The 47th annual conference of the National Organization of Minority Architects kicked off yesterday in Brooklyn, N.Y. With the tagline “Believe the Hype: A Global Collective of Industry Change Agents,” the five-day event features more than 100 educational seminars, tours, networking receptions, and service events, not to mention keynotes by Zena Howard, FAIA, a principal and managing director at Perkins and Will; Allison Williams, FAIA, founder of AGWms_studio; and Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, 2019–2020 NOMA president and a principal at HOK.
En route to the opening day community service project, Dowdell gave ARCHITECT a preview of her state of the organization address, tips for selecting seminars, and her hope for what the event’s record-breaking attendance means for the design profession at large.
ARCHITECT: Since January, you’ve helped NOMA increase membership by 30% to 1,300 members, attract a record-high attendance for the conference, and start new NOMA chapters.
Dowdell: It’s been a wild ride. We have a dedicated board that’s doing good outreach. It’s also been helpful that I, being a millennial, try to document my activities as much as I can. On Instagram and Twitter, I see a lot of people talking about my “NOMA Prez on the Move” series. [This conference] is technically my 30th trip on behalf of NOMA since January. I’m just getting out there more and letting people know [about] NOMA.
What are some things you’re most proud of to date?
I’m most proud of seeing how engaged our members are, both in our professional chapters and our student chapters. On social media, I’m [seeing student-led] programming to support each other through school, and workshops to help support people through licensure. I’m excited about the NOMA Nashville coloring book, which showcases members’ work, but also exposes kids to architecture. Also, I’m excited about NOMA’s Project Pipeline summer camps. Most of our chapters are involved in creating a summer program for middle school and high school students.
The NOMA ’19 conference schedule looks incredibly dense with five to seven educational seminars happening simultaneously. What do you recommend for new NOMA members?
The sessions are framed in terms of [my NOMA platform]: Access, Leadership, and Legacy. Not that we’re specifically saying, “Oh, this is an access workshop” or this is a “legacy workshop,” but some things are more geared toward people who are in the earlier part of their careers, the access portion. If you’re new to the conference and consider yourself to be an emerging professional or student, look for seminars that are about helping you to develop your career and navigate licensure.
The leadership seminars are geared toward navigating workplace culture, attaining positions of leadership, [or pursuing] a path that’s slightly different from traditional architecture, such as real estate development.
Regarding legacy, we have, for example, a financial planner helping firm owners think about saving for retirement, succession planning, and what it means to sell your business and evaluate your business’s worth.
[T]he networking events allow you to see a different side of the profession—they allow you to let loose a little bit. We have great parties throughout the week after the educational and professional programming is done.
What themes will you touch upon in your annual address to the organization on Friday morning?
I’m going to underscore how important it is that we see architecture as a profession for everyone because we all shape a built environment that impacts every single human on Earth. We have a profound opportunity and responsibility to be inclusive. I’ll talk specifically about what we’re doing to help diversify our ranks.
I’ll also announce the NOMA Foundation Fellowship, a program that helps new graduates transition from architecture school to the profession. We’re going to [focus initially on] HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), and send 25 students from around the country to five different cities: New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Houston, and Los Angeles. The fellows will [be immersed] in professional readiness for a week or so—we’re still designing that aspect of the program. And then they would go directly into a 12-week internship program that’s modeled after a [now-defunct] program, UDream in Pittsburgh, and in partnership with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable.
Part of the 2030 Diversity Challenge that NOMA and AIA LFRT have put together is to effectively double the number of African American architects in the United States by 2030. Right now, we have about 2,300 [less than 2% of registered architects] and we’re looking to get to 5,000 by 2030. This is super aggressive, but we have to try. Part of the argument for focusing on African Americans is because that’s where we see the greatest disparity. (African Americans make up about 14% of the general U.S. population.)
For the #blackathon teams of students from @motthallbridges were tasked with reimagining the Weeksville site as a BlackSpace for the future. @blackspaceorg donated $1000 to the winning team for use by their school for future programs.#blackspace #noma19 #brooklyn ✊🏾🌱 pic.twitter.com/HjUfkk96MQ— Justin Garrett Moore (@jgmoore) October 17, 2019
The last major theme I will touch upon is the NOMA President Circle, a new program for firms and organizations to effectively become a NOMA corporate member. Along with that, they will get a certain number of hours of consulting. We get a lot of inbound requests about diversity, equity, inclusion, recruitment, and retention. We still have the capacity to field all of those requests, but we can use some of the funding from the corporate membership to work with consultants and provide that service to firms. Initial corporate members include HOK, Perkins and Will, Cuningham Group, Shepley Bulfinch, NCARB (National Council of Architectural Registration Boards), and even non-architecture firms.
It sounds like you’re bringing your business background and skills to NOMA.
We’re an organization that’s woefully understaffed. The only way that the presidency of this organization works is if we have more staff members, but I can’t pay for more staff members without having money. So how do we get money? Some of those [ideas] made sense from a business perspective. I said, “Let’s do that so we can raise money, hire more staff, and provide the level of service that our membership deserves.”
What do the record-breaking turnout at this year’s conference and greater buzz about NOMA in general signify?
They signify that people—particularly younger generations—are serious about diversity in the profession. We’re establishing a different relationship with race, and that’s a good thing. [Over time,] I feel that race is going to become less a determining factor in people’s success. [In terms of] attracting and retaining talent, the best talent acknowledges that organizations and companies with diverse teams generally [perform] better. Because we don’t have a ton of minority talent to draw upon in architecture right now, it’s important that NOMA speaks to the fact that there is a demand. We’re hoping to better meet the demand sooner rather than later, but it takes time to get people in the pipeline.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Oct. 18, 2019 update: This article has been updated with images from the NOMA 2019 Conference.