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Yang Li is a Chinese architect and designer. He holds a B.A. from Wesleyan University (CT) and an M.Arch from Princeton University. He has worked for architecture/design organizations including Buro Ole Scheeren, KPF, SOM and IDEO.

While Li is not necessarily a member of the YSoA community, we, the coordinating editors, decided to publish this letter for its particular relevance in this moment and its potential interest to our readers. Amidst the ongoing pandemic and student/alumni efforts to address inequality and administrative transparency in our home institution, we felt that Li's experiences help expand this conversation by reflecting the structural inequities and challenges that continue to play out against minorities and international workers in professional practice.

It is our hope that publishing this letter here will not only raise the visibility of the concerns described by Li, but also serve to demonstrate to our own readers who may be going through similar experiences as Li that they are not alone. The author has also offered some additional insight to help contextualize the letter he has shared with us:

Since mid-April, 2020, SOM New York has been furloughing and laying off its staff due to the development of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the demographic of those furloughed and laid off was disproportionately Asians and Internationals, a minority group that is comparably disadvantaged racially, culturally and legally to speak up and challenge the decisions at an office whose leadership is 96% White.

In June, I sent the following email in support of the conversations on racial equality at the office. I have been bombarded by support from colleagues and friends, but haven't heard from the management. So far, the office has held one virtual meeting with limited staff members to discuss the issues I raised. It remains to be seen whether, when or how the office will make real changes towards equality and equity in its organization, management and practice in the future.
TO: Colleagues at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill New York
FROM: Yang Li
DATE: 7/11/2020 10:20pm EST
SUBJECT: Goodbye and Thank You

Dear colleagues at SOM,

As many of you know, I am no longer with SOM and I would like to say a proper goodbye.

Over the course of a year and half, I got to know you and had the pleasure to work with many of you. Your wealth of experience, wide insight into architecture and deep commitment to the profession inspired me immensely as an architect.

I have learned a tremendous amount, from the general planning of airport terminals to detailing of concourse wall-ceiling transitions, from team organization on public design-build projects to the unique framework of public infrastructure ownership/operation in the US. I harvested life-changing growth both professionally and personally, and for that I would like to deeply thank you all.

With the ongoing movements for Black Lives, I believe it would be constructive to reexamine the limits and spectrum around questions of equality and equity overall. Speaking for myself, I would like to share a few experiences:

  • The furlough package given to me and other international colleagues was seemingly designed only with US citizens in mind, with no guidelines or resources provided to address the unique needs of international employees around work visas, unemployment support, and/or home-return transportation. To the contrary, my visa to be in the United States was invalidated immediately based on the structure of the furlough, about which immigration specialists had alerted the firm.

  • In the context of rapidly increasing xenophobic attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic, this furlough package -- coupled with previous experiences of HR suggesting that I adopt an anglo name so that colleagues don't confuse me for another Chinese colleague and team members ridiculing the gracious gesture of our partner rendering company in China sending us face masks -- raise serious questions for me as to where the cultural values of SOM as a firm lie.

  • Since the beginning of Shelter-In-Place, despite countless attempts to contact management to highlight the implications of current events to Asian/International employees such as myself, I received either boilerplate responses lending no guidance on/recognition of these implications or no response at all.

From what I have witnessed at SOM, the catch-all excuse of “business decisions” has been used to explain away a predominant culture that creates an unequal work environment for minority groups. As a member of both the LGBTQ community and Asian/international community, I see the strength of the firm comes directly from the wide breadth of backgrounds and experiences of its incredibly talented staff, and for those differences - whether in appearance, visa status, or otherwise - to be seemingly treated as inconvenient liabilities against a backdrop of incredible privilege and access to resources is alarming at a firm where cosmopolitanism, egalitarianism, and humanism are professed to be fundamental values.

I highlight these experiences in the belief that honesty and transparency are the best way for the firm to grow and its staff to become more united. SOM has one of the most incredible teams of talented people I have ever been fortunate enough to work with, and I will cherish all the valuable skills I have learned and meaningful relationships I have fostered during my time on this all-star team.

I wish SOM and everyone all the best - I’ll be cheering you on.

Yang Li