In Conversation | Sharon Prince, President & Founder, Grace Farms Foundation
In this Q&A, Sharon Prince discusses Grace Farms Foundation’s recently launched Grace Farms Foundation Architecture + Construction Working Group, an interdisciplinary coalition of experts and industry leaders formed to disrupt modern slavery in the built environment. Prince talks about the moment that led to the launch of this first-of-its-kind initiative, as well as her vision of Grace Farms as a nexus to advance good.
The public will have an opportunity to learn more about the coalition and global movement from Prince and other working group members and industry leaders in our upcoming event, Designing for Freedom, on November 15, 2019. Prince will lead a discussion with former Ambassador Luis c.deBaca, Senior Justice Initiative Advisor to the Foundation, Nat Oppenheimer, Principal and EVP of Silman Associates and Structural Engineer for Grace Farms, and Hayes Slade, President of AIA New York and Founding Partner and Principal of the award-winning Slade Architecture.
“What is very exciting is that the uptake to recognize the ethical supply chain gap in construction has been swift and strong.” – Sharon Prince, President & Founder, Grace Farms Foundation
Question & Answer:
Q: You recently received the NYC Visionary Award from AIA New York and the Center for Architecture, for using the transformative power of design to further the Foundation’s mission to do good in the world. Can you talk more about this?
Prince: What’s promising is that AIA New York, the oldest chapter of AIA (American Institute of Architects), is recognizing that architecture can be generative and can advance good in the world.
The idea for Grace Farms started with the concept that space could communicate. That’s something I took hold of and thought to be true. If I base the entire concept of Grace Farms on the idea that space could be porous in terms of inviting people in from all different backgrounds, locally and globally, Grace Farms could also be a place that could break down barriers between people and sectors.
Then you can have face-to-face conversations, discussions, and investigations. You can create new perspectives by linking arms with other people. What has been really illustrative is the space itself – that it can evoke new perspectives. You have the changing weather and conditions, along with a diversity of organizations and people filling the space. We have nonprofits, government entities, individuals, children, older generations.
Q: The award was also bestowed upon Grace Farms. Can you talk about the River building’s porous design and why it’s important?
Prince: The River building was an expression of our vision. It was simplifying the complex. We asked for it to be a peaceful respite, and yet there is an active community. It seems polarized. Right? We need to stop and pause to be able to reflect and think. It’s important to be in conversation with each other, to exchange ideas that create realizations that go beyond what your understanding is.
It compounds; it’s more capacious. There’s more capacity to say, I’ll bring what I have so we can all advance good together in a much stronger and more profound way. And then new outcomes can emerge. Because if you’re talking in silos you’re never going to have a new perspective.
Q: In terms of new a perspective can you discuss Grace Farms Foundation Architecture + Construction Working Group?
Prince: You can’t create something new until you start the creative iterative process. We have our five initiatives of nature, arts, justice, community, and faith; it’s all living and breathing in the same space.
So, we have conversations about modern slavery – our stake in the ground – with conversations around architecture, and what space can do. That’s when the realization came into being about the building materials supply chain and the exploitation that exists within the myriad of materials. It hasn’t yet surfaced and there are thousands of materials and components that go into a building.
With the architecture working group, we didn’t even know exactly what it would look like until we sat down together from various fields. Even though these are early days and we’re all learning about this, the experts and leaders coming together are brilliant in their fields, but they also have a moral compass. I heard from Hayes Slade [co-founder and Principal of award-winning Slade Architecture and 2019 President of the NY AIA Chapter] and she said it’s a privilege to be part of the working group, but it’s also a responsibility to be on the working group. This responsibility is something people are starting to take on. That’s powerful to have this many leaders thinking about it and coming up with ways to intervene and direct specifications and procurement towards ethical suppliers.
What is very exciting is that the uptake to recognize the ethical supply chain gap in construction has been swift and strong. People are saying “yes” to joining the working group.
But we’re not a think tank, because we’re expecting new outcomes. Advancing good just doesn’t happen. The pursuit of justice isn’t an idle imperative.
Q: Does it surprise you that so many experts and industry leaders said “yes” so quickly?
Prince: The initial few were a bit more primed to say, “yes,” since they were exposed to the issue of slavery at Grace Farms. The first “yes” was Bill Menking, Editor and Founder of The Architect’s Newspaper, in conversation at our 2ndannual benefit. Within earshot were several others who designed and built Grace Farms – Nat Oppenheimer of Silman [Engineering], Joe Mizzi Sciame [Construction] and Andy Klemmer of Paratus Group [Project Director]. They’re also attuned to listen and to know that slavery does exist [in the built environment]. Part of getting the right kind of people to get involved is how we created the team at Grace Farms. When we evaluated who we had on our team, it meant just as much that they were brilliant, but that they were also the kind of people that could create a place of grace, peace, excellence, and meaning.
We were looking for people that had character or moral grounding who could advance good, who could foster community, who weren’t just out for themselves.
Q: How do you even begin to conceptualize a strategy that addresses slavery, which is so ingrained in all aspects of our lives?
Prince: Creating Grace Farms was making the impossible, possible. It was an idea; it started from a standstill. There was no preconceived notion, no model of what we were looking at. You need to bring a team around you that can envision what can be with you.
Then think strategically about how you are going to do this – innovatively – and work vigorously to do it. With this imperative, we want to remove slavery in the built environment. This is a moment in time where literally no one has thought about how they’re subsidizing their ROIs [returns on investments] with slavery through the building materials supply chain.
We need to understand as owners that our ROIs are propped up by forced labor.
Value engineering is a common practice on construction projects, since projected budgets regularly come in multiples higher than you expect. By either improving the function or reducing the cost by using different materials, the new design is often an improvement – as it was in the case of Grace Farms since we refurbished the existing barns. However, if you’re using materials that are cheaper because they are made with slave labor, it’s a false notion you’ve valued engineered. You’re obviously fueling slavery.
Q: When you discuss eradicating slavery in the building materials supply chain what is the reaction?
Prince: When I first brought it up, I was on a national jury evaluating projects for sustainability. There were a lot of variables to evaluate: the projects in their entirety, of course, and the design execution. The sustainability criteria that we were analyzing were rightly weighted highly; however, specific social impact criteria is expected to follow suit.
As a jury we would consider, without it being a specific criterion, the social good aspect and the social impact. We were evaluating an Afghani girls’ school. When I asked the question about whether or not the bricks were slave free, everyone in the room just went blank. Not one person thought about the building materials supply chain and whether or not there is exploitation.
I asked the question: Are we okay with awarding a project that may have been built with slave labor? Even as extraordinary as this girls’ school is and the opportunity for girls to go to school in a culture that has limited their education, not limited, but has extinguished it. To have this opportunity is one of the more beautiful projects we were considering. When considering the merits of this project, the irony is that there are young children that are exploited in building them. What we know now is that nearly every project has exposure to exploitation baked in their building materials.
We did go back to the project and inquired about the bricks and if they were made with slavery. As far as they knew, it was not; yet, I discovered later that there was evidence of child laborers at the same factory at the same time. But nevertheless, it raised the flag. It raised the building materials supply chain flag. From that point on, I set out to address it at AIA National, starting with a meeting with Carl Elefante, who at the time was president.
Q: How is the elimination of slavery linked to Grace Farms’ other initiatives of nature, arts, justice, community, and faith?
Prince: At Grace Farms we think about what makes a flourishing life and the value of a flourishing life. And you also want to remember that you can’t have a flourishing life at the expense of a languishing life, often over generations, which we just can’t even fathom what that is like.
This is also an opportunity to really reach more people through our other initiatives – not just the Justice Initiative. Our Faith Initiative explores what it means to flourish in our contemporary world. In terms of our Nature Initiative, all the materials that are made in the building materials supply chain are from natural resources that are also exploited as well, in addition to the exploitation of people.
To have everyone together at the table is important. It’s the Grace Farms model; it’s an interdisciplinary model within all our five initiatives, bringing together all the sectors – private, public, and government sectors. I was very firm on having the full ecosystem at the table, because we cannot create a movement with just one segment of an ecosystem.
Q: It’s conceivable many people in the industry will think removing slavery from the global built environment is an impossible task. Right?
Prince: What if you were the one enslaved? I don’t even like being told what to do. It’s just so horrific to think about; it’s generation after generation. There are a few areas where people really agree, and one of them is that slavery is wrong. We can’t even try to distance ourselves from slavery because we’re so connected. So, the only way to eliminate it is to intervene. And this is part of the intervention – to take whatever we do and consider that it can be made without slave labor.
Once you know, you can’t un-know it.
That’s what I tell people. What are you going to do now? Are you ok with doing nothing and contributing to slavery? It’s a falsehood to believe that you are not.
Here’s the thing: We say modern slavery is too big and dark. Why do we say that? Because either you don’t want to be liable or you don’t feel empowered. Perhaps you don’t want the financial and the economic outcome of having to reset the market higher for fair labor.
Q: The River building’s design was meant to inspire and break down barriers between people. Why is this important?
Prince: The River building was designed like a river. There’s a flow and it passes and continues along. It is a place where we can have these investigations, illuminations, and bring people together. But then it flows out to the world – to try to create a movement. We also want there to be like a nourishment and effectiveness throughout. We don’t want to hold onto it. We’re trying to create the movement so it expands, bringing people in and together.
Q: So, you are saying that you have to envision a reality without a precedent?
Prince: You have to first envision what can be. Grace Farms was first an idea, but someone first has to say, ‘yes, I can envision what you’re saying to be true and I will use what I have to join you.’ A vision is more capacious when everyone starts to contribute. It’s a vision of what can be.
In terms of eradicating modern slavery, it’s only impossible if you never endeavor to intervene. It will continue to perpetuate. It’s entropic. It is proliferating and it needs an equal and opposite reaction. In terms of the GFF Architecture + Construction Working Group, we have people that can move the needle, like really move the needle. Awareness has already started to happen. We have already seen institutional responses, leaders at the table, including owners, principals, deans. You can’t do this by yourself. But you can do it through a team.
Q: Grace Farms just had its fourth-year anniversary. Looking back are there any moments that surprised you?
Prince: Oh, yes. The most surprising is seeing how architecture communicates. It’s been extraordinary creating this welcoming space for all. But equally, to have the architecture be so instrumental in contributing to disrupting modern slavery. Yes, you can have the gathering, the nexus, the nodal point for this work to happen. But you have to have somebody say “yes” and commit to bring it to the finish line.
We actually endeavor to eradicate slavery in the built environment. And there are measures we can take, intervention points, things that we can do or will abide by that will move the needle, including adding anti-slavery language to codes of conduct, contracts and certifications. It’s starting to happen.
We now have a conduit, a model, and people are coming together around the table and around the world that are going to be able to do something. But you still have to be open to the next new layer of what we can do in terms of an intervention and new outcomes. It’s very promising.