Dawit N.M., original courtesy HOK

On Sept. 12, 1962, before an audience of more than 40,000 people on the campus of Rice University, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech that would define the 1960s in America. He said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

This bold statement was made more than two decades before I was born, but it resonates with me today more than ever. We were determined to make it to the moon, and we did. Now, in this decade, one of the greatest challenges that we must tackle with the same might is systemic racial injustice. Until all Americans are availed of the same opportunities and protections, we are all threatened by the insidious harm caused by racism and prejudice. This may not seem relevant to everyone, but please note that within two generations from now, the racial demographics of the United States will be different from what we see today: According to the Brookings Institute, the majority of people in the U.S. will be people of color by 2045. If we don’t resolve our current issues with racial disharmony, we stand to jeopardize our collective future.

Racial healing and harmony are relevant to us as Americans, and to those of us who have chosen the noble profession of architecture. Our duty is to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public—the entire public. The buildings that we design are meant to shelter everyone safely and, to the extent possible, to create delight. In the American context, architecture has historically been a profession of privilege: a formidable field of endeavor, reserved primarily for white men of means. Only in recent decades have we seen a significant uptick in the registration of women architects. For Black architects, their numbers have essentially moved from zero to 2% of all licensed architects in the United States since architecture organized as a profession in 1857.

When architecture emerged as a profession in the U.S., slavery was still legal. Let that sink in.

Presently, Blacks represent approximately 13% of the U.S. population. Out of approximately 116,000 licensed architects, 478 women and 1,847 men are in the Directory of African American Architects. Yes, that still equates to just 2% of the profession. In 2020. There’s a gap here.

Why does this matter? I’m glad you ask. It matters because representation matters when it comes to protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the entire public. For far too long, Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities have suffered under the cruel hands of injustice in this country, including land theft, bondage, internment camps, Jim Crow, and redlining, all of which have evolved into what we know today as systemic racism or institutional oppression. The time to end these atrocities is now.

As a profession, architecture can set an example for industries nationwide. This is the moment when we demand a new frontier for architecture as we seek to design a stronger and more just America. United We Stand.

In my capacity as NOMA National President, I have been working very closely with myriad industry partners to essentially build bridges between NOMA and other organizations also committed to diversifying the profession of architecture. One such organization is AIA’s Large Firm Roundtable, which represents the 60 largest architecture firms in North America. The CEOs of these firms, led by LFRT chair and Shepley Bulfinch CEO Carole Wedge, FAIA, have rallied around this issue over the past 18 months and co-authored with NOMA the 2030 Diversity Challenge for Architecture.

The task is straightforward: Double the percentage of African American architects from 2% to 4% by 2030. That would roughly equate to 5,000—or more—Black registered architects in the U.S. in this decade. This is probably as ambitious as sending a person to the moon in 1962.

Today, I say to you, we must choose to double the number of African American architects in this decade, and in Kennedy’s words “not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

This is our challenge as a profession.

Will you join us?