A brighter future
By Jonathon Jackson
NOMA Detroit leads by example through Project Pipeline
DETROIT. AKA Motown, Detroit Rock City, Hockey Town, The Motor City. Whatever you call it, Detroit has a rich history and a bright future. It’s where Motown was born, where the first Model T was produced, where Martin Luther King Jr. marched for equality, and where the National Organization of Minority Architects began nearly 50 years ago. NOMA has come a long way since its inception in 1971. But as in many other cities, the mistreatment of underserved communities has led to a severe wealth gap and a lack of diversity in the world of business, including our own profession. African Americans make up 13 percent of our nation’s population and only 2 percent of our profession. In Detroit, African Americans make up 80 percent of the population, and still the lack of diversity in our profession is glaring. Why, you ask?
In a recent lecture, NOMA President and Detroit native Kim Dowdell explained how this can be traced all the way back to the ’30s, when redlining was taking place. Banks denied loans to borrowers in areas where there were high densities of people of color. As this took place over several decades, land values in these areas began to drop rapidly, and some families left the city altogether. What was left is the blight that is spread throughout metro Detroit. This is why Dowdell has made it her mission to reverse the damage that was done by investing in these properties and giving underprivileged residents more access to capital, better education, and higher-paying jobs. But she says that to reverse decades of damage, we must have a cohesive effort to rebuild what is essentially an ecosystem plagued with poverty and crime. Dowdell is involved in a joint venture called Fitz Forward, which focuses on rehabilitating 104 homes and 269 vacant lots in Detroit. Her goal is to strengthen these communities and help increase property values. However, she points out that it is important to avoid the unintentional consequence of driving underprivileged families out simply because of the rising cost of living that would result. If the goal is to improve the living conditions of those in the community, then we need to reduce the poverty and the wealth gap by investing in education and businesses run by those who live in the communities. Simply put, she says, equity is the opportunity to “make it right.”
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down virtually with past NOMA Detroit president and current NOMA Midwest vice president Saundra Little, as well as the NOMA Detroit treasurer, Farhana Islam. They told me about the steps being taken to help young minorities get involved in architecture and how this will help with the efforts mentioned above. Little and Islam explained that NOMA Detroit focuses on giving minorities the opportunity to get involved in an industry that will help improve and shape their communities. Some of their members are urban planners and sit on several boards in the city. Connecting these professionals with minorities who are trying to find their career paths provides a mentorship program that guides students from K-12 all the way through licensure if they choose this profession. One of these programs is called Project Pipeline.
Many cities across the United States have held their own Project Pipeline camps over the years, and Detroit is no exception. This year marked the sixth annual Summer Camp for ages 12 to 18. Project Pipeline is the start of a process that takes the students through high school and into college with the National Organization of Minority Architects Students and then finally into licensure. However, the camp looked a little different this year, with COVID-19 causing everything to go virtual much like many other events. The experience wasn’t the same as the in-person camps, but one benefit was the increased attendance of foreign students, who would normally not be able to attend. About 35 students attended, along with over 30 volunteers, spread over the seven-day camp. Over the years, the length of the camp has extended from two days to seven, and the main criticism from students is that they wish it was longer. That’s a testament to what a great camp they hold at NOMA Detroit.
Little and Islam also explained why urban planning is so critical to reviving underprivileged communities. With Detroit containing 105 neighborhoods, the city is a network of anchor institutions that create the nodes within the larger context of the city. Because of the heavy immigration to Detroit that started in the early 20th century, the city is a melting pot of cultures, and the typology of the built environment can change in the blink of an eye from one neighborhood to the next. Detroit is not a city that can be designed from one point of view. It takes the residents who live in these districts, who can address the needs of each community, to truly serve, design, and build their future. Whether it’s rezoning areas to promote local business growth or rebuilding lives one home at a time, it is important to have a voice at the table where decisions are made that affect all of metro Detroit. NOMA Detroit and its members are that voice.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of NOMA, and the homecoming is slated to be held in downtown Detroit. This anniversary will be a celebration of longevity, a reflection of integrity, and a look toward the prosperity that can be achieved for our up-and-coming professionals in this industry. By providing mentorship, scholarships, internships, and of course friendships, NOMA Detroit is paving the way to a brighter future for local young architects. NOMA and the AIA’s Large Firm Roundtable are setting the stage with an initiative focused on doubling the population of African American architects by 2030. We can all learn from, and more importantly get involved with, NOMA’s efforts to achieve this goal. As architects, we are supposed to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.” This statement means our designs should serve people of all colors. It’s not just the health of a building’s occupants that is at stake. It’s also the residents of the broader community who live in this built environment who are affected. In the words of Kim Dowdell, “As leaders of cities and the built environment, this work is our responsibility.”
Jonathon Jackson is a Project Architect for Ghafari Associates LLC in Dearborn, Mich. He serves as Michigan’s Young Architect Regional Director and lives in Carleton, Mich., with his wife, Grace, daughter, Ava, son, Jonah, and is expecting number three early 2021.