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Focusing on project leadership through a Chicago school project

By Renauld Deandre Mitchell FAIA posted 03-16-2022 06:03 PM


By Renauld Deandre Mitchell, FAIA, NOMA, NCARB, LEED®AP

Why Object Two?

My career has been focused on complex and highly visible educational, civic, and institutional projects.  During this time, I’ve observed a persistent lack of broad and socially diverse representation during the design process.  In my opinion, this impedes the consensus-building needed to effect truly transformative project outcomes.  Serving as a “client-architect” for cultural institutions and governmental entities further illuminated this problem.  Largely responsible for connecting my organizations to external stakeholders, I often found myself as the lone voice in the room filling the void created by the lack of representation.  This experience evolved into a manifesto after returning to traditional architectural practice, seeking to bridge the divide between client organizations and their external stakeholders; crafting my project leadership ethos to nurture meaningful communication across organizational levels and stakeholder interests.

My sponsor and I candidly wrestled with either pursuing Object Two or (formerly) Object Five.  We both believed the merits of my candidacy straddled the line between the two.  On the one hand, I strongly held (and maintain) the opinion that effective engagement and consensus-building across a broad stakeholder spectrum is an essential project leadership skill that is often overlooked and underdeveloped.  On the other hand, my personal background as a kid from Chicago’s inner city and a practitioner of color coupled with my visibility in leading large public projects perhaps serve a greater good for our profession and my community? 

One of my featured exhibits, the new Englewood STEM High School, really highlighted my conundrum.  In seeking to reverse the fortunes of a community ravaged by decades-long disinvestment and dwindling census numbers, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) selected Englewood to build a new community high school.  Citing declining enrollment, CPS planned to shutter several surrounding neighborhood high schools.  At the time, only 1 in 12 high school-aged children attended the 4 high schools in the Englewood community, with the majority commuting to neighboring communities to attend school.  Proposed closures included the razing of Paul Robeson High School – a school with a rich tradition and a proud alumni base, having served generations of Englewood residents.  The proposed closures created animus and sowed distrust with community members who felt excluded from the public debate and planning process.  I came to this project having recently completed highly visible and publicized projects such as the new Malcolm X College & School of Health Sciences, Wintrust Arena, and the University of Chicago Medicine’s Trauma Center, but having grown up in the Englewood community, my connection to this project was deeply personal.

Firmly believing inclusive and transparent dialogue could overcome the distrust of CPS and skepticism surrounding open enrollment for neighborhood children, I facilitated a robust community engagement effort to rally support for the new high school.  I convinced CPS to open the design process to community members in an unprecedented wayconducting regular Saturday morning visioning sessions and design workshops aimed at providing the community with a full sense of ownership of the process.  I conducted listening sessions first with prospective parents, then students, and lastly community leaders.  Being an Englewood native, I was not shy about sharing my personal passion/vision for the new schoolaspiring that the new high school would become a place that inspires children to ‘Reach Beyond’ their current environment and circumstances, achieve greatness, and return to transform Englewood.

My credibility as an Englewood native, combined with meaningfully engaging the community in the design process, bridged the divide between CPS and the community.  The new school reinvigorated the Englewood communitywith families choosing to send their children to the new neighborhood school instead of distant options.  The first academic year commenced with an inaugural freshman class of 9th graders and exceeded CPS’ initial projections by 25%.  The inaugural freshman class size (430 students) also exceeded the combined enrollment of the 4 shuttered schools (which was 400).  All but 20 of the inaugural freshman class hailed from the Englewood community. 

I asked myself – what was my defining contribution to the success of the Englewood HS project?  Was it the community engagement strategy borne out of my passion/ethos for connecting clients with the community or was it my personal background that lent credibility to my presence?  My conviction that the lack of diverse stakeholder opinion in effectuating truly impactful project outcomes coupled with the belief that through my efforts, I was helping to fill this essential need compelled me to pursue Object Two.  I guess I’ll never know whether the merits of one would’ve outweighed the other, but I suppose it all worked out in the end J.


My Fellowship Process?

Serving as ‘Architect-Client’ informed my career as ‘Architect-Practitioner’ and laid the foundation for my practice ethos.  I chose to highlight this duality in pursuing elevation to Fellowship in Object Two – “To advance the science and art of planning and building by advancing the standards of architectural education, training, and practice” with a focus on my achievements in Project Leadership.

Having a strong conviction regarding my essential contributions to the profession was key.  From this conviction emerged the central thesis for my submission as well as the key themes that would define it.  I began with crafting my 25-to-35-word summary statement – which was critical in finding my voice.  I probably rewrote this statement at least 200 times as the submission developed – struggling all the while to stay within the 35-word limit.  I considered these words to be the epitaph that would mark my architectural tombstone and applied undue pressure to myself to make it sound good!  As a result, my early iterations lacked brevity and were frankly gratuitously intellectualized!   I needed reassurance that simpler was better!  My sponsor (love you Martha Bell J) was key in getting me over this hump!  I also found myself constantly striving to refine my voice in conveying key themes, and while doing so, actively resisting the temptation to question/stray from my core conviction.  This temptation came from within and from well-intended colleagues providing peer support.  While seeking outside input and constructive criticism is necessary and valuable, I needed to remind myself that no one knew or could better articulate my core conviction than I could. 

Lessons learned?

When first approached by my chapter about the merits of my potential candidacy, I was honored (and frankly shocked) that my peers were even paying attention and considered my career accomplishments to be worthy of such recognition.  At the same time, I was quite unnerved by it all.  I believed that daring to consider myself worthy of submitting for Fellowship required tremendous hubris!  Preparing my submission revealed the opposite to be true.  For me, the process was one of continuous self-discovery with the sum of my contributions to the profession and society laid bare before myself and my peers.  The effort to critically evaluate, synthesize and convey my story in a concise, yet compelling manner requires tremendous sobriety.  I came to understand that my pursuit of, and if so fortunate, my elevation to Fellowship was/is NOT a celebration of my own accomplishments but instead a celebration of what was accomplished through coalescing many voices into one.  Although my submission called attention to my contribution to this cause, the resulting built legacy transcends my individuality and carries the collective spirit of all who share in and are served by it.

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A native Chicagoan, Renauld takes great pride in his inner-city roots, embedding his background and life perspective to his role as a firm Partner and Managing Director of the Chicago & Washington DC Studios for Moody Nolan—our nation’s largest African American owned architectural firm and 2021 recipient of the AIA’s Firm Award. Renauld was elevated to The AIA College of Fellows in its 2021 Class.

(Return to the cover of the March 2022 PM Digest)