Everything taught at the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) needs to be about designing buildings, landscapes, and cities that are accessible and usable by everyone in our community, says the school’s newly named director of equity, diversity, inclusivity and accessibility (EDIA), professor Getachew Assefa, PhD.
In this new role Dr. Assefa will explore, advise, and lead how the school engrains EDIA into all aspects of its operations and functions, such as how EDIA will inform research, how and what is taught, while informing hiring and recruiting practices, as well as the weaving of these principles throughout the culture of the school.
“We need to build inclusive learning environments that embrace the diversity of the community. The knowledge we create needs to reflect the needs and preferences of diverse users, including people from different cultures, backgrounds and lived experience,” says Assefa.
“It also means ensuring that all students feel welcome and valued in the classroom and that their unique perspectives and experiences are respected and appreciated.”
Assefa has spent more than 20 years researching, and advising on, built environment sustainability, systems design, biofuels, and global sustainability, among others. For him, social justice dynamics play a critical role in addressing the very challenges he’s worked decades to address.
“It is essential that we recognize and embrace the diversity of needs, identities, and perspectives that exist within our community,” says Assefa.
“To achieve our goal of creating a better world that is harmonious with all species and the natural environment, we must actively engage with our teaching, research, and practices, and design solutions that address these complexities.
“By doing so, we can make significant contributions towards creating a more equitable and sustainable world for humanity.”
From undertaking a truth and reconciliation process with Indigenous Peoples, to the systemic violence experienced by the LGBTQ2S+ community, and the invisible barriers presented by poverty and mental health struggles — particularly following the pandemic — SAPL has made adopting EDIA principles a cornerstone of its long-term strategy, says Dr. John Brown, SAPL's dean.
“Looking at today’s pressing challenges — such as social injustice, economic inequity, racism and climate crisis — through an EDIA lens enables us to look at these problems from new and more expansive points of view. Meanwhile, giving a voice to societal groups who haven’t traditionally had a seat at the city-building table, will help the school and the city better address systemic problems and develop new solutions in a good way,” says Brown.
And although these challenges are global in scale and societal in scope, change starts with the individual, says Assefa.
“At the heart of this approach is the recognition that every individual matters and deserves to be included in the process of shaping our collective future,” he says.
Assefa takes over the role of SAPL director of EDIA from associate professor Catherine Hamel, MArch, the first to hold the post. Hamel set the school on solid footing and on a clear path toward its EDIA aspirations, says Brown.
“Catherine’s hard work over the past 10 months of her formal term, as well as the many years of informal social justice advocacy with, and on behalf of, the school, has helped us begin to align SAPL’s EDIA pledge and start taking action on reforming our curricular activity, recruitment and hiring practices, events, and school culture,” he says.
“This is a critically important dimension of our school and Catherine has laid an excellent foundation for us to achieve our EDIA goals.”
Assefa — who received a BSc in chemical engineering from Addis Ababa University, a MSc in environmental engineering and sustainable infrastructure, and a PhD in industrial ecology from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm — takes over his new SAPL leadership role effective immediately. He is the former Athena Chair in Life Cycle Assessment, and has taught in Sweden, Canada, Ethiopia and China. He is also the founder and CEO of UMD Media, a multilingual media channel broadcasting to the Horn of Africa on satellite and online.