The Power of Water: Initial Rowe Fellow to Study ‘Disparities’ It Highlights in Communities of Color



By Thaddeus Mast
Akima Brackeen

Chicago is celebrated for its waterfronts, from the beaches of Lake Michigan to the walkways along the Chicago River, but for Akima Brackeen, IIT College of Architecture’s inaugural Jeanne and John Rowe Fellow, the picture is not as enchanting. She is studying the lack of access to water in majority Black neighborhoods across the city—and the struggles residents face because of it.

“Water symbolizes power, a tangible reminder of the link between race and economic disparities,” says Brackeen, who is also a visiting assistant professor. “Water access in predominantly Black and Brown communities has long histories of structural and environmental racism that have restricted—and in many ways continues to restrict—people from accessing clean drinking water, control where people can live and own property, and even engage in places of leisure and recreation.”

As a Rowe fellow, Brackeen will spend two years teaching at the college while pursuing a funded research project intended to advance the study of the built environment. A new Rowe fellow will be appointed each year for a two-year term.

After graduating from the University of Michigan’s Taubman College in May with a Master of Architecture degree, Brackeen decided to stay in academia and continue her research on the social implications of water access and its spatial implications in historically Black neighborhoods. While at Michigan, she focused on narratives about the racialization and spatial consequences of municipal waterscapes, including swimming pools, beaches, and water infrastructure in various cities across the United States. She plans to expand that research in Chicago.

While research and teaching have become her passion, Brackeen also has worked as an architectural designer of many affordable housing projects while at the renowned David Baker Architects in San Francisco. At Michigan, she was a fellow at Boston-based MASS Design Group in Kigali, Rwanda; created programming and opportunities for diversity in architectural education; and co-created and facilitated a program series that explored issues of justice, equity, and access in the built environment. At the College of Architecture, Brackeen will teach design as well as advanced seminars where she will integrate her research on social inequality.

“The College of Architecture at IIT embraces the notion of culture and architecture, and has a strong legacy of experimentation and research,” Brackeen says. “Because of that I feel like this is the best environment to cultivate community, continue in academia, and conduct research.”

Brackeen’s position is part of a program funded by John W. Rowe, a University Regent and former chair of the Board of Trustees who passed away in September 2022, and his wife, Jeanne.

“Bringing promising young faculty to the college will ensure that Illinois Tech and the College of Architecture remain on the cutting edge of higher education,” the Rowes said when the program was announced in October 2021. 

“Thanks to the Rowe’s vision, IIT will become a center for young academics launching their careers,” adds Rowe Family College of Architecture Dean Endowed Chair Reed Kroloff. “Akima is exactly the kind of young professional the Rowes had in mind, and we are so excited to have her with us.”

Photo: College of Architecture Jeanne and John Rowe Fellow Akima Brackeen (provided)