Donald Carter

The minority educational and career placement program UDream (Urban Design Regional Employment Action for Minorities), in Pittsburgh, has been honored with a 2015 AIA Diversity Recognition Program. Since UDream’s founding in 2009, 58 fellows—mostly recent B.Arch. graduates—have completed the 18-week program, which includes an academic boot camp and a paid internship at a local firm or nonprofit. Moreover, 25 fellows have stayed in the Pittsburgh area, a number that more than tripled the population of minority designers there and led to the re-establishment of a local National Organization of Minority Architects chapter. ARCHITECT spoke with Donald Carter, FAIA, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, which runs UDream.

ARCHITECT: What do participants find most valuable from the program?
Carter: First, they’re very interested in being immersed in the urban design academic program for five weeks. Most of them haven’t had much urban design in their undergraduate work. The second thing is the ability to have a paid three-month internship and a placement with any number of firms or non-profits here in Pittsburgh. That gives them a head start on other recent graduates. And the third thing is that they really like Pittsburgh. Each succeeding cohort that has come through has been mentored by the previous ones who have stayed here. So they have their own support network.

How many applications do you get for UDream?
We get about twice as many as we accept. We recruit heavily at the historically black universities and colleges, but we also put the word out to every architecture school in the country. The majority of our students are coming from Hampton, Howard, and Florida A&M (universities). We also have students from the Ivy League, the West Coast, and big state universities. But the application process is rigorous. Students must have at least a 3.0 GPA, good references, and a portfolio that we’re excited about. That’s one reason the (participating) firms like the program because these students are ready to join the profession.

The 2014 UDream fellows envisioned the redevelopment of the Centre Avenue corridor in Pittsburgh's Hill District, integrating affordable housing with five themes, including live-work housing that they aptly named Dream Units.
Aniqua Dessout and Christian Hughes / Courtesy Carnegie Mellon University's Remaking Cities Initiative The 2014 UDream fellows envisioned the redevelopment of the Centre Avenue corridor in Pittsburgh's Hill District, integrating affordable housing with five themes, including live-work housing that they aptly named Dream Units.

What obstacles do you see that contribute to the lack of minority representation in architecture?
It starts in elementary school. Are the students exposed to architecture as a career? Do they know it is a career? That applies to both white and black students. In terms of minority students, there’s not as much outreach in the architecture profession during K-12. But most professional [schools]—whether it’s law, accounting, architecture, or medical—have this same issue in recruiting minorities. 

The historically under-represented minorities—African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans—are where the recruitment need is. One of the things we do is the Architecture Building Communities week. After the five-week Urban Design boot camp, where the fellows are in school five days a week and getting studio and fabrication work, then they mentor high school students for one week.

These UDream students tend to be mission-driven. They certainly want to develop their own career, but many of them talk about giving back to the community. There’s a lot of selflessness about that kind of pursuit in their careers. That makes me very proud that they start off as 22-year-olds thinking broadly about not only their own profession but how they can change the world.

I did a semester of studio and found it to be expensive in terms of materials and the time it took away from anything else, really, but say a part-time job to help pay tuition. Could this factor into whether minority students stay in architecture programs?
I think once people are enrolled in architecture, whether they’re minority students or not minority students, a number of people hit the wall the third year. Such as, “I thought this was my passion, but I don’t want to put in that much work,” or “I just don’t have the talent.” So there is a washout factor. It’s very intense, hard work.

What can be done nationwide to encourage more diversity in the profession?
I think UDream would be replicable in almost any city with an architecture school. In our case, it requires $300,000 a year to run the program, including faculty salaries and facility expenses. It also pays for housing for the participants, give them $1,000 monthly stipends, pay for their bus passes, pay for their transportation from and to home at the beginning and end of the program, take them to the NOMA convention, and provide tours and cultural enrichment activities. The returns are just terrific, both in terms of how it has increased the diversity [in architecture and, in particular,] racial diversity.

The AIA and schools of architecture could also [increase their] level of marketing. This is a great profession for minority people. I ride the bus a lot here in Pittsburgh, and there’s often an advertisement in the bus that is typically a black man or two black men in a picture that says, “Have you ever considered wanting to teach school?” So there might be some marketing effort that’s targeted to Hispanic, African-American, and Native American communities that says, “This is a good profession for you, but you also can help your community.”

Another one is mentoring by African-American men and women who are already in the profession. And, obviously, scholarships.

You mentioned that some of the UDream fellows have an interest in planning and returning to their communities. What kind of perspective do they bring?
One of the most important things in design is context. Understanding the culture of the neighborhood or community where you’re designing is very important. And if you were already part of that culture, you’re a step ahead of somebody who has to figure it out. One reason people go back to their city of origin, regardless of whether they’re a minority, is because they know that community, the culture, the architectural style, the political situation, the economics, and the social situation. People, and particularly those who feel driven to do community-based work, typically go to communities where they have an emotional connection. A strong part of community building is having these bonds that are religious or racial or whatever. And it’s a good thing.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.