5 Takeaways From The AIA’s Latest Discussion of Its Problem with Diversity

It’s no secret that the architectural profession has a diversity problem. Of the AIA’s 94,000 members, just 2,270 are African American, and of those, 452 are women, according to data from the Directory of African American Architects. And, for now at least, the future doesn’t seem to be looking much brighter: Only five percent of students enrolled in architecture programs are African American, according to demographic data compiled by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

Last night, a group of architects, advocates, and curators assembled at the Washington, D.C., chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to unpack and address some of these concerns. At an evening event titled “Embracing Our Differences, Changing the World,” AIA President William Bates and National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) President Kimberly Dowdell discussed equity, diversity, and inclusion with Michelle Joan Wilkinson, a curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, before a packed house. “It’s not a secret that architecture as a profession has fallen behind,” Bates conceded, adding that the percentage of black students in architecture programs is “not that different from what it was 50 years ago.”

Seizing upon guidelines for diversity and inclusion that the AIA released earlier this year, the speakers reflected upon the urgent need for more equitable representation in the profession.

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You’ve Got to See It to Be It
NOMA and the AIA have dedicated resources toward boosting those numbers, to more accurately reflect the diversity in the country. Both organizations hope to increase the visibility of people of color in the profession. “When my kids were in school, their classmates had come to the conclusion by fourth grade that African Americans couldn’t be architects,” said Bates. “It’s biases that are passed on from parents, and we need to change that dynamic.”

Put another way, many members of underserved communities don’t recognize architecture as a viable career opportunity simply because they don’t know it’s a pathway open to them. In addressing the visibility problem of minorities in architecture, Dowdell referenced a quote from Michelle Obama (who, in turn, was quoting Marian Wright Edelman)—“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Design Education Should Begin in K-12 Schools
NOMA was founded in 1971 by a group of a dozen African American architects who banded together at the AIA national convention in Detroit to advance minority representation in architecture. Now, the organization recognizes the need to start potential architects on the pathway early, and its Project Pipeline initiative focuses on K-12 students with architectural summer camps, workshops, and field trips mentored by practicing architects. AIA and NOMA leadership acknowledged that the road to becoming an architect is a lengthy one—as well as a costly one—so the introduction of architecture has to come early enough that a student can make the right educational choices to enter the profession. “By virtue of people having access to architects of color in these Project Pipeline camps, they actually see a potential future in this field,” Dowdell said. “That’s been important in showing students that they could become architects.”

America’s Wealth Gap Is Causing People of Color to “Value Engineer” Their Career Paths
In addition to the lack of visibility of the profession, a large part of the educational disparity has to do with the wealth gap, which Dowdell frequently talks about. “Given that, typically, people of color tend to have a lower level of resources available, it can be a deterrent to a profession that is actually quite expensive,” she said. “When you’re looking at your options, particularly as a young person of color, if you don’t come from a family of means, you’re going to value engineer yourself into a different profession.”

Design Firms Need Leadership That Is Both Diverse and Nurturing
Continuing the through-line of the idea of “seeing it to be it,” Dowdell and Bates both acknowledged that there’s still much work to be done in terms of gaining more diversity at the top of the profession to ensure that young architects have mentors to propel them forward. Bates said this included majority mentorship of minority interns, and that the AIA sees opportunities to coach people in firm leadership roles. Dowdell, interviewed after the panel, was more direct: “I think that firm culture needs to be more open to different voices at the table,” she said. “More firms need to have a more diverse pool of people in leadership, particularly in the ownership positions, and principals of color will actually be helpful to creating a greater culture of inclusion.”

“Just be Human” and Continue the Equity Conversation
Equity, diversity, and inclusion must be topics of discussion beyond just a single event in one location, and that’s part of what the event encouraged: continued dialogue afterward and beyond. Both Bates and Dowdell pointed to the AIA guidelines on equitable practice as a conversation starter. “We hope [the guidelines] will take root and get some traction, and we can build a pathway for minorities to find their ways into firms, and not only that but leadership within those firms,” Bates said. Dowdell also urged attendees to keep talking about equity: “You have to start the conversation about bridging between different cultures to have the successes that we want to see in our firms,” she said. “Don’t be accusatory, don’t be weird. Just be a human and talk to another human.”