees to middle class pretty quickly. So we lived in a white neighborhood. There were probably a couple of also middle- to upper-class Black families that lived in that neighborhood, but not very many. And when we moved to Durham, there weren’t a lot of Asian families yet. So it was pretty divided; you were Black or white. At that point, there wasn’t even really a Hispanic community. So I think trying to figure out where you fit in as someone who identifies with parts of one culture or race and other parts of another culture and race was really difficult to navigate.

So growing up there weren’t a lot of Indians. There weren’t a lot of immigrants. I think as I got older there were more Indians and Pakistanis that were in Raleigh, which was a larger town. But the other part of it is that my family is from East Africa. So even those Indians and Pakistanis saw our family as lesser than them because we were from Africa and not actually from one of the home countries, and on top of that we speak a different language. There was another sort of divide there for us—like a level of hierarchy almost.

TSC: What do you know or remember about your family’s migration story? From where your ancestors are from, which you identified as Uzbekistan, India, and Ethiopia, and then to East Africa, to Canada, to the US.

FK: So should I tell you the whole history of that?

TSC: If you want to, I would love to hear it!

FK: I just don’t want to take up too much time. I think hundreds of years ago—like two hundred years ago or something like that, during the Ottoman Empire basically—so maybe longer than that, like four hundred or five hundred years ago—my ancestors were in Uzbekistan, and they fled because there was conflict, and they actually migrated to India. And they settled in a really remote place in India, which is in western India towards the Pakistani border. They ended up intermarrying with Indians—locals there.

My parents are from the same region in India with sort of the same kind of history. But then in the late 1800s—early 1900s, my mother’s side of the family migrated to Africa, and they went to South Africa, actually. My great grandfather went to South Africa to practice law with Gandhi when they were both in their twenties.

There’s good parts of that and bad parts of it because they were racist because they were fighting for coloreds’ rights, not for Black people’s rights, but it’s interesting. He came to New York on a boat in 1908 just to check it out and then went back, got married, and had a family. His family moved basically up to Uganda, and then my dad’s family had been back and forth from India and Uganda probably around the same time. My mom was born in Uganda. My dad didn’t come to Uganda until he was eleven and then he went back to India for college. So years went by and in 1968, my parents got married, and after a few years Idi Amin took over the government. There was a military coup in 1972 and basically gave all of the South Asians—all of the Indians—three days to leave the country or they would be jailed and executed. So that’s how my family exited Uganda.

My parents went to the UK first, to England, because the British had sent planes to take refugees. So they were there for a number of months. My dad and one of my uncles went to Canada and the government said, “Yes, we’ll take you. We have job placement.” So that’s how we ended up in Canada. Then I was born two and a half years later, and then we stayed there for two years, and then we moved to the US because my dad was a textile engineer and so he got a job in New England, in Vermont, and then New Hampshire, and then we moved south to North Carolina.

The one part of my history that I didn’t find out about until I was in my twenties—because Asians can also be racist—is about one of my great-grandmothers married to my great-grandfather who was the lawyer—he actually had two wives. He had an Indian wife and then he had a Black wife who was Ethiopian. I never learned until I was like twenty—I don’t know—twenty-five that I came from that grandmother, which was really jarring to me because I have three siblings and my brother and I have really, really curly hair and different features from my other two siblings. When I would see older Ethiopian women in public places, they would speak Amharic to me. And I would always say to them like, “Oh, I’m not one of you.” And they would be like, Oh yeah, you are; we can tell. Then, to later find out that they were right, it just played into more of like, “What’s my identity?”

TSC: Absolutely. It’s such an incredible story about your identity and all the histories you now embody. I did find it interesting that on the survey when I asked how you would describe your racial ethnic identity, you answered Asian American. Given all that you just told me, I would love to hear more about what goes through your mind when you’re trying to answer that question and also what your relationship is with the term Asian. Do you feel like that label or identity or racialization empowers or limits you in any way?

FK: I guess by the time that I learned that I was of actual African descent, I was so used to using Asian American, because that’s what’s on every single form since you’ve been a kid. I think now some forms have South Asian. But it’s funny—I remember spending a little bit of time on the internet trying to find out how much of your genealogy percentage-wise do you have to have to be able to consider yourself of a certain ethnicity or race. So I think by whatever worldly standards I could actually say that I’m African or African American because I am 6 percent African American. So I have spent quite a lot of time in my life thinking about, Is that something I should claim? I still am sort of like, I don’t know. I guess it feels not disingenuous, but it feels a little bit like I never had—I mean, I went through racial struggles for sure but not in the way that African Americans have in this country. So because I have so much more Indian in me, that’s what people recognize; it feels unfair to claim that actually.

Then, just in terms of Asian American, I think because I have such a mixed background, maybe it doesn’t bother me as much as many people. Uzbekistan is in Asia. India is in Asia. I guess the African part isn’t. But I actually feel it’s probably more harmful for a lot of people than for me in particular. It is a colonial designation to say, like, “Okay, all of these people that live in a giant part of the world are exactly the same.” Only a colonialist would say that.

TSC: The conversation around whether or not you can claim an identity, or whether or not you can say that you’re from one place or another when we’re so used to compartmentalizing is really interesting, and I’ve thought a lot about that myself. I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that it is or can be fluid. That there are times when you may more openly claim one identity when it makes sense or when it aligns with the values you are expressing. It can also depend on who you’re talking to. If there’s an opportunity that’s open for African Americans specifically, or Black Americans, I imagine you might think really carefully before claiming that identity for all the reasons that you just stated. But in terms of visibilizing the diverse histories of Asians and Asian Americans, and how it intersects with African communities, and breaking apart that monolith, and being visibly proud of who you are and where you come from, I think that you can absolutely claim that identity. I’m curious how your thought process will evolve around that part of your identity.

FK: It’s interesting because until maybe fifteen years ago, maybe even ten years ago, no one would have claimed that in my family. No one would’ve admitted it. Even when I found out my mom was like, “Not that many people know.” I was sort of like, “What?” It’s interesting—one of my cousins on my dad’s side wanted to marry an African British man. He was first generation. My aunt was like, “No.” My dad was the person to convince his sister that this was okay, which a decade before that he would’ve been the person saying no. I think part of it is living in this country and feeling discriminated against whether it’s because you’re brown or because you’re a Muslim. I think my parents have experienced that enough to know there are issues with racial equality and they were feeding into that for a long time.

TSC: I want to talk a little bit about your work. I’ve heard you talk about your career path, which started in the social sciences and public health, and then later shifted to architecture. I think it’s really incredible that a lot of the work that you continue to do in design is through the lens of public health and public good and wellbeing. I would love to hear you talk a little bit about how you would describe your work now and also, more specifically, how you feel your upbringing or your cultural, ethnic, or racial identity has shaped your creative path and the way that you approach your work.

Interview Segment: Why I have a practice


Fauzia Khanani, she/her

Interview Date:
July 26, 2023

Themes: South Asian identity, Asian American identity, mixed identity, Indian identity, African American identity, East African identity, Muslim identity, South Asian identity, assimilation, cultural appropriation, model minority, public health, sociology, social sciences, discrimination, racial identity, cultural identity, ethnicity, wellness, civil rights, organizing, solidarity work

Uganda, India, Uzbekistan, India, Ethiopia, East Africa, England, Canada, Durham, Queens, Manhattan

Gandhi, Idi Amin, Design Advocates, Arab American Family Support Center, Hive Public Space


Ancestral Land:
Uzbekistan, India, and Ethiopia

Eno, Tuscarora and Occaneechi Lands (Durham, NC)

Current Land:
Tovaangar (Los Angeles, CA) Lenapehoking (New York, NY)

Diaspora Story:
My ancestors came from Uzbekistan during the Ottoman Empire and resettled in western India to escape conflict. In the late 1800’s, my family began migrating from India to Africa- first South Africa and then East Africa, specifically Uganda. They were eventually expelled from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin and resettled in the UK and Canada as refugees  and then eventually emigrated to the US when I was two years old. 

Creative Fields:
Architecture, Interior Design

Racial Justice Affiliations:
Design as Protest

Favorite Fruit:
Medjool date

Fauzia Khanani (she/her) is founder of Studio Fōr, a design firm based in NYC with global projects ranging from workplace to community-centered projects. She believes spatial design has the power to directly impact wellness and quality of life. Fauzia is the former co-chair of the AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee, a founder and Board VP of Design Advocates, a non-profit organization serving the public good through pro bono design, research, and advocacy, and a Core Organizer for the Design As Protest Collective, anti-racist designers dedicated to design justice in the built environment.

︎   studioforny.com

︎    @studioforny

︎    @effkay27

FK: That’s a really interesting question, very complicated. It’s hard because some of my upbringing is very much the antithesis of how I would want to run an office maybe. I think in my culture and in a lot of Asian cultures, the elders are respected, and you never defy them. There’s a really big power dynamic there, and that really translates to the way capitalistic businesses are also run. So I think it’s just being aware of that and saying, like, “There’s a time and place for that but it’s not necessarily in a workplace,” is something I think about a lot. And it’s not to say that I don’t make decisions without my team or I don’t have to put myself in a leadership position more often than not. But I think being aware of that is pretty important. This idea of the boss being revered is very similar to what we’re taught about our grandparents and our parents now. I think that’s kind of interesting.

But I think there’s also sort of this feeling of a family unit. For me in my heart, my team is like family to me. So when I have to actually make really hard business decisions, it’s torturing to me because I grew up and family was everything. My parents didn’t really understand the need for friends because in their worlds growing up, their cousins and their siblings were their friends or there were other families that were in their community. So, growing up in America and us having friends who don’t look like us or act like us or do the things that we do, they never and they still don’t really understand that, which is interesting to me. I think at work that the diversity is really important in that way. It gives you perspective. But that you want to take care of the team—there’s this inherent nature of care and responsibility actually.

TSC: I hadn’t thought about it that way in terms of the respect or reverence for elders as something to react against or how we might notwant it to play out in our workplaces, as opposed to this loyalty or, like you said, care for your own family and wanting to translate that into how you work. I think a lot about collectivity in practice and how that maybe is inspired by some Asian family upbringings, but I’ve thought less about how filial piety may not be something we want to translate across. So that’s really interesting to me!

Were there people, books, classes, or experiences that shifted or inspired or influenced the direction of the work that you currently do or maybe the direction you’re headed towards in the future?

FK: When I was still an undergrad and I was a sociology major and taking public health classes, I got a summer job as an intern, a research assistant on this public health study that was funded by the CDC. It was basically a qualitative study to understand the history, but also find out if there was a way to move forward from people—basically communities who have fear of the medical practice and specifically geared towards populations who would be ideal candidates for an HIV AIDS vaccine trial. The communities that were most affected by HIV AIDS were the ones we were targeting. There was a study site in San Francisco that was interviewing gay men in Philadelphia. It was IV-drug users. And then, in Durham, which is where I’m from—and I was in school in Chapel Hill, it was African Americans.

I became part of this research project that was about interviewing and understanding the stories of people and the history of things like Tuskegee, where African Americans and Black people were tested on and were treated like animals. So why would they ever trust a vaccine trial ever?I was 20 years old. The project manager that I reported to was an African American gay man from the south. It was him and me and then everyone above us was basically, like, a white doctor or dentist in the school of public health. So the two of us were the ones who—because we were of color—were sent into the community to do all the engagement.

That for me is like my first formative professional experience—outside of working at the mall in the bookstore—which was profound. I ended up working on that study for an additional two years. So even after I graduated, I kept working on it. Anthony Fauci was the head of that study. He was at the CDC. Because it was related to vaccine trials. Anyway, just that experience of listening to people and understanding the impact of history and daily life on something as practical and sort of needed as healthcare was really—it had a really big influence on me moving forward.

TSC: The decision to send you out to do the field work, was it made clear to you why? Or did you just know why?

FK: No, we talked about it! Because I think they had tried for some of the white people to go out and no one would talk to them. I wasn’t Black, but I’m a person of color and I grew up in Durham. So they were sort of like, “Well, you—know the community.” And I was like, “I’ve never spent time in this community.”

TSC: How did you feel about that at the time when that was placed on you as a twenty-something-year-old?

FK: I was sort of like, Okay, this project is really interesting, and I want to work on it. The project coordinator who I was working with was anamazing mentor, so I learned so much early on—things that I still apply to practice today.

TSC: That’s an interesting story. Have you ever done a project that directly addresses Asian or immigrant identity, history, and experiences? If so, what was it like? And if not, are you interested in doing something like that in the future?

FK: So we worked on a new office and kind of community hub for a nonprofit organization in New York City called the Arab American Family Support Center. But their services extended beyond that demographic—they’re for anyone really. It just started out as Arab American, but they provide services actually to mostly immigrants, a lot of refugees, and a huge part of their constituent is Asian Americans. A lot of them are Muslim that go there, but again, it’s open to anyone. They provide social services, but they also provide English as a second language classes; they provide basic GED classes. They also do job training in this facility. So we were recommended to redesign or design this new space that they were going to have in downtown Brooklyn.

So that was a weird mix of the architecture design world and construction, but also a lot of cultural factors that played into the process. For example, the ED and founder of that organization—in that organization and for everyone who interacts with her, there is that level of revere and respect. I think it’s because most of the people who work in that organization and most of their clients grew up in cultures like that. So that was really interesting, but it was also really rewarding to say like, “Hey, we’re creating these spaces for people to improve their quality of life on arriving in New York.” And also just really thoughtful about how we designed some of the spaces knowing that in some situations, men and women would be separated based on culture or religion. Sort of knowing that off the bat, right? So there were a number of things like that where it was like, “Okay, it’s helpful to have been from a similar culture, and we can apply these principles to our design concepts.”

Then a second one—which we actually just got selected for this project along with Hive Public Space, founded by Alexa Gonzalez. We are actually going to be working on a public space activation in a park in Richmond Hill, Queens, which is predominantly South Asian and Indo-Caribbean—so people from Guyana and other Caribbean countries that have Indian populations. We just started that. We’re about to do power mapping with some of the community partners.

TSC: Wow! That’s exciting. What does that experience feel like? Does it feel different than your typical clients? I mean, other than the fact that you might have similar understandings of culture and space?

“I think in my culture and in a lot of Asian cultures, the elders are respected, and you never defy them. There’s a really big power dynamic there, and that really translates to the way capitalistic businesses are also run.”

Interview Segment: Family was everything

FK: I think there’s just sort of like an unsaid—I don’t want to say relationship—but, like, connection. I mean, this isn’t really just a project; it becomes more than that. I want to talk about another project—we also do global office work for corporate companies. A couple of months ago, we finished a giant office project in Mumbai. So in that process—I mean, everyone who works in that office is Indian. It’s a thousand people. My office is the global architect for this firm, a company that’s headquartered in New York. So we redo all of their spaces, but for this one, we were sort of like, “Oh, okay.” There’s a couple of us in my office who are South Asian. So, in the beginning, they saw us very differently; they saw us as South Asian American and that we wouldn’t understand them or what they wanted. So there was a lot of pushback. It wasn’t until I went on the first site visit and I went to India for a week to have meetings with them that they got to know me on a personal level and were sort of like, “Oh, your family lived like that too?” I was sort of like, “Oh, yeah. Don’t get it twisted. If you’re Indian and your parents are immigrants, you’re not allowed out after dark, and you better be home for dinner. You’re not dating anybody.” I think for them it took having the casual personal conversations to understand that, despite being “American,” so much of the culture and tradition is retained in even my generation.

TSC: That’s so fascinating! I think a lot more about how non-Asian Americans misunderstand Asians, but I think equally Asian Asians misunderstand Asian Americans and think of us as completely different from them and different than we actually are, without the nuances of the ways that we connect back to our ancestral roots and the ways that we don’t.

FK: I will say the first project we did for that company was in 2017, and it was for a Hong Kong office. There was a similar thing where they were like, Oh, you’re not from here; you don’t know how to design our office from the local team. It wasn’t until I went on my first visit and started having dinner with the client team and pointedly talking about my family life and respect for elders and taking care of your parents, they were sort of like, Oh, is that normal in America? That’s how it is here. And I was like, “No, it’s not normal, but my parents are immigrants. So there is that level of respect.” After that, they were totally trusting of us. The same thing happened on that Mumbai project. Once they understood that, like, there were similarities, they fully trusted us for the project.

TSC: Wow. I love that story. Something else I want to ask you about is the organization that you started called Design Advocates at the beginning of the pandemic. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how it started and also just how the network and the work has evolved.

FK: So it actually started from, like, a weekly call of basically a bunch of people who own small architecture firms in the city and were panicking essentially because it was the end of March or mid-March. For most everyone, your projects just stopped within a couple of weeks. So it was sort of like, “Oh, shit. What are we going to do?” So it was almost like a therapeutic call for all of these small firms—it was like twenty of us. And then it was like, “Oh, okay. Has anyone been through the PPP loan application process? Can you share any information about that or what bank you use because some banks are faster than others?”

Then it was sort of like, “Okay, well, everyone pretty much got PPP money. We don’t have much work.” We’re not doctors or nurses, so we can’t contribute to the pandemic, but there are clearlyissues about space that are starting to surface and a lot of really important and needed services are not able to continue because they can’t be inside. We decided we would start doing pro bono work because we had PPP funding to do it, and reached out to community organizations, nonprofits, partners that we knew and sort of just cold-called—“How can we help you? What are the issues that you are experiencing inside that we can help to try and problem solve?” So it wasn’t just design. We had MEP engineers who were volunteering. So they would go with us to a houseless shelter and be like, “Okay, let’s see your HVAC system. Let’s see what kind of filters you’re using. Okay, replace all of those filters with this spec.” That’s a very basic thing you can do.

Then we did a lot of open restaurants for really small, mostly family-owned businesses in Queens and in Harlem as part of the larger Neighborhoods Now program that was happening in New York. We started it in—April; by September we had 150 volunteers, which was pretty amazing. So we’ve continued on. We’ve pivoted a little bit in that we’re taking on other types of projects. But the potential client has to prove or they have to show us that they really can’t afford design or hire an architect, and that their project would align with our values for us to take it on. So now, we basically do six-month terms where we take on a limited number of projects for six months. The first term is actually just ending like next week of the year, and then we’ll have a second term start in September.

TSC: That’s exciting!

What challenges do you think you faced as an Asian American designer and educator, and how has it influenced how you operate in the field? Also, as it intersects with all of your other identities as like a woman, as African, as Muslim.

FK: Being mostly South Asian in this country and East Asian, it’s certainly not the same as being Black in this country. The whole idea of model minority and that so many people in my parents’ generation were allowed to come to this country because they were going to schools to get educated and then could become part of a larger workforce. Off the bat, it sets us up really differently in terms of professional life. I think there is a common stereotype and expectation that Asian Americans or even Asian immigrants—this is like a blanket kind of stereotype—is that they will work harder and they will be more loyal.

I experienced that before I started this firm, working in other firms. I worked in a firm which on a greater level was a good place to work, but we were underpaid, of course, and it was hard to move up. On the weekends, it was me and the one Latin American guy in the office working every weekend—the two of us in the office. I think there was just an expectation that that was going to happen, and that’s okay. And then also just sort of being a woman and also a woman of color regardless of being Asian or African in this industry that is fully or is mostly white men is something you really have to navigate.

A good example is we do a lot of residential work upstate in New York and it’s not very diverse up there. We were on a project site a couple of years ago and we have another principal in my office who was a mentor of mine. He’s an older white man in his seventies, but very kind and his values align with mine. We were at a site visit and one of the construction workers said to me—well, he was talking to us and he was like, “Oh, well, your boss should answer this.” He was looking at me and I was like, “What?” He was like, “Scott. Scott probably knows the answer to this. You may not know.” I was about to say something and Scott actually said, “Actually, you should know that Fauzia is my boss and she owns this company.” So the automatic assumption was that the white man was the owner and in charge.

Especially after Trump was elected, a lot of the construction companies in New York are run by Republicans, just to be super frank. There was a real shift in how people—mostly white men—treated people of color at events and industries. I remember the week after the election I had to go to an industry event. Someone was trying to introduce me to a couple of contractors, and, literally, the white men would not even look at me and acknowledge that I was there. I was sort of like, Oh, I need to get out of here; it feels unsafe. I mean, there’s a general expectation that as a woman, you don’t know about construction. And then I think, too, as a person of color that maybe you’re not educated as well as someone else.

TSC: Absolutely. On the flip side, do you feel that being Asian American has benefited or privileged you in any way?

FK: I think the idea of model minority for sure. I think people will give you a chance because they know you’re going to work hard.

TSC: That’s a benefit and a challenge.

FK: Totally. One of the things I remember as a child when we moved to North Carolina was that my dad got his first executive job position. So we got to build a new house, which was a huge deal. Moved into this white neighborhood and my dad was a big tennis player. So he was like, “Oh, there’s a club,”—not understanding what a country club is but—”there’s a club a couple miles away and they have tennis courts so I’m going to apply. You have to apply to become a member.” I think my mom was sort of like, “Okay.” They had a swimming pool, but, of course, we weren’t allowed to swim in public, so it didn’t matter. But we could take tennis lessons and whatnot. When my dad went to apply—and mind you, this is like 1985 or four or something like that—maybe ‘83. My dad filled out the application and sent it back and then they called him and they sort of said—and it was him and his coworker who had also moved from New England who was Jewish. The same thing happened to the both of them, which was that they were denied memberships until they would show the country club their paychecks.

You basically had to make sure you could pay your way into if you weren’t white.

TSC: Wow. Did they do that or did they take that as a cue to not be part of the club?

FK: My dad did it—like a model minority. The Jewish family did not. They were sort of like, "No way, we’re not doing this."

TSC: Wow.

FK: I remember going to the country club and just feeling really out of place and people staring at us.

TSC: That’s such a micro history of what it’s like to be an immigrant here. It’s like you just work so hard to prove yourself to be in a space and then you get there and then you just are othered and made to feel like you don’t belong.

I want to talk a little bit about the context that we know each other in which is DAP, DMU, and kind of shift the conversation a little bit to solidarity work. What personal history or experience brought you to Design as Protest and Dark Matter U. How did you find out about it, and how did you get involved?

“It wasn’t until I went on the first site visit and I went to India for a week to have meetings with them that they got to know me on a personal level and were sort of like, Oh, your family lived like that too? I was sort of like, “Oh, yeah. Don’t get it twisted.’”  

Interview Segment: Don’t get it twisted

FK: So a little bit of background is that I think until the pandemic, I feel my professional life was very secluded because I didn’t identify with the general mindset of architects and architecture and the way that design is approached. I was coming from a public health background or sociology, where it’s fully human centered; it’s about people and relationships. Architecture and design always felt super competitive. There was never sharing of resources. So I never really understood that, and so I really just kind of kept my head down and worked. I didn’t go to a lot of networking events, or I wasn’t really interested in meeting other architects. Until the pandemic happened and those calls for Design Advocates started and I was sort of like, Oh, these are the people in New York that I should have relationships with when it comes to architecture.

Then there was the call for DAP. Then I was like, Oh, this is the place for all the things that I’m interested in within architecture, but also in the greater context of this country that I’ve always wanted to make an effort to change—like systems and structures. I’d never sort of known a place where those two things converged until I went to that first DAP call after George Floyd was murdered. I remember coming off that call and feeling really emotional because I was sort of like, Oh, have I found my people? It’s not to say that I don’t have people in other parts of my life, but it was like the convergence of many parts of my life that I’ve compartmentalized. I’ll be really honest. I don’t think that I had done a lot of organizing or solidarity work. I mean, I’m an introvert also, so I like to watch things from afar. I definitely go to protests all the time—I always have. But I think part of DAP is sort of like, Oh, this is a place where I’m surrounded by people who know how to do this and I can learn from them. Maybe I have a little bit to contribute, but mostly I have a lot to learn, I think.

TSC: I imagine that a lot of people hadn’t thought a lot about solidarity work. Even the term BIPOC wasn’t commonly used. The idea that we could all get together and define ourselves outside of whiteness I think was something that a lot of us never really thought about because of the way that we’ve grown up and our focus on survival. I don’t think you were saying you felt ashamed, but I think for all of us, there is no shame in saying that you hadn’t really thought about it before. I don’t know how you would’ve found spaces like DAP prior. I know I didn’t know of anything like it that existed.

I also think it’s interesting that you have the social sciences to compare your experiences in architecture to, because my understanding is that the social sciences is much more collective and collaborative. In architecture, collaboration is also required, but it’s also very competitive. We’re all in our own little spaces working for no money to try to win one small project. It’s very much scarcity-mindset oriented versus abundance-mindset oriented. Your work in solidarity has kind of grown along with how DAP and DMU has grown. But I’m curious if you thought about your role specifically and how that is tied to your positionality as Asian in a BIPOC space, especially given that and a lot of the work that we do is really about centering Black communities.

FK: I think relevant to the question that you asked earlier—this is terrible to say, but it’s true. It’s because we’re not Black, we do have some privilege in this country. I also sort of feel like, “Hey, I’m not seen as Black, but I actually am. I have a percentage of me that isAfrican.” So I think both of those reasons, and also, because it’s just right, I think those are kind of the driving forces for me of like, Let me use whatever advantages, or power, or influence, or relationships I have to sort of push this cause. I’m also probably like one of the oldest people in DAP too and DMU probably.

TSC: I love that. I’m not sure that’s true though.

FK: I think DMU has some older people, but I think DAP is definitely on the younger age range. So if there’s any way that I can use my experience to help or my connections or anything like that, or even just to support people. This is where the community culture comes into play, right? This idea of family and community and being supported, wanting to be there for everybody and to take care of them. I definitely feel like the DAP care team is a thing.

TSC: Is that still its own team?

FK: We’ve kind of revamped and not really having teams and mostly just projects—campaigns and projects. And then whatever team you’re on, it’s all like a big mosh now.

TSC: Have you ever experienced resistance to your role or presence in racial justice or solidarity work? Whether it’s in your own work, or with Design Advocates, or with anything you’ve done through DAP?

“I was coming from a public health background or sociology, where it’s fully human centered; it’s about people and relationships. Architecture and design always felt super competitive. There was never sharing of resources.”

FK: I don’t know about straight up resistance, but definitely have made people feel uncomfortable and it changes the tone and the vibe. I think especially during the pandemic and right after the pandemic, there was a pretty big buzz about DAP and DMU. So people were asking us to come speak and, “Will you come talk to us about your organization?” One of the things that has changed as I have gotten older is that I will just be really blunt and frank. This is one of the areas where I will be, like—there’s no sugarcoating about racist practices and racist systems. I think in my twenties and maybe even in my thirties, I was of the first generation in this country where you just put your head down and you worked because you were grateful to have a job, and a salary, and benefits. You didn’t rock the boat. That’s part of why I have a practice—I don’t want to be beholden to that. I want to say my mind. So, I think in a lot of those presentations, especially if they were related to AIA or larger firms, you just saw the tone and the vibe of the people who were tuning in totally change.

TSC: That’s a good kind of resistance, I would say. I want to hear what dreams and aspirations you have for Asian diaspora spaces and the people who are shaping them through design?

FK: So one of the first things that comes to mind for me is the Asian American museum in New York City. (laughs) That’s a joke to me. I mean, every one of the cultures and ethnicities that’s represented in that museum should have their own museum. To say that all of those things can be in one museum it should be called the Met then. So I think that’s one thing is how our cultures are kind of represented mainstream in spaces. I mean, the Asian American museum is beautiful, but I don’t know. Whoever thought it was okay to do that was wrong. I think there’s a really weird copying of Asian American culture and design. I can’t think of the actual appropriate word for that, the proper word, what it’s called. But like—

TSC: You mean from a formal sense or like aestheticizing it?

FK: Yeah, or just like—

TSC: Appropriating?

“I think in my twenties and maybe even in my thirties, I was of the first generation in this country where you just put your head down and you worked because you were grateful to have a job, and a salary, and benefits. You didn’t rock the boat. That’s part of why I have a practice—I don’t want to be beholden to that. I want to say my mind.”

FK: Cultural appropriation. That was the word I was thinking of. But the idea that white architects in this country and around the world feel fine about designing things that are Japanese influenced, I have a real issue with that. And it’s not to say that you can’t appreciate the culture, and maybe there are feelings or emotions related to those design types that you would try to emulate. But the idea of when someone says, “This place feels like a Japanese spa”—it makes me cringe a little bit. So I think we should allow people to design in their own culture because they have the knowledge of the meaning and the history of that for an outsider to sort of use those design elements without that knowledge feels not right. It’s almost like abusing something.

TSC: Yeah, it’s appropriation. There’s also a double cringe for me that comes with the constant reference to Japanese spaces and design principles as the only serious “modern” architecture to reference out of Asia.

FK: On your information sheet you asked if I wanted to interview anyone. Has anyone interviewed you?

TSC: No one has interviewed me, but thank you for asking that.

FK: I would like to interview you.

TSC: Okay. Thank you.

FK: I put in a couple of recommendations of other people if you need more people.

TSC: Thank you so much. I know we’re at time. Do you have time for one more question or do you have to go?

FK: Totally good.

TSC: Last question I have for you is—I told you at the beginning that I’m going through the process of understanding what this project is. So an important component of the project is creating resources that’ll be useful for Asian-diaspora designers and creatives. I’m curious to hear from you what resources you would love to see for other Asian designers or maybe what you would’ve loved to see as a younger designer.

FK: One of the things I really felt when I was doing all of my education, but especially in architecture, I didn’t have mentors that looked like me or understood my culture. I had some great mentors who were very cultured for who they are. But I think there are some things that for me, a non-South Asian or non-immigrant person would not understand about who I am and how I operate in the world, which ultimately affects your professional career. It would’ve been really amazing to have mentors. I actually had mentors in the public health space that looked like me and had similar histories, so I actually hung onto those more than I did the architecture ones moving forward in life. So I think that’s one thing. I don’t know if it’s like a catalog or a directory of a network of people who are willing to identify as their Asian ethnicity and then giving that as a resource to students who are up and coming designers and architects.

I guess it would be really nice—and I don’t think this exists in New York particularly. But, for me personally, I wish that there was a South Asians group that was a sister organization of DAP or something like that. I love the diversity of DAP—don’t get me wrong at all. I have met a couple of South Asian people in DAP too, and also other Muslims, which is, like, another cultural thing. And that has been really nice. But the idea of having a collective of people who have some privilege and using that collective power to make change for everybody else feels like it could be really powerful.

TSC: That’s awesome. I love that. Well, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I learned so much just about you and from you, and also appreciate your offer to interview me. I’ll let you know.

FK: I feel a little bit like this was one-sided. I want to know all of these things about you now. (laughs)

TSC: (laughs) I appreciate it. I think it is funny thing with oral history interviews. I set it up as semi-structured, so I’m doing a little bit of responding here and there, but it’s mostly about kind of letting you, or the narrator, talk. It is funny to have a one-way conversation. It’s kind of like therapy maybe. But I didn’t want to cut you off. Were you going to say something?

FK: I was just going to say it’s interesting to kind of revisit a lot of this history. I mean, I do pretty often, but it’s mostly in my head. To say it out loud to somebody is like a different experience. It’s really interesting. But yeah, thank you so much for asking me. I feel like I wasn’t maybe—I wanted to say before that I don’t know if I’m the right person for this because I’m not a huge organizer—historically, I haven’t done a lot of solidarity work outside of my practice or my public health life. Anyway, I hope it was okay.

TSC: Oh my God. You’re like, “Aside from all these things that I’ve done, I haven’t done a lot of solidarity work.” You’ve always been on my list immediately! This is also much more about personal narrative and how it has influenced how you work or see yourself in your work or in the field. I really do think that there are so many Asians who are very visible in architecture and design who are doing really amazing work, but not a lot of conversation about how that relates to our experiences and identity as Asian and what we’re all doing here and why. And I think a lot of us, honestly, myself included, started thinking about this a little bit later due to the model-minority myth, due to pressures of assimilation, due to all of these things. I feel like I am new—not to working towards racial justice, but to thinking about what the hell I’m doing in these spaces. I think that the feeling that you have is something that a lot of Asian people share, which I’m finding out through this project.

“But the idea that white architects in this country and around the world feel fine about designing things that are Japanese influenced, I have a real issue with that.”

FK: My last comment about the assimilation thing is that I distinctly remember growing up the time in which my parents were trying to assimilate as much as possible. Then there was, like, some life event that happened and they just stopped. They were like, We are fully going in on our culture and our religion. Assimilation is no longer part of our day-to-day life. It was hard for us because the whole time we were like, Okay—

TSC: You were doing this other thing—

FK: Yeah. And then all of a sudden my parents were like, Oh no, we’re not doing these things anymore. But yeah, the assimilation thing is real.

TSC: How old were you and have you asked your parents about what that event was?

FK: I know what it was. I was in high school and my parents went for pilgrimage to Mecca. And to be able to do that, you have to have no debt in case you die. So it’s something Muslims strive to do as early in life as possible and then you try to do it as many as you can. So my parents got to that point when I was in high school and they went and they came back and they stopped listening to music. My mom started wearing a hijab. Before that, she had a perm and wore knee high skirts and heels every day because she had to go to business dinners with my dad. Their whole friend group changed. I was wearing shorts playing sports and my mom was like, “You can’t wear shorts anymore.” There was a very clear point where it just fully switched.

TSC: Wow. I’d love to hear more about that—in a second interview!

FK: But yeah, really think about an interview for yourself.

TSC: Thank you. I appreciate it. I’ll be in touch.

FK: Sounds good. All right, take care.

“I distinctly remember growing up the time in which my parents were trying to assimilate as much as possible. Then there was, like, some life event that happened and they just stopped. They were like, We are fully going in on our culture and our religion. Assimilation is no longer part of our day-to-day life.”

Posted July 01, 2024