Emily Pierson-Brown, Assoc. AIA, appreciates her varied personal, educational, and professional experiences not just for what they led her to, but for how they informed her perspective. Now working as a designer and planner in Perkins Eastman’s Pittsburgh office, Pierson-Brown was recently promoted to associate and is days away from becoming a licensed architect. A champion of equity and inclusion—both in the workplace and in the design process—she gives credit to her wife and her mother, two women who influence her unique point of view.
I am the child of a single parent, and specifically, a single mother. I grew up in a household where there were never any boundaries around what I could do. My mother created a safe and comfortable space for me, and it never occurred to me until my adult life that my situation was unique, and that it had shaped my identity.
My wife is a law professor and she introduced me to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed the concept of intersectionality. Crenshaw defines intersectionality as the framework or prism for understanding how multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage get compounded.
Crenshaw also sees identity as based on relationships. So, I can define my identity however I feel like it, but if other people don’t perceive me in that way, it doesn’t matter. How others relate to me and the way they perceive me is important to them and how they understand their own identities.
Because of the wonderful childhood I had, thanks to my mother’s support, it really wasn’t until I got to college that, ironically, I started to feel reined in by other people’s imposition of identity on me. I did not have any female studio critics in my undergrad architecture classes and I couldn’t figure out where the humanity in architecture was. I pursued a nonprofessional degree in architecture and studied art history.
My professional path has had many twists and turns since then. My first love was books, and I left architecture for a number of years to work at Borders. Next, I worked at a few design-build firms before pursuing a master’s degree in architecture. Because I had these other experiences, I was able to bring my whole self to the program—as a gay woman, as a person who enjoys interacting with humans on different levels, and as someone who had prior knowledge of construction. I started to shift my focus more towards social justice and bringing people together in the built environment.
We relate best to people in physical space. If we miss out on being in the same room, then we lose something important about our humanity. In terms of understanding our work through an intersectional lens, we have to make sure that all of the stakeholders are at the table. —As told to Kathleen O'Donnell