This Medical Planner is Working to End the Confusion Surrounding EDI

Yisele Santos Rivera

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If you ask 20 people to define EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion), you can expect to hear 20 different answers. Yiselle Santos Rivera, the first director of EDI at HKS and a senior medical planner, attributes the confusion to the lack of a common language.

“I found that the definition of these words varies significantly depending on people’s experiences,” she says. “Typically when I say ‘equity,’ most people think of women, the #MeToo movement, pay equity and gender disparity. When I say ‘diversity,’ they think African American. And when I say ‘inclusion,’ most people can’t articulate what it means. I can understand all of those things — the definitions are not common sense to everybody.”

Santos Rivera, who works in the architectural design firm’s Washington, DC office, is doing her part to eliminate the misperceptions, relying on the American Institute of Architects’ Guides for Equitable Practice for assistance.

Equity is not really about gender or race — it’s about resources and opportunity,” says Santos Rivera, who grew up in Puerto Rico and studied in Mexico and China before pursuing her master’s degree in architecture from Syracuse University. “It means understanding that not everybody has had the same background and availability to resources. Some people need additional tools and support in order to arrive at the playing field with the same opportunity to succeed.”

Diversity, on the other hand, involves more than gender and race.

“It’s about perspective, thought leadership and having a different point of view,” Santos Rivera adds. “That can come in many different ways — gender, race, neurodiversity, sexual orientation. All of those things inherently provide a different perspective. But this also includes differences in age, background, education and expertise. The experiences that you’ve had in your life — all of those things have to be accounted for.”

Santos Rivera describes inclusion as providing or creating a positive space where people can thrive. It is not only having a seat at the table but also being able to authentically share your voice at the table.

“It’s really finding the opportunity to highlight where we can all come together,” she says. “In design this is very powerful. We can have a real impact in the built environment in the way we can provide spaces for people to belong, feel safe and included.”

When Culture Meets Design

Having worked for three notable architectural firms (the other two being HOK and SmithGroup), Santos Rivera has had the opportunity to contribute to a variety of projects, including prisons, courthouses, office buildings and healthcare facilities. One of her most memorable assignments involved designing an apartment building in the Middle East, where cultural norms dictated some extraordinary design challenges.

“When designing multi-family housing, considerations are made to accommodate the appropriate population mix between family units and bachelor units. Unit mix can happen in the same building but not on the same floor,” she says. “On one occasion, a tall multifamily building got located across from an academic complex with sightlines to an all-girls school. In order to direct views away from the school’s courtyards, we incorporated beautiful façade treatments that allowed for ample sunlight to interior spaces while still allowing views to neighboring spaces.”

Yiselle Santos Rivera

Raising the Bar on EDI

As director of EDI, Santos Rivera collaborates with the HKS talent team on the firm’s recruitment strategies, which include participating in diversity career fairs, connecting with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and identifying opportunities to embed EDI benchmarking in the firm’s efforts to build diverse teams and increase equity in its leadership paths.

She’s part of an environmental social governance group that explores opportunities to promote sustainability, social justice and equitable practices in HKS projects. “I also have a passionate group of equity champions who share their thoughts on what’s important to them in the workplace,” she says.

Beyond her ongoing roles at HKS, Santos Rivera also serves as the director at large for AIA’s DC Chapter Board and the associate director for the AIA Strategic Council. She also founded WIELD: Women Inspiring Emerging Leaders in Design.

“It’s a storytelling event that provides women an opportunity for engagement and empowerment,” she says. “WIELD is a unique platform that creates an environment for people to share stories, celebrate successes, network and find mentors. In this space, people can have real conversations about the challenges and pinch points we all face in our careers.”

Though Santos Rivera is committed to continuing her inspiring work, she recalls a time when she dreamed of becoming a Disney Imagineer. As both a Disney and Harry Potter fan, she was excited by the prospect of crafting something real out of worlds that don’t actually exist. She still thinks that would be a phenomenal experience, but has discovered more meaning in contributing to projects that help enrich communities throughout the world.

“It would be fun to create experiences in places like amusement parks where people can escape and lose themselves for a short while, but there’s so much value in being able to impact the way that people live their everyday,” she says. “Striving to create a similar experience for somebody who is going through childbirth or cancer treatment feels more authentic and meaningful for me.”