“This morning a housekeeper knocked on my hotel room door for cleaning.”
Upon reading this statement, who did you visualize at the door? Now – just as quickly picture each of the following occupations: a police officer, nurse, doctor, cafeteria worker, bank teller, trash collector, a CEO, an administrative assistant, an interior designer, or an architect.
If we’re honest, individually and socially, we tend to envision specific people performing certain jobs according to gender, race, ethnicity and other descriptors. These stereotypes are predisposed by a combination of what we’ve previously witnessed and our unconscious expectation for who fills these roles. This generates a self-perpetuating cycle that plays a significant factor increasing and dampening opportunity. Of course, this discussion involves all underrepresented, including less discussed such as age, ability, and orientation, however I speak from the personal point-of-view of a Black professional.
The early months of the pandemic ground the world to an eerily quiet halt and the highly-publicized, unjustified deaths of African-Americans, most noticeably Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, shattered that silence. Subsequently a tidal wave of corporate statements flooded social media, including from within the field of architecture, declaring vehement support for people of color and that these businesses “must do better”. I accepted this sudden deluge of businesses broadcasting their newfound mantra with a small dash of hope paired with a much larger measure of well-earned skepticism. Further, I found myself constantly amazed at the high cost of violent death, harm, and societal trauma that must be experienced before any iota of awareness or movement trickles down to the corporate America.
For I’ve heard this before.
In 1992, with the fresh wounds of the Rodney King trial and subsequent L.A. riots as social backdrop, the AIA published a Declaration of Intention [a plan to make a plan?] to adapt diverse practices. The following year, I enrolled in architecture school, one of a handful of students of color. Back then, approximately 1% of architects were African-American and there were fewer than 50 licensed Black women in the industry. As an undergraduate, I actively participated in student government and architectural organizations and two of the preeminent discussions in architecture at the time were “How do we save the profession?” and “How do we diversify the profession?”
Pouring through old industry magazines from the 1970s and 80s in the design library, to my surprise, yielded a discovery of many past articles posing these same questions. It seems that once every ten years, the field of architecture, from education to examination to practice, scratches its collective head wondering how it can critically stake its identity on providing quality design and life accessible to all, yet lack the very diversity it seeks to encourage and promote, falling behind many other professions. While progress has slowly been made, almost 30 years after AIA’s intention declaration and my first design course, only 2% of licensed architects are black, 0.4% are black women, and African-Americans continue to be underrepresented in not only student population, but normal and tenured faculty.
After completing my Master of Architecture and practicing design for a number of years, I transitioned into a career as an architectural photographer. During this passage I came to realize the architectural field’s record is equally abysmal – if not worse – in companies they choose to collaborate and work with in collateral fields such as construction, engineering, design, marketing and other consultants. That’s at least five decades of recorded stagnation, accompanied by grand, yet ultimately fruitless statements. In 2020, after the world watched the last horrifying 8 minutes and 46 seconds of a person’s life unjustly stolen, I observed company after company take to social media en masse, wondering aloud, “How do I find more people of color to work with?” as if the search for diversity was a magical quest for a mythical holy grail.
Creatives of color are not invisible. We’ve been here – albeit not in terribly large numbers – and daily fight to be considered just as seriously as our white counterparts. Every creative field is already difficult to navigate, no matter who you are. However for persons of marginalized groups, systematic hurdles must be additionally leaped.
Success and failure stem from the exact same experiment. Every creative realizes how critical practice is to developing and maturing one’s skill, and these experiences accumulate with gathered opportunity. No matter one’s talent, if you’re a seasoned designer at age 50, you are compellingly better than you were at 25 because of the wisdom extrapolated from a broad range of experience and repetition. Therefore we are all products of our chances and how we perform with each increment. If not a white male, they will receive statistically fewer chances, which slows accumulated growth. Therefore to succeed they must either a) work harder and longer to gather the same opportunity and/or b) reach similar heights with sheer talent to overcome fewer chances. Imagine what that brilliant person could achieve given a wider berth.
Non-Hispanic Whites account for 60% of the American population but represent a whopping 89% of registered architects. Leadership diversity and accounts of discrimination likewise reflect this overwhelming monolith. For a profession that prides itself on accessibility, architecture only reflects 70% of the population and is therefore missing an entire 30% – all people of color – that could passionately contribute to the field! In the three decades I’ve observed this conversation, in the legitimately-staked claims that businesses need increased diversity to better reflect our society, spread resources and opportunity, and broader range of perspectives in serving their clients and public at large, do you know what I rarely find inject into the conversation?
The field of architecture desperately needs more people of color, because we are missing out on large swaths of individuals who are intelligent, industrious, immensely creative and highly skilled at their chosen endeavor. Our professional practices could use more fantastic representatives to further advance the field, foster better relationships with our clients, increase the respect with which the world-at-large considers our capabilities and raises the financial health and value of our companies.
Never hear that one. If I was the general manager of a sports team and in my evaluations considered only 70% of available players to draft or sign, one would immediately question how I could possibly assemble a winning team ignoring 1/3 of the pool! It’s worth mentioning it wasn’t too long ago that this was precisely the American sports landscape, and though greatly reduced, still impacts how many league teams presently function in operations, management, coaching, and certain skilled positions.
Achieving diversity isn’t a checklist to fulfill or a predetermined quota system we are FORCED to meet. The conversation needs to be flipped upside down due to inference that people of color are lesser than. It’s not “throwing a bone” to underrepresented populations, expecting subpar results such as sacrificed quality and compromising the bottom line. Instead it is socially beneficial, financially profitable, and flatly the right thing to do. Therefore we should WANT and SEEK diversity by any and all metrics. It should be how we choose to steer our actionable lives and a large portion of that includes our careers. Perhaps the two grand puzzles of “How does the profession of architecture save itself from extinction?” and “How does the field of architecture diversify?” are missing the identical piece as their solution.
Lack of diversity is simply an unsustainable business model. People of color are not small in numbers because we’re uncreative, lazy, or not interested. Quite the opposite: we are talented, intelligent, and hungry, with an indefatigable drive to overcome undeniable odds. Given our life experience, we are especially equipped to face any professional challenge and as they say, want all the smoke. People of color, especially African-Americans, remain a tiny percentage because the field of architecture has chosen to associate with the same people in 2021 as they did in 1991 and 1961. It’s bizarre how such a profession refuses to put their money where their mouth is, because the entire field could be much more effective and profitable with us than without.
I’m fortunate to have achieved a modicum of success in my chosen field, and am forever grateful for my opportunities to the unforgotten many who’ve granted such access. However, after reading so many blanket statements about diversity I tend to shrug at it all. Maybe the gatekeepers to architecture and its collateral fields will gradually improve (and perhaps usher in new gatekeepers), figure how we can manage their practices, become true partners in allied professions, and fully contribute to representing this beautiful, democratizing endeavor of design to the world, accessible to all. Or maybe you’ll continue offering platitudes without substance, seeking to work with the same people you always have because that’s what you’re comfortable with. Honestly, I remain unsure what hurts more: being rejected at-large by the field I love or watching that same profession continuously sabotage itself despite its best claims.
Regardless of the result, my responsibility is to keep pressing forward, no matter frustrations faced of being ignored or dismissed; and if necessary heaving my whole body against that gate until somehow it opens. For somewhere out there at this very moment, there is a young African-American woman who dreams to pursue what I do. She is smarter, more capable and talented than I will ever be and she deserves less resistance in her pursuit of happiness and her positive, creative contribution to our society and people. There’s so many like her right around the corner and to help make their path just a little bit easier would without doubt be the greatest professional accomplishment of my life.