Pass The Mic
Pass the Mic
We are “passing the mic” to architects and designers of color. We asked contributors to share personal experiences in their lives and careers, ideas, and opinions on the state of the profession and their perspectives on our city, state, and country’s response to the protests. We asked them to share anything they would like the Columns audience to know – progress, struggles, celebrations, and frustrations. We are listening, we are learning, and we are working to elevate and amplify Black voices. #passthemic
The Lady Doth Protest
his past year, we witnessed what protest looks like on a national and even global scale. Less than a five-minute walk from my home, I watched for weeks as people gathered at Dallas City Hall, but I was hesitant to participate in these protests.
For many people, protesting looks like exercising constitutional rights or marching with witty signs or tweeting or posting on social media. For me, it is the dope outfit I wear at the office (now at home), it is how I choose to style my hair, it is how I speak; protesting is a tool that I use daily to inform those around me that my authenticity and individuality do not diminish my professionalism. While it does not look as radical as the images in the media, protesting is something I have done on a daily basis all my life. It is unavoidable and difficult to navigate. I chose a career where I am both Black and a woman in a profession where there are less than 500 people who look like me. Most people have more friends on Facebook or Instagram. In fact, there are more words on this page. Let that sink in.
I believe that representation is the most effective and cunning form in which to deliver a protest. I have seen it expressed most recently in pop culture. Television series and movies are sharing hyper-specific experiences that are universally relatable. Even though outwardly these stories seem to be far from who I am and how I represent myself, there is an intrinsic connection to these characters who are navigating a world where they are striving to be authentically themselves. It is important to me that my daily protest not only impacts my peers’ understanding of the entirety of my identity but also provides a space, particularly for other Black women in architecture, to be authentic in the expression of their own unique identities.
However, sometimes -
“I don’t know what is more difficult, being [Black] or being a woman. Most days I’m happy to be both, but the world keeps interrupting and I am tired of being interrupted.”
- Ruby Baptiste, Lovecraft Country.
Ashlie Bird, Assoc. AIA is a designer at WDG Architecture.
By The Numbers
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. … But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security."
These are the words the writers of the Declaration of Independence put pen to paper to craft in 1776 at the United States of America’s founding. I would assume that all men meant all men, but this statement dripped of hypocrisy when men with melanated skin were considered 3/5ths of a man. Or maybe math was different then, and somehow 3/5ths equaled one. There was an invisible asterisk, and these rights were not so unalienable and subject to those represented in the majority.
Fast-forward to 2021, and the battle for equality persists. In the 245 years since those words, equality has been an elusive target and thus far an unattainable achievement. A few months ago, I read this statement in an article that gave me pause: “We must first ensure equity before we can enjoy equality.” So we must first ensure fairness and impartiality before we can enjoy the sameness of opportunity.
If, as the founders stated, these rights were readily visible, how has the chasm not closed but widened? And how has architecture been an accomplice to injustice?
Bluntly, architecture began and continues to be a profession mainly inhabited by elitists who have the financial means to pursue it.
As of this writing, there are 116,242 architects in the United States, with 2,361 being African American. Two percent is far below the proportion of African Americans to U.S. total population, which hovers around 13%. With a severe lack of representation that reflects the diversity of our community and the clients we serve, could we expect the profession to honor the existence of diverse people? The answer is a resounding yes! We could, and we should, hold the profession accountable because these things are “self-evident.” We can no longer allow our professional practitioners to hide their heads in the sand and claim ignorance to the reality that equity, diversity, and inclusion are not buzzwords; instead, they are worldviews.
Our country is simmering right now, on the edge of a boil- over that is ripe with architects’ opportunity to step forward and be leaders, finally. They cannot be simply leaders of the moment, but practicing proper foresight can ensure equity in the present and the enjoyment of equality in the future.
Architecture in some form or fashion is experienced daily by nearly every citizen in this country. We have the charge to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, but what about preserving the same for architecture practitioners with melanated skin?
I am currently one of two percent — a number that is a paucity to the whole of licensed architects, and yet I and others who look like me are weighed down with the expectation to solve the ills that plague architecture.
An additional 114,000 voices must join the rallying cry for a more diverse and inclusive profession.
Who will join the charge? I, for one, am waiting.
Brien Graham, AIA, NCARB is a project manager at LPA Inc.
On The Cover
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” - James Baldwin
Who am I?
My name is Fuad. Oluwafemi.
I am an American who loves his country.
I am Muslim man whose faith is the foundation of my being.
I am the son of two loving Nigerian immigrants who set my foundation.
I am the husband to a gorgeous, intelligent woman who supports me at every turn.
I am the father of three beautiful young girls who I would die for.
I am the oldest brother to three younger brothers who I am always learning from.
I am also having a hard time coping with what has recently transpired in America.
Over the past few months, I have gone through a range of emotions that have left me shaken to my core. Sadness overwhelmed me watching life leave a human body while a man begged and pleaded for mercy. This feeling took me back to the memory of my mother finding out that my grandmother had passed away in Nigeria. Anger and rage quickly followed because I couldn’t understand how something like this could happen in broad daylight in front of a crowd. Soon, I was awash with fear because I started to think about my most precious commodities on Earth: my three daughters. My eldest, who is five, asked my wife why the people were fighting on TV. How does a parent explain the current climate of the world to a five- year-old? As I write this essay, I recognize a responsibility to express these feelings so we may all regain some semblance of hope.
“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.” - Barak Obama / Dreams From My Father
In my journey as a young undergrad who knew nothing about architecture to now working on some of the largest projects within the aviation industry, I have been exposed to a world I never thought possible as a young child. What I have learned most in these years is that as design professionals we hold a great responsibility in creating a built environment that is both beautiful and of true benefit for the people who experience it. These things are not mutually exclusive.
While matriculating through the industry, I am always nagged by one thing: the lack of diversity in architecture specifically the inadequate percentage of African Americans working in this honorable profession. According to the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), only two percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are African American. Even more disheartening is that African American women only make up three-tenths of a percent. I believe this problem of licensure is the result of four major factors: the educational pipeline, mentorship, decision making, and design influence.
Exposing middle school and high school youth to the world of architecture is a first step in fixing the educational pipeline. Mentorship is important as they go through the difficult study of architecture in college. After joining the workforce and working for some time, it’s very rare to see African Americans be put into decision making roles. When you’re a young intern seeing someone who looks like you, and they are making important decisions, it gives a sense of aspiration. It helps bolster the dreams for which you are reaching. The lack of opportunity to make a real impact on the design process can really be disheartening to Black architects and designers, because their value is usually seen on the technical side of architecture. Holistic design that is built on a wealth of diverse experiences can only strengthen the final design solution.
“The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
What have I done to support change? This is the fundamental question I continue to ask myself. It’s not fair to ask for change if I am not looking for change within. It’s also my duty to be brutally honest with myself and what I have observed even if it makes me or the reader uncomfortable. The goal is not to end inequality with one essay, but to start a dialogue on how real change can be made inside and outside of architecture.
I am willing to have the conversation. Are you?
Fuad “Femi” Oluwafemi Kareem is an architectural designer at Corgan.
2020! A year of protest, a year of resistance, a year of conflict, a year of sadness, a year of change, a year of reflection. 2020, the Year of the Black Voice, the often-silenced Black Voice.
Twenty years in Dallas, 20 years in the profession. Hindsight is 20/20, yet in retrospect after 20 years, the voice of the Black architect in Dallas-Fort Worth and Texas is still marginalized, and presence at the table is absent.
Every year I attend the Texas Society of Architects convention, and I look forward to seeing James “Jimmy” Walker. Jimmy, an African American architect from Houston, is always thrilled to visit with me as well. He reminds me that he was the secretary of the Texas Board of Architectural Examiners when I received my certificate of registration, which bears his signature. When he mentions this occasion, Jimmy is not boasting but imparts pride in our connection as men of color in a profession in which we are severely underrepresented. To be forthright, the number of African American architects has grown in the region but not significantly. The Directory of African American Architects lists just under 150 licensed architects in Texas, with just at 50 being in the D-FW area. Even more bleak is the lack of female licensed African American architects in the region with a number that you can count on two hands. There are numerous African American emerging professionals in the industry reaching toward licensure and others who have simply lost the passion. Being Black in America is a struggle and being a person of color in this industry is another level of resistance battled day in and day out. Over the coming months you will hear from a number of voices sharing their personal stories and journeys.
The first 13 years of my career, I worked for two majority firms and had great mentors of all creeds, colors, and genders. I am one of the fortunate ones, able to maneuver through the constraints and pitfalls while moving into various positions of leadership. One thing that I know is that I had only one chance to make a first impression. Layered on top of being an African American is making that first impression while overcoming implicit bias.
Seven years ago, I made a career transition to a respected and recognized African American firm where I eventually moved into a key leadership position with a focus on business development and client engagement. Again, a shift occurred with the bias evolving from not only the personal but to a corporate level. Our firm is constantly sized up with the following types of questions. So how many people do you have? What else are you working on? Have you done this type of work before? Is this project too large for you? We need to see your financials. To some extent these questions are warranted to determine ability. However, we have observed a number of our colleagues running firms of similar size, capability, and capacity that are not placed under the same level of scrutiny.
The truth is that as a minority firm, we typically get only one chance: one chance to slip, one chance to miss a deadline, or one chance to not communicate as clearly as we should before an adversary cries out that it was a mistake to provide the opportunity. For this reason, we strive every day to provide service above and beyond what our counterparts are delivering. For example, our principals and executives are often expected by new clients to remain highly engaged during all phases of the project. With each new opportunity, we are required to prove ourselves despite our résumés, credentials, and past performance.
I am proud of the work we do, most specifically in underserved communities. Our work and engagement brings voice to the voiceless. The struggle of humanity is documented through the cries of the people. We capture these needs, flip them on their head, and deliver projects exceeding expectations and goals, with the intent of changing the trajectory of generations. With the unrest in our world, these outcomes are what keep me advancing forward.
In the fall of 2020, I had the honor of being elected to the role of vice president of advocacy for the Texas Society of Architects. I am one of the few African Americans, if not the first, to serve on the TxA Executive Committee in its 80 years of existence. Maybe, like Jimmy, I will also have that six degrees of separation between myself and a litany of other emerging architects of color. There is much work to be done, and it is going to take our colleagues of all creeds, colors, and gender to bring about change.
Derwin Broughton, AIA, NCARB is a principal at KAI Enterprises.