Looking inward and outward, architects make strides toward more significant inclusion in the field

Out in architecture event AIA Chicago and SOM

Panelists at the AIA and AIA Chicago "Out in Architecture" event, held at Chicago's SOM office in June 2019.

AIA brought together architects and allied professionals to discuss what is changing and what yet needs to change to support a more equitable, diverse, inclusive workforce in a year-long event series.

“As our nation becomes ever more diverse, all areas of our society must reflect the trend. It’s not a secret that architecture as a profession has fallen behind,” said 2019 AIA president William F. Bates, FAIA, at the inaugural event for AIA’s 2019 speaker series “Embracing our differences, Changing the world.”

Organized to acknowledge the contributions of architects from diverse backgrounds, events in the series celebrated the history, contributions and challenges faced by African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ+ and Hispanic and Latino/a individuals, and women. Throughout the year, local AIA chapters, firms, and allied organizations across the country brought industry leaders representing identity-based groups together to examine the state of the profession and propose solutions for overcoming bias head-on.

“We've all faced individual challenges related to our identities. They range from tokenism to assumptions of quality of work,” said Siboney Diaz-Sanchez, AIA, at the AIA and AIA San Antonio Latinos in Architecture event held in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. “Issues we encounter could be based on gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, race and often they're mixed. You don't know why you're being discriminated against.”

Barriers to overcoming discrimination are different for each identity-based group as well as each person within them. Broadly, these and other types of exclusions affect architects’ ability to feel comfortable and safe as well as their ability to make contributions to the built environment.

Despite the challenges and obstacles created by implicit and overt biases many of the speakers have overcome, they continue to enjoy success as architects and are recognized for their leadership in the community. A common trait is their ability to put positive and negative experiences in perspective, and another is a focus on how to make the profession more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, for the next generation.

Improving access and support for a changing workforce

A truly diverse workforce—one that reflects society—will only exist if young people from a range of backgrounds are able to become architects. Speakers representing the African American community pointed out that access to the field isn’t what it should be for people of color. “One of the things I noticed when I got to architecture school was that there are a lot of disparities,” said Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), who joined Bates for the Black History Month event held in partnership with AIA | DC. “It’s great to focus on fixing cities and addressing disparity issues within our cities, but at a certain point, I realized we also have to fix the profession of architecture to provide a space for more people to have access; to empower the communities they come from.”

Architects need to focus more on the pipeline, according to Dowdell. If young people have an understanding of architecture or see aspects of their identity reflected in working architects, they may consider it as a career path. NOMA’s Project Pipeline, she says, provides children with architecture education and connects them with working architects who challenge them to employ design thinking to improve their communities.

AIA president William F. Bates, FAIA, and NOMA president Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, at the AIA and AIA | DC Black History Month event in February 2019.

An often less visible minority, the LGBTQ+ community experiences barriers to entering architecture, too. Speaking at the AIA and AIA Chicago “Out in Architecture” Pride Month event, transgender architect, Katherine Georgeson, FAIA, shared that she has been approached by LGBTQ+ youth seeking advice on entering the profession. “At a lot of the conferences that I talk at, I'll get students that come up to me and say, "I'm thinking about architecture, but is it safe for me?,’" she recounted. Georgeson feels that firms and AIA have the “horsepower” to extend a welcoming hand to younger generations.

Yiselle Santos, Assoc. AIA, director of diversity and inclusion at HKS, sees an opportunity to shift the culture in architecture firms by capitalizing on the unique perspectives of young people. “They have grown up in a culture open to sharing experiences,” she said at “Out in Architecture,” which was held at SOM’s Chicago office in June. “Social media is an inherent part of their lives. It is everywhere. For them the conversation of gender fluidity and queerness is different given their access to these topics. Older generations, and likely those in current leadership, grew up in a different era where exposure was met with fear. Thus, tapping into the emerging professional conversation, empowering them, and providing them platforms for visibility is going to be key to changing the course of our industry as a whole,” said Santos, who is a member of the AIA Strategic Council as well as the Equity and Future of Architecture Committee.

Once young people are in the profession, they need to feel welcomed and encouraged to be themselves. LGBTQ+ panelists shared their journeys to being out at work and discussed how those experiences help them support others around them. According to them, a firm can be supportive of LGBTQ+ employees regardless of its size. Chris Morrison, AIA, of Perkins + Will described the firm’s global efforts toward diversity and inclusion, which have led to its selection as a Human Rights Council “Best Place to Work for LGBTQ Equality,” while Georgeson and Dan Earles, who run small firms, shared that being an affirming leader comes down to setting a good example. “I got to set the precedent of being open and honest with myself and embracing that and showing that I'm comfortable in my skin,” said Earles. “I think that's what we do at our firm, just make it an environment and a culture [where] people feel comfortable to just be themselves.” On his firm’s marketing materials, Earles has started to promote the LGBT ownership of the firm, which could go a long way to being welcoming toward new employees, not to mention attracting potential clients.

Leadership, mentorship, and building a network of allies

At each of the events in the speaker series, universal themes of guidance and mentorship emerged. For women in architecture, construction, and landscape architecture fields, panelists encouraged firms to actively sponsor and promote women into leadership positions to achieve gender equity. “We still have a very real, and serious, lack of women as role models at the upper levels,” said Susan Schaefer Kliman, AIA, chair and program director of the University of District of Columbia’s Department of Architecture and Urban Sustainability at the “Women in Design” event.

Celebrating March as Women’s History Month, panelists including AIA President-elect Jane Frederick, FAIA, Nicole Allen, president of the National Association of Black Women in Construction, Inc. National Capital Region, and Nancy Somerville, Hon. AIA, executive vice president and CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects, talked about how opportunities for women in their industries are improving, but at a much slower pace than what is necessary. “We need to be taking a look at the profession and figuring out how to make it more hospitable,” Kliman said.

“We need to be taking a look at the profession and figuring out how to make it more hospitable,” - Susan Schaefer Kliman, AIA

At October’s Hispanic Heritage Month Event in San Antonio, architects described how they found support to make career moves from fellow Latinos when they didn’t exactly see it in the profession as a whole.  “We identify with people who identify with us,” said Roberto Trevino, a city councilor in San Antonio about representation in the field. “Sometimes you can't find somebody that provides that kind of relatability.” Trevino and fellow Hispanic and Latino/a panelists stressed the need for building a network of allies that extends beyond their community.

Ricardo de Jesús Maga Rojas, Assoc. AIA, a senior project coordinator at GFF Architects and chair of AIA Austin’s Latinos in Architecture committee, believes that allies need to be more vocal and speak up when others may not have the chance to. “They don't have to know everything, but they just have to be more understanding about where it is that you're coming from and why that affects you in the way that it does,” he said.

Design for the community, by the community

Architects are often best suited to serve their own communities through design and contribute to their betterment as thinkers and designers. In San Antonio, a city where more than 60% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, Trevino has found that being an architect on the city council allows him to bring a unique perspective capable of building a stronger city. “I think that there should be more architects in this city council offering up opportunities to solve things, to create these base hits that I think maybe people aren't looking at,” he said. “Architects see the world differently from others. This is at the heart of what I think I bring to this role and what I hope to recruit others to also bring.”

At the Native American Heritage Month “Leadership & Design in Indian Country” event hosted by AIA Central Oklahoma, Native American leaders detailed some of the challenges and opportunities within their tribes, while designers shared how architecture fits in. “I really do see our role as a support role,” said Jason Holuby, AIA, president of New Fire Native Design Group. Holuby sees that the value Native American architects like himself bring lies not only in creating buildings that house services and support economic development but also in telling stories and bringing culture into space. “Every tribe has their own story, their own culture, their own language, so it’s up to us to learn those things first,” he saidof his firm’s values-based approach.

“The tribes are not stuck in the past,” Holuby said. “They’re here today and they’re moving forward. That is a challenge and it’s one that we love to tackle as architects. To date, New Fire Native has worked on over 50 projects in Indian Country and continues to grow its business, honoring the past and pushing design for Native Americans forward.

Start with a conversation

Speakers representing this broad range of distinct and intersecting communities all stressed the need for greater interpersonal engagement within their cultures and outside of them. Making efforts to reach mutual understanding and building common ground—in the workplace and beyond—may seem like a small step, but it can go a long way to improve the practice and profession of architecture. “You have to start the conversation about bridging between other cultures to have the kind of success we want to see in our firms and other types of businesses,” said Dowdell at the February Black History Month panel. Panelists encouraged not only their groups, but those from others—those that represent the majority and those in leadership positions—to listen and connect, to understand perspectives and contributions of historically marginalized groups.

Looking ahead, AIA will be reviewing the “Embracing our differences, Changing the world” speaker series in 2020 for a relaunch in 2021. Events like these will provide architects an opportunity to connect and learn from each other and the communities, which they will work together to improve one design project at a time.

“When you have a more diverse group at the table, you end up with a better project, a better society, a better world to live in,” Frederick said.

Kathleen M. O’Donnell is a writer/editor at AIA, specializing in practice and professional development topics and Institute coverage.

Image credits

Out in architecture event AIA Chicago and SOM

Stephanie Jensen Photography

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