Glen Gunderson

September 17, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the sixth in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

George Floyd’s murder in my hometown of Minneapolis once again shined the spotlight on the problems of race in our community. In the weeks that followed, calls for social justice have reverberated around the world. In my time at the Y, I have come to understand and recognize — on a far deeper level — my many privileges as a white man. But my self-reflection and education is constant, and I feel compelled to utilize this medium to interview equity leaders. These leaders have served as mentors, teammates and dear friends. Each has allowed me to see a different perspective on systemic racism through their lived experience. As I seek to understand, my hope is that these talks will help humanize the issues and, in some small way, help lead us toward efforts to make a better way for all.

My fourth guest is Mohammed Lawal, the CEO of LSE Architects. Mohammed was born in Florida but spent his early years growing up in North Minneapolis. When he was nine years old, he moved back to his parents’ native Nigeria, where they lived in five different cities because of educational job opportunities. After graduating high school early, Mohammed completed two years at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria before continuing his architectural studies at the University of Minnesota in the mid-1980s. His architectural projects have been widely praised, including projects with the Y.

Mohammed and I first met through basketball because our sons are similar in age, and we coached against one another.

I hope you’re inspired by Part 2 of our conversation (you can read part 1 here), which focuses on Mohammed’s perspective on race in his career. The statistics are alarming. Only one in five architects are a person of color, according to a 2018 report by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. And of the architects who completed the Architectural Experience Program, only three percent of them were Black. In Minnesota, there are approximately 1,947 licensed architects who live in the state, and only 18 of the licensed ones are Black.

Glen: How has racism impacted you professionally?


Mohammed: At the start of my career, I show up to a meeting, and someone asks me to go and run prints for them. There were assumptions that I was not an architect or part of the professional design team or in a leadership role. It’s okay to be an assistant but not when you are always assumed to be that person.

But there are so many barriers. I’ll use an example in the state. The state has a ‘goal’ to do 11 percent of work with minority-owned businesses. But if I achieve a certain level of wealth or income, or certain value for my company, I’m no longer eligible for that work through the programs set up for minority-owned businesses. The size is high enough to keep you comfortable, if you’re a small company, but low enough that you are not really getting a seat at the table economically.

It keeps you at a certain bandwidth.

Systemic bias is when a professional organization calls me up and says, ‘Would you like to be a partner on our team, and we’ll write in our proposal that we will “train you,” and your company to be better so we can get points?’ In other words, “We just want the points,” instead of seeking a meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration or venture.

I’m a full-grown businessman. I have a college degree. I don’t need someone to train me! Language matters.

Systemic racism is when you’re a Black woman, and you have to choose whether you’re a female or Black in many of the MBE/WBE programs. Those are just a few examples.

There is a public institution that, in over 10 years from public records, they may have once interviewed a Black architect as the prime vendor or lead architect on a project. Maybe once. That would be like an NFL team never interviewing a Black candidate to be a head coach. But when you ask about that, the response is, “We’re not sure where to find them."

Those are things I work through every day, that I try to navigate as an individual, but I try to continually move forward.


Glen: I want you to hit me between the eyes. This notion of white privilege, what are things you see me doing that you say, ‘He doesn’t get it yet…’ What can I do differently or say differently?


Mohammed: We’ve known each other for seven years, in both a professional and personal setting. I have not had any interactions with you where I felt uncomfortable or I felt you were inappropriate about race. Certainly, the institution of the Y, with the demographic and who you reach out to, this is an area where we dialogue on white privilege.

But the thing I don’t know is, how vocal have you been when you have seen bias or experienced it? How vocal have you been internally, in yourself, if you felt you had been biased toward someone or a situation and recognized that, and come back to it? Think back to times you may have unintentionally or unconsciously shown your bias, in any way.

My business partner and I have very pointed conversations where, at times, I’ll tell him he is being biased in his thinking and not understanding. There are arguments and debates. Now we can have those, and we try to understand each other.


Glen: What would you like to see the YMCA do?


Mohammed: With everyone that I’ve worked with at the Y, they have been kind. It may be an unfair question because what I don’t know about the Y, I don’t know how diverse your team is, overall. I don’t know as much about your business practices, and social practices as I probably should. From that perspective, I’m not able to say.


Glen: Mohammed, I have learned so much from our conversation. Thank you very much. I just hope next time, we’re sitting on a restaurant patio and having a beverage together, seeing you face-to-face.


To learn more about Mohammed Lawal, visit his company’s website by clicking here.