In response to the recent, sustained calls to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the AEC sector, ARCHITECT asked 12 thought leaders from across the country to weigh in on what meaningful, actionable change can look like for the profession. We asked each participant the following two questions with the option to add whatever else they wanted the profession to hear.

  1. What will convince you that this call for change is different?
  2. What actions, from your own experiences or observations, have effected real change?

Thought Leaders

Maya Bird-Murphy | Teri Canada | Melissa R. Daniel

Kathy Dixon | Rainy Hamilton Jr. | Edwin Harris

Alvin Huang | Samantha Josaphat | Rico Quirindongo

Quilian Riano | Summer Sutton | Alicia Volcy

Maya Bird-Murphy, Assoc. AIA

founder and executive director, Chicago Mobile Makers, Chicago

Maya Bird-Murphy
Ryan Pagelow Maya Bird-Murphy

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion has finally become “mainstream.” I’ve seen statements of solidarity from many AEC companies, but these statements must be backed up by action steps. I won’t be convinced that real change is happening until firms have DEI action steps written into their business plans and until they have employee-led committees that have the power to keep firm leadership accountable. AIA and other national organizations should be putting pressure on firms to create such action steps.

What actions have effected real change?
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many action steps implemented in the past or firms prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Hopefully, that’s changing. Some positive moves I have seen are DEI committees forming, employees organizing and pressuring the leadership to create action steps, and Juneteenth becoming a paid holiday.

See projects by Chicago Mobile Makers.

Teri Canada, AIA

co-founder and managing principal, Evoke Studio Architecture, Durham, N.C.

Teri Canada
courtesy Evoke Studio Architecture Teri Canada

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
Architecture firms need to train and promote African Americans, other people of color, and women to leadership positions. We should not only be designated as diversity leaders but also as principals and directors of design, architecture, and management. I am not suggesting to promote individuals without the correct qualifications, but to actively help them achieve the necessary training for these positions.

Architecture firms also need to “feed the pipeline” and develop initiatives that expose young children to the architecture and design fields. By the time many children in underserved areas find out about architecture, it is too late to develop the portfolio required to enter an accredited architectural school. By feeding the pipeline, we are able to get more African Americans and other POCs into architectural programs and give firms a more diverse talent pool.

What actions have effected real change?
Evoke Studio and other firms I have worked for in the past have developed programs that feed the pipeline of future talent from communities of color. NOMA's Project Pipeline and Michael Ford's Hip Hop Architecture Camp are empowering young people to effect change in their communities through design. We need other national organizations to lead their own initiatives or join with NOMA to expand these programs. Because these programs are relatively new, seeing positive results reflected at the professional level will take time. The first sign of promise will be increased numbers of African Americans and POCs in accredited architecture programs.

The U.S. is in the early stages of investigating issues of racial disparity and injustice. It will take time before all industries are able to achieve meaningful change. I am hopeful that this change will happen in my lifetime.

What else do you want to add?
My answers are specific to the profession of architecture, but they can be applied to all AEC related industries.

See projects by Evoke Studio.

Melissa R. Daniel, Assoc. AIA

architectural designer, AMAR Group LLC; design advocate, Washington, D.C.

Melissa R. Daniel
Maxmilian Franz Melissa R. Daniel

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
Systemic racism cannot be solved by forming a committee, workshop, or webinar. This process takes years, likely decades, as well as commitment and humility. The BIPOC community seeks serious change; the current calls to action are buzzwords that were wordsmithed together without including tangible change. To convince me that the AEC profession is serious about improving diversity, equity, and inclusion, there must first be identification of and work toward eliminating microaggressions—unintentional expressions of prejudice, bias, and discrimination—resting in firm culture. Instagram accounts such as @BlackatSOM, @BlackatGensler, @BlackatAIA, and @BIPOC_in_Architecture provide a platform for current and former employees or members to recount uncomfortable and humiliating experiences. Firm leaders must foster challenging, uncomfortable conversations among themselves and their firms to address these microaggressions head-on. Identifying these expressions will be difficult because firm culture often perceives them as “joking around” or labels those who speak up as “sensitive people.” I am no expert in DEI methods and practices; however, the AEC profession is screaming out for resolution.

What actions have effected real change?
Nakita Reed, AIA, an associate and preservation architect at Quinn Evans and an African American woman, has led focused conversations on how design and preservation tie into systemic racism. Reed says, “One of the things I’ve appreciated about Quinn Evans’ response to the various calls for social justice is the recognition that diversity efforts need to include non-POC evaluating their own bias. Our JEDI committee comprises a mix of colleagues that vary in age, race, and gender to help understand different viewpoints and provide space to understand barriers that may arise to doing this work. Having companywide and small group conversations about the history of how white supremacy and systemic racism have impacted the design profession has been thrilling and seems rare within other architecture firms.”

What else do you want to add?
Having representation at the firm leadership level does not eliminate microaggressions, but it does present an opportunity for someone to address an issue with a senior-level manager who looks like them.

Hear more from Melissa Daniel on her podcast, Architecture Is Political.

Kathy Dixon, FAIA

principal, K. Dixon Architecture, Washington, D.C.

Kathy Dixon
courtesy K. Dixon Architecture Kathy Dixon

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
We need to put on different lenses to see the change that is happening, as well as the change that is not happening as quickly as we would like. Over my nearly 30 years of experience, I’ve watched change occur at a slow but steady pace; diversity within senior management at large national firms has gone from nonexistent to somewhat more regular, accepted, and desirable. Decades ago, African American architects had few options but to strike out on their own when no firms would hire them. Now they are being hired by the major firms, and a few are even promoted to executive levels. This is encouraging, although many regional and mid-sized firms still lack any diversity in senior management or among their design studio staff.

Architecture is not a prominent career goal for African American children; otherwise, the industry would have more African American representation. To increase diversity—and the number of African American architects—the notion of becoming an architect must take root early in K–12. It must be elevated alongside the notions of becoming a professional athlete or entertainer.

Long-term and sustained change looks toward the pipeline of emerging professionals. Efforts must be taken to ensure to encourage youth to pursue it as a college major. Moreover, young people need to be mentored and supported starting from architecture school all the way to the licensing exam. NOMA’s Project Pipeline and the SOUL of Shelter multimedia project, which I’m currently involved with, were established to increase the awareness of the architectural profession and ultimately increase numbers of African American and BIPOC architects. For nearly 15 years, the Black Women in Architecture Network has organized the Riding the Vortex seminar to highlight Black women and their voices in the profession. The rules for entering the field of architecture are no different for African Americans than for any other ethnic group in America. We just need to inspire young people to pursue such a wonderful career path.

What actions have effected real change?
The percentage of African American architects in the U.S. has remained flat for more than 30 years, at just approximately 2% (2,325 of 116,242, according to the 2020 NCARB by the Numbers and the Directory of African American Architects. In both the medical and legal professions, this percentage is approximately 5%. Our discipline is well behind.

For years, the medical profession has kept demographic records and statistics on the numbers of individuals in medical school and those licensed as physicians. The industry made it a goal to track and increase the numbers of minority professionals. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of Black/African American physicians in the U.S. increased by 53%, from 29,775 to 45,534, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. The leading collateral organizations for the architectural industry have not made a concerted effort to record, track, and analyze, and increase the numbers of licensed African American/BIPOC architects in the profession. The entire industry must focus on this goal if any significant change in the number of African American architects is going to occur.

Rainy Hamilton Jr., FAIA

founder and principal, HamiltonAnderson, Detroit

Rainy Hamilton Jr.
Ernest Sisson Rainy Hamilton Jr.

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
I have been in the profession for 41 years. I will need to see and experience majority individuals and companies extending an open hand and invitation to become part of the larger network of business opportunities. Opportunities to design projects in leadership roles must be made available in order for African-American architects to advance and build wealth. We must go far beyond the tokenism of offering a small percentage of a project to architects of color while majority firms control the project direction.

What actions have effected real change?
We have had the pleasure and fortune to have MGM Resorts as a client for almost two decades. MGM Resorts' leadership embraced diversity and inclusion long ago, from the bottom to the top, and promotes without compromise this mission in all that they do. As a global enterprise, it recognizes that the world—and its clientele—is multicultural and multinational. We hope that more international and national companies begin immediately to adopt policies and practices to engage with more minority- and women-owned companies.

What else do you want to add?
The horrific murder of George Floyd showed the world in 8 minutes and 46 seconds the gruesome nature of indoctrinated racial discrimination. Now the world—people of all races, cultures, and beliefs—are protesting for equity, justice, and an end to white privilege. This is a turning point for the United States and other countries. Hopefully, we the human race can adjust to become far more accepting and loving of one another. This is my prayer for humanity.

See projects by HamiltonAnderson.

Edwin Harris, AIA

co-founder and design principal, Evoke Studio Architecture, Durham, N.C.

Edwin Harris
courtesy Evoke Studio Architecture Edwin Harris

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
We must first recognize that this cannot be only a moment of change. This must be a sustained effort to conscientiously fight against racism, which pervades our society. Systemic racism was not created overnight. It will not be broken down in a year, five years, or even a decade.

Seeing more African Americans in our profession cannot only be window dressing. Our profession needs to elevate Black, minority, and female voices—and not just acknowledge that those folks have voices. The presence of African Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities should be expected at all cross sections of our industry. African Americans should be represented at the emerging staff level, mid-career, and leadership levels.

What actions have effected real change?
Because of our own experiences as African American architects, we have been intentional as firm owners to raise awareness of the profession to those who may not otherwise be aware. We consistently visit elementary, middle, and high schools for career days and talks. We host events for students at our office. We also teach on the collegiate level. Our mission is not only to be present, but also to engage students to become excited about the profession, which I hope will shift the landscape of our profession.

See projects by Evoke Studio.

Alvin Huang, AIA

principal, Synthesis Design + Architecture; associate professor and director of graduate and post-professional architecture, University of Southern California School of Architecture, Los Angeles

Alvin Huang
courtesy USC School of Architecture Alvin Huang

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
A parallel exists between how we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession and the way we view the role of sustainability in the built environment. The best sustainable designs are integrative rather than additive: They consider the building as an ecosystem of design decisions and opportunities that perform synthetically. Sustainable design decisions shouldn’t just improve a building’s environmental performance; they should improve the overall design.

Similarly, DEI cannot be thought of as additive—like sprinkles or icing on top of a cupcake. Rather, they need to be thought of as both transformative and integrative. How can we alter the DNA of our profession to benefit everyone rather than just sprinkling a little bit of diversity on top? These ideals cannot be compartmentalized into issues of human resources purely for the sake of representation. We need to do the homework to recognize the failures of the current systems of power in this country—and in our profession—so we can address them systematically.

What actions have effected real change?
I don't have any examples, but I have realized that, despite my long-time championing of diversity in the profession, diversity is not enough. I am attempting to re-educate myself to further consider the implications of power and race in the built environment.

What else do you want to add?
Like most disciplines, architecture has historically been defined by a canon prescribed by the dominant white male perspective. Now is the time to change that. However, as practicing architects, designers, educators, and students, we have inherited these perspectives and systems. We can't rush into making superficial changes. We need to spend time re-educating ourselves so that we can question and challenge the systems that produce the results we have grown to live with.

A lot of reading material is available. I am spending the summer with Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law (Liveright, 2017), which details the history of redlining and gentrification in the formation of American cities; Race and Modern Architecture (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) by Irene Cheng, Charles L Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson, is a collection of essays that examine how race has played a part in shaping key concepts of modern architecture; and Justice Is Beauty (Monacelli Press, 2019), a monograph of MASS Design's work in designing, researching, and advocating for an architecture of justice and dignity.

See projects by Synthesis Design + Architecture.

Samantha Josaphat

principal, Studio 397 Architecture; president, nycoba|NOMA, New York City

Samantha Josaphat
Justin Carter Samantha Josaphat

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
When I start seeing positive results from actions, not statements, I’ll start to believe change is happening. Our industry thrives on lofty words. If it can figure out how to translate lines into buildings, it is capable of figuring out how to translate equal rights for all humans into actions. If change is what we want, we can figure it out—we just have to practice at it. Leading by example is key.

What actions have effected real change?
A firm or organization calling me to discuss a strategic alliance with my firm or organization that includes next steps, rather than just sending a statement to review or of empty promises, would be a start. Or if they reach out with ideas or proposals to effect change, such as employment opportunities for our members, sponsorship of our ongoing programming, or participation in our events, rather than requesting us to do their communication or partner with them to do what we already do. The beauty of nycoba|NOMA is that professionals form relationships by participating in our events and getting to know each other on a real level. Our relationships aren't forced nor created to put up a façade of collaboration.

What else do you want to add?
It's nice that folks have the time to realize the injustice that has existed for the past 400 years in both professional and personal circles. As many Black professionals have worked hard to make it in a white-dominated field, I expect that same effort to be reciprocated when it comes to changing corporate culture in order to treat all humans equally, both financially and professionally.

Rico Quirindongo, AIA

principal, DLR Group, Seattle

Rico Quirindongo
Stevie Rotella Rico Quirindongo

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
We will only experience a difference in the profession when we have a long-term, sustained effort in examining bias, acknowledging institutional racism, and identifying how to break down the barriers that inhibit students and practitioners in BIPOC communities from having a more prominent presence and voice in our profession. This work will take years of effort. Decades.

SoCalNOMA has created a DEI challenge for its local design community to begin to bridge the wide gap of unequal investment in our BIPOC communities and people of color. This work can serve as inspiration and a guide to develop a national social justice built environment pledge to which all firms can commit. This pledge could be similar to the International Living Future Institute’s JUST program, but needs to focus not only on internal firm equity and social justice metrics. This pledge should also track what our firms are doing externally to support BIPOC communities and measure our investments in the educational pipeline to ensure that we create a profession of practitioners that is far more diverse than what we see today. The AIA needs to lead this charge in partnership with our ally organizations. Overall, the industry needs to pivot toward communities of color. We are richness of culture. We are value. We are heart. As a nation, we cannot be successful until we achieve justice for our BIPOC communities.

What actions have effected real change?
Meaningful change can only begin by looking inward, taking stock of our current position, and accepting and owning the data uncovered in that exploration. Some firms have begun using the Intercultural Development Inventory to assess their practices’ cultural competency, to identify where they fall on the continuum from denial to adaptation, and to begin to create diversity, equity, and inclusion frameworks that support strategies for reform, investment, and growth. All firms need to do this work. The Memorandum of Understanding between AIA and NOMA needs to be adopted and understood by all of our member firms. They should also be required to invest in education that introduces architecture to students at the K–12 and college levels and to support a BIPOC community of young leaders to move and grow into leadership positions across the AEC professions.

As NOMA Chapters across the nation develop DEI challenges that focus on recruiting, retaining, and building truly diverse teams to execute meaningful, culturally significant work, our AIA member firms need to accept the challenge, take the pledge, and do the hard work to make the AEC practice reflect the diversity of the communities we serve.

What else do you want to add?
Personal and firm accountability are required in order to sustain substantive change. Just like the environmental sustainability movement, a new movement to support social sustainability should form. We are at crisis. Difficult discussions must take place in order to confront implicit biases against our BIPOC communities. Systems are only tools. We need people to change. We can’t rid ourselves of systemic racism until we change the hearts and minds of those who have the power to change those systems.

Quilian Riano

founder and principal, DSGN AGNC; associate director, Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (views are my own), Shaker Heights, Ohio

Quilian Riano
courtesy Quilian Riano Quilian Riano

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
First of all, I want to reject the premise that simply sticking to a list of steps will help achieve equity or, better yet, design practice models that actively seek justice. It has to be a constant act of reflection about whom you work for, what projects you are working on, the process to produce those projects, and who those projects benefit.

In the short term, specific steps should include listening and following the demands of those most affected by the lack of equity in the design fields—Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) designers and communities. For example, Design As Protest, a collective of anti-racist designers dedicated to design justice initiated by Bryan Lee Jr., De Nichols, and Michael Ford, put out a clear set of Design Justice Demands. Each demand is important; examples include "Abolishing the Carceral State," "Radical Visions for Affordable Neighborhoods," and "Community Determination." Firms that want to move toward justice should adopt and actively work on these demands. (Disclosure: I am an active member of the DAP Collective and have been organizing various initiatives.)

Similarly, in many schools, BIPOC students, faculty, and alumni are organizing and making anti-racist demands and clear steps to move forward. Designer and visual artist BZ Zhang has put together all the letters and calls to action with specific demands as well as many other “resources to non-Black and white people to deepen our anti-racism work within design disciplines” in a shared Google document. We will know that some progress is being made when leaders in firms and schools voice their support for these specific demands from their students, employees, and colleagues and continue to do the work to adopt them at every level of their institution. In short, listen and do not burden BIPOC with telling you again the things they—we—are collectively saying.

What actions have effected real change?
Seeing and participating in the collective organizing and production of work in social/racial justice groups led by BIPOC designers like Design As Protest has brought me hope. It demonstrates what is possible when designers work together in a democratic model to discuss, debate, and propose complex demands, ideas, and direct actions to confront complex and entrenched problems. I urge leaders in practice and academia to listen and adopt the demands coming out of these groups and collective processes.

Outside of design, I’ve been interested in emerging explicitly anti-racist economic models that emphasize community wealth-building, collective ownership, and democratic decision-making. For example, Cleveland Owns is a radical incubator that equips groups to build wealth and power through collective ownership. The group works alongside BIPOC communities in Cleveland to create the Cleveland Solar Cooperative, a community-owned co-op that aims to promote energy democracy through democratic ownership of solar infrastructure.

Some Cleveland Owns board members, a majority of whom are Black, recently wrote an article in the Cleveland Business Journal on the possibilities of collective ownership to end workplace inequality: “Anti-racist business leaders must expand the number of people who own productive assets, affording for the first time black and working-class people true access to the wealth their labor creates.”

The Democracy Collaborative is another leading group forming employee-owned cooperatives and pushing what it terms the Democratic Economy with a stated goal of confronting racial inequity. Its website states: “Building a truly democratic economy means having the courage to collectively center and confront the effects of historical and ongoing racism in the way today’s economy is built, and committing to making sure those most effected [sic] by racism in the current system have the resources they need to play a leading role in the design of what comes next.”

I am interested to see how these collective efforts may provide openings for architectural practice to fundamentally change financial and organizational models—and potentially change the kinds of projects and communities it works for. I am currently part of The Architecture Lobby, which is actively exploring the possibilities of collectivizing practice, including how that can be networked with other cooperative models.

See projects by Quilian Riano.

Summer Sutton

Ph.D. candidate and co-founder of Indigenous Scholars of Architecture, Planning and Design, Yale University School of Architecture, New Haven, Conn.

Summer Sutton
Michael A. Hernandez Summer Sutton

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
Firms and institutions can make a statement of commitment and responsibility to enact change, but individual members of the organization’s leadership should also personally deliver a statement to increase the sense of accountability.

Publicly highlighting employees with experience and knowledge of working with Indigenous clients or partnering with Indigenous-led firms and institutions are examples of how to value diverse perspectives. This can also reveal gaps in representation within a firm. Doing so in a public manner holds the company and the employee responsible for continuing to foster that knowledge through their career development.

Giving your time to develop and foster meaningful relationships with communities that have been historically underrepresented in the AEC professions will have long-term benefits. Community development requires a commitment to engage in a mutually beneficial way with partners who can vouch for your commitment to respectful collaborations.

Statements should be made to highlight the steps that have been taken. Doing—and not just saying—these things is when we will know there is real change.

What actions have effected real change?
Real action to effect change can be seen with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business's Progressive Aboriginal Relations program, a national initiative to support businesses that prioritizes respect and prosperity between non-Indigenous and Indigenous communities. By being the first architecture and planning practice to be certified under the CCAB's certification process, Brook McIlroy has subscribed to an ongoing responsibility to uphold values of meaningful engagement with Indigenous land, communities, and architects through the creation of its Indigenous Design Studio. Firms and organizations unafraid of being the first to try a new approach toward practices of reciprocity are the ones contributing to real change.

Indigenous peoples have been let down by a history of broken promises, which continues today. In general, real change can only be acknowledged after an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship has been nurtured.

What else do you want to add?
Organizations like AIA and the American Indian Council of Architects and Engineers, in collaboration with AIA's Equity and the Future of Architecture Committee, could lay the foundation for a certification rating system for architecture firms, projects, and institutions in the United States that recognize the need for meaningful engagements with Indigenous practitioners, specialists, communities, and clients through their practice. A certification program, like the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED system, which increases environmental awareness and places environmental and energy design knowledge at the core of architectural training, could be developed to increase knowledge and awareness of diverse, equitable, and inclusive building practices.

Our society is raising the bar for a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment, but how do we measure or qualify the steps already taken by institutions, firms, and projects that make those changes to satisfy the increased demand? An institutionalized system, similar to the CCAB’s PAR program or LEED, would be a great step in establishing a framework for building a particular standard that centers DEI. Certification programs that provide a metric system based on meaningful engagement and not a diversity headcount will enact positive change.

Alicia Volcy, Assoc. AIA

owner and founder, Studio Volcy Design + Development, Pittsburgh

Alicia Volcy
Volcy Photography Alicia Volcy

What will convince you that this call for change is different?
I need to see leaders at the top put in the work to dismantle the racist systems and policies that likely helped them obtain their roles in the C-suite. I’ve seen enough anti-racism statements, street murals, and panel discussions. Stop the oppression—that’s what we’re really asking for.

What actions have effected real change?
I’d like to see the design community mentor professionals the way the sports industry mentors professional and collegiate athletes. Many of the world’s greatest athletes are trained by professionals from different racial and ethnic backgrounds: They nurture the athletes to ensure that they reach their peak performance. Race doesn’t seem to matter.

In the architecture community, leaders typically mentor those who look like them. When less than 2% of the entire profession looks like you, where exactly does that leave you? Of course, having the urge to mentor someone who reminds you of yourself isn’t intentionally racist. But that’s the point that we keep missing: You don’t need to have racist intentions to end up with a racist outcome. And here we are.

I do worry that encouraging black youth to pursue architecture is setting them up to enter a profession that will only mistreat them and oppress them further. But, this topic would probably require a four-part docuseries.

This article appeared in the August 2020 issue of ARCHITECT under the headline "What Does Real Action Look Like?"