George Floyd wasn't the first or last Black person to be killed by the hands of police or vigilantes, but his documented murder helped spark a rise in discourse on systemic racism. In this 15-part series, members of the design community share how their conversations and view of and place in the profession have changed in a year that also saw an increase in attacks—many fatal—against people of color as well as the lives of millions more gone due to COVID-19.

Here, JLG Architects market leader and senior product manager Patricia Acevedo Fuentes, AIA, shares how she’s made a name and home for herself in Rapid City, S.D., far from Puerto Rico, where she was born. Acevedo Fuentes is also a 2021 Bush Fellow seeking to expand her knowledge in social justice and rural policies through data and storytelling.

Patricia Acevedo Fuentes
courtesy Patricia Acevedo Fuentes / JLG Architects Patricia Acevedo Fuentes

Not a lot of people look or sound like me in architecture, and even fewer so in the Dakotas and Western mountain region. I have two last names, but I had been minimizing them to [not stick out] and make it difficult for people to pronounce them. After the events of last summer, many friends reached out and said, “You have two last names. Which one do I call you? And where do they come from?” I want to model our growing awareness and ability to talk about things for younger people to see.

Frank Conversations
Before the murder of George Floyd, BIPOC and LGBTQ designers inside and outside of our organization were starting to have conversations [about inclusion]. After his murder, we gave ourselves permission to say the things that we weren’t saying before.

I love working at JLG. [However,] it is a 96% white company. I reached out to [the remaining 4%] and said we need to start having these conversations companywide. We set up conversations that were guided around the topics of inclusiveness and equitable access. The most valuable outcome was not the conversations, but the relationships that happened afterward. We started making meaningful connections among our 12 offices across the three states and across generations.

Clients and staff are asking for more diversity and inclusiveness, and our firm leadership knows that this has to be a goal. Our company is going through the Just label application process. We’re comparing the makeup of our firm with that of, for example, AIA Minnesota, which will be more diverse in gender, race, and ethnicity. We’re asking, “Are we happy with where we are? Where else do we want to go?”

I am accustomed to having conversations about nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, and access to goods and services because of the communities I work with, including the unhoused and Native American reservations. Now, we are able to say the words a bit louder and to be more direct in conversations with communities and clients as well.

OneHeart transformation campus in Rapid City, S.D., by JLG Architects
JLG Architects OneHeart transformation campus in Rapid City, S.D., by JLG Architects

The conversations can be tense and emotional. We recently finished The OneHeart campus in downtown Rapid City, which addresses wraparound services and transitional housing. We talked about designing from a trauma-informed standpoint, how to make people feel safe, and how much of the campus to fence. People from the outside have different perceptions from those on the inside. Because we all had the same project goal, we were able to have the difficult and sometimes heated conversations.

I’m not perfect. I’m in this continuum, and I’m trying to get better at designing for the person who will be inhabiting, living in, or getting a service from these spaces. It’s understanding whom you design for. If I am designing for an executive director who is providing a service, I should be designing for the client of that person. We need to think beyond the person who signs your AIA agreement. It takes a partnership with your client so they understand that this is a gain for them—that it’s going to ultimately enrich the project.

The other part of clarity is understanding architecture as a process, and not as a product. A lot of people think of architecture as buildings. But the joy and magic of architecture happen in the process—but design is not accessible to everyone. So how do we bring it to people?

Architecture has large implications in the community—and for a long time. We must do it right.

Pulling Up a Chair
In 2019, I was elected to an at-large position on AIA’s Strategic Council. I was starting to speak out loud about the rural condition. Rapid City is not rural from a census standpoint, but it has a rural culture and mentality. We are remote. Our construction costs and access to goods and services are different. Try designing affordable housing in the middle of the country, in a rural environment where the weather is harsh. I started talking about how funding formulas discriminate against our remoteness. We called it the rural agenda to offset the urban agenda.

We wondered, “Are there people who are not being seen here?” Not only from the practitioner standpoint, but also from that of communities. Are we delivering services to those communities? A lot of people saw themselves reflected in these questions, so I helped create a platform for other practitioners and other communities to start being seen.

Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., designed by JLG Architects
JLG Architects Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., designed by JLG Architects

As architects, we have an opportunity to be leaders in the community. I am from Puerto Rico originally, but I realized that if I wanted my community here in Rapid City to care about me, to make me feel that I belonged here, I needed to give something to the community first. I wanted people to know my name.

I started volunteering and sitting on boards along with attorneys and accountants—and there’s always a real estate agent. The planning and design perspective that architects bring is valuable. Having seen different things in the professional world is valuable. My undergraduate degree is from Puerto Rico, so I learned how to design in the tropics. I got my master’s degree in New York, and then I moved to Florida. Even the location of the air barrier and vapor barrier in walls is different.

I was delivering a service to the community, but I was surprised to find I had a seat at the table. People at AIA [and many others] have said, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” And Shirley Chisholm said, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, pull up a folding chair.” Make your own space. But that’s in a great and ideal world. Sometimes you can’t even bring your own chair.

I don’t have to agree with everyone, and everyone doesn’t have to agree with me. But if we agree that we have the same goal, we can just both be. People who are out in the community, trying to do something, and raising their hands to be involved rarely have bad intentions. It’s a matter of understanding what their goals are.

Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., designed by JLG Architects
JLG Architects Red Cloud Indian School, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., designed by JLG Architects

On Building Momentum
Being out there in front of a fight all the time can be exhausting. I want to empower others because I’m not going to make the changes by myself.

The easiest way for people to become involved is to start serving on committees and boards. And you’ll learn so much about the community that you’re serving or where you live. A lot of organizations are looking for a new board member or new committee member. Everybody wants volunteers. To become an advocate or activist, you don’t necessarily need to be talking to state legislators or a congressional delegation. It starts at your community.

In some ways, architects have made ourselves into a commodity. We need to demystify the profession and show value for what we do. Being more visible in whatever way you choose is important.

As told to Wanda Lau. The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.