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What is a Sage? Climate Week and the Design Profession

This is not about fighting climate change. This is about standing with the planet, our communities, our youth.

By Maxinne Rhea Leighton, Assoc. AIA
September 24, 2019

We think of sages as elderly. And for the most part, that is what history has shown us. There is, however, more to the question of what a sage is. It is not age-based. If you need evidence of that, look into the faces and hearts of the young people around the globe who took to the streets advocating for a world that they will one day inherit. Actually, let me rephrase that. The day each of us is born is the day we inherit the earth. What we do with that begins at our first breath.


Sadly, many adults have been decommissioned out of youthful sage-hood. Many chose to reclaim it at another juncture, others not. Yet no matter the choice, the truth is this: When we die, we are disinherited from an earth that once served us in life. The young people who took to the streets and spoke at the UN are demanding what most adults loath to ever give up – a chance to live.


Yes, it is true that through the centuries there have been deep stressors that have changed the course of a young person’s experience early in life. Racial injustices, violence, economic, religious, and sexual apartheid. Yet for many it was and, to this day, remains escapable through the philosophical transposition of “them” and “not us.”


What does this have to do with the design profession? Plenty.


Just as the youth on the front lines of climate change are facing into uncertainty, the design profession is experiencing its own version of impermanence as it addresses more frequent climate-impactful events and increasing vulnerabilities.


These are the times of the reflective practitioner, when who we are, individually and collectively, takes on another level of meaning and action societally.


What stands before us is as much about the Earth as it is about justice, equity, dignity, diversity, and inclusion within our communities and the composition of the profession.


This is not about fighting climate change. We only have to look at fighting the war on poverty to see how successful that was. This is about standing with the planet, our communities, our youth. Young people have responded to this urgent call with passion and conviction. So must we as their elders.



Maxinne Rhea Leighton, Assoc. AIAhas held leadership roles in design firms for the past 20 years. She is pioneering research on the impact of climate change on design and planning professionals in completion of her Ph.D. A senior-level strategist in business development, marketing, and communications for Jaros, Baum & Bolles, she is an Honorary Council Member for the Consortium of Sustainable Urbanization, AIA New York's Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee, and an Advisory Council Member for Save Ellis Island.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kristen Richards