Professor SueAnne Ware's odyssey that led her to the University of Newcastle

SueAnne Ware knows what it’s like to live in poverty.

The seventh of 14 children, she grew up with a single mum in public housing in a black neighbourhood.

The family lived in the Compton area of South Central Los Angeles – a place notorious for drugs, crime, hardship and gang violence.

It’s an area that spawned hip-hop superstars like Snoop Dogg and NWA’s Easy-E, Dr Dre and Ice Cube.

Ware knew these guys. She went to school with them.

She related to their music as an outlet and voice for minorities and the oppressed.

The story of these artists hit the big screen last year in the film, Straight Outta Compton.

“They inspired me and their music still does to this day,” Ware says.

“They spoke for disenfranchised people. They spoke for us.”

Those hip-hop artists pulled themselves out of poverty and made new lives for themselves.

They weren’t the only ones. Ware is now a professor. She heads the University of Newcastle’s School of Architecture.

Ware’s mum is white. Her dad, who died when she was four, was African-American.

Her history and life experience is what drives her.

Life in the ‘hood, while often tough, does have redeeming qualities, she says.

It can help build resilience and confidence, while developing the means to overcome challenges and accept responsibility from a relatively early age.

“You learn true grit,” she says.

These attributes have informed her life as a designer, landscape architect, humanitarian and altruist.

Design can seem bound to the idea of wealth. But for Ware, the poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged also deserve good design in their lives.

This is why she has used her design skills to help the likes of street prostitutes, refugees, drug users, domestic violence victims, Indigenous women and victims of gang violence.

“Design is important for everyone, not just those who can afford it,” she says.

Her desire to make a difference is linked to her conscience.

“I figure the work I do with disadvantaged communities – that’s me making sure the public is getting their money’s worth,” she says.

“Academics are paid by students and the public, so I think we have a responsibility and an ethic to be publicly involved.”

Most designers, she says, want to make the world a better place.

“You can’t build a building or design a public space without wanting to make people’s lives better.”

She cites the Merewether Baths as an example of a great public space, pointing out that people from all races and backgrounds, rich or poor, can go there.

“It’s so levelling,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter what you own [when you’re at the baths or beach],” she says.

“You might have expensive togs, but no one would know.”

For her, it’s an area that represents freedom and equality.

“Part of it is that open access. Part of it is people relax there. They get to be in the landscape, but not be afraid of it,” she says. 

“They get to just hang. No one’s worried about them loitering, for instance.”

Her empathy comes from her past, particularly seeing black male friends die from gang-related violence.

“Over 50 per cent of black males in America die from gang violence in certain districts,” she says.

Human life, she says, shouldn’t be taken for granted. But in America, it’s easy to become immune and hardened to the everyday violence.

Three people are killed and seven people are shot every hour in the US.

“When I moved to Australia, it was quite amazing not to have all the shootings and things on television,” she says.

Nevertheless, she pays close attention to stories about war and the plight of refugees.

Wars over religion leave her lamenting a lack of humanity.

“I look at that and think, if we valued our species in the same way we valued our religion, we might be a very different species,” she says.

“I’m not criticising anyone for their political beliefs or stance, although I obviously have my own.

“And I’m not asking anyone to switch sides of politics, but I am kind of asking people to think about humanity and what it means to be on this planet.”

Despite the despair that can come from thinking about the horror in the world, Ware says she has “radical hope”.

“It’s really about being pragmatic and thinking the world can be a different place and being able to act on that and have some agency,” she says.

In this sense, Newcastle is an inspiring place.

“Newcastle is full of amazing examples of people doing tremendous work across a range of disciplines in a range of ways,” she says.

Architecture students in Newcastle are responsive to the idea of using design for social justice and the greater good.

“The students in Newcastle really get that,” she says.

“Maybe it’s because they’re not Sydney kids – they’re not from the socio-economic high end.”

In Newcastle, Ware does community work with an all-female crew called Outfit.

The organisation is a “hands-on program, focused on providing equal opportunities for women within the design and construction professions”.

“In my profession – construction management and architecture – women are very much under-represented,” Ware says.

The group works in the community and advocates for gender equality.

Its members are working on a design project to improve Jenny’s Place, a haven in Newcastle for domestic violence victims.

They’re also working on a playground for autistic children at St Kevin’s Primary School at Cardiff.

Ware has also proposed a project to remove toxins in a natural way from the heavy-rail site in Newcastle.

“You can plant particular plants and use them in a beautiful way to help clean toxins. It’s called phytoremediation,” she says.

“You’d plant sunflowers or poppies – there’s a range of plants you can use – and they suck the toxins out. They clean the soil.

“While the site’s sitting empty, it’s a way to treat it with biological means.”

She says the area could have “beautiful gardens that bloom and do something interesting”.

“Sometimes the flowers will turn all sorts of wild and vivid colours because of the toxins,” she says.

“You get this incredible garden that’s also cleaning the landscape.”

When a certain amount of toxins are removed, goats can be brought in to graze the area – rather than lawnmowers or conventional maintenance.

“You do have to keep the weeds down,” she says.

“Rather than spraying it with more petro-chemicals, goats can maintain it.

“They improve the carbon neutrality and they’re cute.”

When Ware lived in Los Angeles as a youngster, she struck trouble.

This led her to move to Colorado at age 14 to live with her grandfather, who was an engineer.

It was a turning point in her life.

“He was the first person who told me I was smart,” she says.

This positive comment triggered something within her.

Despite this, she admits she “wasn’t exactly a model student”.

“I was more engaged in playing basketball and soccer,” she says.

Her ability in these sports won her a scholarship to Colorado State University.

She wasn’t sure what to study, but she did like to draw.

A professor urged her to try architecture.

She liked the idea of using design to make the world a better place. She completed a degree in landscape architecture.

She later did a masters degree at Berkeley [the University of California] on gang violence.

Then she moved to Australia. That was 20 years ago.

She did a PHD at RMIT University in Melbourne and taught there for 19 years.

When she lived in Melbourne, she worked on a memorial for people who died from heroin overdoses.

“Part of it was about humanising the statistics – 500 people were dying from overdoses every year,” she says.

“Part of it was helping people understand this is someone’s daughter, son, parent or sibling.”

She worked with the community, lobbying for a safe injecting room in Melbourne.

When she does things like this, she doesn’t make moral judgements.

Injecting drug users come from all walks of life, she says.

“Believe me, heroin use cuts across all ethnicities and incomes.”

In Canberra, she worked on a memorial for refugees who drowned at sea on the infamous Siev X vessel.

“It sunk and more than 300 people died – mainly women and children,” she says.

“They were coming over to join their husbands who were already in detention centres in Australia at the time.

“Only about 40 people survived.”

Ware worked on the memorial with some of the survivors.

It was around the time of the children overboard scandal.

The memorial was built in Weston Park – a prominent position near the Governor General’s house.

The aim was to urge politicians to change their thinking on refugees coming to Australia.

“Unfortunately that hasn’t eventuated,” she says.

Ware isn’t the kind of person to forget where she came from. She may be a professor, but she still listens to rap music.

“Now when I hear that music, I think about all the guys that died in our classroom from gang violence or all the guys in jail,” she says.

“I think of all those friends and sisters still in public housing that had kids when they were 14.

“I also think how incredibly lucky I was to have my mother and family.

“We all got out of the ‘hood.”