The recent slate of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court will have a profound impact on women, Black and Hispanic communities, the LGBTQ+ community, and young adults, with yet-to-be-seen ripple effects throughout institutions and industries. With so many changes impacting many of our most underrepresented and overly challenged communities, it can be difficult to remain encouraged.
While higher education institutions have historically struggled to fill admissions seats with Black candidates via legal affirmative action, this is particularly true in architecture schools. In 1968, when civil rights leader Whitney M. Young spoke at the AIA Conference, he criticized the architecture profession for its lack of diversity saying, “It took a great deal of skill and creativity and imagination to build the kind of situation we have, and it is going to take skill and imagination and creativity to change it. We are going to have to have people as committed to doing the right thing, to inclusiveness, as we have in the past to exclusiveness.” Yet over 50 years after that historic speech, the number of Black architects in the profession continues to hold steady at only 2 percent.
The Supreme Court ruling ending the systematic consideration of race in the admissions process on affirmative action will inevitably shape the academic landscape. As evidenced by the outcome of California’s Proposition 209 in 1996—which prohibited the consideration of race or ethnicity as factors in state university admissions and resulted in a 40 percent drop in enrollment of Black and Hispanic students—it is reasonable to anticipate a similar, immediate decline in Black and Hispanic enrollment at the most selective public universities, one that will have lasting impact.
Referencing Proposition 209, The New York Times recently reported that “Black students at the University of California, Berkeley, made up only 3.4 percent of last fall’s incoming freshman class, a quarter-century after the ban took effect.” The loss of inclusive admissions strategies will result in the loss of representation and the disappearance of multicultural dialogue as these academic communities become more exclusive and segregated. Compounding this issue is the rising cost of higher education, which offers fewer grants and more loans, increasing the challenges of pursuing a degree at institutions with higher tuition.
That is why now is the time for all facets of our profession—from education to practice and licensure—to have greater dialogue and alignment to promote pathways for practitioners from underrepresented groups and to create a field that mirrors the plurality of the communities we serve. Together, we must put in the work to ensure a thriving profession made stronger by diverse viewpoints and experiences. As a professor, practitioner, and career-long Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) advocate, I see the need and the value across our industry. I propose the following approaches we can take collectively to support the next generation of architects that will design the future which should reflect inclusivity.
Meaningful K-12 Mentorship & Workplace Mentorship
Architects have a long history of mentorship baked into our profession, and there are never too many opportunities to engage in meaningful mentorship work. These must start early if we want to establish a pipeline for diverse talent. Intergenerational collaboration is a direct way that younger generations of designers can get hands-on experience as well as find safe and open spaces to ask questions and learn in ways that are impossible in the classroom.
An example of this is the ACE Mentor Program of Greater New York, which has recently partnered with the AIA to expand its mentorship mission. This is a two-semester program where current architecture students are given a real-world project, and paired with architects, construction managers, and engineers to provide an expanded view of the interdisciplinary view of the professions. This partnership has the potential to further invest in students from marginalized communities and backgrounds. The program also awards several scholarships, since access to funding is important to inclusion.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
The legacy of HBCUs dates back to just after the Civil War, when Black Americans were prohibited access to a full education. I was born and raised in the South, and my own parents attended segregated primary schools while awaiting the full adoption of Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The “separate but equal” system of American culture post-Civil War was often separate, but rarely equal. From the time of their founding, HBCUs have provided alternative safe spaces of belonging for students pursuing higher education; places that welcome students from diverse backgrounds with strong academic programs that are more affordable and inclusive.
Today, HBCUs remain an attractive path for students seeking an institution that culturally embraces them. As such, HBCUs should continue to be an important resource for recruitment and architectural community engagement. The most recent Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture study reports that approximately 33 percent of Black architecture students attended an HBCU, even though HBCUs only represent 5 percent of National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) accredited schools.
Over the last decade, Ennead Architects has partnered both with HBCUs and the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) Fellows program to ensure the firm is actively engaging a talented group of students and young practitioners. The NOMA NFF Fellowship programs provides students and recent graduates access to internships in top architecture firms across the country. By invoking these roles as leaders and mentors, it becomes easier to bridge the gap between pedagogy and practice. We can ensure that students are paired with jobs and opportunities that set them on their way early so they can grow their professional careers. In addition to HBCUs, city and state universities should also be places of active recruitment, as they offer ways to increase diversity within the profession.
Alternative Paths to Licensure
According to the National Council of Architecture Registration Board (NCARB), the current licensure process takes an average of 12.7 years to complete from the start of education to licensure. In most states, the current licensing process for a registered architect includes six exams, a degree requirement, and 3,740 hours of experience allocated to specific areas of practice. Frankly, these statistics are overwhelming. So, as a member of the NCARB Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the past two years, and as the current chair for 2023–2024, I have been working with my colleagues there to establish alternative paths to access the architecture profession.
Alternative paths may mean collaborations with community colleges or non-traditional institutions. It could also mean exploring the potentials of a working experience model given the realities of rising student debt. For example, architecture was traditionally a profession that was a part of the apprenticeship model, and in New York State, based on this history, it is still possible to be eligible to take the exam with only work experience. The NCARB committee has been tasked with outlining what the possibilities could be, but it is going to take real systematic efforts and creative solutions within the industry for meaningful change to happen.
Our youngest and our most underrepresented practitioners are facing even more challenges in light of these recent rulings. To support our profession, and to better serve the communities in which we build, we must take action now. Intellectually complex conversations on equity and inclusion must happen in the architecture classroom, in architectural practice, and in the licensure process to design a more socially sustainable and inclusive world.
Latoya N. Kamdang is director of operations at Ennead Architects.