Op-Ed: The future of our profession depends on diversity

At a Crossroads

Op-Ed: The future of our profession depends on diversity

The Boston Society for Architecture at 290 Congress Street, Boston, designed by Höweler + Yoon. (© Andy Caulfield)

We are at a crossroads when it comes to racism in this country. We have seen initiatives come and go. Today there needs to be action, not just policies or declarations. For those of us who practice the profession of architecture, it represents more than a source of income. Architecture is our career, and for most of us, it is also a vocation, an artistic endeavor, and a source of community. We take pride in our license to shape the world. We must also recognize that in order to shape a more equitable world, we have a responsibility to embrace diversity within our profession and create opportunities for traditionally underrepresented groups. It’s not only the right thing to do but also makes business sense to do.

Black and Latinx architects make up a small fraction of our ranks, and minority women are even fewer among us. The architecture profession runs the risk of becoming irrelevant if we do not adapt and create pathways for minorities to enter and lead the profession.

Creating those pathways means first understanding the importance and value that diversity brings at a firm level and at a professional level. The next step requires identifying the barriers that keep diverse candidates from pursuing this fulfilling career path and working to dismantle them. Finally, as leaders in the field, we must ensure a culture of inclusion and be proactive in breaking down barriers to advancement.

This issue is a matter of sustaining and growing our profession. The inclusivity of our profession has a direct effect on how we compete and innovate as professionals and as businesses. The future of practice must be as diverse as the populations we serve.

The Difference of a Diverse Team

There is substantial research showing that more diverse teams are more successful, particularly on measures of analytical thinking, creativity, and innovation—critical tools for architecture firms. Working with colleagues who bring distinct ways of thinking and whose cultural background and lived experiences differ from your own challenges stale thinking patterns and encourages us to consider a wider spectrum of possible approaches to challenges and tasks. When our teams are diverse, we rely less on assumptions.

As architects, diverse teams allow us to create better work for our diverse world. Our contributions to our communities fall short when they fail to include a broad range of perspectives. As we create homes, schools, workplaces, parks, and even whole new neighborhoods, our work can contribute to dismantling systems of oppression, or it can serve to reinforce inequality. Without diverse perspectives behind the work, our work’s impact stays small and fails to have the reach that it should. We must make everyone feel included in our firms, in our contracts, and on projects.

Consider this example from my team’s work at the Dorchester Bay City project located in the Dorchester neighborhood just south of downtown Boston. Dorchester is a diverse neighborhood with 34 percent of the population foreign-born. With our project, diversity starts at the top with the development team and flows throw the entire project team, which recognized that having a diverse team makes it easier to innovate. This project is bringing to market a new mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that connects in an authentic way to adjacent urban neighborhoods, facilitates transit connections locally and beyond, and creates a beautiful and resilient place for all. We are focused on advancing equity by bringing together stakeholders typically left out of the process through over 100 different community meetings to date that have ensured they have a seat at the table and that their voices are always heard.

Exterior of a space in boston
Outside of the Boston Society for Architecture space. (© Evan Bradley)

Steering the Profession Toward Equity

We know that a more diverse profession would benefit those of us who practice architecture and those we serve. Where do we begin to change the dismal diversity statistics?

First, the architecture profession has a pipeline problem. One reason for this is the truth that representation matters in terms of role models and having peers that look like you. Many Black and brown young people passionate about their communities do not recognize themselves as someone typically depicted as an architect. They also don’t see architecture as a viable profession to have a meaningful, tangible impact on their communities. Without exposure to architecture early on, many talented, driven, creative young people never even consider architecture as a potential career path.

One way to challenge this is through programs like the Boston Society for Architecture’s youth education program. Firms should increase their commitments to help with early programming in soft and technical skills for underserved students through scholarships administered by their local AIA chapter.

Beyond early exposure and education, becoming an architect in the United States requires a massive commitment of money and time. All architects take pride in our profession and how hard we have worked to earn our rewarding careers. Minimizing the barriers to entry for underrepresented groups will not diminish the value of our profession. In fact, a more even playing field where more highly talented and motivated young people consider architecture an exciting profession will strengthen the worth of our credentials. Simplifying the pathway for international students and professionals is another viable way to address the pipeline issues by allowing professionals like me to create impactful careers in the US. This pathway is how my career began and how I was able to create one of the few minority-owned architecture firms in Boston.

While the issue of the pipeline is undeniable, pretending that it is our profession’s only barrier to diversity is disingenuous. The other side of the pipeline coin is fostering inclusion at our firms and within the ranks of clients that create opportunities for architects. Creating pathways for new minority architects is a waste of our efforts if these young architects find professional life after accreditation unwelcoming, unjust, or unfulfilling.

We cannot blame our lack of diversity exclusively on the pipeline issue and recuse ourselves, as leadership, of responsibility. Firms can contribute through mentorship and sponsorship programs, by establishing a welcoming environment for the exchange of ideas, and by ensuring parity in tangible and intangible compensation and advancement.

Firms and clients must make diversity, equity, inclusion, and access to opportunities a priority. Leading an architecture firm and running projects means countless demands on your time and your focus, and there are millions of things that demand attention on any given day, but diversity must be one of them. Architects can enact real, lasting change within our profession if we make the effort.

Advancing Dialogue

Topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion are currently having a moment, culturally and professionally. For the sake of the future of our profession, we cannot allow the conversation to trickle away. We must continue having the sometimes-uncomfortable conversations, and we must commit to doing the work.

Our profession offers incredible opportunities for driven individuals to contribute to something greater than themselves. It is a fulfilling career path that more people should have access to pursue.

As the leader of an architecture firm, I am committed to making my organization a place that supports and encourages diversity among staff and consultants to reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. As Vice-President and President-Elect of the Boston Society for Architecture, we are committed to keeping this work a priority through resources like our Equity in Practice Resource Guide and our Race and Architecture series. We are passionate about empowering all architects with the tools to drive meaningful change. Consider how you can make diversity a priority in your own firm, with your local AIA chapter, or in your own daily work. The challenge is great, but the opportunity for our profession—and by extension, for the world we shape—is worth the effort.