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How Neil S. Daniel and YouthBuild Boston are Building the Next Generation of Architects

(Left to right) The Designery Team: Program Manager Neil San Diego Daniel, Lead Designer and Digital Fabrication Researcher Emily Chowdhury, and Program Development Manager Danyson Tavares. Courtesy: Neil San Diego Daniel

Neil San Diego Daniel knew from a young age that he wanted to be an architect.

“It was a blend between art, science, and working with the community,” Daniel said.

Born in Obando, Bulacan, Philippines, to a Filipino mother and a St. Lucian father, Daniel’s Massachusetts upbringing instilled a hyperawareness of the inequities faced by the region’s low-income communities of color.

These challenges informed Daniel’s path into healthcare architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he learned to tap into the various facets of his identity as he explored the racialized histories of U.S. infrastructures.

“I identified more as Filipino than Caribbean American,” Daniel said. “In college, when I was able to expose myself to African American and Black student organizations, I started to really explore my Black identity.”

As he learned to embrace his intersecting identities, Daniel helped found Wentworth’s chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects Students (NOMAS), where he researched and taught Wentworth students about the racist histories of U.S. architecture.

“There was this realization of this conscious decision to decimate these areas,” Daniel said of architectural initiatives that disenfranchised predominantly nonwhite Boston neighborhoods like Dorchester. “We have a whole type of neighborhood infrastructure that was designed and historically racist.”

The legacies of redlining, a New Deal-era practice of grading a neighborhood’s desirability (and thus its residents’ deservingness for affordable home loans) based on its racial demographics, are reflected in contemporary Boston’s inequitable living conditions.

Daniel presented his thesis on historical patterns of U.S. architecture’s racialized inflections at an art gathering where he was first introduced to Boston Pilipinx Education, Advocacy, and Resources (PEAR). This began his year-long work with PEAR and Boston’s Filipinx community.

“What I loved about my experience with PEAR is that I was able to learn so much about Filipinx history and more of the modern political and socioeconomic climate, but also to give back that knowledge about architecture to the group,” Daniel said.

Daniel’s work with NOMA and PEAR opened a pathway in May 2022 to a position at The Designery program with YouthBuild Boston (YBB). Since 1990, YBB has been on a mission to equip underserved youth with tools for success in building trade careers. The Designery is one of YBB’s four initiatives ranging from facilities maintenance to apprenticeship programs for teens and young adults.

“We teach high school students about architecture through community-based projects,” Daniel said. “We strive to give our students agency in design because we rarely see companies actively try to engage youth in the design of their infrastructure.”

YBB is committed to strengthening Boston’s neighborhoods by exposing youth to accessible opportunities in construction and design. These initiatives were responses to the persistent demographic discrepancies in architectural careers Daniel witnessed growing up.

“Architecture has been, historically, a very white-male-led industry. Right now, only 0.4 percent of registered architects represent themselves as Black females. Only 2 percent are Black males. Architecture is predominantly Eurocentric,” Daniel said.

In its work to diversify and demystify architectural careers, The Designery deliberately structures its programs to align with students’ positionalities.

“You go through a lot of identity exercises, finding ways to see how their interests and the design overlap,” he said.

Daniel taps into years of self-reflection as a queer Black Filipinx man embedded in Massachusetts communities to mentor students through these exercises. As The Designery’s program manager, he adamantly centers his students’ collective accomplishments.

“There’s so much to celebrate. Especially seeing the amount of progress these students have made from not knowing what architecture design is to creating beautiful designs at the end,” Daniel said.

That drive to bring beauty into communities historically impacted by the violence of racist U.S. infrastructural development informs Designery students’ ongoing projects around Boston.

At the Dorchester Food Co-Op, students are designing a mural to highlight the neighborhood’s cultural diversity. Other groups worked with the Mayor’s Office to create garden pavilion designs for a handful of the city’s vacant lots.

“One group site was across from a mosque Malcolm X attended when he lived in Boston. Students started to use that information to influence their design and architecture,” Daniel said.

As The Designery continues to build cooperative relationships across several Boston organizations, Daniel is adamant about funneling more resources into giving Boston’s Black and Brown youth avenues to effect meaningful changes in their communities on their own terms.

“The future of architecture is at stake,” Daniel said. “We’re not trying to force students to become architects but realize that it’s a career they can go into, and there are different ways to love that career.”

Daniel implores organizations looking to engineer lasting infrastructures of care in their communities to prioritize the perspectives of its youth.

“There’s a lot of beauty that can come out of curated experiences for the youth,” Daniel said. “I would love to see more organizations and individuals giving a voice to the youth in our neighborhoods.”

In this spirit, Daniel, YouthBuild Boston, and its young designers are building the more equitable world they radically imagine for their community.

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