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The Young Architects Forum (YAF), a program of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the College of Fellows (COF), is organized to address issues of particular importance to recently licensed architects.

Q3 2020 Part I - 2030 diversity challenge

By Amaya C. Labrador AIA posted 04-26-2021 09:00 AM


2030 diversity challenge

By: Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA 

When I was asked to contribute to the AIA YAF Connection in 2018, just before my presidency at the National Organization of Minority Architects began, I had no idea what would unfold over the coming 24 months. As I embark upon my final few months as NOMA’s 33rd president, it has become very clear that we need to band together as a profession now more than ever. In the previous article, I was asked what is THE most critical issue to me as NOMA’s incoming president. My response then and still today: economic opportunity.

In the midst of a global pandemic, a major economic downturn, and a season of awakening on racial injustice, we have a lot to process as a society and as a profession. Many leaders in our profession are asking NOMA what they can do to help address the lack of diversity in architecture. While I can share a laundry list of actions that may be taken by firms and individuals to support people of color and women in architecture who desire to gain a stronger foothold in the field, the underlying issue remains: lack of economic opportunity.

As we look at the average starting salary of an architect or a designer (in pursuit of licensure) at a firm, the numbers are lackluster compared with the salaries of most other professions requiring similarly rigorous training and licensure requirements. While some might argue that we’re privileged with the opportunity to practice architecture and our compensation is balanced out by our passion for design, this is a major barrier that contributes to the lack of diversity in the field.

Architecture is not as accessible to those who experience economic hardship, and unfortunately, there is a higher prevalence of economic hardship in communities of color, particularly Black communities. The average net worth of a white family in the United States is roughly 10 times that of a Black family. Regardless of race or ethnicity, architecture is not well known as a professional path in poorer communities, which contributes to a lack of awareness of design as an option to be explored by so many children in our country. NOMA is working on this with our NOMA Project Pipeline program, but there’s so much to be done beyond that initial introduction. Once a person from a lower-income community learns about architecture, the reality of the expense of a five-, six- or seven-year academic program leading to a relatively low starting wage can be a major deterrent.

Back in my 2018 response, I shared a link to an article about the wealth gap, and this information still applies today. We’ve now seen through COVID-19 how those economic disparities can end up translating to health disparities, as illustrated by the higher incidence of infection and death of people of color in the United States. The sobering statistics relative to the wealth gap can begin to shift over time, but only if we’re all intentional about expanding economic opportunities, specifically for people of color. The presidential platform that I debuted in late 2018 called for the profession to be ALL in for NOMA, meaning that we need everyone from every race and ethnicity to join us. ALL is an acronym for Access, Leadership, and Legacy.

Once we create greater access to the profession, we must help support people in their efforts to take on leadership positions in their firms, organizations, and communities. Finally, we must help architects build a legacy, not only of great work, but also for their families and the future of their firms. While this is the goal of any architect, we must be especially focused on increasing the number of Black architects, who have historically been woefully underrepresented in the profession. In response to this persistent problem, the AIA Large Firm Roundtable has partnered with NOMA to craft the 2030 Diversity Challenge, which aims to more than double the number of licensed Black architects in the United States from about 2,300 in 2020 to 5,000 in 2030. As the profession becomes more diverse and inclusive, we will also become more relevant to society. What I believe we’ll find is that our unity as a profession will help us all prosper, enhancing economic opportunity for everyone. Will you join us?

Author Bio:

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA
Kimberly Dowdell is a licensed architect and frequent speaker on the topic of architecture, diversity, sustainability and the future of cities. She is the 2019-2020 national president of the National Organization of Minority Architects.