I wish we had a different motive for putting Raye McDavid on the cover of this month's ARCHITECT—say, because she's sparked a revolution in building technology, brokered a landmark business deal, or taken the aesthetics of her latest project to a whole new level. But, in truth, we put McDavid on the cover because she's a black woman. In architecture, that's enough to make her exceptional. Out of some 91,000 licensed architects in the United States, fewer than 200 are black women.
Judging from the comments of McDavid and other black women architects in the cover story (“0.2 Percent”), the profession is far from perfectly diverse. The AIA's 2005 “Demographic Diversity Audit” only underscores the anecdotal evidence. According to the report's executive summary, “There is little disagreement across the profession of the value of diversity and [the] need to encourage and develop individuals from under-represented groups as architects and as leaders.”
It's nice to know that most architects, in this day and age, support diversification—even if it's just to avoid a lawsuit—but prejudice is a slippery issue. Civil rights legislation puts forth a set of dos and don'ts, but the unwritten rules pose a greater challenge. Discrimination can be embodied just as easily in a facial expression as in a hiring or firing decision.
The solution to the profession's relative lack of diversity isn't as simple as sending a memo to the H.R. department or establishing a faculty task force. Architects and architectural educators have to act early—and often—to encourage a more diverse future for the profession.
My former employer, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, runs an outreach initiative for high school students in Chicago Public Schools—the Newhouse Program. The program was founded by the late Illinois state senator Richard H. Newhouse, who was unable to realize his childhood dream of becoming an architect because of the many obstacles he encountered as a black person. The program that bears his name is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and every year some 1,500, largely minority students participate in its skill-building workshops, awards program, and internships.
The Newhouse Program is just one way to engage future generations of architects. Nonprofits, universities, and AIA chapters across the country offer their own, similar programs, and there are many ways to get involved. Try becoming a volunteer, hiring an intern, donating staff time, or simply writing a check. The important thing is to take action, open doors, and create opportunities where none existed before. Demographics shouldn't be a factor in making an architect exceptional.