Kimberly Dowdell
Kimberly Dowdell

Since her inauguration as president of the National Organization of Minority Architects in January 2019, Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, has guided the organization to reaching several milestones, including the doubling of NOMA's membership, a new attendance record for NOMA's annual conference (held virtually in 2020), and strengthened ties with industry partners, including AIA and NCARB. Dowdell, also a principal and director at HOK in Chicago, has steered the organization with a steady hand through the calamitous events of 2020, introducing NOMA's first class of Foundation Fellows and working tirelessly to elevate the next generation of architects of color. As the end of her two-year presidential tenure nears, Dowdell reflects on NOMA's recent achievements and the direction that she hopes the organization will take in the coming years.

When the election was called for Joe Biden in November, you posted a letter to the NOMA membership calling to “build bridges to a more peaceful and prosperous future, united.” What does the path forward look like for NOMA, and why is bridge-building so important right now?

Dowdell: Bridge-building is always important, especially now when our nation is more divided than we've seen—certainly in recent history. For NOMA in particular, there's real strength in numbers. That's part of the reason I have focused on helping our membership grow. That has certainly materialized in the doubling of our membership over the last two years, but it's not just about the numbers. It's about the impact that we can have as a larger collective body—not just NOMA by itself, but in partnership with the other five anchor institutions of architecture [AIA, AIA Students, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and National Architectural Accrediting Board]. The fact that NOMA now has a seat at that table clearly signals that it is time for NOMA to voice the needs and concerns of our members so that we can foster a greater sense of belonging throughout the profession, so that anyone who wants to become an architect can become an architect. NOMA is on the front lines of that work.

Bridge building is a theme that has been central to your platform during your two-year term as NOMA president. What are other ways that has manifested?

We're trying to be intentional about engaging industry partners—the anchor institutions as well as firms. We launched the President's Circle—our new corporate membership program—at the beginning of my term, and I'm proud to say that we have over 70 firms and companies, including organizations like NCARB, that are now members. We want firms to see NOMA as a resource to recruit great talent and to help better understand issues of diversity and inclusion, which is why we now offer diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting services. People kept coming up to me and saying, “I'm looking to recruit and retain diverse talent. How can you help?” As an individual, I can't allocate time to do all of that work, but how do we rally the resources within NOMA to make a systemic solution?

BRAVE acronym
Courtesy the National Organization of Minority Architects BRAVE acronym

This year has been full of difficult and often painful events, specifically the brutality that has led to renewed calls to dismantle systemic racism in the country and the profession, and the inequitable and devastating effects of COVID-19. How have these events impacted engagement in NOMA over the course of 2020?

We were already trending toward the membership numbers that we're seeing today, but we saw a huge boost after we put out a public statement on May 31 with the call to Be BRAVE. That resonated and people wanted to get more involved. But it's not just about the growth; it's about the impact that we can have. In a year like 2020, even though we have to remain physically apart, it's important that we stayed together as an organization, creating the kind of change that we want to see.

For obvious reasons, people felt isolated, and a lot of uncertainty remains around what's happening in the marketplace. But one of the things that helped was the Staying ALL In series: Weekly, we would share a message about what was going on or helpful hints or tips. We started a webinar series where people could engage with others on our digital platform. That gave us a greater level of confidence in switching our conference to online, and it had the highest number of participants ever: over 1,700 people. Last year in Brooklyn, we were celebrating 1,200 people. The community that we've been able to grow and cultivate over the last year—and last six months in particular—has been powerful and moving.

Another big tenet of your term was your ALL in for NOMA platform. How has that evolved over the past two years?

If we want to grow the membership, we can't just focus on African American architects. We have to focus on creating a sense of belonging in the profession, and that's going to require all of us. ALL stands for access, leadership, and legacy. Access refers to kindergarten through licensure; leadership is mid-career; and legacy is for those who are nearing retirement and thinking about succession planning. That's how I've been able to organize my thinking around questions like: Are we missing a group of people? What are we doing for those who are further along in the profession, who are just getting started, and everywhere in between? We organize our programs around those three points along the timeline of one's career. And it helps our chapters to better organize their programming as well.

How have the local chapters and the national organization come together to help support each other?

We’re so proud of our student chapters and our local chapters for the work that they're doing independent of NOMA National, which generally sets policy and creates the infrastructure for the organization. Before the pandemic, I visited as many as I could, but with 35 professional chapters and over 80 student chapters, I could only get to a handful physically. A silver lining of the pandemic is that I've been able to engage with more with just the click of a button.

Over the last two years, I've been hyper-focused on building our organizational infrastructure so that our chapters can have better resources to draw from. When I started, we didn't have staff, we didn't use the Microsoft Office suite. Building that infrastructure took a lot of time, energy, and effort. I knew that my term would be about building the plane as we flew it. My hope for Jason Pugh, AIA, my successor, is that the plane is more or less in place. I’m excited about him taking this on in 2021 and being able to engage with our chapters and their local communities in a more robust way.

In the August issue of ARCHITECT, you described a moonshot goal, in partnership with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable, of doubling the number of Black registered architects in the next decade. What are some policies and programs that can help achieve that?

The 2030 Diversity Challenge is an all-hands-on-deck initiative. We have to be focused on every point along the spectrum to even come close to that ambitious goal. We have to shore up our Project Pipeline programs, and we are challenging all chapters to engage at whatever level they can; nationally, we are trying to provide resources to support that. In fact, we have gotten very generous support from General Motors over the past several years that is going to help to amplify that. That’s the baseline—making sure that young people have access to information about architecture and mentors, and an understanding of what it takes to go into the profession.

NOMA Students chapters have been a phenomenal resource for our college students. NOMA National provides some guidance and inspiration, but the work that they're doing to create programming on campuses has been amazing. Creating that community is special, and it is not just part of recruitment into the profession, but also retention. We lose people to other majors, they might drop out of school, or they might go in a completely different direction. And if we can't find opportunities for people, they have more of a reason to leave the profession. There are a limited number of Foundation Fellowship spots, but we want to inspire firms to create their own programs, to go find and inspire young people.

Directory of African American Architects

The Directory of African American Architects was just adopted by NOMA—that’s how we're tracking our 2030 Diversity Challenge goal. We had 2,373 Black registered architects the last time I checked [Ed note: This conversation happened in November 2020], so we still have quite a way to go. Getting 2,373 to 5,000 is going to require our focused attention.

NOMA just signed a contract with Black Spectacles to offer support for the licensure exams, so that people can better prepare and have a higher likelihood of success. That's putting our money where our mouths are and saying, “We want you to be successful. We want you to get licensed and help us achieve that 2030 goal.”

We have to do a better job of reengaging with people especially if they're not quite licensed—those who have been out of school for 15- or 20-plus years and are interested in revisiting licensure because they're seeing that, to some extent, their opportunities are limited without a license. There should be no stigma against those who have taken longer or focused on other things in their lives. We want them to know that NOMA is a place to come for resources to get through that last portion of licensure, and we’re going to need all of the anchor institutions of architecture to step up to help create more pathways to licensure. Our focus has been on African Americans, given that that's what the challenge is calling for, but this will make things more accessible for everyone.

We also have to be thoughtful around Black firm ownership. How do we make sure that they have access to contracts and partnerships that will allow them to continue to grow and thrive? So often architecture firms of any kind of ethnic group ownership are vulnerable to cash flow issues, the cost of insurance, and risk. We need to be mindful of the vulnerability of Black firms, in particular, and be as supportive as we can by making introductions and helping with policies that will open up more opportunities.

Those are the kinds of things that NOMA wants to be better positioned to do, and the partnerships with our peer organizations and others will help to facilitate improvement along that spectrum.

Whitney Young giving his convention speech in 1968
AIA Archives Whitney Young giving his convention speech in 1968

The conversation about equity in architecture is not new. Do you think that the conversation is different this time, that there is a better likelihood of positive change?

I certainly hope so. I've spoken with members who remember 52 years ago after Whitney Young Jr.’s famous speech. While there was some change, by and large things stayed the same. But many of those folks who were part of that 50 years ago, who are maybe now in their 70s or 80s, are saying that somehow this feels a little bit different. I hope that that's true. And I hope that the profession and, frankly, our nation is better prepared to do the work that's going to be required to break down barriers to communication and to build bridges to a better understanding of one other.

Once you strip away all the externalities of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation—all of these things—there's more that we have in common than not, particularly among those who have selected architecture as their profession. By breaking down barriers and facilitating conversations about our love for design, or cities, or drawing—the common things that, no pun intended, draw people to architecture—that's when we can start to see the humanity.

You’ve had an eventful two-year term as president of NOMA. As you reflect back, what are some of the things about which you're most proud?

NOMA is really empowered—more so than we have been in a long time. People are now saying, “NOMA needs to be at the forefront of XYZ conversation” because all of a sudden people are asking for NOMA’s opinion. That has been one of my prouder moments—recognizing that our profession is taking NOMA seriously, and that our members now have an amplified voice to advocate for not just themselves, but for others who might be experiencing discrimination or something that they need support for.

One of the things I've been excited for people to see is that I'm a female leader of NOMA, and we don't have many of them. I'm only the fourth woman president in our nearly 50-year history. Our young students—women and men—should see strong examples of female leadership. I'm also the first millennial president of NOMA. Millennials get a bad rap, but I feel like the work that I've done over the last couple of years is starting to change the narrative around millennials.

Where do you see NOMA going in the next couple of years? The next decade? What is your hope for the organization?

I hope that we continue to build on the momentum of these past two years and that we grow our numbers and impact such that if there are challenges in the industry, NOMA is seen as a trusted partner to help develop solutions. A big part of what we do surrounds diversity, equity, and inclusion, but there's far more that we can do. Another conversation that's very important is our growing expertise around sustainability—especially with communities of color being susceptible to the concerns around environmental justice. People probably assume that we have more to say around racial equity, but NOMA can contribute a lot to the climate action discussion. Being seen as a major partner in that work will be a great sign for the future of knowledge, as will achieving the 2030 Diversity Challenge.