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Zanira's blueprint for change: A unique intersection of architecture, social justice, and mentorship

Tuesday June 13, 2023


New graduate Zanira Ali plans to continue mentoring other young people as she pursues an architecture career rooted in community engagement (supplied image)

Toronto (HOL) - In the grand tapestry of urban design, Zanira Ali, an architecture graduate from the University of Toronto, emerges as a beacon of inspiration. Guided by an unwavering determination to lead by example, she embarked on a transformative journey at the university, driven by her passion for community-based architecture and a burning desire to shatter barriers.

Ali's academic experience at the esteemed John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design allowed her to explore the vital intersection between architecture and community engagement. She viewed architecture not merely as physical structures but as a living, breathing embodiment of community interaction and public empowerment. Through her studies, she sought to understand how public spaces could be moulded to reflect the needs and aspirations of the people who inhabited them.

Her time at the university was characterized not only by her own learning but also by her commitment to mentorship. Ali actively took on the mantle of a mentor for budding architects, striving to ensure that the faces they saw were as diverse as the spaces they were destined to create. She passionately believed in the power of representation and actively sought opportunities to uplift and guide students who, like her, yearned for diverse role models in the architectural realm.
Ali embarked on her postgraduate journey with the nonprofit Black Architects and Interior Design Association (BAIDA). Here, she found solace and empowerment through her mentorship with Diamond Schmitt Architects, which enhanced her portfolio and provided her with a platform to pose pressing questions about the field. Inspired by this experience, Ali dedicated herself to giving back and guiding students from underrepresented backgrounds, ensuring that aspiring architects felt seen, heard, and supported.
Ali's commitment to mentorship extended beyond the confines of the university. She actively engaged with organizations such as Somali Scholars and the Building Black Success Through Design (BBSD) program, where she imparted her knowledge and wisdom to aspiring architects from marginalized communities. Through these endeavours, Ali sought to bridge the representation gap and nurture environments where aspiring architects could thrive.

Ali’s thesis project demonstrated how funds could be redistributed to create neighbourhoods full of opportunity for communities that rely on public housing (photo submitted by Zanira Ali)

For Ali, her thesis project became a powerful conduit to shed light on the often overlooked social dimensions of architecture. Recognizing the profound impact of architectural design on racialized, Black, and Indigenous communities in Canada, she courageously chose to explore the role of prisons in perpetuating oppression. Her project critically dissected the spaces of control and confinement created by architects, emphasizing the urgent need to address the disproportionate impact on marginalized communities.

One striking example she highlighted was the Toronto South Detention Centre, a staggering $700 million investment. Ali envisioned an alternative path, where funds could be redirected to build vibrant neighbourhoods that catered to the needs of communities relying on public housing. Her thought-provoking "The $69-Million Block" project showcased a model community comprising row houses, essential services, and recreational spaces—an embodiment of equitable resource allocation and community empowerment.

Ali's visionary approach not only revealed the inherent need for prison reform but also challenged the overrepresentation of minority groups within Toronto's incarceration system. Her profound understanding of the transformative power of architecture has propelled her to advocate for social justice and equity, weaving these principles into the very fabric of her future endeavours.

As Ali embarks on the next chapter of her career, she remains steadfast in her commitment to social change, mentorship, and architectural exploration. She seeks to leverage her experiences to forge meaningful connections between communities and architectural practice, forever mindful of the transformative potential that lies within the built environment.

To incoming students, Ali imparts her invaluable wisdom, urging them to embrace the profound impact of personal connections alongside academic pursuits. "Join a club or association to connect with different people," she advises, emphasizing the importance of venturing into uncharted territories.