In July 2019, VMDO earned its first JUST label! A program of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), JUST is “a nutrition label for socially just and equitable organizations” that seeks to achieve the following goals:
- Elevate the discussion around social justice in all organizations;
- Create a common language for social justice issues;
- Elevate the causes of those individuals who lead these issues;
- Change the policies and practices of thousands of organizations worldwide;
- Make life better for people from all walks of life.
To participate, an organization must report on the following indicators: gender and ethnic diversity; gender pay and pay-scale equity; living wage and full-time employment; occupational safety; employee benefits and worker happiness; local control and sourcing; responsible investing; charitable giving; community volunteering; and transparency. Each indicator has metrics that outline criteria for the organization to be recognized at a one-, two-, or three-star level. ILFI issues a scorecard that summarizes performance against each indicator and publishes the supporting data so that individuals can learn more about an organization’s practices. VMDO is the first architecture firm in Virginia to achieve the label, and only the third firm in the Mid-Atlantic region.
VMDO prides itself of being an equitable practice. Members of our staff participate in the AIA Large Firm Roundtable and the Emerging Professionals network; we are active in our local AIA chapter and we have good relationships with fellow architects in our community and our region. We have used this professional network to share best practices and to compare how we operate against other firms of our size. We also pride ourselves on being a teaching practice; much of what we do as an office is focused on mentoring the next generation of architects as they progress from internship to licensure. We invest in our staff because we want them to stay.
The JUST label appealed to us for a number of reasons:
- It provides a comprehensive vision for an equitable and socially just organization – a way for us to go beyond best practices and to identify where we could improve in ways that aligned with our values.
- Its transparent nature engages staff at all levels of the organization in the conversation around firm operations, and provides third-party verification of our achievements.
- It allows us to compare our levels of achievement against those of other national firms (who, in our experience, were eager to share how they succeeded where we were experiencing challenges).
- It is recognized by the leading green building rating systems (required by the Living Building Challenge, and eligible for a pilot credit in LEED), providing benefits to our projects undergoing certification.
When we began the process, we received amazing support not just from ILFI but also from other firms who had gone through the process.JUST gave us the nudge to complete our employee handbook, which had been a low priority and always put to the side in favor of project work, and to develop policies which had been widely understood but not formalized. In addition, we sent out a happiness survey to our staff; we reviewed our purchasing to see how much of what we spend as a firm stays in our community; we looked at our investments to see how they align with socially responsible investing criteria; and we reviewed our volunteering and charitable giving policies.
So, what did we learn? A lot. We achieved three-star recognition in a number of areas, including non-discrimination, pay scale equity, worker happiness, continuing education, responsible investing, and positive products, as well as all indicators in the safety and local benefit categories. A few of these indicators were for things we weren’t officially tracking (worker happiness, responsible investing, local benefit), and a few would have been appalling if we hadn’t achieved them (for example, the three-star achievement for pay scale equity – the ratio of the highest to lowest paid employee – in JUST is 1:15; at VMDO, our ratio is 1:4). Some of the items were less relevant to our practice; for example, we do not have a strong union presence in Charlottesville, Virginia, so one-star achievement in the union friendly category was not unexpected.
We also learned that not all of the good we do is captured by JUST. For example, VMDO has an exemplary retirement benefit for our employees because it is one of the firm’s core values. Specifically, we have contributed 15% to employee retirement funds for 38 of the firm’s 40-year history (slightly reduced for the other two years) and we provide a matching fund up to 4% for employee contributions – a level of contribution highly rare in our profession and the workplace overall. However, this benefit is not reflected in our score in either JUST v1 or JUST v2. We are signatories of Public Architecture’s +1 program, and through VMDO Design Corps (our pro-bono program) we provide every employee with eight paid volunteer hours per year and we provide pro-bono design services for a range of clients, but in JUST we only qualify for one-star achievement because we do not dedicate sixteen paid volunteer hours to each employee.
There were three indicators that sparked considerable discussion at VMDO:
Gender Pay Equity and Gender Diversity: JUST caused us to look comprehensively at gender pay equity in the firm, which led to the realization that the firm lacks diversity in a few key leadership roles. As a result, the firm is focusing on increasing equity and representation in the next generation of firm leadership, developing specific professional growth/mentorship plans to extend our mentorship program beyond licensure, and exploring inherent bias training for both senior management and the office as a whole. Gender pay equity and firm diversity will now be directly monitored as salary adjustments and promotions are made.
Ethnic Diversity: Ethnic diversity has always been an issue in our profession, so we were not surprised to find that we scored poorly for this indicator. However, the way JUST frames ethic diversity was profound – how well does the diversity of our firm reflect the diversity of our community? This has led to larger discussions about how and who we recruit, and about the importance of growing the diversity of our profession through our VMDO Design Corps initiatives. There is no easy answer, but by going through JUST we’ve identified ethnic diversity as a place to focus our efforts in the coming years.
Living Wage: We were initially shocked that we received no stars in this category, and we looked closely at this indicator to understand why. JUST v1 refers to the MIT Living Wage Calculator and uses the category Two Adults/One Working as its definition of living wage (for Charlottesville, this is the equivalent of $20.77/hr). Does this mean that VMDO does not pay a living wage? No. Our lowest paid employee makes $15/hour, which aligns with both the University of Virginia’s and the City of Charlottesville’s definition of a living wage for our community, and well above the MIT rate of $12.77 for the One Adult category. ILFI has received feedback on this metric, and in response JUST v2 has moved the baseline category to be Two Adults/One Child, which for Charlottesville means paying $14.84/hr.
JUST allows firms to opt out of reporting on three categories. We made the decision to publish all of our information, and to do it now under the v1 scorecard verses later under JUST v2, where our scores would be higher. We believed it was important to reflect our honest progress: the JUST program won’t scale if companies feel like they have to be perfect to participate. Publishing our complete v1 scorecard also provides accountability on our goal to improve our level achievement over time.
To see our scorecard and the data behind each indicator visit our JUST page. All in all, we can confidently say that our participation in JUST has changed the way we do business for the better. We look forward to helping other firms make the JUST journey.