In these uncertain times, architecture firms and schools are facing severe, though hardly new, indictments sparked by global outcries against racial inequality. Today, the profession is being forced to reckon with allegations of upholding white supremacist cultures and practices—the dismal lack of diversity among architecture firms and student bodies being just one glaring metric. The National Organization of Minority Architects, founded in 1971, has responded by building a pipeline to increase the number of architects of color.
With programs that include Project Pipeline, the National Organization of Minority Architect Students, and the NOMA Foundation Fellowship, the organization is supporting students of color at crucial milestones to becoming an architect. Project Pipeline aims to give students exposure to architecture at an early age—a significant determinant in their choosing to pursue the profession. Since its inception in 2005, the program has served more than 10,000 middle school to high school students in more than 25 cities around the country, offering summer camps, career days, and workshops that teach design justice. The project gives students new insight into the built environment in their communities, while spotlighting architecture as a viable profession.
The NFF is NOMA’s most recent push to add to the pipeline life cycle. Unveiled this summer, the fellowship placed 30 NOMAS students in eight-week paid internships at prominent firms across the country. The new initiative, largely supported by a partnership with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable, aims to provide access to graduates of color, while inspiring the profession to see the untapped talent that has been too long neglected.
I spoke with a number of the NFF fellows—all smart, passionate, energetic, and eager for their work to help the communities that need it most. (See their profiles here.) I also had a Zoom call with four leading NOMA advocates who are helping to build the pipeline: Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, the organization’s national president and a principal at HOK Chicago; Bryan C. Lee Jr., co-chair of Project Pipeline and founder/director of New Orleans–based Colloqate Design; Richie Hands, Assoc. AIA, co-chair of Project Pipeline and an associate at Lamar Johnson Collaborative in Chicago; and Dr. Kwesi Daniels, head of Tuskegee University’s Department of Architecture in Tuskegee, Ala. They discussed the challenges—financial, social, and otherwise—that students of color face. They also unpacked the real purpose of the pipeline: ushering in a new generation of architects who can think critically about fighting systems of oppression through design and who will create a more equitable profession.
Kimberly Dowdell For the first portion of my term as NOMA president I have been really focused on my platform, which is called ALL in for NOMA, standing for access, leadership, and legacy. A big portion of what we’re talking about today is access, which is focusing on K–12, our college and graduate students, those who are on the pipeline to licensure. Most recently we created the NOMA Foundation Fellowship, which is designed to help graduates connect with firms to get them access to opportunities right after graduation. We’re giving those fellows a stipend. And at the end of the fellowship, should the firm that they’re with have the bandwidth, hopefully they would get hired and that would evolve into a full-time position.
So, you know, is it a silver bullet? No, but we have to take the resources that we have available and try to multiply them as much as we can to get as many minorities into the profession as possible. Then there’s Project Pipeline, which is one of our signature programs and something we’re super focused on, particularly this summer as we transition it from physical camps to virtual camps throughout the country.
Bryan C. Lee Jr. What we’ve tried to do with Project Pipeline is create a camp, a program, that doesn’t just seek diversity as its outcome but recognizes that diversity is a byproduct of justice and equity. And so we’re using a curriculum that really starts to acknowledge that we have a process that has to equal service to our communities.
If we are not in service of our communities, we will never create spaces or create the profession that can retain people. We’ve tried to create a camp that makes sure that we build out the community of students who are engaged from middle school to high school. And makes sure the pipeline doesn’t stop there.
Richie Hands The biggest thing that got me into it was that I wanted to help with the curriculum, help make everything standardized, and help make this pipeline work, both within the camp but also as a big stepping stone going forward. We took a shot at redeveloping the curriculum so that within the camp, depending on how many years you’ve been, you’re experiencing something new. You’re looking at something through a different lens. And it allows the students to return and learn something new, and build upon their skill sets from previous years.
Alicia Ajayi We hear this over and over again, that a lot of people in our communities of color, they don’t see architects or maybe they don’t get exposure to the profession. I’m wondering how Project Pipeline responds to that problem.
Lee Yeah, that’s huge. We have spent many years developing a course that tries to create connections. So, high school students having connections with recent graduates who are college students creates a strong bond in that space. What’s really great is the mentorship that cascades up or down and allows for parents to see their children move up the spectrum. What we found in our camps is that students’ ability to find themselves in that space prevents them from having to try to jump forward and see themselves immediately as professionals.
If they only see the 40-year-old white dude who wants to give back to the community, there’s no tangible connection between point A and point Z.
Hands One of the strongest things that has happened within the Chicago camp is that we have a number of students that repeatedly come back to volunteer. Our camp focuses on middle school students, so seeing the new or younger high school students now mentoring middle school students, and the older high school students mentoring the younger high school students, and building with the college students as well since we have some strong NOMAS chapters locally, there’s just an immediate pipeline of students that are within eight years of each other. They can see an immediate pathway, and if they’re genuinely interested in architecture, be like, “OK, that’s where Richie is right now. That’s where I’m going to be in two years.”
I think that helps keep them energized going forward.
Ajayi The goal of the project is to get more people into the profession. But I’m also wondering about the kids who don’t enter the pipeline necessarily. It still seems so valuable to be able to go to these camps to learn about another aspect of spatial awareness that they didn’t known about.
Dowdell I have had the experience, at least a handful of times, where we ask the young people to raise their hand if they’re interested in architecture. And out of a room of 30 kids, it’s one or two. Which hurts a little bit, but I get it. It’s still a new concept, and I think the kids still enjoy learning about their cities and drawing and hearing from the mentors.
I think what’s really positive is that even if they don’t go into architecture, all of a sudden there are all these people who have knowledge of what architecture is, which will ultimately make them better users of the built environments, better clients. I think that early exposure helps to make the profession more widely appreciated.
Kwesi Daniels Particularly when you’re talking about a program like ours at Tuskegee—unlike a lot of schools of architecture, where to come in you have to bring a portfolio—we tell students: “Come on board. We’ll teach you what you need over the first two years, and if you still want it, then we’ll see where you are and you’ll keep learning.”
Unfortunately that portfolio is also a barrier to access. We come across so many students who haven’t even heard of the word portfolio, but when you go through a camp that has exposed you to architecture, you get exposed to the lexicon. If you’re a student who’s interested, you also are prepared to apply to schools of architecture because there are barriers to getting in, from portfolios to understanding the necessity for an accredited program. These are the kinds of conversations that will be brokered with them before they arrive, and by the time they see us, they will have had that training.
Lee Our first camp, I was extremely nervous and didn’t know how it was going to go. We had this young student Mahala who had no interest in what we were doing. Zero interest. But she was drawing all of these trees in her notebook—that was what she was doing. So the second day in we said, “OK, Mahala, you’re going to be the landscape architect.” So she became the landscape architect for this entire cityscape. Mahala went on to go into psychology in college but came back every year as a mentor.
A few months back before the virus hit, she said, “I think I’m ready.” I’m like, “OK, cool, let’s do it.” She wanted to come work with us. We couldn’t do it at this moment, but I think people take their own path to understand how the physical environment relates to the larger things that they care about in this world. And our job is to give them that opportunity to go at their pace, understand the relationships between themselves and the physical environment, and how to manifest that space.
Daniels I find this at the collegiate level: A lot of students don’t understand the transferable skills they can get from collateral spaces. And those collateral spaces can actually make you a dope architect. Because you understand, in her case, psychology. I understand how people think. That means I understand how to address this community when we speak about social justice issues, whether it’s communities of color or other marginalized communities. If you have an understanding of peripheral elements, you can bring them into architecture and it’s a great fit. One of the things I like most is when I see students who come in and they’re shy. We’re all like, “Ah, you’re not going to be shy too much longer.”
Their parents are like, “They’re reserved, they don’t really like to stand up in front of people.” I’m like: “That’s cool. Just stick with us long enough.” So there’s these elements that really help round the student out. The earlier that you can tackle that and expose students to spatial thinking, the better.
Ajayi There’s also the dollars and cents part of an education. If we’re going to talk equity, we gotta talk dollars and cents. I’m wondering how these programs are contributing to that conversation.
Dowdell It’s a real challenge to look at architecture and see at face value why you would do it if you don’t come from an independently wealthy background. Unfortunately, if you’re a person of color, it’s highly likely that you have fewer resources than others. That often translates into young people of color looking for opportunities that they have a passion for, but that will also help them pay the bills for people in their family. When you look at architecture, you’re looking at a five-, six-, or seven-year education at the very least.
It’s fairly expensive because you have to have top-notch technology to handle all the computer modeling required now. And then on top of that, you look at the starting salary of an architect. When I went to career services at my school and looked it up, feeling excited, I saw it was $35,000. I was like, “Wait, what? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
I think that there’s some work to be done in architecture in general to make sure that we’re being compensated for the value that we create. If as a profession we’re able to generate more fees because our clients understand the value, then that translates into higher starting salaries and a more attractive profession for people to whom money actually does matter. Which is most of the people who look like us.
Part of the approach of Project Pipeline is to provide that early exposure not just to the classroom, but to people who are in the profession who students can look up to and see that it is possible. It may not be easy, but it is possible. And then we’re working with many firms that have expressed an interest in not just supporting Project Pipeline, but to some extent supporting scholarships. So we’re trying to really ramp up that activity and work with AIA, specifically the Architects Foundation, on getting scholarships to NOMA students.
Ajayi I’m wondering what everyone’s pulse has been around how the profession has responded to the bold demands that a lot of student organizations have placed on their programs. Even faculty members are speaking out. What’s your interpretation of how architecture has responded?
Lee We are so proud of the students who have put themselves on the line to speak truth to power. It’s been amazing to see it happen across so many campuses around the country. And I would say the response from universities, organizations, firms is lacking, in part because they don’t have the language, they don’t have the capacity. And they’re trying to solve a problem today, as opposed to recognizing that this is not just a process, it is a change of process in perpetuity. In a large part, the profession has failed and will continue to fail at trying to solve issues of justice, because they’re only looking at an end result. They’re only looking at ways to get the students, or the professionals who are challenging them, out of their way. It’s a way to get back to capital. So it’s been really nice to see the vocal nature of the individuals who are pushing our larger profession.
Hands I’m curious to see, and time will tell, what happens going forward. Right now it’s a lot of talk, and there’s some action, but it’s not everywhere, and not every firm that has put out a statement has been pushing it forward right away. There’s also social media that’s blown up highlighting stuff that’s been going on, stuff that we all talk about amongst ourselves, but now that it has a microscope on it, I think there’s a greater chance that things will change. Black at SOM, Black at Gensler, Black at AIA, ARCH so White: those Instagram accounts highlight daily experiences that I can say, “Oh, yeah, I experienced that when I was there.” Having it highlighted, everyone can see it, and there’s just greater pressure for firms to address it. Or else it becomes known that these big companies haven’t done anything about it and will continue to keep rolling as if nothing is wrong. Now there’s so much focus on it, and because the initial response was so lacking, I think the added pressure is going to force the industry to change.
Daniels How do you answer the issues related to social justice? How do you answer issues related to equity within the built environment? There is an inherent component that says as NOMA, an organization that is full of minority architects, we have a strong sensitivity to what that thing looks like.
There is a desire to do good. From the administrative side, from the academic side, to the Large Firm Roundtable, there’s been an outpouring of interest: How do we support students of color? How do we support programs of color around the country?
What has been lacking for so long is that level of engagement, that on both sides it’s like, “We’re not quite sure how to do this.” You can’t just throw money at every problem. And you can’t say we’ve got to hire every student, because we have fewer students than most predominantly white institutions. The pool of highly qualified applicants is not huge, and even as you build it up, it’s still not as great as what you’re going to find at PWIs. That’s just a dynamic that we’re negotiating right now, and if we figure it out while the interest is still there, we’ll make great headway.
Project Pipeline camps in Detroit
This country is rooted in these issues. It’s part of our foundation. People of color built the built environment. And so injustice, inequality, because it’s rooted in that, is not going to be extracted overnight. The fact that we’re having conversations about the same stuff that we marched for 60 years ago means that there’s still a lot of work to do.
But I do believe that we can find ways to push the needle, to carve out new spaces, and put that sensitivity there. You have a diverse environment, you get a greater product. You have a monoculture, you get a horrible product. A diverse environment is able to withstand calamities. A monoculture gets wiped out really fast. The more we’re able to push this idea of inclusion and what that truly means, and equity and what that truly means, beyond just a policy that checks it off, the more that it actually becomes part of the culture. That we believe in going out and getting diverse bodies of people from all the schools, not just from ones we’re comfortable with. When we make that part of our standard operating procedure, then, yes, as Richie said, I think we can definitely see a huge change. But I encourage us not to take our eyes off the ball, because I think we did. And 60 years later, society is still at the same place.
Dowdell I am actually borrowing this from Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation out of Detroit. She once said that diversity is about counting the people, and inclusion is about making the people count. More and more, this profession needs to ensure that the people who are shaping the future of the built environment for all of us really count, and that they really are representative of the society that we’re serving.