Architect Roundtable: Paving the Way for BIPOC Designers to Succeed

Better spaces are created when we tear down walls, according to these specialists.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist via Unsplash

Roughly 11 percent of U.S. architects identified as a racial or ethnic minority in a 2019 report released by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards and the National Organization of Minority Architects. Last year, the same two entities concluded in another research paper that Black or African American women are more likely to face impediments at every stage of their collegiate experience, ultimately driving more than 50 percent of them to consider a different career path.

Multi-Housing News reached out to three female leaders in architecture and design to find out how they made their mark and what progress has been made in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion in this fairly hard to penetrate industry.

Melvalean McLemore is a project manager & design studio leader at Moody Nolan, the largest African American-owned and -managed architecture firm in the country, and is committed to dismantle systemic barriers that keep diverse architects from advancing in their careers. Mavis Wiggins is the managing executive & studio creative director of TPG Architecture, where she uses her 30-year industry experience to create an ongoing dialogue about race and representation in the industry, and encourage young BIPOC designers to pursue their career aspirations. We also asked a progressive human resources director & DEI officer—JCJ Architecture’s Denise Raphael—to weigh in on what it takes to push the industry forward and keep DEI at the forefront.

READ ALSO: Building Affordable Communities With DEI in Mind

How can architecture companies move beyond awareness building and reach true inclusivity?

McLemore: I think a lot of firms are interested in improving in this area. The commitment has to flow from the top down, and I’m encouraged to see the effort firm leaders are putting into identifying the different pinch points in the representation of diversity—race, gender, ethnicity, etc.—and the ideas being implemented to help improve things. But it seems a lot of firms get stuck trying to figure out how to move forward to achieve more meaningful and lasting progress.

I strongly believe in the phrase “You can’t change what you don’t measure.” Firms that are truly committed to advancing their DEI goals and want to move beyond simple box-checking should start by conducting a pulse check, ideally via the support of a third-party expert. This step helps the firm to assess its current DEI performance and allows them to establish a baseline of understanding of the areas in which they are performing well and those that need work. They are then able to make plans to target the areas they need to improve. It’s important to not try to do everything at once, but instead, prioritize efforts. When conducting self-evaluations, it’s easy for firms to overestimate how well their practice is performing and not put proper attention to what would be most beneficial in achieving progress. This is where a third-party DEI expert can be particularly useful as they can help identify the tasks that the firm should focus on and in what order.

Most architecture firms do not find satisfaction in underperforming in their work, and I think that standard should be extended to all aspects of their practices. So as long as they are committed to doing the necessary work, and are intentional in how they move forward, progress in terms of DEI seems inevitable.

Mavis Wiggins

Mavis Wiggins, Managing Executive & Studio Creative Director, TPG Architecture. Image courtesy of TPG Architecture

Wiggins: Diversity shouldn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. It’s what makes this country so amazing. All groups of people from every walk of life bring a fresh perspective and unique ideas to the table. At TPG Architecture, we value diversity in our leadership team to help bring these different perspectives to our work. With our most recent promotions, our leadership team is now 40 percent female, allowing for more voices to be heard and making younger women designers feel seen, represented, and respected in our organization.

Raphael: Create a psychologically safe space where all employees can express their thoughts or concerns. A “what’s on your mind?” confidentiality box or repository might be an option. However, there needs to be a dedicated resource to manage these queries, and the entire organization must be engaged in addressing concerns raised, especially identified and perceived leaders, as they have the strong ability to influence change.

You have all participated in or initiated programs that aim to support more diversity in architecture. What results are you most proud of?

McLemore: I am most proud of the work we’ve done with the NOMA’s National HBCU Professional Development Program. This effort has been transformative for so many of the HBCU students that were given an opportunity to network and build mentor-mentee relationships with various professionals participating on behalf of AIA National’s Large Firm Roundtable, in which Moody Nolan is a member. The execution of the idea revolved around many firms’ interests in building direct relationships with HBCUs in order to help with their goals of improving the diversity pipeline into the profession, and the reality that most of the students did not have access to these firms as it was rare for them to attend their college career fairs.

Connecting the dots for something that appeared to be mutually beneficial required collaboration between the two major professional organizations in architecture, NOMA and AIA, each of which had direct relationships with the parties of interest. I was able to recruit the help of my mentor Anzilla Gilmore, FAIA, and designer Zhetique Gunn, to help create the program. The three of us worked to make this program a success, and we have been blown away by the continuous support and participation. This past year we had over 43 percent of the students secure internships or full-time positions, and we hope to report even more for this latest cohort.

Wiggins: I love the conversations that came from the BIPOC gatherings I participated in. For example, Cheryl Durst, executive vice president & CEO of The International Interior Design Association, has been truly instrumental in bringing the conversation to the forefront and organizing committees to address these issues. The best way to make change is to get involved. Start planting the seed in the minds of young people so they can be aware of the vast opportunities that exist in this industry.

Denise Raphael

Denise Raphael, Human Resources Director & DEI Officer, JCJ Architecture. Image courtesy of JCJ Architecture

Raphael: Some of the ways we aim to support more diverse architects include our competitive and flexible benefits programs and practices that have had the effect of extending our reach to a potentially under-represented talent pool that, though otherwise qualified for our roles, may have some personal needs.

We extend our eligibility criteria for FMLA, and JCJ does visa sponsorships of under-represented employees and candidates for employment. JCJ’s sponsorship of such organizations like NOMAct helps promote diversity within the industry, and our participation in NOMAct events gives us visibility in the community. Other examples include: JCJ’s ACE mentorship program, our sponsorship or endorsement of women and BIPOC employees to participate in events promoting diversity within the industry, and JCJ’s partnerships with talent sourcing agencies that focus on the recruitment of women and BIPOC candidates that have helped to enhance our representation within JCJ.

Why is workplace diversity important in the architecture and design industry?

McLemore: By now, we have all seen the stats showing how diversity improves the bottom line at firms and promotes richer work cultures. It’s good for business. But more importantly, I believe diversity in the workplace allows architecture and design firms to better reflect the people, communities, and cities for which we work.

No single monolithic group can serve the needs of everyone, nor should they try. There is significant value in diversity in terms of thought, experiences and culture that can be extremely beneficial to the architecture and design industry.

Wiggins: The workplace should reflect and consider everyone in it. Every person has different ideologies and insights that they bring to the workforce, and it’s important they’re all heard and accounted for. When we collectively communicate and collaborate with each other, we can create revolutionary spaces that elevate people to a brighter future.

Raphael: Workplace diversity is critical for every industry, but particularly for architecture and design because we are a field of creative design solutions, and creativity is best inspired by our collective differences. Individuals from the BIPOC community are under-represented in this industry, and we need to be able to tap into and leverage that creativity.

More and more of our clients or prospects have diversity requirements they must satisfy, and many are seeking designers that represent their cultural backgrounds, providing assurance that design solutions can accurately capture the cultural needs and representation of the project. Last, but certainly not least, team collaboration is one of JCJ’s core operating philosophies—a diverse work team enhances our ability to relate to individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Why is it important to keep having conversations about representation and race in this industry?

Melvalean McLemore

Melvalean McLemore, Project Manager & Design Studio Leader, Moody Nolan. Image courtesy of Moody Nolan

McLemore: Without keeping the conversation alive, we sell ourselves short of the potential to make room for anyone who has a passion to become an architect or designer. As it stands, there are some who insist the industry move past the conversation, claiming that all have the opportunity to succeed if only they try harder, while ignoring that their firm only hires from certain schools or that they seldom promote women into leadership positions. There is also an irrational fear that making room for others somehow comes at a cost. I think keeping the conversation going helps shift from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance. There is more than enough room for everyone if we just commit to making the room.

Wiggins: We must continue having conversations about race until we are fully and equally represented in this industry. By continuing to have these discussions, we are tearing down walls and building stronger communities and opportunities for not only upcoming BIPOC designers but also for our clients and the communities our work impacts. As we bring more voices to the table, we’ll realize the true potential of our work.

Raphael: The demographic landscape in the workplace is shifting. Baby Boomers are retiring from the workforce and the demographic composition of workers will be predominantly comprised of Generation X and, largely, Generation Y—the most ethnically, racially and socially diverse generation today—and Generation Z, the youngest generation. Representation of the available labor force and access to that talent will continue to evolve, and so the conversation needs to be active or ongoing in consideration of evolving social and demographic trends. My doctoral research study touches on this very real challenge for organizations!

What is your message to young BIPOC designers who are still at the beginning of their careers?

McLemore: My message to young BIPOC designers is to never grow complacent. I see a lot of designers at the beginning of their careers start out enthusiastic about their ability to make this profession one in which they too can thrive, but then over time settle for the status quo because they are met with persistent resistance. I encourage them to keep moving forward and pushing for change. Although it may not be as radical as they hoped, change is being made, and incremental progress is still progress.

The industry is much different than when I started 14 years ago. People are having conversations that I never could have imagined, and i’s because because some BIPOC designers spoke up about how they wanted and expected better from our industry. So, it is my hope that when they advance to future leaders, they can live up to the standards their younger selves advocated for—rather than those inherited from a time before them.

Wiggins: We are here for you. It takes great courage to stand up for yourself and pursue your dreams. Stay courageous because you have something to contribute to the world. And don’t let anyone suppress your ethos and enthusiasm.

Raphael: Know that you have the potential to develop into an experienced, well-rounded designer with great mentorship and development. I understand that imposter syndrome or the feeling that one is unqualified or incompetent is real—particularly when like representation is limited or non-existent, but be reflective and understand your strengths and development needs. Be transparent about those feelings and know that you are developing in your craft, and even the most expert designers originated from a place of limited knowledge and can still make mistakes. What’s important is that you learn from those mistakes and turn them into strengths.

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