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Volunteer Profile: Yoona Ahn

Yoona Ahn is a City Planner and Urban Designer who believes design is a language that is shared by everyone and is intuitive to humans. She views deisgn as a tool or language that a lot of people understand immediately, especially when we talk to communities that may have not been design focused historically.  

How did you learn about the Collaborative and become a volunteer? 

I got to know about the Collaborative and learn about the work you do just by being a designer in Philadelphia. I was drawn to my first volunteer project with Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission (link to project blog post) through my colleague at work who had previous ties with the Collaborative. He sent a group email about the project, and I jumped on it immediately because I used to live a block away from SBRM and thought of them as my neighbors, they were in my neighborhood. I had volunteered at SBRM through my church years before that; so I was familiar with their building and facility. 

What has been most surprising, rewarding, or fun about your Collaborative experience? 

What we presented to SBRM was implemented almost immediately! That was very rewarding to me. That doesn’t really often happen at our workplaces. Often you draw, think, and you do your own thing, then you present it. It takes a while, and there’s usually a lot of hurdles to get through, but they (SBRM) were so ready and the need was so immediate. The fact that it was implemented immediately was personally shocking, but also really cool to see. 

Even the part of the project that I didn’t directly get involved in, for example, the interior circulation of the locker room, was really cool. 

I really enjoyed meeting new folks through our group’s design charrettes and conversations. 

Why is design an important part of revitalizing communities? 

I think design is a language that is shared by everyone. I believe it’s intuitive to humans. It is a tool/language that a lot of people understand immediately, especially when we talk to communities that may have not been focused historically. When we bring up drawings or color graphics, they understand it. It is a communication, and it is very important to talk with them. I think that’s the first step in revitalizing communities, getting to know them and meeting them where they are instead of coming from a high helicopter view and saying you need this.  

What advice, if any, would you offer to AAPI women-identified persons considering a career in in the design/AEC industry? 

In the wake of what’s been happening to AAPI communities this question is so important. Not just for AAPI communities but for the Black Lives Matter movement, Indigenous folks, and any minority groups. Also, while I’m an Asian American, I’m just a portion of the Asian American community. When we say Asia, it’s a whole continent, not just one country.  

I think we’re starting to speak out and be louder. And I say “we” to include anyone who considers themselves to be a minority. That is making some folks uncomfortable, it’s not what they’re used to and it’s challenging the status quo. We’re challenging them, making some interactions uncomfortable by not letting little comments fly by. I think those moments are important. As a member of the AAPI community and as a woman, I would tell another person of that shared mind and identity to be ready. To confront those moments of awkwardness/uncomfortableness, that feeling you’re doing something to cause a slight burden.  

Embrace that some people just don’t know. They need to know that their underlying unconscious comments or something they grew up with may not be correct. It’s important to challenge that. I try to do it with grace and forgiveness. it’s ok to shine a light and to say when something’s not right. We’re all here to work together.  

What impact do you feel AAPI persons, particularly women, have had on the design/AEC industry and what gap is still to be filled? Do you think they’ve had an overall impact that can be measured currently, or is that impact to be seen? 

When I look around at the people I’ve worked with; I think increasingly there’s more presence of AAPI women. While I don’t know everyone, just in my small network of people, especially in Philly, I’ve gotten to know some really cool, powerful, talented, very very smart, brilliant women who are also Asian Americans. I’ve learned a lot from them and I look up to them. I say ‘Wow, look at what they’ve accomplished’, and ‘they’re only this age’. I feel empowered and I feel motivated through them being there. I have a colleague at work who is an Asian American and in a leadership position and I really look up to her.  

But I also do enjoy being the only one because now I know and have seen other women be that only one. I have an energy to charge with. When people get my name wrong, I correct them with no shame. In the past I would wonder ‘Should I have a more Americanized nickname?’ All that turmoil from my childhood’s first-day-of-schools…I think now, finally, I embrace my name and my heritage with no hesitation of making someone uncomfortable. Those are important growth points for me. I don’t know if that’s the impact you mean but I see more of us and that crosses all professions and fields. Not just design and architecture but also entertainment or sports. We’re not only lawyers, doctors, and CPAs; we’re designers, athletes, singers. Seeing us venturing out to different fields has been really inspiring to me and I see that as an impact.  

America has a long history of xenophobia towards and invisibalizing of its Asian Americans citizens. Has this legacy affected your personal experience within or outside your design profession, and how do you combat it, rise above it, and/or mitigate it? 

It is challenging and it is hard to combat it, to rise against/above it. It can be personally traumatizing even if it’s not a physical assault. There are certain words and a certain environment that bring these moments out.  

I’m Korean American and my husband is Chinese Indonesian. My son is not just one Asian. Understanding that diversity exists not only in America as a whole but in every race and ethnicity - White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc. -  is important. There is diversity in every group. Reminding people who don’t know that is a first step for me. How do you define a person? My son was born 4 months ago in Philly. He’s never left this country we call home. The idea that someone might compare him with another White baby born in Philadelphia and say, ‘Which one is more American and which one is less?’… is absurd to me.  

When I started working professionally, I consciously/unconsciously started dressing in an overdressed attire. I am petite, a common characteristic of Asians; we tend to look younger than we are and some folks, based on our appearance, perceive us to be less professional or rookie-ish. While I realized it’s important to dress nicely, be professional, and be yourself, it’s equally important to ask questions when I have them and to speak up when I need to. It is important to not standby when discriminating comments come. At least bring it up with your colleagues or talk about it with friends and those close to you. And if you’re not in a place to call something out or cause a disruption, definitely process and analyze the experience for yourself in a way that makes sense for you. Let it out in a way that’s healthy to you so that it does not build further in anger or anguish. At the end of the day, if you compare their momentary discomfort with the fears in which minority groups live with - Black children being killed in the street, Asians being punched in the face, my worry compared to their discomfort; I think it’s okay for them to be uncomfortable in that moment and start learning.  

Learning about the diversity of Asian Americans has been really important to me. There’s Indian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and many more. Moments of micro/macro aggressions can be hurtful, but I’m empowered because more folks are speaking out. Someone has to teach them and if it’s me, I’m happy to because I’m also learning in this world. Also becoming a mom has definitely given me some courage and thicker skin. I’m more willing to speak out: “Hey! My son is as American as your kid. He’s never left the country - our country. This is our home.” 

What do you love most about Philadelphia? 

I love Philly because I can walk anywhere. Although we have transit, I love walking around, every direction has been interesting.  

The people I’ve met so far. I moved here for school at Penn, and I stayed for my job. I love working at my job and those I’ve gotten to meet through work. Even meeting everyone at the Collaborative, Heidi and the design team. Philly people, especially those I’ve met in the design field, have been really nice and very friendly. 



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