In 2008, a group of architects and emerging professionals converged upon Boston, Massachusetts to attend the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Conference. That year marked 40 years since American Civil Right Leader Whitney M. Young, Jr. called out the institute and the profession for lacking diversity.
In his 1968 keynote address, Young looked over an audience of almost entirely white male faces and boldly stated, “One need only take a casual look at this audience to see that we have a long way to go in this field.” Young proceeded to issue a call to action. “If you don’t as architects stand up and endorse Model Cities and appropriations…if you don’t speak out for some kind of scholarship program that will enable you to consciously and deliberately seek to bring in minority people who have been discriminated against in many cases, either kept out because of your indifference or couldn’t make it—it takes seven to ten years to become an architect—then you will have done a disservice to the memory of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bob Kennedy and most of all, to yourselves.”
Young’s remarks were timely, in the wake of the assassinations of State Senator and Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy just a few days preceding the conference; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968; Malcolm X in 1965; and President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Each had a unique voice and approach to advancing equality for all. In response to Young’s challenge, the AIA partnered with the precursor to AmeriCorps to improve opportunities for minority architects.
Through a grant from the Ford Foundation, a diversity scholarship was also established and many architecture schools serving minority populations were accredited through financial assistance and support of the grant.
Much like the social unrest of the ‘60s, the unfortunate events of 2020 created a resurgence and acute focus on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in society and more specifically within the profession. Firms nationwide and abroad created leadership positions centered around cultivating a more equitable practice, representing a wider breadth of voices and experiences from different walks of life.
Looking back at the 2008 AIA conference, we examined the numbers. At that time, a report conducted by the University of Cincinnati of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) revealed that 35% of all architecture candidates were products of HBCUs. And in more recent years based upon the research of Kendall Nicholson of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, HBCUs enrolled one-third of the Black architecture students. Presidents of both the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and AIA in 2022 made joint visits to the seven HBCUs with accredited architecture programs. This unified outreach illustrates a commitment from both organizations to diversifying the profession. Minorities and women at the other 130 institutions of higher learning providing architecture degrees, however, should not be forgotten and require support, mentoring and coaching towards graduation and licensure.
Also of note is the number of women interested in architecture. In 2021, as documented by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), women represented 51% of graduates from accredited schools of architecture. The 2022 National Council of Architectural Registration Boards’ (NCARB) “By the Numbers” report identified some shifts from Young’s visual survey in 1968 to the state of the profession today. Per the NCARB report, women represented 19% of the profession in 2021. This same report revealed that African Americans comprise merely 2% of the architect population with African American women representing barely .5%. These numbers in large have remained unchanged over the years whereas other underrepresented groups have seen incremental growth in licensure and representation in the profession.
How do we address and attack these disparities in attrition and retention? In 2006, former Editor-in-Chief of Architectural Record, Stephen A. Kliment, FAIA, published an article titled 25 Steps to Diversity. Some of Kliment’s principles, while nearly two decades in practice, are still applicable today. First and foremost, firms must hire, mentor and coach interns and professionals from diverse backgrounds and different walks of life. Mentorship is key in cultivating and developing talent. And as Kliment points out, mentorship should never be coddling. It does however mean providing opportunities for employees that have the ambition, drive, and talent to have access to professional development and leadership development opportunities. Also of importance is promoting these individuals worthy of advancement. Key to all of this is having and keeping a pulse on the diverse talents of your staff and enabling growth.
Exposure to the profession at a young age is also crucial in recruiting a diverse workforce. Programs such as NOMA’s “Project Pipeline” provides this exposure to underrepresented youth nationwide. In Texas, local chapters in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Central Texas host Project Pipeline summer camps on an annual basis. ACE Mentoring is another great organization that provides outreach and exposure specifically to students in high school in the fields of architecture, construction, and engineering. The state component of AIA and the local components each have education outreach programs that seek to educate the youth on architecture as a career of choice. The success of these programs: Project Pipeline, ACE Mentoring, and others can be amplified through the involvement of a diverse mix of mentors and facilitators. There is power in a young person seeing someone who looks like them modeling and representing success in the profession.
While there has been a renewed interest across the industry in closing the crack in recruiting and retaining architects from underrepresented groups, there also is the vulnerability to fall back into the gap of having short memories of the “why.” The cyclical impacts of tragedy and adversity have unfortunately, but fortunately yielded a revived focus upon Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. As an aspiration, firms should work towards this integration as part of the culture in lieu of a program or position that has a time and a season. One must hope that it doesn’t take another tragedy to spur focus back towards the challenge of closing the gap in recruiting and retaining talent that represents the broad spectrum of our society.