Each year, AIA members attending the AIA Conference on Architecture have the opportunity to vote for candidates to help lead the Institute's national office. Ahead of the June 21-23 event in New York this year, ARCHITECT spoke with the candidates running running for 2019-2021 at-large director. The candidates are Jessica Sheridan, AIA, senior associate at Mancini Duffy in New York; Rob Walker IV, AIA, founder of Rob Walker Architects in Birmingham, Ala.; and James Wright, FAIA, a senior principal at Page's Washington, D.C., office.

We posed the same three questions via email to each candidate. Here's what they wrote:

Jessica Sheridan, AIA, Mancini Duffy

, New York

Why do you want to lead the AIA, and how will you engage the membership?
Sheridan: I decided that I wanted to be an architect when I was 10 years old, and my passion continues to grow with each new endeavor. I care deeply that our profession stays relevant and prosperous in the future, and that our children find inspiration in architecture—whether they choose to pursue it as a career or simply enjoy built space. Our AIA’s mission is to be the voice of the architectural profession and I want to be one of those voices.

I intend to listen to our members, hear what issues are important in our businesses, and actively put in place measures to advance our practices. I will work to strengthen communication among the Board, strategic council, and component leadership. I will engage beyond our membership to expand our influence and include perspectives that are underrepresented. Together, we can push the boundaries of our profession and drive positive change in society.

What is the role of architects and the AIA for the greater public?
Our role is to create stimulating inhabitable environments. We take a set of regulations and codes and turn them into spaces that are pleasing and delightful yet pragmatic, productive, and efficient. Our domain is protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the general public, and our success is measured by people engaging with and enjoying the structures we imagine.

Every day the greater public participates in spaces envisioned by architects. However, individuals are not always conscious of how those spaces influence their lives, or that an architect crafted their experience. This is where our AIA can have the greatest impact.

For example, if we assist a homeless population to safely shelter themselves, we can decrease crime rates and mental health issues. If we offer legislators keen advice on school safety regulations, we can help protect against the next tragedy. If we eliminate carbon emissions from our buildings, we can reduce cancer rates in urban centers. With a focus on outreach, advocacy, and communication, our AIA can impress upon the greater public the value that design professionals bring to the built environment.

What is the greatest challenge facing the profession today? How can firms and individual practitioners respond to it?
Our profession’s greatest challenge is finding new ways to positively influence change. Resilience is one focus where we as firms and practitioners have only just begun discovering opportunity. If we can position ourselves to lead this effort then we have the potential to significantly impact how people live, work, and connect with each other.

As we as practitioners grow our climate literacy, legislators and government agencies will solicit our advice to produce guidelines and modify codes. They will understand our important role in building back better and safeguarding against future disasters. Underserved communities will seek us out as experts and thought leaders. We will be able to guide and empower them with strategies to stay connected to each other when disasters strike their regions.

It is up to us as design professionals to expand our comfort zones, learn new skills, and consistently develop our knowledge base. That is how we will demonstrate our value and as a result be sought out for our expertise.

Robert Walker IV, AIA, Rob Walker Architects

, Birmingham, Ala.

Why do you want to lead the AIA, and how will you engage the membership?
Walker: Climate change is one of the most critical issues before us today. Sustainability, adaptability, and resilience are crucial strategies necessary to help solve our environmental challenges.

There is another climate change, however, and even more pressing: the rapidly evolving climate of our profession. The generational shift in our workforce, equity in our profession, the changing landscape of practice, technology integration, the housing crisis, and resilience are just a few of the current challenges we are facing. As a profession, we have the opportunity to grow our relevance in the building industry and society by becoming thought leaders where these challenges are concerned. I want to make sure we are fully prepared for those challenges and can proactively take on these transitional challenges, turning them into opportunities.

The real success of engaging members is building relationships that can provide a lasting and positive impact in our Institute and profession. Being registered in 27 states allows me to bring a unique perspective to the Board and enables me to connect and engage with members and components easily. The constant and rapid evolution of communication tools, such as social media, will provide exciting potential to connect with members and components on several levels—but I also still enjoy the simple phone call.

What is the role of architects and the AIA for the greater public?
First and foremost, our role is to be leaders in the built environment. But we can also have another charge: to be thought leaders in our communities.

As architects, we are uniquely trained to solve problems creatively. But only recently have our skills been branded as "design thinking." We should own this space instead of being merely casual participants. If we do, we will achieve heightened exposure and thereby provide greater relevance to our profession and benefit to the public. It sounds odd to propose a strategy that separates the architect from architecture, but I think it is essential to developing innovative thinking. We are so much more than bricks and mortar.

What is the greatest challenge facing the profession today? How can firms and individual practitioners respond to it?
The most significant challenge of our profession today is our ability to keep up with the rapidly changing world around us.

Millennials will soon outnumber the baby boomers in the workforce. Within two years, they will comprise 50 percent of the workforce, and in seven years, 75 percent. Ten thousand baby boomers are leaving the overall U.S. workforce each day. These shifts may or may not parallel our member demographic now, but the result will be the same—a cultural shift that will have implications on housing needs, business models, licensure, architectural education, and how technology is leveraged in everyday life.

First, firms and individual practitioners must recognize that it is changing. Second, we must engage with our communities and last, we should demand knowledge from the AIA. We don’t know what we don’t know. Being more engaged and informed will create the foundation from which we can be proactive and not reactive.

James Wright, FAIA, Page

, Washington D.C.

Why do you want to lead the AIA, and how will you engage the membership?
Wright: I believe in the importance of the AIA to our profession and I am confident that I have something unique to offer in making it stronger and more effective.

I have been a senior principal-level firm owner for more than half of my career, providing me with a strong background in the business of architecture. I have acquired other leadership skills and experience through my efforts to help found the AIA International Region, serving on its first Board for its first five years of existence. In recognition of my international practice experience, I was asked to lead the AIA delegation to last fall’s International Union of Architects (UIA) World Congress & General Assembly in Seoul, and I am currently serving as the co-director of the UIA Professional Practice Commission. Leadership is also engrained in my non-professional life, most notably evident in my eight years (and counting) as lay leader of a historic Methodist congregation in Arlington, Va.

Effective engagement requires an immense amount of personal time and effort; it cannot be delegated to staff or committee. Regardless of organizational structure, I believe that the best outcomes depend on sincere listening and timely, useful communication. I work hard to find and then put myself in situations where I can listen and learn from others.

What is the role of architects and the AIA for the greater public?
Architecture is an amazing profession. Too bad society—at least American society—places a relatively modest value on it.

Underappreciated as architects may be, however, we are nonetheless at the front lines in recognizing and dealing with a myriad of challenges that impact quality of life. From the design of attractive places where people want to be, to safe and defensible buildings and their constructed community environments, to the mitigation of the enormous energy requirements of what we produce and its long term effect on climate—the work of our profession has a tremendous influence on society.

But most architecture is practiced locally and in small numbers, and as a profession we are tiny. Both New York and California have 35 percent more lawyers than there are registered architects in all of the U.S., and the number of lawyers in Texas alone is about the same as the total AIA membership. We need a strong AIA to magnify our collective national and international voice, and we need an AIA with a higher penetration rate of the nation’s roughly 110,000 registered architects. We also need to form stronger alliances with our AEC industry colleagues to give volume to our voice on those issues where we have common ground with engineers and builders.

What is the greatest challenge facing the profession today? How can firms and individual practitioners respond to it?
Internally, the biggest challenge to our profession is a complacent attitude on sexual harassment and equity-diversity-inclusivity (EDI) efforts. Default “business as usual” practices that are insensitive to positive EDI measures will increasingly result in any number of bad outcomes. Large firms with human resources professional staff and room in their overhead for outside business practice consultants are generally capable of responding directly to work culture–related challenges, but it’s not such an easy road for small and medium-sized practices.

Our work, regardless of the scale of the practice, is exceptionally demanding, and it’s difficult to focus beyond what is at hand. We need a strong AIA keeping watch on the professional rear view mirror as well as on what’s in the lane ahead of us, and then providing analysis, tools, and best practice guidelines to help architects course correct our practices. Virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, et cetera, could be useful new tools in our tool boxes. They could also be claimed by those who would usurp some or all of what the architect does.

We are at a professional cultural crossroads at which complacency just won’t cut it.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.