Diversity Is In Your Hands

Why does anyone become an architect? Blame vision. We see the possible – the opportunity in the unknown. All architects take a leap of faith at one point in time to invest in the future, our cities, streets and others around us. Architecture as a profession has a long way to go before we begin to “mirror the society that we serve” as stated by the AIA Diversity Committee. When faced with the challenge of diversity, we should be no less bold than with anything else we do.

According to the AIA website, 11% of AIA members are licensed female architects, 3% licensed Latino/a, 2% licensed Asian American, and less than 1% licensed African American. More encouraging statistics are found in the numbers of minorities entering architecture schools, however the question is still out there – why are we not more diverse? When – or if – we embrace diversity as a profession, we will have a better purpose and mission, one that recognizes all lifestyles. Just as one architectural style is not enough, one viewpoint is simply not enough as well. If any profession should embrace all, it is architecture, for we serve all. We are in charge of our own destiny, especially in respect to diversity.

Over the past couple of years, the AIA has made progress through the direct actions of the Diversity Committee. At Grassroots in February, I heard a fascinating story of how something as simple as including a box indicating gender on the AIA Membership application made it possible to know exactly how many women were out there. I am embarrassed to think that at one time it was not fathomable that it would not be important issue. With much grander sights than just data collection, the AIA Diversity Committee is working “to promote awareness of the contributions of architects from under-represented racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability groups; to encourage alternatives to traditional practice models; and to provide opportunities for an ever-greater variety of individuals to become architects, take advantage of leadership opportunities and influence our practices and our professional lives.” Their work cannot be done without the support of its members, especially young architects. This is where you must become involved.

In order to grow the number of women and minorities, it will take a grassroots effort, one that will involve – yes, you. Scholarships are not the only panacea. Having benefited from the generosity of others, I am not in a position to downplay their importance. However, scholarships alone cannot inspire the next generation, they need role models – a visible positive influence. Have you ever wondered how the profession of architecture would appear if instead of “Law & Order” and “ER”, we could watch “Brick & Mortar” or “ISD” (Inspectional Services Department)? All joking aside, if we are committed to increasing the numbers of the under-represented in architecture, the public must begin to see the positive and profound effects architecture has on their lives, especially children. The urban literacy of the next generation depends upon it.

Sometimes the knowledge I take for granted, is a treasure for others. Three years ago while I was teaching a summer course to middle school children, I decided to take time to explore the subject of accessibility, specifically why raised yellow tiles were placed in front of the subway tracks. My students had three separate tasks: walk around with Vaseline-covered eye goggles to experience a visual impairment, wear airport ear protection to replicate an audible impairment, and wear a backpack with a bag of sugar inside to experience a physical impairment – albeit temporary. They humored me by completing the exercises and gave compelling insights to other accessibility oriented features within our built environment that they had never been aware of. The next week, unknowingly, I was given a light bulb by a school official. Appreciative, yet confused, I thought it was an odd gift until it was explained to me that this is how the school recognizes an individual who helps others think in a profoundly new way and changes how they look at the world. One of my students, Romario, was so affected by that lesson that he continued on the theme of universal accessibility for the remainder of the term. What a powerful message that architecture can inspire and teach an 11-year-old boy to begin to speak about how the built environment can accommodate all – the ultimate statement of diversity.

Think, for a moment, about the concept of possibility. If I say that word to you, you may think of opportunity, joy, or being without boundaries. Now think of the concept of diversity, an array of people with whom to share and exchange ideas – what could be more parallel to the spirit of architecture? The challenge of diversity requires, however, that we reframe the way we think about the issue. We cannot simply throw our hands up in frustration based on the numbers and percentages. Looking beyond the numbers, what can we do? Teach a community college course. Volunteer on a local committee. Speak to a scout troop or at an elementary school. Help non-profits with their building goals. Reach those who want and need to listen – those who are not usually exposed to architects. Once we embrace the issue as a social dilemma, just as we look at building on an urban or contextual level, we can make a world of difference and a diversified one at that. It is up to you take the issue into your own hands.

This post originally appeared in the YAF Connection, News and Observations from the Young Architects Forum, May 3, 2005.
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Emily is an Architect, Mother of 2, and Somerville, MA resident.

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